The vast majority of Christians and many other people believe in a place called “heaven” where they expect to go in their afterlife (i.e., when their mortal life on earth has ended). Our primary focus in this article will be to try to determine if people who have a near-death experience (NDE) may actually get a preview of heaven during their NDE.
First, we need to explain what we mean when we mention near-death experiences (NDEs). Jeffrey Long, MD, a radiation oncologist and nationally recognized expert on NDEs, states on page 24 of his book entitled Evidence of the Afterlife: The Science of Near-Death Experiences,
The term near-death experience was coined by Dr. Raymond Moody. . . . Dr. Moody first defined near-death experience in 1977 to mean “any conscious perceptual experience which takes place during . . . an event in which a person could very easily die or be killed (and even may be so close as to be believed or pronounced clinically dead) but nonetheless survives, and continues physical life.”
Next, we need to explain what we mean when we mention out-of-body experiences (OBEs) that occur during an NDE. Despite the lack of normal mental consciousness of the person experiencing such an OBE, he (or she) has awareness that enables that person to observe their own physical body from a different vantage point that is generally above the place where their physical body is lying. And, usually, the person not only can see their own body, but also can see and hear what is being said and done in the immediate area or even elsewhere.
OBEs that are part of an NDE often include a visit to a place that is perceived to be heaven or an equivalent (e.g., paradise). However, whereas an NDE occurs only when a person is on the brink of death, an OBE may occur under various circumstances, not just when a person is on the brink of death (i.e., not just during an NDE). Thus, all NDEs include an OBE, but not all OBEs occur during an NDE.
The principal considerations that we will address in this article are as follows:
- Are the studies of NDEs generally reliable?
- Are NDEs just imaginary experiences?
- Do most NDEs include a visit to heaven and meeting God there?
Are the Studies of NDEs Generally Reliable?
Robert J. Tompkins makes the following assertions on pages 19-20 of his thesis entitled “A Critical Evaluation of Near-Death Experiences,” which he presented to the faculty of the Department of Systematic Theology, Dallas Theological Seminary:
The New Age ties of many NDE researchers raises [sic] suspicions that their accounts may be influenced by their own religious and spiritual presuppositions. Because of this mystical connection, the objectivity of their research is questionable.
Objectivity is very hard to attain in NDE research, as the experience is private in each case, offering no objective confirmation. Scientific proof is impossible as individual experience is subjective and unrepeatable rather than objective and repeatable. The closest the NDEs come to objectivity are the reported events and conversations that took place while the person was apparently “dead.”
We hesitate to disclaim the foregoing assertions of Tompkins. However, we have not found any other NDE researcher who shares Thompkins’ point of view. Furthermore, all of the major NDE studies have evidently reported similar findings, so even if Thompkins is correct with regard to his assertions about some NDE studies, this does not necessarily invalidate the reported findings of the studies about which he is commenting.
Are NDEs Just Imaginary Experiences?
Before we discuss specific information as to whether or not NDEs in general may be just imaginary experiences, we will briefly consider the experiences of two distinguished men, each of whom has written a book expressing his conviction that his NDE was real.
Don Piper, an ordained Baptist minister, was pronounced dead by an EMT shortly after he was involved in a car accident that crushed his car. About 90 minutes later, after the EMTs had dealt with the other people involved in the accident, but before they removed Piper from the scene of the accident, they checked his pulse again, and he still showed no sign of life. Based on this experience, Piper wrote the book entitled 90 Minutes in Heaven. On page 194, Piper declares,
Without the slightest doubt, I know heaven is real. It’s more real than anything I’ve ever experienced in my life. I sometimes say, “Think of the worst thing that’s ever happened to you, the best thing that’s ever happened to you, and everything in between: heaven is more real than any of those things.”
Before being killed in a car accident, I remained skeptical of near-death experiences. I simply didn’t see how a person could die, go to heaven, and return to tell about it. I never doubted dying, the reality of heaven, or life after death. I doubted descriptions of near-death stories. These stories all seemed too rehearsed and sounded alike. Then I died, went to heaven, and returned. I can only tell what happened to me. Not for an instant have I ever thought it was merely a vision, some case of mental wires crossing, or the result of stories I’d heard. I know heaven is real. I have been there and come back.
And, Eben Alexander, M.D., asserts on page 9 of his book entitled Proof of Heaven,
Mine was in some ways a perfect storm of near-death experiences. As a practicing neurosurgeon with decades of research and hands-on work in the operating room behind me, I was in a better-than-average position to judge not only the reality but also the implications of what happened to me.
Those implications are tremendous beyond description. My experience showed me that the death of the body and the brain are not the end of consciousness, that human experience continues beyond the grave. More important, it continues under the gaze of a God who loves and cares about each one of us and about where the universe itself and all the beings within it are ultimately going.
Then, on page 41, Alexander says,
I know the difference between fantasy and reality, and I know that the experience I’m struggling to give you the vaguest, most completely unsatisfactory picture of, was the single most real experience of my life.
Now, let’s consider the following matters with regard to whether or not NDEs in general are just imaginary experiences:
- Do some drugs/medicines cause OBEs that occur during NDEs?
- Are NDEs induced by the reaction of body chemistry or the brain to a trauma?
- Do any NDE reports provide strong evidence that these NDEs are not just imaginary?
Do Some Drugs/Medicines Cause OBEs that Occur during NDEs?
Raymond A. Moody, Jr, M.D., on page 112 of his book entitled Life After Life, states,
Some suggest that near-death experiences are caused by the therapeutic drugs administered to the person at the time of his crisis. The surface plausibility of this view derives from several facts. For example, it is generally agreed by most medical scientists and laymen that certain drugs cause delusional and hallucinatory mental states and experiences.
However, on page 115 of the same book, Moody asserts,
[T]here are many . . . factors which rule against the pharmacological explanation of near-death phenomena. The most significant one is simply that in many cases no drug had been administered prior to the experience nor, in some cases, were drugs given even after the near-death event. In fact, many persons have made it a point to insist to me that the experience clearly took place before any kind of medication was given, in some cases long before they obtained any sort of medical attention. Even in those instances in which therapeutic drugs were administered around the time of the near-death event, the variety of drugs employed for different patients is enormous. They range from substances such as aspirin through antibiotics and the hormone adrenalin to local and gaseous anesthetics. Most of these drugs are not associated with central nervous system or psychic effects. It also should be noted that there are no differences as groups between the experiences related by those who were given no drugs at all and the experiences related by those who were under medications of various types.
Alexander states on page 141 of his book,
Could my experience have been a kind of psychedelic vision produced by some of the (many) drugs I was on? . . . [A]ll these drugs work with receptors in the neocortex. And with no neocortex functioning, there was no canvas for these drugs to work on.
Thompkins concedes on page 33 of his thesis,
In light of the many convincing parallels [between afterlife reports and drug hallucinations that Ronald K.] Siegel offers [in his publication entitled “The Psychology of Life After death”], the fact still remains that not every near-death subject was under medication. This may account for some NDEs, but not all of them.
Although the foregoing information is very limited, it provides a basis for concluding that although drugs/medicines may cause some OBEs that occur during NDEs, drugs/medicines do not cause all OBEs that occur during NDEs. Also, we have not found any evidence that suggests drugs/medicines are responsible for most OBEs that occur during NDEs.
Are NDEs Induced by the Reaction of Body Chemistry or the Brain to a Trauma?
Moody explains on pages 116-117 of Life After Life,
Physiology is that branch of biology which deals with the functions of the cells, organs and whole bodies of living beings, and with the interrelationships among these functions. A physiological explanation of near-death phenomena which I have often heard proposed is that, since the oxygen supply to the brain is cut off during clinical death and some other kinds of severe bodily stress, the phenomena perceived must represent some sort of last compensatory gasp of the dying brain.
The main thing wrong with this hypothesis is simply this: As can easily be seen from a survey of the dying experiences reported earlier, many of the near-death experiences happened before any physiological stress of the required type took place. Indeed, in a few cases there was no bodily injury at all during the encounter. Yet, every single element which appears in cases of severe injury can also be seen in other instances in which injury was not involved.
And, on page of his second book entitled Reflections on Life After Life, which is an addendum to Life After Life, Moody declares,
I personally remain unconvinced that . . . well-known neurological phenomena “explain” near-death experiences. Consider the explanation in terms of seizures, for example. Such attempted explanations are almost invariably based upon the premise that “cerebral anoxia” (loss of oxygen to the brain) is the specific cause of the seizure discharge. However, this neglects the point that all the phenomena alluded to – the noise, the panoramic memory, and the light – have been experienced in the course of near-death encounters in which this cut-off of blood flow to the brain never took place. . . . I have dealt with some near-death experiences in which no apparent clinical death took place, and that these contain many of the same features as those in which there was such a “death.”
Long asserts on page 46 of his book,
It is medically inexplicable to have a highly organized and lucid experience while unconscious or clinically dead.
To understand how remarkable it is to have a conscious experience at a time of clinical death, it is helpful to understand that when the heart stops beating, blood immediately stops flowing to the brain. Approximately ten to twenty seconds after blood stops flowing to the brain, brain activity necessary for consciousness stops.
[D]espite what should be a blank slate for NDErs, they describe highly lucid, organized, and real experiences. In fact, NDErs say they are usually experiencing a more heightened state of awareness than in everyday earthly life. This is medically inexplicable given that NDEs generally occur during unconsciousness.
Alexander provides detailed perspective that explains why he does not believe that his own NDE was induced by the reaction of his body chemistry or his brain to a trauma. On pages 141-143 of his book, he says,
Was my experience a primitive brainstem program that evolved to ease terminal pain and suffering – possibly a remnant of “feigned-death” strategies used by lower mammals? I discounted that one right out of the gate. There was, quite simply, no way that my experiences, with their intensely sophisticated visual and aural levels, and their high degree of perceived meaning, were the product of the reptilian portion of my brain.
Was it distorted recall of memories from deeper parts of my limbic system, the part of the brain that fuels emotional perception? Again, no – without a functioning neocortex the limbic system could not produce visions with the clarity and logic I experienced.
How about REM intrusion? This is the name of a syndrome (related to “rapid eye movement” or REM sleep, the phase in which dreams occur) in which natural neurotransmitters such as serotonin interact with receptors in the neocortex. Sorry again. REM intrusion needs a functioning neocortex to happen, and I didn’t have one.
Then there was the hypothetical phenomenon known as a “DMT dump.” In this situation, the pineal gland, reacting to the stress of a perceived threat to the brain, produces a substance called DMT. . . . DMT is structurally similar to serotonin and can bring on an extremely intense psychedelic state. I’d had no personal experience with DMT – and still haven’t – but I have no argument with those who say it can produce a very powerful psychedelic experience; maybe one with genuine implications for our understanding of what consciousness, and reality, actually are.
However, it remains a fact that the portion of the brain that DMT affects (the neocortex) was, in my case, not there to be affected. So in terms of “explaining” what happened to me, the DMT-dump hypothesis came up as radically short as the other chief candidates for explanations of my experience, and for the same key reason. Hallucinogens affect the neocortex, and my neocortex wasn’t available to be affected.
The final hypothesis I looked at was that of the “reboot phenomenon.” This would explain my experience as an assembly of essentially disjointed memories and thoughts left over from before my cortex went completely down. Like a computer restarting and saving what it could after a system-wide failure, my brain would have pieced together my experience from these leftover bits as best it could. This might occur on restarting the cortex into consciousness after a prolonged system-wide failure, as in my diffuse meningitis. But this seems most unlikely given the intricacies and interactivity of my elaborate recollections.
The more I learned of my condition, and the more I sought, using the current scientific literature, to explain what had happened, the more I came up spectacularly short. Everything – the uncanny clarity of my vision, the clearness of my thoughts as pure conceptual flow – suggested higher, not lower, brain functions. But my higher brain had not been around to do that work.
In light of the foregoing information, we believe that NDEs are not usually, if ever, induced by the reaction of body chemistry or the brain to a trauma.
Do Any NDE Reports Provide Strong Evidence that These NDEs Are Not Just Imaginary?
With regard to NDEs, Moody states on page 221 of Reflections on Life After Life,
[P]hysicians have reported to me that they just can’t understand how their patients could have described the things they did about the resuscitation efforts unless they really were hovering just below the ceiling. Numerous persons have told me that while they were out of their bodies during apparent “death,” they witnessed events at a distance – even outside the hospital – which were later confirmed by the reports of independent observers.
And, on page 74 of Life After Life, Moody says,
[T]he description of events witnessed while out of the body tend to check out fairly well. Several doctors have told me, for example, that they are utterly baffled about how patients with no medical knowledge could describe in such detail and so correctly the procedure used in resuscitation attempts, even though these events took place while the doctors knew the patients involved to be “dead.”
Long, on page 47 of his book, declares,
During the OBE, many NDErs describe events that they shouldn’t be able to see, mainly because they are unconscious or because the events are taking place somewhere else, far away from their body.
Then, on page 81 of his book, Long asserts,
There is . . . striking evidence that OBEs occurring during near-death experiences are real. This evidence comes from the case studies of those NDErs who say they have left their body and traveled some distance from it, beyond the range of their physical senses. For instance, a patient whose body is being resuscitated in the emergency room might find himself or herself floating out of the room and into another part of the hospital. Later, the person is able to recount accurate observations about what was taking place far from the physical body. Many case reports describing this have been published over the years by NDE researchers.
With regard to people born blind who have had an NDE, Long states on page 48 of his book,
NDEs take place among those who are blind, and these NDEs often include visual experiences. Individuals totally blind from birth are completely unable to perceive the visual world that the rest of us do in everyday life. To those born blind, the ability to see is an abstract concept. They understand the world only from their senses of hearing, touch, taste, and smell. . . . Yet when a blind person has an NDE, the experience usually includes vision.
Also in regard to NDEs by people who were born blind, Long says on page 83 of his book,
In 1998 Kenneth Ring, PhD, and Sharon Cooper, MA, published a landmark article . . . about blind people who have vividly visual near-death experiences or out-of-body experiences not associated with NDEs. An especially interesting subgroup in this study was made up of case reports from individuals who were born totally blind and had NDEs with the typical elements, including detailed visual content. It is medically inexplicable that a person blind either at birth or shortly after birth would have an organized visual NDE.
Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, M.D., in her book entitled On Life after Death, mentions another type of NDE. On page 55 she states, “We have many, many cases . . . where someone was dying and had not been informed or aware of the death of a family member, and yet were greeted by them [in the afterlife].” In other words, when a number of people were describing their NDE, they reported meeting during their NDE a family member whom they had not previously known had died, so how could this have occurred if their NDE experience was not real?
Long says on page 133 of his book,
No skeptic’s argument can explain the overwhelming percentage of deceased beings encountered during NDEs, especially given that living beings would be much more likely to occupy a place in the NDErs’ recent memory. People who undergo near-death experiences are generally not thinking about the deceased at the time of their NDEs, anyway. Yet people who died years or decades before are commonly encountered. The skeptics’ suggestion that NDErs expect to see these deceased beings cannot explain NDEs in which the NDEr had never met the deceased or did not even know the person was deceased at the time of the NDE.
We think the preceding information provides more than ample reason to conclude that many, if not most, NDEs are not just figments of people’s imagination.
Do Most NDEs Include a Visit to Heaven and Meeting God There?
Although there are a significant number of similarities among NDEs, there are also a significant number of differences between NDEs. We will not attempt to deal with all of the elements of NDEs, because most of the elements are not relevant to the basic question on which this article focuses. Instead, we will address only the following elements:
Now, let’s consider the following matters with regard to whether or not NDEs in general are just imaginary experiences:
- Do all NDEs include a visit to heaven?
- Do all NDEs that include a visit to heaven also include meeting God?
- Are NDEs that include a visit to heaven consistent with what the Bible teaches?
Do All NDEs Include a Visit to Heaven?
The sources we have read with regard to NDE studies do not assert that all of the people who have had such an experience have visited heaven during their NDE. However, these studies usually indicate that most of those who report having an NDE say that, during their NDE, they visited a wonderful place that can be described as pleasant, mystical, and extraterrestrial. Whether or not the people who have had these NDEs call this place “heaven” is dependent on their particular religion (or lack of religion), but probably most Americans would regard such a place as heaven. Several of the NDE studies indicate that some people who have had an NDE report that, during this experience, they visited a very unpleasant place that most people would be likely to regard as hell.
Alexander, on pages 45-47 of his book, says that during his NDE, he went to a place he calls “the Core,” where he saw “flocks of transparent orbs, shimmering beings,” and God, whom he subsequently refers to as “Om.” Although Alexander does not specifically say that “the Core” is what most people would call “heaven,” it seems sufficiently clear that it is.
Furthermore, Alexander asserts that his NDE also included a visit to a place he calls “the Realm of the Earthworm’s-Eye View. On page 29 of his book, he describes this Realm as a place of “pulsing, pounding darkness.” Then, on page 76, Alexander describes the Realm as “soupy, dark, muddy nothingness that had no beginning and, seemingly, no end.” However, he does not mention the existence of agony or suffering in the Realm, nor does he mention fire. (Various scriptures in the Bible, including Matthew 5:22, 30; 18:8-9 and Mark 9:43-48 indicate that hell is a place of punishment that is characterized by fire.) Alexander does refer to the Realm as “the underworld,” which seems to imply that the Realm of the Earthworm’s-Eye View is what the Bible calls “hell.”
Although Alexander’s descriptions of heaven and hell may seem strange in comparison with most people’s expectations, his descriptions are apparently not uniquely strange when compared with the descriptions of heaven and/or hell by other people who have had an NDE.
Moody indicates that his NDE research suggests that both heaven and hell are quite different than is generally believed. On pages 101-102 of Life After Life, Moody declares,
Through all of my research . . . I have not heard a single reference to a heaven or a hell anything like the customary picture to which we are exposed in this society. Indeed, many persons have stressed how unlike their experiences were to what they had been led to expect in the course of their religious training. . . . Furthermore, in quite a few instances reports have come from persons who had no religious beliefs or training at all prior to their experiences, and their descriptions do not seem to differ in content from people who had quite strong religious beliefs.
In the same regard, Long reports somewhat similar findings. He states on page 3 of his book,
[The results] clearly indicate remarkable consistency among NDE case studies. This study finds that what people discovered during their near-death experience about God, love, afterlife, reason for our earthly existence, earthly hardships, forgiveness, and many other concepts is strikingly consistent across cultures, races, and creeds. Also, these discoveries are generally not what would have been expected from preexisting societal beliefs, religious teachings, or any other source of earthly knowledge.
In contrast, Kubler-Ross states on page 10 of her book, “Everyone is met by the Heaven he or she imagined.”
Subsequently, on page 46 of her book, Kubler-Ross notes,
We studied people from different cultural and religious backgrounds, including Eskimos, original Hawaiians, Aboriginals from Australia, Hindus, Buddhists, Protestants, Catholics, Jews, and several people without any religious identification including a few who call themselves agnostics or atheists.
It is important to distinguish NDEs involving heaven from other NDEs, because the Bible infers that people who have not trusted in God for salvation will not experience heaven. Thus, what Moody, Long, and Kubler-Ross say with regard to heaven does not seem to be consistent with biblical teaching regarding non-Christians (i.e., people who have not trusted in Jesus Christ for eternal salvation).
Susan Blackmore, Senior Lecturer in Psychology at the University of the West of England, asserts on page 98 of her book entitled Dying to Live,
If the religious expectation has anything to do with it we might find that Christians, with expectations of heaven and hell, might more often report both. [One study found that] [a]lmost three-quarters of [the Christian clergy who completed a questionnaire for the study] said that parishioners or others had shared an account of coming close to death with them. Of all these experiences hardly any were ‘hellish’ in tone and the people reporting them apparently became more religious and less afraid of death. They generally found the experience uplifting and positive. None ended up fearing they would go to hell when they died.
In light of the fact that the Bible teaches that Christians are assured of going to heaven when their mortal life has ended, Blackmore should not be surprised that the vast majority of Christians who reported an NDE did not have one that was “hellish.” In any case, several studies indicate that some people who have had an NDE did experience sights, sounds, and even smells associated with hell.
With regard to the matter of hellish experiences, the findings of Moody’s study are much more troubling. On page 169 of Reflections on Life After Life, Moody says,
[I]n the mass of material I have collected no one has ever described to me a state like the archetypical hell. However, I might remark that I have never interviewed anyone who had been a real rounder prior to his close call. The people I interviewed have been normal, nice people. Such transgressions as they were guilty of had been minor – the sorts of things we have all done. So one would not expect that they would have been consigned to a fiery pit. Yet nothing I have encountered precludes the possibility of a hell.
It is clear from these statements by Moody that he did not have a proper understanding of what the Bible teaches regarding who will spend eternity in hell. The Bible indicates in Isaiah 64:6 and Romans 3:23 that even people who may be regarded by others as “normal, nice people” are sinners and, therefore, they are not assured of going to heaven rather than hell, if they have not trusted in Jesus Christ for eternal salvation.
With regard to Moody’s statements about hell, Tompkins states on page 21 of his thesis,
Maurice Rawlings, a cardiologist [who wrote a book entitled Beyond Death’s Door], has resuscitated several patients who describe the afterlife as being anything but pleasant and euphoric. . . . His observations led him to question Moody’s results:
I am convinced that all of the cases published by Dr. Raymond Moody . . . are accurately reported . . . but not always completely recalled or reported by the patients. I have found that most of the bad experiences are soon suppressed deeply into the patient’s subliminal or subconscious mind. These bad experiences seem to be so painful and disturbing that they are removed from conscious recall so that only the pleasant experiences . . . are recollected.
After many interrogations of patients I have personally resuscitated, I was amazed by the discovery that many have bad experiences. If patients could be immediately interviewed, I believe researchers would find bad experiences to be as frequent as good ones.
Stephen Board [who wrote a publication entitled “Light at the End of the Tunnel”] notes that many observers feel Raymond Moody has been selective in reporting the cases. . . .:
[A] representative for the Christian Medical Society states that “there are a number of case occurrences that we know of in the Christian Medical Society that are diametrically opposed to what Moody has reported. A number of our physicians report that when these dying people have been resuscitated they do not verbalize a pleasant experience. . . . They have returned and found fear, anxiety and stress.” A similar reaction came from the Nurses Christian Fellowship, an organization that has developed extensive seminars on death and dying.
Thompkins goes on to say on page 25 of his thesis,
If Moody’s composite NDE is taken to be a real picture of life after death, then the afterlife is not what traditional Christianity has taught it to be. Moody presents a picture of the next life which is contrary to the biblical message. Moody admits:
So, in most cases, the reward-punishment model of the afterlife is abandoned and disavowed, even by many who had been accustomed to thinking in those terms. They found, much to their amazement, that even when their most apparently awful and sinful deeds were made manifest before the being of light, the being responded not with anger and rage, but rather only with understanding, and even with humor. . . . In place of this old model, many seemed to have returned with a new model and a new understanding of the world beyond – a vision which features not unilateral judgement [sic], but rather cooperative development towards the ultimate end of self-realization.
Although many NDEs involve a visit to heaven and some involve a visit to hell, there are a number of other NDEs in which the person visits neither heaven nor hell. In these cases, the person has an out-of-body experience but remains on the earth.
Do All NDEs that Include a Visit to Heaven Also Include Meeting God?
Moody, on pages 43-44 of Life After Life, states,
What is perhaps the most incredible common element in the accounts I have studied, and is certainly the element which has the most profound effect upon the individual, is the encounter with a very bright light.
Despite the light’s unusual manifestation, however, not one person has expressed any doubt whatsoever that it was a being, a being of light. Not only that, it is a personal being. It has a very definite personality. The love and warmth which emanate from this being to the dying person are utterly beyond words, and he feels completely surrounded by it and taken up in it, completely at ease and accepted in the presence of this being. He senses an irresistible magnetic attraction to this light. He is ineluctably drawn to it.
Interestingly, while the above description of the being of light is utterly invariable, the identification of the being varies from individual to individual and seems to be largely a function of the religious background, training, or beliefs of the person involved. Thus, most of those who are Christians in training or belief identify the light as Christ and sometimes draw Biblical parallels in support of their interpretation. A Jewish man and woman identified the light as an “angel.” . . . A man who had had no religious beliefs or training at all prior to his experience simply identified what he saw as a “being of light.” The same label was used by one lady of the Christian faith, who apparently did not feel any compulsion at all to call the light “Christ.”
Thompkins says on page 28 of his thesis,
As for the identity of the being of light, the identifications were conditioned by the person’s religious upbringing. Daniel Goleman [an internationally known psychologist and Ph.D., in his publication entitled “Back from the Brink”] reporting on the research of five hundred cases states the following:
There was a cultural stamp to the visions. Most Americans saw loved ones, most Indians saw religious figures. Religion determined the identity of the figure; no Christian patient saw a Hindu deity, and no Hindu saw Jesus.
Previously, we mentioned that Kubler-Ross, on page 55 of her book, stated that there had been many NDEs during which the person having this experience met a deceased family member, rather than God or some other highly revered religious figure.
Given these findings, we conclude that many people who have an NDE do not meet God during what they believe is a visit to heaven, but instead meet someone else.
Are NDEs that Include a Visit to Heaven Consistent with What the Bible Teaches?
In answering this question, we will first consider a few biblical passages pertaining to the afterlife and then we will consider what several NDE investigators have to say about the afterlife.
John 3:16-18: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved. He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.”
This biblical passage states clearly that only those who believe in (i.e., trust in) God’s Son (i.e., Jesus Christ) will have everlasting life (i.e., eternal salvation).
John 14:6: “Jesus said . . ., ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.’”
This verse of scripture suggests that any religious belief that does not include trusting in Jesus Christ provides no assurance of eternal salvation.
Revelation 20:14-15: “Death and Hades were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death. And anyone not found written in the Book of Life was cast into the lake of fire.”
This scripture passage, in light of Revelation 20:10 and 21:27, indicates that any person whose name is not written in the Lamb’s (i.e., Jesus Christ’s) Book of Life will be thrown into the same lake of fire where Satan will be cast.
Considered together, these Bible passages make it evident that not everyone will go to heaven (i.e., have eternal salvation) after the death of their mortal body.
In contrast with these passages, the following reports of NDE studies generally indicate that almost everyone will enjoy a blissful afterlife.
Long states, on pages 193-194 of his book,
People who have a near-death experience are generally convinced that after bodily death a wonderful afterlife awaits them. They believe they personally experienced the afterlife, and they are convinced of its reality. At the NDERF [Near Death Experience Research Foundation] website [NDERF.org], people who had a near-death experience have been quite open in describing the afterlife they encountered. We have hundreds of descriptions of what many NDErs describe as “heavenly realms.”
Then, on page 197, Long adds, “Near-death experiencers are virtually unanimous that the afterlife is for all of us, not just for those who have had NDEs. This is certainly consistent with their uniform description of the afterlife as a loving and inclusive realm, a realm for us all.”
Moody says on page 47 of Life After Life,
The initial appearance of the being of light and his probing, non-verbal questions are the prelude to a moment of startling intensity during which the being presents to the person a panoramic review of his life. It is often obvious that the being can see the individual’s whole life displayed and that he doesn’t himself need information. His only intention is to provoke reflection.
Then, on page 48 of the same book, Moody states, “As they witness the display [of the events in their life], the being seems to stress the importance of two things in life: Learning to love other people and acquiring knowledge.”
Subsequently, on page 73, Moody states,
[I]n most cases, the reward-punishment model of the afterlife is abandoned and disavowed, even by many who had been accustomed to thinking in those terms. They found, much to their amazement, that even when their most apparently awful and sinful deeds were made manifest before the being of light, the being responded not with anger and rage, but rather only with understanding, and even with humor.
Learning to love other people and acquiring knowledge are certainly important, but the Bible indicates that these attributes are not foremost in importance. If the “being of light” is God and even if He might treat with understanding and humor non-Christians who are experiencing an NDE, it is inconceivable that He would not also make it clear to them that the only way that they can assure themselves of eternal salvation (i.e., going to heaven) when they die is by trusting in Jesus Christ as their Savior.
Because we believe the Bible is God’s inerrant revelation to humans, we regard as erroneous the NDE reports that lead people to believe that almost everyone will enjoy a blissful afterlife. [To learn why we regard the Bible to be God’s inerrant revelation to humans, click on “Is the Bible Reliable?”]
Conclusions Regarding the Validity of NDE Previews of the Afterlife
Long declares on page 104 of his book,
Over twenty different “explanations” of near-death experience have been suggested by skeptics over the years. If there were one or even several “explanations” of NDE that were widely accepted as plausible by the skeptics, there would not be so many different “explanations.” The existence of so many “explanations” suggests that there are not any “explanations” of NDE that the skeptics agree on as plausible.
Blackmore, on page 260 of her book, states that Michael Talbot, an eminent NDE investigator, refers to “the inability of our current scientific understanding of reality even to begin to explain NDEs” and that Michael Grosso, a distinguished philosopher and parapsychologist, has stated that “The most that can be said now is that [NDEs] cannot be adequately accounted for by any of the reductionist [i.e., less complex] theories.”
Tompkins concludes on page 44 of his thesis,
Although some NDEs may include a supernatural element, they are best understood as being primarily a natural phenomenon (physiological and psychological) which is influenced and interpreted by the perspective of one’s own cultural and religious background. NDEs cannot prove or disprove anything about life after death, as they are after all, only that, near-death experiences.
The following are what we think are currently the two most likely conclusions regarding whether or not NDEs accurately describe what people can actually expect in their afterlife:
- For non-Christians, an NDE visit to heaven is a false afterlife preview.
- For Christians, an NDE visit to heaven may be an authentic afterlife preview.
For Non-Christians, an NDE Visit to Heaven Is a False Afterlife Preview
Satan (i.e., the devil) is sometimes referred to as “the great deceiver,” because he constantly attempts to mislead people in all kinds of moral and spiritual matters. Thus, it can be argued that Satan may be responsible for instigating NDEs that give many people a false sense of confidence that they will enjoy a delightful afterlife.
Tompkins says on page 3 of his thesis,
Although the direct cause of the NDE appears to be a natural one, Satanic influence cannot be ruled out in light of what is at stake. The experiences cannot be denied, but the idea that these experiences reveal anything about the afterlife is simply not valid. NDEs prove nothing about life after death as they are near-death experiences.
And, on page 43, Tompkins asserts,
Satanic influence cannot be ruled out in view of the critical issues of life and death which it touches upon. The dismissals of sin, death, and judgment promoted by the near-death accounts would make one question their source. Also, because of the occultic and New Age connection of the leading thanatologists [i.e., those who study NDEs], there is a strong potential for satanic deception. For these reasons, the demonic influence seems far stronger than any divine influence which NDEs may have.
Moody even addresses the satanic possibility in [his book entitled] Life After Life and quickly dismisses it on the grounds that “Satan would presumably tell his servants to follow a course of hate and destruction.” This conclusion only shows Moody’s ignorance of biblical satanology. He obviously does not understand Satan’s subtlety (Gen. 3:1) and ability to transform himself into an “angel of light” (2 Cor. 11:14) for the purpose of deception.
However, there are a number of positive things that most people who experience an NDE do when they recover after their NDE that do not seem to be consistent with what Satan would want them to do.
Moody states on page 102 of his book Life After Life,
In a few cases, someone who had been exposed to religious doctrines but had rejected them earlier in life acquired religious feelings with new depth after the experience. Others say that although they had read religious writings, such as The Bible, they had never really understood certain things they had read there until their near-death experiences.
And, Long mentions on page 50 of his book, “NDErs are transformed in many ways by their experience, often for life. . . . NDErs become more loving and compassionate in their interaction with other people.”
Subsequently, Long explains on pages 177-178 of his book,
Many different aftereffects of near-death experiences have been described in prior studies. One of the earliest studies found that NDErs described more self-confidence, a stronger sense of spirituality, a reduced interest in material gain or status, and a greater appreciation of life. Later research found a myriad of other aftereffects, including a belief in the sacredness of life, a sense of God’s presence, and an awareness of meaning and purpose in life. Near-death experiencers often become increasingly aware of the needs of others and are willing to reach out to them. They may seek to live life more fully and joyfully.
Following their near-death experience, many people become more religious or spiritual. They may become increasingly committed to their preexisting religious practices.
With regard to this “transformation argument,” Blackmore says on page 5 of her book,
The ‘transformation argument’ is that people are changed by their NDE, sometimes dramatically for the better – becoming more spiritual and less materialistic. This proves, so the argument goes, that they have had a spiritual experience involving another world.
Then, on page 263 of her book, Blackmore asserts,
The afterlife hypothesis attributes this [transformation] to NDEs having a spiritual experience in another world. In fact this does not really explain it at all. There is no obvious reason why an afterlife should be a better one nor why contact with it should make people who return nicer. This is simply assumed.
We agree that “there is no obvious reason why an afterlife should be a better one” for every person. Certainly, there does not seem to be a valid reason for non-Christians to expect to spend eternity in heaven (i.e., they should not expect an afterlife that is similar to that of Christians). Therefore, we believe that NDE afterlife previews of heaven do not provide an accurate picture of what every person can expect in their afterlife.
Although many of the changes in the lives of those who have an NDE may seem to be positive, these changes may ultimately be prove to be negative. Even people who are not already Christians may subsequently live a more loving and compassionate life and/or demonstrate other positive changes in their life. However, these positive changes may give these people an increased sense of personal virtue that causes them to think they are doing all they need to do to be assured of going to heaven, where they will have eternal salvation. In contrast, the Bible teaches that personal virtue is not sufficient for a person to have assurance of eternal salvation and that only trusting in Jesus Christ can provide such assurance.
[With regard to why personal virtue, as demonstrated by doing good deeds, is not sufficient for a person to have assurance of eternal salvation, please click on “Are Good Works Necessary for Salvation?” and/or “What Must a Person Do to Be Assured of Eternal Salvation?”]
Thompkins also regards the findings by Moody and other NDE researchers to be cause for concern. On page 25 of his thesis, he says,
Moody also indicates that almost every person he interviewed was no longer afraid of death. As for many of the NDE researchers, death is nothing to fear and sin is essentially an illusion or shade of imperfection. Kubler-Ross [in her publication entitled Death: The Final Stage of Growth] affirms that death is not a result of sin, it is just a natural and “final stage of growth in this life. There is no total death. Only the body dies.” For this reason, there is no need for repentance and redemption as provided by the atoning work of Jesus Christ on the cross. God’s holiness and moral absolutes do not need to be satisfied as He will accept everyone with love and understanding. He does not look at man’s sin with anger or rage – only with humor. God will accept everyone into His presence and He will eventually save everyone.
Subsequently, on page 26 of his thesis, Thompkins adds,
The universalism flavor which Moody affirms is also taken up by Kubler-Ross: “In the decades to come we may see one universe, one humankind, one religion that unites us all in a peaceful world. Kubler-Ross also submits that death is nothing to fear as there is no judgemental [sic] God. The concept of universalism completely ignores the biblical teaching of the diverse destinies of the righteous and the wicked (Matt 25:46; John 5:29; Rom. 2:8-10; Rev. 20:10, 15). Furthermore, the Scriptures speak of the wrath and justice of God as well as His love (John 3:36; Rev. 6:16).
In addition to our concern that non-Christians who have had an NDE are becoming convinced that they do not need be apprehensive about where they will spend their afterlife, we are also concerned that non-Christians who hear about or read about NDEs may likewise become convinced that they do not need to be worried about where they will spend their afterlife, when in fact they do need to be worried.
For Christians, an NDE Visit to Heaven May Be an Authentic Afterlife Preview
As several of our sources previously indicated, people who have had an NDE preview of heaven generally describe the “heaven” they visit during their NDE to be different than what they previously expected. Furthermore, a number of these NDE previews of heaven seem at least somewhat strange. Nevertheless, we do not think most NDE previews of heaven are clearly inconsistent with biblical descriptions of the current heaven, which are limited. But, if this last statement is valid, then why do Christians have expectations of heaven that differ from their NDE preview of heaven?
The NDE visits to heaven about which we have read do not provide much detail regarding what Christians, in particular, expect heaven to be like. We can only speculate that the expectations of Christians with regard to heaven may inappropriately be based upon descriptions of the new earth, which are found in Revelation 21:1-22:5, and/or upon descriptions or depictions from sources other than the Bible. In either case, it is understandable that the expectations could be very different than actuality regarding the heaven that currently exists.
In any case, it is our opinion that the evidence that is available at this time is not sufficient to reach a definite conclusion as to whether or not NDE visits by Christians to what they believe is heaven are authentic previews of their afterlife. Therefore, we cannot state with confidence that NDEs of Christians provide proof that heaven exists. We can conclude only that NDE visits to heaven by Christians may be authentic afterlife previews.
Furthermore, because the Bible indicates that only Christians (i.e., every person who genuinely trusts in Jesus Christ for eternal salvation) can be assured of going to heaven when their mortal life on earth has ended, NDE previews of heaven by Christians are much more likely to be authentic than NDE previews of heaven by non-Christians.
Although we believe that “heaven” does exist, we do not believe that many, if not most, near-death experiences are credible, because near-death experiences that supposedly include a visit to heaven by non-Christians do not seem to be consistent with biblical teaching as to who will go to heaven when they die.