Do Near-Death Experiences Confirm a Biblical Worldview?

Exploring the Potential Value and Concerns of NDE Testimonies

By Angelos Kyriakides Published on June 30, 2024

Accounts of near-death experiences (NDEs) are becoming increasingly mainstream, both in science and popular culture. Movies like Angel Studios’ After Death (2023) and books like John Burke’s Imagine Heaven (Baker, 2015) are bringing this topic from the fringes into churches all over the world, not to mention the many NDE testimonies that consistently go viral on various social media platforms.

Some Christian apologists believe this is an important opportunity for evangelism; others warn of potential danger. The ambiguous nature of NDEs means some seem to contradict others and even point away from Christ at times.

Let’s look at some of the strongest validations and cautions that people should be aware of when considering NDEs.

The Origins

Raymond Moody coined the term “near-death experiences” in a book called Life After Life (Mockingbird Books, 1975). He researched how people who had survived a period of being clinically dead tended to describe a set of common experiences: being “out of body,” being transported through a tunnel, meeting a being of light, watching a life review, etc.

As medical technology continues to advance, the number of people claiming to have had an NDE grows steadily. Today, approximately one in 25 Americans has had an NDE.

As the late theologian R.C. Sproul noted and as John Burke documented in Imagine Heaven, “Too many of these experiences have been reported for us to simply dismiss them as imaginary or hoaxes” (p. 51).

Affirming the Biblical Worldview

Testifying to the Supernatural

Today’s Western culture is largely materialistic. This anti-supernatural bias embedded in science is commonly used to attack the Bible as well. Even though many believe NDEs shouldn’t be taken seriously, many scientists are coming to believe there’s more to life than just matter.

NDEs have been around for a long time but haven’t been well-researched until recently. Christians need to think critically about this phenomenon so we can “give an answer” to people who are curious about their relation to Scripture (1 Peter 3:15).

Secular researchers have documented that not only do people have accurate recollections of events during the time they were supposed to be deceased, but even those born blind and deaf are able to use their senses for the first time while they are out of their bodies. A growing database of scientific literature is convincing skeptics out of materialism and into the realm of the supernatural.

This is one aspect of NDEs that certainly corroborates the biblical worldview.

Christian Elements

Some NDEs are well known in today’s Christian culture because they testify to things we see in Scripture. Imagine Heaven lists several stories that seem to confirm what the Bible teaches about the New Jerusalem. This includes everything from transparent gold streets to the Tree of Life to pearlescent gates.

Not only do people claim to see the biblical Heaven, but many talk about encountering Jesus as well. Many might remember the famous story of Colton Burpo in the book-turned-movie Heaven is for Real. After having his appendix burst, young Colton says he saw deceased relatives and spent time with Jesus.

Even people from different religions (or no religion) claim to experience Jesus after death.

While it’s common in NDE circles to hear people say how they are the same across the board, i.e. Muslims see Muhammad, Buddhists have Buddhist experiences etc., the truth is that although many non-Christians claim to encounter a “being of love,” the only recognizable character in most NDEs is Jesus Christ.

There are many examples of people who come from atheist, Orthodox Jewish, Hindu, Muslim, and Buddhist backgrounds who claim to encounter Jesus of Nazareth. In fact, one of the most famous NDEs out of Asia involved a Buddhist monk who claimed to see Siddhartha Gautama (aka the Buddha) in Hell. He says Jesus then rescued him out of the flames and commissioned him to share the Gospel with his countrymen. It remains to be seen, however, for anyone from a Christian background to experience Buddha or Muhammad while having an NDE.

Where to Exercise Caution

Even though many NDEs seem to confirm a biblical worldview, it’s important to acknowledge that NDE research overall tends to contradict what the Bible teaches.

For example, the Bible says “many” will face judgment and only a “few” will find eternal life (Matthew 7:13–14). Yet most NDEs are experienced by non-Christians, and the literature seems to suggest they’re mostly positive. God is the ultimate judge, and only He knows where a person’s faith lies, but researchers and NDE enthusiasts often use the positive experiences of NDEs to deny the future reality of biblical wrath.

However, an increasing number of “distressing” near-death experiences is being reported as well. This is when patients experience phenomena like the biblical Hell: “outer darkness” (Matthew 8:12), being tormented by hostile spirits, flames etc. There is good evidence to show that these experiences are underreported, but I will touch on this in the final section of this article.

Theological Error

NDEs sometimes include messages that resemble New Age spiritism instead of biblical truth. Dr. Eben Alexander, an atheistic neuroscientist who claimed to have an NDE during a coma, said he was given the message that “there is nothing to fear … you can do nothing wrong” (Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Aferlife, Simon & Schuster, 2012). Alexander, one of the most famous NDE authors in the world, now advocates for reincarnation and Hindu spiritualism.

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Another well-known author, Anita Moorjani, had a similar NDE after a bout with lymphoma which shut down her organs. She says, “And then I was overwhelmed by the realization that God isn’t a being, but a state of being … and I was now in that state of being.”

Both authors say they learned these messages indirectly, from feelings or realizations, so they could easily have misinterpreted their “revelations.” But the direction is obviously more New Age than biblical truth.

These kinds of NDE stories are also becoming increasingly popular on social media platforms aimed at Gen Z, like TikTok and Instagram.

How Should We Respond?

NDEs have been around for a long time but haven’t been well-researched until recently. Christians need to think critically about this phenomenon so we can “give an answer” to people who are curious about their relation to Scripture (1 Peter 3:15). It’s obvious that not all NDEs affirm what the Bible teaches about salvation, even if they do affirm the existence of the spirit. Here are some thoughts to help make sense of the situation.

Distressing NDEs Are Likely Underreported

First, it’s important to note that not all NDEs are created equal. Some claim to be told that judgment is not real, while others find themselves facing judgment! This should be a clear signal that not all NDE communications come from the same source.

Dr. Maurice Rawlings was a cardiologist who studied these kinds of NDEs in depth and concluded that many of them either go unreported or are so unpleasant that patients repress them. It seems that current research on NDEs tends to confirm this as well. Burke writes that according to one study, “Few people are forthcoming about such an event; they hide; they disappear when asked for information; if inpatient, they are likely to withdraw; they are under great stress.” In some studies he notes that almost half the people questioned said they had distressing NDEs.

As Christians we know the spiritual realm can be manipulated by good or evil forces. The Bible warns us that Satan himself “masquerades as an angel of light” (2 Corinthians 11:14). The fact that someone gets a glimpse of Heaven or Hell, Burke writes, doesn’t reveal which is their ultimate destination: “some positive NDEs, had the person not come back, might have become negative as the person journeyed away from the light and love of God.”

What About the Being of Light?

Two of the most common aspects of NDEs are meeting a being of perfect love and seeing your life in review from a moral standpoint. Although sometimes people encounter Jesus and describe Him in a way that is like this being of love, often this being does not identify himself in any way. People are just shown their lives from a standpoint outside of time, and the subject describes feeling remorse or insight into various situations.

I’m not saying this being is the God of the Bible, but like Burke, I believe it is possible that at least in some cases, God may be revealing Himself to unbelievers through a life review. Of course, this raises a lot of important theological questions, especially concerning God’s judgment of unbelievers based on their adherence to the law written on their hearts (Romans 2:15–16), but from this side of eternity, it’s hard to make any fast conclusions. Sometimes people claim to receive New Age messages from this being, but it’s hard to tell whether that’s their own interpretation or the actual message they receive.

In any case, what we do know is that God is both the embodiment of perfect Love, who wants everyone to enter His Kingdom, as well as the perfect Judge who will act justly.

 

Angelos Kyriakides is a husband, father, pastor and apologist who lives in Southern Ontario, Canada. He holds an M.A. in Theological Studies from Regent College and has a special focus on secularization, science, and faith. You can catch more of his content at www.therightstory.org

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