Near-death experiences, and the afterlife.

by K.W. Leslie, 25 May

Funny how everybody sees the afterlife they expect.

In yesterday’s article, “How long does hell last?” I brought up the subject of near-death experiences, those cases where people died and came back, and have a tale to tell about what they saw in the afterlife.

And they have all sorts of tales. Like of an out-of-body experience, where their ghost watched the doctors or EMTs trying to bring ’em back to life. Like a spirit-realm experience, where they met angels, dead loved ones, Jesus, or the Father. Like an afterlife experience, where they travel through a tunnel of light and get to poke around heaven for a bit. In some cases it’s the bad afterlife, and they’re in hell.

These stories are really popular, and people share them and cling to them for hope. Books about them sell. Movies too. Since we have big questions about the afterlife, we figure near-death experiences help answer these questions.

This is also true for Christians. The scriptures don’t tell us a whole lot about the afterlife, because God’s kingdom is about new life, not afterlife. Resurrection, not living in a realm of the dead. So since the afterlife ultimately doesn’t matter—we’re getting rescued from it!—all we know about it are hints, clues, and no real details. But we want details: If Jesus doesn’t return before we die, we’re gonna experience the afterlife, and wanna know what we’re in for. So we tend to fill in those gaps in our knowledge with educated guesses, mythology… and of course the near-death experiences of those who’ve “been there.”

Yeah, putting it in quotes kinda tips off the fact I doubt they’ve really been there. Here’s why.

What’re Hindu gods doing in the afterlife?

When psychologists talk to Hindus about their near-death experiences, they don’t get stories about Jesus and angels and heaven. They get stories about people who are about to get reincarnated. About whether they have the karma necessary for their next life to be a better one. Or about how there was some mixup, and they don’t get to move on just yet… which is why they figure they came back to life. Sometimes Hindu gods show up.

Wait, shouldn’t they be standing before Jesus, wondering who on earth this middle eastern guy is? Well you’d think. But nope: Hindu near-death experiences are all about the Hindu afterlife. Not western pop culture ideas about what the Christian afterlife looks like.

And when psychologists talk to Muslims, guess what they hear? Right you are: Muslim ideas of the afterlife. Encounters with Islam’s prophets. Glimpses of God’s throne, which is inscribed, “No god but God, and Muhammad his messenger.” Visions of bliss. Or, like Christians, visions of hell, whenever they suspect that’s where they’re really headed.

Some folks have pagan near-death experiences. Seriously. They likewise go to heaven, meet angels and Jesus… but now everything confirms what pagans believe about the afterlife. Like how everybody’s going to heaven; turns out there’s no hell. Or how they’re about to move up to a more advanced plane of existence (only not yet, ’cause they’re coming back to life). Or how angels previously used to be humans, and now they get to join the angelic ranks, and help the living.

As for the Christian near-death experiences, you can’t help but notice how everything in the visions manage to match their own personal assumptions of what heaven looks like. As well as what Jesus looks like. White people have an awful lot of visions of white Jesus.

Roman Catholics, fr’instance, have particularly Catholic near-death experiences: They encounter Mary, or some of their favorite patron saints. Sometimes they’re told they gotta spend a little time in purgatory. They’re told various things which confirm Catholic traditions. If you’ve ever watched an anti-Catholic listen to a Catholic near-death experience, watch the look of skepticism and creeping horror grow on their faces: “That can’t be true.” They grow convinced there’s something devilish about the whole story. Maybe they worry deep down they’re in the wrong denomination, but that’s rare.

And it’s not just true of Catholics. Baptists regularly describe a very Baptist-sounding heaven. Orthodox describe a very Orthodox heaven; Pentecostals a very Pentecostal heaven. Whatever their preachers told them about heaven, in their near-death experiences it turns out these things are actually in heaven. How about that?

Yes, there are stories of Muslims who had near-death experiences where they encountered Jesus, and after they came back to life they became Christian. This is awesome. But they’re the minority. Most Muslims have a very Islam-confirming vision of the afterlife. Everyone’s experience matches their expectations.

Oh, and everybody in these visions speaks English, or Spanish, or whatever your first language is.

People have tried to dismiss this total inconsistency by saying, “Maybe God customizes it for each individual person.” And yeah, God’s relationship with everybody is of course different, because everybody is different. But should people’s afterlife experiences be entirely different?

“In that sleep of death, what dreams may come…”

So what’s going on here? Is the devil grabbing people’s ghosts before they make it to the real heaven, and filling their minds with junk?

Nah. This junk’s in their minds already. It’s in your conscious mind, your unconscious (the stuff in your mind which you don’t know about, but which affects you anyway), and your subconscious (the stuff you sorta know about). When you’re knocked out, you dream, and the brain spits up everything that’s in there. And there’s a lot in there. More than you realize. More than you’re willing to admit to yourself. Dreams have a way of being a little too honest with us, which is why psychologists find them so useful.

I have many ideas about the afterlife and what it consists of. I know what I suspect is true. I admit I also have some worries about what might be true; old junk left over from my Fundamentalist upbringing. I’d like to think I’m being honest with myself about it. But I might not be—which means it’s gonna bubble up when it comes time to dream about it. And when will I have such dreams? Whenever life events make it a priority in my mind: Whenever someone in my life dies. Or whenever I die.

That’s what near-death experiences are: Dreams. That’s all they are.

What about when Jesus shows up in our near-death experiences? Well so what? Jesus shows up in plenty of dreams. Sometimes because the Holy Spirit has been talking to us all day, and we haven’t been listening—but we’ve been unconsciously listening, so what he’s been telling us is inevitably gonna turn up in our dreams. Some prophets, like Jesus’s father Joseph, listen to God best when they’re dreaming. And sometimes we don’t, but—just as when Jesus appears to people when they’re awake—he chooses to make an appearance when they’re asleep. When you’re dying, Jesus definitely has your attention.

Near-death experiences need to be treated just like any other dream: Sometimes relevant, ’cause they tell us all sorts of things about the mental state of the dreamer. Sometimes irrelevant, ’cause they’re flights of fancy which only tell us what the dreamer wishes were true. Sometimes prophecy, especially when Jesus makes a real appearance. But prophetic dreams, same as everything else in prophecy, are always to be confirmed against scripture and other prophets. And if they don’t weigh up, don’t worry about them.

Like the Shakespeare quote I used for the subtitle, Hamlet 3.1 “sleep” is often a metaphor for death. Even Jesus used it. Jn 11.11-14 But Hamlet worried, as most do, about “the dread of something after death, the undiscovered country from whose bourne no traveler returns.” For Hamlet, and William Shakespeare too, knew very little about the afterlife, and filled in the blanks with guesses. Or dreams. But most dreams are unsubstantial, and bad theology.

Let’s not give in to our worries, and grasp at straws. Let’s trust Jesus. He came back from the afterlife, and lives again, and forever. So will we. Like he told Martha,

John 11.25-26 KWL
25 Jesus told her, I’m the resurrection. And life: Believers in me might die, but later they’ll live.
26 Everybody who lives and believes in me: They can never die in the age to come.
Do you believe this?” 27 Martha told Jesus, “Yes Master.
I’ve believed you’re Messiah, God’s Son, who came into the world.”

It’s a question Jesus puts to every one of us. Near-death experiences should have no bearing on our answer, tempting as they might be.