to death and back again

Someone I’m close to recently went through a ‘near death’ experience after major surgery. I’d heard of such experiences but never given them much thought one way or another.

If pushed, I’d probably have given them little weight in terms of authority or reliability. Too much room for wishful thinking, subjective individualistic interpretation and the influence of powerful anaesthetics to put much trust in compared to God’s self-revelation in Scripture – a source of revelation recognised and accepted by Christians of pretty well every hue over the centuries.

And from my limited knowledge, they also tended to be implicitly ‘universalistic’ – in the sense that they often describe quite vague generalities of light and peace that could apply to all sorts of belief systems.

But theology is occasioned by events. It’s a dynamic process of trying to think with a Christian mind about questions life throws up. And so I’m asking what do you think about this near death story and other stories like it? Do you know people who have had such experiences and what has the impact been? How should Christians interpret such experiences?

In ICU after the operation there was a complication and he was not expected to make it through the night. So this was literally a near death experience. When he regained consciousness, he amazed the nurses by having the determination and energy to want to write down for us what he’d seen (he couldn’t talk). He desperately wanted to communicate and nothing was going to stop him.

He wrote ‘I’ve looked into the face of death and of God’. He went on to describe a series of gates, the last one being death. But he did not go through it. There was light and a tremendous sense of the presence and goodness of God. He felt no fear but a peace and certainty that he would be with God rather than enter death. He mentioned people from all over the world being there, of every culture and nation. Things went into reverse. He talked of being given more time.

It’s only a few weeks but I think it’s fair to say that this experience has impacted him at a spiritual and emotional level in a way a lifetime of going to church hasn’t seemed to – in terms of experiencing the goodness of God and of the reality of the hope of life beyond death. He now says he wasn’t prepared for death and people need to know what lies ahead. The experience was very unexpected – all of this is not how he would normally talk of spiritual stuff.

God is no stranger to using dreams and visions to communicate – often in times of crisis. I certainly think that is what is going on here.This experience speaks to me of God’s love and grace, giving hope and revelation of himself at just the right time.

But just as prophecy and tongues need to be assessed, so do dreams and visions. I don’t see here anything contrary to the gospel. There is death as an enemy as opposed to the life-giving presence of God. There is sure hope of life beyond death. There is peace. There is the wideness in God’s mercy for men and women from every tribe and tongue and nation. All of these are deeply Christian themes.

Of course there is plenty missing from the gospel story. But what dream or vision (or sermon) can get it all in? So here’s where I now am in regard to near death experiences:

Let’s not be captive either to a cold rationalism that is dismissive of such experiences or to a desperate sentimentalism that unquestioningly accepts all that they say. But let’s be open to the idea this could be God in his patience and grace choosing to communicate just what we need to hear just when we most need to hear it. And then let’s fill out the rest of the gospel narrative from that starting point

Comments, as ever, welcome.

5 thoughts on “to death and back again

  1. One of my little secrets is that in times of extreme doubt, I read people’s accounts of their near-death experiences. I’ve easily read hundreds of them over the last 10 years. Mostly just for the message that there’s something waiting after we die rather than for specifics about what that is. I don’t think it’s possible to read many such accounts and continue to nay-say them. Many people are able to relate details of things that happened when they were “dead” or saw people from their past who they didn’t know were dead during their near-death experiences. Most near death experiences don’t involve drugs or anesthesia, so that’s not a good explanation for them either. And while I understand the temptation to view them as dream-like experiences, every near death story I’ve ever read says that the experience was far more real than anything they had ever experienced in “real” life. (There’s a sight that collects such stories and they specifically ask that question – was the experience dream-like, more real, less real than the rest of life?)

    That said, from what I can tell, the experiences are very personalized. There seems to be a transitional period between death and whatever comes next that most people who have near-death experiences never move past. So, there is variety in near-death experiences and much of what is reported isn’t universally applicable or useful as what most people experience is personalized for them, if you will. So, I don’t think that you can read too much into them theologically.

    One theological concept that I did change my thinking on after reading many NDE’s is the nature of judgment. Some people (a small minority) experience a life review. In their life review, they are able to see and understand their own experiences, but exactly how the things they did or didn’t do affected others. In fact, the pain or joy that they created was experienced by the person having the life review and all mitigating factors and alternate possibilities are known, so that there is no hiding from the reality of what one has done. For some people this is a terrible experience. And it takes place in full view of all creation (there appears to be no privacy in the afterlife) and before perfect Love (God). When I think of people like my in-laws who literally tortured their 6 children creating terrible pain for them and all those who have ever loved their children, I am filled with horror on their behalf. We don’t need flames and demons to torture people – the pain we create for each other in the here and now is more than enough.

    Anyhow, I suppose I could go on and on, but there’s my $.02 fwiw. It is a challenge to our theology to take near death experiences seriously. But I have long been of the opinion that when reality and our theology comes into conflict, it’s a sign that our understanding of one or the other is wrong. As often as not, the problem is that we’ve misunderstood the real meaning (as in Truth with a capital T) of our theology.

  2. Thanks Rebecca, very interesting to hear of your interest in this. How did you change your mind on judgement – the very idea of it or how it happens?
    Christian hope speaks of a resurrection after death (‘life after life after death’ to quote N T Wright). The ‘inbetween time’ being described as being with the Lord or being asleep – a temporary disembodied state. These NDEs appear to ‘fit’ that framework of coming into the presence of God prior to final resurrection and new creation.

    • My views on judgment changed after reading these accounts in tandem with my growing understanding of the nature of forgiveness. When we seek forgiveness, we must have some realistic idea of what it is we are seeking forgiveness for. It’s not enough to say, “oops – sorry” with no real understanding of or appreciation for the pain and suffering we have caused. My experience is that as we repent, we must pass through that pain rather than continue to deny or run away from it. Reading the accounts of people who had life reviews and were able to fully understand what they did – good and bad – and the effect it had on those around them, the similarity between my own experiences of repenting and forgiving was striking to me. In both, entering into the pain created was central. You cannot understand what it is you are forgiving or repenting of without also understanding that pain, imo. As I meditated on this issue, along with the need for some sort of justice for people who perpetuate great evil, I realized that this experience of having to walk through the pain one has created for others would truly be a wailing and gnashing of teeth experience.

      I think that we need to be very careful when it comes to what scriptures say about the afterlife – simply because it says so little. We have the idea of being asleep, but we also have Jesus telling the thief that “today you will be with me in paradise”. One idea that I think may account for this difference between being asleep between the final resurrection and the new creation is that God exists outside of time. So perhaps our spirits exit time upon death in which case the notion of a gap between one event and the next during which we are asleep does make sense. Also, as Wright says, the new creation of scripture was understood by early Christians to be an actual physical, not spiritual reality. So perhaps being asleep should also be understood as a physical rather than spiritual state. If being asleep in the Lord is understood to be addressing the lack of a physical body to operate in – a physical sleep – then the idea that our spirit remains cognizant in between isn’t really a contradiction.

      • thanks again Rebecca. One thing I’ve found helpful is thinking about NDEs within the bigger framework of resurrection and new creation. Those future things rest of God’s promises, yet give meaning and hope now. They speak of God’s presence and redemptive power now. And within that framework, while NDEs are exceptional and very personal, they make sense within that bigger picture

  3. Clark Pinnock often wrote and spoke about the wideness in God’s mercy and the great lengths God will go to to reach out to his creation. I too have never given much consideration to NDE, but should be open to the possibility that God is always speaking, calling and wooing us closer to himself. Thanks, Patrick for this post.

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