How Should We Evaluate Near-Death Experiences?

A while back, I came across an article about near-death experiences (NDEs). That was not the first time I had heard or thought about them, but the article eventually spurred me on to research NDEs, especially as they relate to stories of people who claim to have visited heaven.

Let’s start with a definition of NDEs by Alex Orlando, an associate editor for Discover magazine: “While there is no widely accepted definition of NDEs, the term typically refers to the mystical, profound experiences that people report when they are close to death. They’re most common in patients who survive severe head trauma or cardiac arrest.” Often associated with NDEs are out-of-body experiences, or OBEs, in which people later report that their consciousness floated above their body. Roughly 9% of cardiac-arrest survivors have reported an NDE.

As a Christian, I am most interested in NDEs during which people claim to have visited heaven. Perhaps you’ve heard of the book The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven (2010), in which Alex Malarkey (an apt surname, as it turned out) claimed to have visited heaven when he almost died in a car accident in 2004. However, he later recanted his story. When asked why he had fabricated the story, he wrote, “I said I went to heaven because I thought it would get me attention.” Well, it got attention, all right; it was a bestseller. Another book which includes a purported visit to heaven is 90 Minutes in Heaven (2004) by Don Piper, who had been declared dead at the scene of an accident but was revived approximately 90 minutes later. Very little of the book is actually about heaven, and he was actually at the gates of heaven rather than in it. He wrote that he had seen loved ones, been greeted by angelic beings, and heard wonderful music which was hard to describe. There are other books like these as well.

David James, executive director of the Alliance for Biblical Integrity, writes that there are four things that are generally uniform in every NDE account, whether by a Christian or non-Christian: 1) An out-of-body experience; 2) going through a dark tunnel; 3) seeing a bright light or ending up in the presence of a bright, unidentified being; 4) experiencing a feeling of overwhelming and unconditional love and acceptance. However, beyond these four commonalities, not even two of the 25+ accounts that he investigated by people who claimed to be Christians agreed on anything about what they saw and experienced in heaven. James makes the point that if these people actually visited heaven, their accounts should have some similarities in terms of sights and experiences, but they don’t.

Beyond that lack of similarity in these accounts of heavenly visits and whether the details conform with what we know of heaven from the Bible, what has long made me rather skeptical is the lack of accounts about NDEs where people claim to have visited hell. In Matthew 7:13-14, Jesus said, “But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” Given that the vast majority of people are not Christians, I would expect a few NDEs that include purported visits to hell. On the other hand, I suppose that for people who may have had such experiences, they would not be eager to report them for a number of reasons. Here’s an interesting quote from a secular source by the aforementioned Alex Orlando: “While euphoric NDEs get the most press, other experiences can be deeply disturbing, dominated by feelings of terror, isolation and agony.” Read that again: terror, isolation, and agony; now that sounds like hell!

In connection with this, several years ago, a sister in a church that we used to attend shared that a relative had died; at the moment of death, he said, “Oh, no! It’s all true!” That was not an NDE, but an actual death; that story has stuck with me. Tangentially related to this is a book called 23 Minutes in Hell by Bill Wiese, who is a Christian; however, what Wiese experienced was not an NDE, but could more properly be called a vision. Whether the Lord actually gave him a vision of hell, only He knows. Click here if you are interested in a post I wrote regarding what the Bible tells us about hell:

The other main reason I am skeptical about purported visits to heaven is what the Bible tells us–and what it doesn’t. When I first heard about such visits, what came to mind is what the apostle Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 12:2-4: “I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know–God knows. And I know that this man–whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows–was caught up to paradise. He heard inexpressible things, things that man is not permitted to tell.” Most theologians think that it was Paul himself who was taken to heaven, but notice that he was not permitted to tell about it. The reason is that talking about it would make him proud, as verse 7 tells us; here are the first few words of that verse: “To keep me from becoming conceited.” The book of Revelation gives us a glorious picture of the current heaven in Chapters 4, 5, and 7, plus 11:15-19, 14:1-7, and 19:1-16. (In Chapters 21 and 22:1-6, we also have a description of the new heaven and earth.) What is particularly interesting in the context of this post is Revelation 10:4, which says, “And when the seven thunders spoke, I was about to write; but I heard a voice from heaven say, ‘Seal up what the seven thunders have said and do not write it down.'” You will also find something similar three times in the book of Daniel. The point is that the Lord did not permit the apostle Paul, the apostle John, and the prophet Daniel to write down certain things; shouldn’t Paul’s example, especially, make us cautious about sharing purported visits to heaven?

Another thing I should mention in this regard is that in the Bible, we have ten accounts of people being resurrected. However, only in the case of Jesus are we told anything about what He experienced between His death and resurrection. Shouldn’t this also make us cautious about sharing supposed visits to heaven?

In summary, I am very skeptical of NDE accounts during which the person claims to have visited heaven. To be clear, I don’t discount Don Piper’s NDE, or even whether he believes what he wrote; I only question whether he actually visited heaven. I would frankly be less skeptical of a person who claimed to have visited hell during an NDE; maybe the Lord would allow that in order to bring the person to repentance. From Scripture, we know that the apostle Paul was not permitted to tell or write about his visit to heaven, which should at least make us cautious regarding writing–or possibly even telling–about such an experience. Let’s focus instead on the Good News of salvation through Jesus Christ.

If you are reading this and do not know the Lord Jesus Christ, I pray that this will be the day you turn to Him in saving faith. Then you will not need to be fearful of death, and you will have eternal life with Him in heaven for all eternity.

8 thoughts on “How Should We Evaluate Near-Death Experiences?

  1. Hi Keith, I have been reading about NDEs in the media since the mid 1970s. Previous to this I don’t recall reading about them although I have read accounts about death bed visions. However the more I’ve read about them the more I tend to believe that they are hallucinations, for instance one brother at my church who used to teach adult Sunday School remarked more than a decade ago that NDEs seem to conform to New Age beliefs more than the Bible.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Anthony, hallucinations are definitely a possibility. I suppose dreams are as well, in some cases. As I mentioned in the post, people should at least be cautious about sharing such experiences, for multiple reasons.

      As always, I appreciate your comment!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Keith, you might be interested in the book “To Hell and Back.” Written by an ER doctor, it’s based on his observations of patients who died or nearly died. Interestingly, the ones who were not Christians showed dread and panic, while believers showed peace and joy. He recalled one nonbeliever who was revived and told of an unspeakably horrible experience, but a few days later was heard telling an interviewer that he had seen a bright light at the end of a long tunnel, beauty, love, yadda yadda… The doctor believes that what the patient had seen was so terrifying that his mind couldn’t deal with it, so he replaced it with a sweet narrative like the ones he’d heard. He suggests that the accounts given immediately after they wake up are more reliable than the stories they tell later on.
    I’m afraid this book is out of print, but you might be able to find a used copy on line. I’m sorry I don’t remember the author’s name.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ann, your sentence about the contrast between non-Christians and Christians sounds believable; the “dread and panic” sounds like the example I mentioned in the post. The at-death experiences are more plausible to me than the near-death ones that some have reported. Thanks for your comment!

      Liked by 1 person

        1. Yes, that, too. The doctor gave that patient the benefit of the doubt: “his mind couldn’t deal with it.” It could also be the case that he didn’t want to admit that he was “in” hell, rather than heaven, because of what other people would think of him. On the other hand, think of how wonderful it would be for him to admit it and repent!

          Liked by 1 person

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