What Near-Death Experiences Tell Us
What happens when science demonstrates consciousness can exist outside the body?
January 27, 2013 - 7:00 am
There is an afterlife, and a benign deity. At least, that’s the testament of tens of thousands (some say it’s now millions) of people all over the world who have had near-death experiences (NDEs) (an online collection of these reports is here).
Two books now at or near the top of the New York Times bestseller list are about NDEs. One is by Eben Alexander, a neurosurgeon whose brain was attacked by a rare bacterial meningitis. It plunged him into a weeklong coma during which he had an extraordinary NDE involving an encounter with the deity. Alexander says the NDE had to be real because his brain was severely incapacitated by the meningitis and far from having sufficient capacity to produce such a vivid, elaborate experience. (His Daily Beast article based on the book now tallies 115,000 likes.)
The other current NDE bestseller is by Todd Burpo and Lynn Vincent, the former being the father of Colton Burpo, who, when he was four years old, had an NDE during emergency surgery that also involved contact with the divine. Todd Burpo is a pastor, and his son’s NDE had a strongly Christian cast to it; Alexander, while formally Christian, was a pronounced skeptic before his NDE, and it had a decidedly nonsectarian character.
During his NDE, Alexander was guided by a mysterious, heavenly young woman, already something of an urban legend known as the butterfly girl. Four months after the NDE, he saw for the first time a photo of his biological sister (Alexander was adopted) who had died in 1998—and had an overpowering sense of recognition.
Colton Burpo, during his NDE, met a miscarried sister he had not known about and a great grandfather who had died thirty years before he was born, and related details about both of them he couldn’t possibly have been familiar with. Alexander, for his part, also mentions a report in a book by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross about a twelve-year-old girl who, during an NDE, met — and later described — a deceased brother whom she had never known about.
The skeptics can always find reasons to doubt any such report. Such accounts are, however, proliferating — and NDE research is still quite young, the phenomenon having become common only in the 1960s when medical techniques began enabling doctors to revive patients who, in the past, would have crossed over for good. And such reports are going to keep proliferating, more and more and more — and the skeptics will have a harder and harder and harder time.
Indeed, the NDE skeptics already remind me of a basketball team falling further and further behind in the fourth quarter. I’ve only been reading and watching videos about about the subject, when I can find time for it, for somewhat less than a year, and I’m hardly steeped in knowledge about it. The skeptics, though, while claiming they represent the “scientific” approach, are actually the side that has decided to cling to certain rigid dogmas no matter what countervailing evidence comes in.
For them, no NDE can be real; there can be no non-brain-based consciousness, no transcendence, no deity, nothing beyond the immediate life of our five senses, doomed to disappear once its strictly physical, cellular foundations expire. For reasons I don’t understand, any suggestion to the contrary seems to irritate if not incense them; I don’t know what it is they need to negate or why a materialist outlook is so precious to them.
Of course, there is much more evidence of the reality of NDES than people conveying details about deceased relatives they never knew about. A 2010 book by Jeffrey Long, a radiation oncologist, which also made the bestseller lists, sums up the evidence so far that NDEs are actual forays into the afterlife.
Among the nine lines of evidence that Long reviews: People who were blind from birth experience clear vision during NDEs and accurately report things they saw, usually in the operating room but sometimes even outside of it. NDEs sometimes occur during general anesthesia “when no form of consciousness should be taking place.” Virtually all people encountered during NDEs are deceased, usually relatives; skeptics who insist NDEs are a dream or hallucination-like event cannot explain why, unlike in dreams or hallucinations, that should be the case. NDEs often change people’s lives permanently, leading to enhanced spirituality or religiosity; in Long’s survey, 95 percent said subsequent to their NDEs that they were “definitely real” and 5 percent “probably real.”
And NDEs show remarkably similar features all over the world, transcending religious and cultural backgrounds. One of those constantly reported features is the encounter with the deity. Strongly religious people usually perceive the deity (and sometimes other mythological beings) in terms of their own religion; but people of little or no religion also have the encounter and speak more generally of a “being of light.”
Most dramatically of all, the phrase “unconditional love” occurs repeatedly in these descriptions. The deity is reported to be what we would call nonjudgmental; entirely accepting; and a source of overwhelming love. Yes, the news is rather good.
To venture into politically incorrect territory: while NDEs do not invalidate people’s religions, they do seem to invalidate harshly sectarian, exclusionary forms of religion. In today’s world, one particular religion keeps producing terrorism and systematic persecution of people of other creeds. The evidence from NDE research is clear: the road to heaven is open to all, and the deity does not exclusively favor any category of people. Perhaps, for the long term — centuries — these discoveries offer hope.
images courtesy shutterstock / Merydolla
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