Reasons to Believe

How to Think about Near-Death Experiences

Stories of heavenly visions, like the one at the center of the upcoming film Heaven Is for Real (based on the near-death experience of a four-year-old Nebraska boy), can have a powerful effect on people. They can inspire our imaginations, tug on our emotions, and stir our spirits because they address one of the most haunting questions humans face (or try to ignore): what will happen to me after I die?

A near-death experience (NDE) occurs when someone, usually on an operating table, undergoes clinical death, is resuscitated, and later reports events or circumstances that took place while they were clinically dead. These reports can include the perception of floating above the body, the ability to relate information (such as doctors’ names and descriptions of medical equipment) that would be impossible for the person to know otherwise, and visions of dead loved ones or religious figures.

Evidence for life after death?

Since the 1970s, when NDEs came to the forefront thanks to investigative books by medical professionals such as Raymond Moody and Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, researchers have amassed a large amount of data on this phenomenon, some legitimate, some not. Credible NDEs do happen and some of them defy naturalistic explanations. In this way, they can provide some corroboration for the Christian claim that humans are more than a mere body and that there is life beyond biological death.

However, extreme caution must be used in citing NDEs as support for Christianity. This is not smoking gun evidence. Some NDEs don’t fall in line with a Christian worldview, such as those where people see Krishna. Additionally, some people have reported hellish visions, rather than heavenly ones. Others, including Moody and Kubler-Ross, interpret NDEs in light of Eastern mysticism. In other words, NDEs can be used as evidence for everyone’s worldviews.

Thus, it behooves Christians to develop a healthy measure of skepticism with regard to NDE stories. It is precisely because of the strong emotional appeal of such accounts that we must exercise caution and careful thinking when dealing with these and other religious visions. (I join RTB colleague Hugh Ross and national security expert Mark Clark in addressing issues similar to those surrounding NDEs in our book Lights in the Sky and Little Green Men.)

For those planning to see Heaven Is for Real, I’d offer the following tips for thinking through the film. First, after enjoying the initial viewing, move into a mindset of critique and reflection by differentiating between your feelings toward the film and the facts behind the story. Second, ask the following questions: (1) what is the scientific and/or medical basis for NDEs? and (2) what worldview does the film reflect?

Talking about death—and the Resurrection

I do believe that Heaven Is for Real can be beneficial in encouraging people to think about death. This is a taboo topic in our society. Though we know death is inevitable, many of us avoid the subject. Yet if Christianity is true, then it is imperative that we consider what will happen to us when we die.

The central miracle of Christianity is the resurrection of Jesus Christ. I would argue that if Jesus rose from the dead, then there isn’t a more important thing for any person to possibly hear than that message. To draw from my book 7 Truths That Changed the World, if Jesus rose from the dead, then that is the most dangerous idea because it turns the paradigm upside down. It means that death isn’t the end.

A movie like Heaven Is for Real, released this Easter, can provide an impetus for talking about death and what Christ did to break its power over humanity.

****

For more information about the medical evidence for NDEs, I’d recommend the works of Michael Sabom, a Christian, distinguished cardiologist, and careful researcher who has become an expert on NDEs. You can also hear more about this topic in these episodes of my podcast, Straight Thinking:

For more about death in light of the Christian worldview, see these previous Reflections articles:

For more about Heaven and salvation, see these resources:

Coauthored with RTB editor Maureen Moser

Subjects: Heaven and Hell