A Dialogue on the Nature of Near Death Experiences
Matt Johnson and Matthew Roark
In this article, Matt Johnson and Matthew Roark discuss their candid thoughts on the “Near Death Experience” (or “NDE”) phenomenon. Both Johnson and Roark have a strong interest in NDEs, though neither holds to any firm conclusions concerning their true nature or exact cause. In this discussion, they explore what—if any—metaphysical insights may be gleaned from such spiritual visions.
For those unfamiliar with NDEs, a growing number of individuals have reported having “out-of-body” type experiences in response to life-threatening situations. The content of these experiences varies from individual to individual, although a number of common themes can be clearly observed. Commonly reported details include an encounter with a great light, telepathic interactions with deceased relatives and/or beings of light, the experience of an expanded state of consciousness and an alteration of one’s experience of time, a detailed and immersive “life-review”, and a transformative effect on the experiencer going forward. For those interested in learning more about this phenomenon, we include links to a couple NDE YouTube interviews at the end of this article. Matt Johnson begins the discussion.
Johnson: I became seriously interested in the Near Death Experience phenomenon a few years ago. At the time, I was just beginning the “deconstruction” process, and asking some hard questions about what I believed and why. I stumbled across a few YouTube interviews with NDE “experiencers.” At first, I wasn't sure what to make of them. I’m sure I had heard of NDEs before, but I had never seen an interview with someone who themselves claimed to have such an experience. As I watched more, I was struck by the profound nature of the content of the visions, as well as the apparent continuity of experiences across many individuals. I admit it challenged my understanding of God, and contributed to my move towards Christian Universalism (I had previously been an Annihilationist). The beatific vision of God offered by NDEs was compelling, and significantly more appealing and hopeful than the harsh caricature of God offered by popular Christian “orthodoxy” (think, “Penal Substitution” theory of atonement, or the “Eternal Conscious Torment” understanding of Hell). That said, I’m still not sure what to make of the NDE phenomenon. They certainly contain many good and hopeful ideas. But is their depiction of reality “accurate”? Can the “gnosis” proffered by NDEs be trusted? If not, what causes these experiences, and what is their purpose? For me, these are open questions. Whatever the answer to these questions may be, it seems quite clear that NDEs have a lot to teach us about the enigma of consciousness.
You and I have had a number of informal conversations about NDEs before. When did you first become interested in the phenomenon, and how has your view of NDEs changed over time?
Roark: Before we met I had listened to maybe five NDEs in my whole life. I found them interesting but never considered the possibility that they could be an alternate mode of theological inquiry. Not because I doubted the reality of these experiences. The idea that someone on the verge of death could have a vision of the next world—or that someone could die, have an otherworldly experience, and come back to life again here in this world—never seemed strange or impossible to me. I was simply unfamiliar with them. As I came across them, I listened and left it at that.
But after meeting you, and learning how they shaped your theological beliefs and how they led you to the same conclusions about God and universal reconciliation as I had, I decided to give them serious attention.
And I quickly found that the majority of these NDEs supported my faith rather than undermining it, and that what these people experienced aligned closely with the theological conclusions I had already drawn from Scripture. Right now I am thinking about the life-review, which I think beautifully brings together the ideas of Hell, Judgment, repentance, and forgiveness. Hearing stories about how these often disparate ideas were brought together in a single experience really helped cement my views. But I want to be clear, these NDEs augment, not replace, my reading of Scripture. I discard any NDE which flatly contradicts what is found in the Bible. And maybe that is something we should talk about: our criteria for accepting or rejecting these experiences, how we interpret and incorporate them into the framework we already have, and what we do with those experiences which have a tenuous relationship with what can be found in the Bible. I think you are a little more open-minded than me in that regard.
So to answer your question, my appreciation for NDEs has grown. I regularly listen to them now. They serve as a kind of imaginative springboard that takes my mind to new possibilities. I find them indispensable.
Johnson: I’ve always been an ideas person, and what initially struck me most about NDEs was the depth and quality of the concepts they often involved. You mentioned the “life review”, which is a fairly common feature of NDEs. I agree that it harmonizes the ideas of judgment, repentance, and forgiveness quite nicely.
For anyone not familiar with the “life review” experience, during this part of an NDE a person often re-experiences their entire life (or important moments from it)—not only from their own perspective, but simultaneously from the perspective of those around them. They relive the good, the bad, and the ugly, but now with a more complete understanding of each situation. They understand and experience how their actions effected those around them, why others behaved the way they did, and what others were thinking and feeling. Even seemingly trivial encounters, both positive and negative, are often seen in a new light.
The “life review” experience is often guided by a supportive, ethereal being, but this being passes no judgment on the experiencer. They only ever ask questions, such as, “What did you learn from this experience? What could you have done differently?” NDE experiencers routinely say that they did not feel “judged” during the life review, but rather, they judged themselves. The “rightness” or “wrongness” of one's actions wasn’t something the experiencer was explicitly told. It’s something they simply recognized and knew experientially for themselves.
Some Christians might chaff at the idea of “judging oneself”, because it doesn't fit the popular vision of judgment, in which we each stand before a literal throne, occupied by a stern and exacting God. But if a person has to be explicitly told that something they did was wrong, then they haven't really internalized that moral truth. Showing is often more conducive to learning than telling. Only when a person is able to recognize the rightness or wrongness of their actions for themselves have they really learned and internalized their moral lesson. An immersive life-review, in which a person re-experiences events from the perspective of others, would be a great way to achieve this. The life review can be extremely unpleasant, depending on how one has lived their life, but its aim appears ultimately restorative, not retributive. It’s meant to bring understanding and clarity, and thus forgiveness and/or repentance. The life review is a confrontation with the unfiltered, unabridged truth, and simply knowing the truth is, I think, the ultimate judgment. The life review is, in my opinion, a really great idea. It would make a lot of sense if that’s how “judgment” actually worked.
Other ideas endemic to the NDE experience that have equally impressed me as philosophically robust and highly morally defensible include the preexistence of the soul, the reincarnation of the soul over multiple lifetimes, and, perhaps most importantly, a Universalist vision of God. The NDE’s beatific vision of God as an all-loving, parental creator, ready to accept and respond to anyone who calls upon him (even after physical death), stands in stark contrast with the more popular caricature of a God willing and ready to eternally damn large swaths of his creation for their moral failures, or, in lieu of moral perfection, for failing to assent to the right ideological propositions. If I may speak candidly, the vision of God found in NDEs just seems more beautiful and good than the vision of God often engendered by what I call, “popular Christian orthodoxy”.
Only the most hardened ideologues (granted, there are many of them) will chaff at the idea of a God of unconditional, parental love and restorative justice, or at the idea of getting multiple chances to get things right via reincarnation. I doubt anyone is going to hear about the “life-review” process and think it's a bad idea. I think the vast majority of thoughtful individuals, when considering such concepts, would walk away from them thinking, “Well, that would be a great way to design a universe.” Of course, one might ask, so what? What is the relationship, if any, between an idea’s “goodness” and its “truth content”? Just because an idea is “good” doesn't mean it's true. But if we presume Benevolent Theism, it seems natural that God would construct reality out of good ideas. So there may in fact be a positive correlation between an idea's “goodness” and its proximity to “truth.” One of the reasons why I would call myself a Christian is because I think the conception of God found in the person of Jesus of Nazareth is the best conception of God that humanity currently has.
This line of thinking--essentially a theology of the “best cast scenario”--requires a metaphysical optimism (or “faith”) that most people are unwilling to muster. However, I think unknowing, finite beings such as ourselves are ultimately called to such a disposition. The fundamental question we are all faced with in this life is this: is Ultimate Reality good, or not? Of course, we don’t know the answer to that question. But as unknowing, finite beings inhabiting the existential mystery that is conscious existence, I think the best way to live is to live as if Ultimate Reality were good—and that's true even if Ultimate Reality ends up being morally ambiguous, or worse. Say, at the end of my life, I get a brief glimpse of Ultimate Reality, and realize that the universe is in fact morally ambiguous, and ultimately meaningless. Am I going to regret living a life of hope and optimism? Would it have been better for me had I lived as a cynical nihilist? I don’t think so. As an unknowing, finite human, my job is simple: live in hope and maintain a faith in the good. For me, Universalist Christianity is a great tool by which to do just that.
Another reason I’m willing to take NDEs seriously, while many do not, comes down to my general approach to ideas. Something I’ve come to realize is that desiring not to be wrong is not the same as desiring to know the truth. The desire not to be wrong produces a cautious, conservative approach to ideas, and is often, I think, motivated by egoic fear. The ego hates being exposed as “wrong” about something. It's painful to the ego, so the ego tends to be very stingy, and careful where it invests itself ideologically. The desire for truth, in contrast, fosters a more explorative approach to our conceptions of reality. One of my favorite Einstein quotes speaks to this; he said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” Of course, there is an inherent danger in imagination. I’m willing to experiment with different ideas, knowing full well that many may end up being wrong. I can’t really know where an idea will lead until I give it its due consideration and “try it out,” so to speak. So I’m willing to get my hands dirty. I’m willing to risk being wrong. In the end, the one who fears being wrong makes no discoveries. They sit by and wait for reality to reveal itself to them, or for someone else to figure it out, and then tell them what they may safely think and believe with confidence. Personally, I could never do that. I’m not that patient, or incurious. So when I hear about anomalous phenomena, like NDEs, I’m ready to jump in and investigate.
Like you said, I may be more willing to play around with and entertain “heterodox” ideas than perhaps you are. Not only am I a Christian Universalist, I’m also a Full Preterist, and both of those ideas are routinely decried as “heresy” by adherents of “Popular Christian Orthodoxy.” So I’m used to being called a heretic. I see no point in trying to please my fellow Christians by adhering to strict doctrinal boundaries, when they’ve already categorized me as a “heretic” for my other views. In the end, being a man without a denominational country has afforded me a greater degree of intellectual freedom. Of course, I also make no claims to certainty, and I’m very wary of when ideas are turned into ideologies. I still ask the hard questions, and I’m willing to play the skeptic, but I don’t do so from a mindset of dismissive cynicism. Rather, I ask hard questions of myself so as to remain teachable. Whatever their ultimate meaning is, I think NDEs have a lot to teach us about the nature of consciousness.
The other and perhaps most important reason I take NDEs seriously is because I take witness testimony seriously. People of the secular persuasion often scoff at the value of witness testimony and deride it as nearly worthless. But you have to be a very cynical person to dismiss so many earnestly reported accounts of profound, transformative, and coherent experiences as mere hallucinations of dying brains, unworthy of serious consideration. Materialists can’t even explain how the most rudimentary aspects of phenomenal consciousness arise, so on what grounds do they propose to explain consciousness’ peak experiences? How could a severely impaired brain on the verge of death produce an experience as vivid and detailed as, say, the “life review”, in which a person’s entire life is re-lived in exquisite detail from a myriad of perspectives simultaneously? Sure, witness testimony may be unhelpful if you are trying to “prove” this or that theory, but I’m not trying to prove anything. I’m investigating. I’m considering possibilities. My sense is that NDEs may provide certain conceptual tools needed to move us closer to an understanding of the truth.
With NDEs, we're dealing with raw religious experience, and there’s a lot of data to sift through. Coming up with a criterion by which to accept or reject NDEs is a tricky business. I am very hesitant to dismiss a reported experience just because it doesn't align with my preferred theology or interpretation of reality. If we dismiss an NDE experience, I think we should be able to offer an alternative mechanism by which it was generated. And then we need to be able to explain why this alternative mechanism isn't also responsible for the NDEs we accept as legitimate. Until we can do that, I’m very hesitant to discard outlier experiences. There are certainly anomalous NDEs—NDEs that stand out as clearly different. But “anomalies” can sometimes provide important insights into what's really going on with a phenomenon.
To date, the only solid criterion by which I assess an NDE’s evidentiary value is whether or not it is anonymous. If a person is willing to be interviewed, at length, and provide their full identity, I give their experience much more weight. Anonymously submitted NDEs are a dime a dozen, and while interesting, I try to limit their influence on my interpretation of the phenomenon. I see anonymously reported NDEs as more of an “imaginative springboard,” like you said.
I personally see little tension between NDEs and the Biblical vision of reality. However, I hold a heterodox understanding of that vision. For example, I think the concept of reincarnation fits nicely with the Old Testament Biblical ethos, and I even see numerous allusions to reincarnation in the New Testament. For a lot of Christians, however, “reincarnation” is a four letter word. Where do you see the most tension between NDEs and the Scriptures? What do you do with NDEs that contain some elements that you see as strongly supportive of the Biblical vision, while also containing elements that seem to conflict with that understanding? Is there anything about NDEs that gives you pause? For those NDEs that you reject, what do you think caused them?
Roark: Thankfully I rarely see any real tension. Like you said, a NDE may not fit into the present mainstream interpretation of Christianity—you may have to consider heterodox views like reincarnation to make it work—but I don’t consider this a real tension since you can go back in history and find Christian theologians who supported such views. Finding a true contradiction between an NDE and Scripture is rare, and that fact, I believe, points to the authenticity of these NDEs.
What NDEs require is an open mind. Often people take too narrow a view of how God works or His purposes in the world. They think the Bible speaks on every subject and anything not covered in the Bible is verboten. But really we should approach God in the opposite way: the Bible is a short record that introduces us to God. It covers the basics; it sets up the foundation, and we are meant to grow from there. Afterall God is infinite and mysterious. There is no way a book could contain all there is to know about our infinite Creator. So when someone has a NDE and reports some aspect about the afterlife that I cannot find in Scripture I think the best approach is to pause and consider what is being said.
A good example is Jesus. Many NDEs omit any mention of Jesus. And sometimes good Christians will reject a NDE on that fact alone. Or non-Christians will use it as proof that Jesus wasn’t divine or that Christianity is just one religion among many and not the true religion. Sometimes the experiencer himself will come to similar conclusions. But the problem is really having too narrow a view of who Jesus is, which comes from a bad reading (and poor understanding) of the Bible.
Yes, Jesus was a man who walked the earth around 2,000 years ago. But He is so much more than that. He is Love and Goodness and Truth and Life and Wisdom; the Bible names Him as these things. So when someone has a NDE, comes back, and explains that they met an indescribable bright light which was perfect love and perfect goodness and seemed to contain life itself, I take them to be speaking about Jesus, even if their experience didn’t include a man with a body who called Himself Jesus. NDEs require this kind of open-mindedness and careful reading of Scripture.
What is more, I try to examine myself. I may not be at the point where I can understand those elements in a NDE which seem to oppose Scripture, but in the future I might. Afterall I am a finite creature, growing and learning, and there may be things too advanced for me.
I also try to remember the NDE, as it is related to me, may not be exactly how it happened, or the conclusions drawn by the experiencer may not be exactly true. A common problem with these NDEs is the inability of the experiencer to remember everything that happened. Some report being told in advance that only a small fraction of what they saw or heard will be remembered once returned to the body. Moreover, even what can be remembered is often difficult to describe, language being too crude an instrument to relate spiritual phenomena.
Then there is the issue of symbolism. Most take everything seen and heard literally, but there is a strong possibility that these NDE experiences should be interpreted symbolically. Anyone who has ever read the book of Revelation will understand this.
Lastly, I think it is within God’s power to give a person the experience they need, not necessarily one that contains the fullest revelation of truth. You often see this in NDEs from other cultures. A person will die and see Buddha or Mohammed, but surprisingly the description they give is more like Jesus. In these cases I wonder if God allows the person to see Buddha or Mohammed because that is all they can handle, and maybe that is the only way they will take the advice or learn the lessons God needs to communicate to them. Or perhaps, when they come back, their experience can only be communicated to the people around them if they say it is from Buddha or Mohammed.
The NDEs I reject are few. I reject anything incoherent: visions of colors, unintelligible voices, things like that. I think these are more easily explained as hallucinations than as genuine experiences of the afterlife. I reject any NDE that was purposefully induced. I do not mean attempted suicides but people who, for one reason or another, are trying to communicate with the next world. And I reject any where the experiencer seems to be trying to make money off the NDE. Thankfully, those that fall into these groups are a tiny minority.
To my mind, the single greatest indication of whether a NDE was real is how the experiencer lives once they have returned. Encountering God must be a transformative experience, and a positive one. When an atheist comes back as a believer, or an addict returns and gets sober, or a violent and abusive person comes back with a kind heart, I take the experience related as genuine. Such a significant course-correction proves the reality of their experience.
Johnson: You're right that many NDEs omit any explicit mention of Jesus, although it is important to point out that a great many NDEs do involve an explicit appearance of Jesus. People from all religious backgrounds report interacting with Jesus during their NDE—even individuals who were non-religious or atheists prior to their experience. For my part, I have never heard an NDE in which Mohommed was said to appear, but I have heard one or two in which a Buddha-like figure was seen. To be fair, this could be because most NDE reports to which we have access come from individuals living in Western societies.
I also wonder to what extent symbols are involved in the content of NDEs. For example, when people have an encounter with “Jesus” during their NDE, are they actually interfacing with the “real” Jesus? Or, is there some sort of force or agency behind the experience which is using familiar, human symbols to communicate with the experiencer? Whether you are a Christian believer or not, there is no denying that the figure of Jesus has become a powerful symbol and archetype in human thought and consciousness. Perhaps some sort of Jungian mechanism, involving the human collective unconscious, is at play in these experiences. For me this is an open question.
While NDEs tend to follow a pattern, and manifest shared themes, there are certainly some strange outliers. The line between “NDE” and “hallucination” can become blurred, though I do believe a general distinction can be made. I’ve heard it speculated on numerous occasions that NDE’s are a result of DMT (dimethyltryptamine) being released in the brain just prior to death. DMT, a well known “psychedelic”, is said to be synthesized endogenously in mammals. It is sometimes suggested that, during the death process, DMT is released in the brain at increased levels, and that this could be responsible for the Near Death Experience.
The issue I have with this particular explanation is that we have thousands of DMT “trip reports” with which we can compare NDE reports, and the phenomenological differences are often quite stark. I’ve listened to countless examples of both. If you were to collect one hundred DMT trip reports, and mix them up with one hundred NDE reports, I think it would be fairly easy to sort these experiences into their respective categories. For example, I have not heard any DMT trip reports in which people conversed with dead relatives, saw Jesus, or had a guided life-review. Nor have I heard any NDEs in which people encountered the infamous DMT “Jester” entity, the “machine elves” popularized by Terrance McKenna, or saw incomprehensible geometries covered in eyes. DMT experiences are often (though not always) terrifying, anxiety-inducing, and bewildering. NDEs are, more often than not, characterized by feelings of peace, bliss, and the sense of being unconditionally loved. If the two types of experiences share the same chemical cause, why would there be such a clear distinction in their phenomenology?
It might be argued that the NDE experience takes place in the context of medical trauma, and that this colors the experience with themes of “the afterlife.” However, I don’t think this idea holds up to scrutiny. During DMT trips, the user often becomes totally convinced that they are on the verge of death. Why wouldn't this expectation produce an NDE like experience? Meanwhile, people having an NDE often don’t even realize that they are “dead”, and are sometimes surprised—and confused—to find themself outside their body.
Besides, how either experience is possible in the first place is itself a mystery. With both NDEs and DMT experiences, overall brain activity, as measured by an electroencephalogram, is often significantly reduced. Yet individuals report vivid experiences which they describe, time and again, as being “more real than real”. In contrast to their NDE or DMT trip, experiencers sometimes say that normal waking consciousness now feels dreamlike and ephemeral. If a seriously impaired brain can produce such vivid and convincing experiences, what would that mean for normal waking consciousness, which occurs in association with a healthy and intact brain?
What is going on in either of these situations? I’m not sure. I have only vague ideas at this point. I strongly suspect, however, that there is something important to be learned about consciousness, and perhaps reality itself, from such experiences.
Roark: And this is the very reason I dismiss drug-induced NDEs. There are too many variables, and the accounts are inconsistent. Even if it could be shown that all NDEs stem from a release of DMT, we would still have reason to be suspicious because death is a natural process while consuming DMT is not. The artificiality of inducing a NDE renders its genuineness questionable. Anyone who takes DMT for a spiritual experience is predisposed to have that spiritual experience; they are biased, they want something to happen. But the average person, going about his or her daily life, who has an unforeseen and unwanted experience is less likely to be biased and therefore more trustworthy.
And there are theological problems. The Bible never prescribes taking drugs for spiritual reasons—in fact, it warns against the practice, which was common throughout antiquity. If we could take a drug and have immediate and direct communication with God, then God could be controlled in some measure, which is utterly unthinkable. And rather than engender humility and faith, as a world in which we pray and wait obediently does, taking these drugs would produce pride and a lust for control, which is the essence and problem of magic. God would not have any part in something that would hurt us, so I must conclude these drug-induced experiences, coherent or not, are not true interactions with the divine but stem from some other source, either from our own body or demonic forces.
I have one last question for you. Do you think listening to NDEs has strengthened your faith? Not its intellectual aspects but the practical ones. Are you more hopeful, happier, more confident in Jesus? I certainly feel that way. I feel as though the boundary has thinned between this world and the one above—or, I should say, between death and life above. I feel as though God is more present, closer to me in my troubles, waiting to grab my hand as soon as I complete my mission here in this world. In other words, these NDEs have brought about spiritual fruit in my life. And that again is another reason I keep listening to these experiences. I wonder if you feel the same.
Johnson: NDE accounts have definitely had a strong influence on my theology and outlook on life. I’d say the impact has been positive. In some ways, they have left me with more questions than answers, but I have come to see this as a good thing. Having more questions than answers is probably the proper attitude for souls as young and diminutive as us humans. I have made my peace with the mystery inherent to this existence, and no longer recoil from “unknowing”. While I lack intellectual certainty on almost any matter, I approach life and God with optimistic trust. My faith feels more “child-like” than it did in years past, when I was much more eager to declare vain certainties on a variety of theological issues. I have a better understanding of what it means to walk by faith, as opposed to sight.
Too often, these types of experiences are dismissed with a hand wave. The more one listens to individuals share their experiences, however, the harder that is to do. While I have no firm conclusions concerning the NDE phenomenon, I think NDEs comprise an important data set that must be seriously engaged and accounted for by any theological framework or theory of consciousness. To that end, I include links to three of my favorite NDE interviews for anyone interested in learning more about the phenomenon.