The Theological and Pastoral Challenges and Opportunities of the Near-Death Experience, Part I
Deacon Robert M. Pallotti, D.Min.
In my sophomore year in college I enrolled in an introductory class in philosophy. Among the required readings for the course was the book, Life After Life, by Dr. Raymond D. Moody. The book caused a popular sensation, and many of the national talk shows on radio and television featured speakers that had had a near-death experience. Research into near death experiences (NDEs) has continued to this day. Many of the researchers are physicians, psychiatrists, psychologists, sociologists, hospice workers, and those that have had NDEs. How can the deacon, or anyone in ministry, address this issue in a sensitive pastoral and theological manner with those to whom he or she ministers? That is what these articles about the near-death experience will touch upon.
(Dr. Raymond Moody)
Many members of our congregations are familiar with the phenomenon of the NDE but may not know what constitutes the typical features of an NDE. They may also be unfamiliar with what the after-effects of the NDE are and how they affect the recipient of the NDE and his or her family. It is a safe bet that some members of the congregation, or someone they know, have had a near death experience and are perplexed on how to deal with it. I believe the near-death experience presents great opportunities, and poses significant challenges to ponder concerning the reality of the spiritual life, and its lessons for living in this world in preparation for the one to come.
People that have had a NDE raise certain questions for believers and non-believers about God and eternal life. Some people suggest that these experiences are proof of God and life after physical death. Well, if what is meant, as a result of NDEs, that God and eternal life can be verified beyond a shadow of a doubt, we would have to disagree with such an assertion. Firstly, only those that have had a NDE can know what really happened to them. Secondly, none of these people did not come back and they insist that there was more awaiting them than they were allowed to know. We do not know, apart from our experience in faith, what happens when a person does not come back to this life. However, this does not preclude the possibility that something truly profound and deeply spiritual is happening to many people that report having a NDE.
In my own experience I have dealt with the NDE in my family, the life of one of my former students and members of my parish. It is clear that the NDE makes a life long impact on those that have had a NDE. Since 1977, I have studied the NDE in order to more fully understand the opportunities and challenges such an experience offers to those ministering in the name of Jesus Christ.
The Near Death Experience
What is a NDE? The NDE is usually associated with people who have come very close to death, or experienced clinical death—no heartbeat and no brain wave function. It is estimated that over 15 million Americans have had a NDE, as a result of clinical death or near clinical death.1 Some of those who have experienced clinical death have been dead for hours before returning to our mode of life. Ordinarily, the lack of oxygen to the brain, within only a few minutes, will lead to moderate to severe brain damage. Why do so many of these people who have come back from their experience then exhibit no brain damage, and in fact, may exhibit greater brain functioning ? Why is it that some of them are healed of former maladies after the experience? Many of them claim that it was because they experienced something quite extraordinary and beautiful. Many of them tell us that they have seen a light that loves them unconditionally and wants only the best for them. Researchers such as, Dr. Raymond Moody and Dr. Bruce Greyson have drawn up a list of the typical features of a NDE. 2 Those who have had such an experience may have some or all of the features listed here:
· The experience of leaving the body and witnessing things from above one’s body, known as an “out of body experience”, or OBE;
· a sense of ineffability, an experience that cannot be describe with human language;
· hearing yourself pronounced dead by medical personnel;
· feelings of peace and quiet;
· hearing unusual noises;
· seeing a dark tunnel;
· meeting “spiritual beings”;
· seeing a very bright light that does not hurt the “eyes”;
· a panoramic life review;
· sensing a border or limit of where you can go;
· going back into the body;
· frustrating attempts to tell others what happened;
· subtle deepening of the spiritual life and lifestyle changes;
· elimination of the fear of death;
· able to describe event s that happened in location far from the body;
· and love is the most important thing in life.
Persons who have had a NDE can have some or all of these features in their NDE. Each of these features need to be understood by the ministering deacon in order to help the person who has had a NDE adjust to this life, and to help the family members of the person to adjust to this new person who lives with them.
Many of those who have had a NDE speak of being out of their physical body looking down at their body from above. Some of those who have had an OBE speak of traveling to other rooms and being able to repeat conversations they witnessed of other people word for word, while clinically dead! Others have been able to describe what the medical staff was doing to them to revive them despite the fact that some of them had their eyes taped shut. Dr. Michael Sabom of Emory University relates one such account in his book entitled, Recollections of Death: A Medical Investigation.
“I knew something was going to happen…and then I went unconscious…and I was looking down and I could see myself going into convulsions, and I started to fall out of bed, and the girl in the next bed started screaming for the nurses…It was like a feeling of height, great distance, a light feeling, like being up in a balcony looking down and watching all this and feeling very detached as though I was watching someone else, like you might watch a movie….It was a very calm, relaxed feeling, a feeling of well-being if anything…” 3
The most impressive instance of an OBE was that of a woman named Pam. Pam had been diagnosed with a brain aneurysm in the middle of her brain. Pam agreed to a very risky surgical procedure that would require that she be induced into clinical death by stopping her heartbeat, draining the blood from her brain and reducing her body temperature to 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Such a surgical procedure is known as, Operation Standstill. Pam would be clinically dead for at least one hour. During the procedure her eyes were taped shut, both ears were filled with a clicking device, and the only exposed part of her body was the crown of her head. During her OBE she described the surgical saw that was used for her surgery, and the other instruments and procedures of the surgery that she could not have known beforehand. She also had a profound NDE that she described as standing in the breath of God. After she recovered from her surgery she described in precise detail all that had happened to her when she had her OBE. To this date, none of the doctors performing the surgery have a scientific explanation for what Pam described as a result of her OBE.
The information that people share with doctors and other members of the medical staff can be verified objectively. Such experiences are known as veridical experiences. 4 Such experiences allow for some level of objective assessment of a person’s OBE and point toward the reality of continuing consciousness independent of the physical body. I think it reasonable to suggest that at the very least, the NDE seems to point to our continuing consciousness after physical death, but it does not tell us about the final state of our being, i.e., the eschatological reality of our being and the cosmos.
We will continue with this discussion in the next part of this series.
1 P.M.H. Atwater, The Completer Idiot’s Guide to Near-Death Experience (Indianapolis: Alpha Books, 2000), p.8.
2 Atwater, p. 10.
3 Michael Sabom, Recollections of Death (New York: Harper and Row, 1983), p.29-30
4 Kenneth Ring, Lessons from the Light: What We Can Learn from the Near Death Experience (Needham, MA.: Moment Point Press, 1998), p. 65-70.