The Theological and Pastoral Opportunities and Challenges of the Near-Death Experience. Part III
Deacon Robert M. Pallotti, D.Min.
The near-death experience (NDE) continues to excite the interest of people around the world. Many people have heard of the heavenly type of near death experience but there are four basic types of NDE, some types not so heavenly. In her book, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Near-Death Experiences, P.M.H. Atwater describes four basic types of NDE, which include the following:
· Initial Experience. Involves elements like a loving nothingness, the living dark, a friendly voice, or a out of body experience. Such experiences may be seed experiences that help the person to see life in a different way.
· Unpleasant or Hell-like Experiences Such experiences are characterized by an encounter with a threatening void, hellish purgatory and even demon-like creatures. Usually experienced, but not always, by those that seem to have deeply suppressed or repressed guilt, fear, or anger, and/or those who expect some sort of punishment or discomfort after death. These experiences seem to be rare, and they seem to be an opportunity for the person to experience inner cleansing and a new direction in life.
· Pleasant and/or Heaven-like Experience. Many people experience heaven-like scenarios of loving family reunions with those that have died previously, reassuring religious figures or light beings, validation that life counts, affirmative and inspiring dialogue.
· Transcendent Experience. Many people experience being exposed to otherworldly dimensions of greater revelations and truth. 1
In examining the NDE phenomenon the question will arise, do only religious people have NDEs? The answer is no! Believers and non-believers have reported having a NDE. Of course, after having a NDE many non-believers begin a spiritual quest that had not been a part of their lives prior to the NDE. This leads us to a further question, how does a NDE affect people?
The International Association of Near-Death Studies delineates a number of after-effects of a NDE in a brochure they published, and can be downloaded on a computer by going to www.iands.org
Some years ago, I attended a monthly meeting
of some people who have had a NDE at
P.M.H. Atwater lists the following aftereffects of a NDE that many people may manifest as a result of a NDE:
Loss of the fear of death, more spiritual, less into organized religion and dogma, abstract easily, philosophical, can go through bouts of depression (kicked out of heaven), disregard for time, more generous and charitable, concern for social justice, less competitive, more loving, rejection of previous limitations and norms, heightened sensations of taste-touch-texture-smell, increased psychic abilities and future memory episodes, charismatic, childlike sense of wonder and joy, less stressed, more detached an objective, and hunger for knowledge and learning.
Changes in thought-processing (switch from sequential/selective thinking to clustered thinking and an acceptance of ambiguity), insatiable curiosity, heightened intelligence, more creative and inventive, unusual sensitivity to light and sound, substantially more or less energy (energy surges, often more sexual), reversal of body clock, lower blood pressure, accelerated metabolic and substance absorption rates (decreased tolerance for pharmaceuticals and chemically treated products), electrical sensitivity, synesthesia (multiple sensing), healing abilities, increased allergies or sensitivities, a preference for less meat and more vegetables and grains, physically younger looking (before and after photos can differ). 2
The after-effects of a NDE on adults can, as we can see from the list above, be considerable. There are common positive and negative reactions manifesting in those adults who have had a NDE. 3 The most common positive reactions are:
· Ecstatic, at the wonder and beauty of the experience
· Thrilled, at being privileged to have had the experience
· Grateful, that anything so incredible could have happened to them
· Evangelistic, and desiring to tell everyone about their experience
· Humbled, by the magnitude of what happened
There a number of negative reactions that some NDErs have manifested as well. These negative reactions include:
· Anger, for having been revived and forced to leave where they were
· Guilt, for not missing or even being concerned about loved ones
· Disappointment, at discovering they are once again encased in a physical body, with all the inconveniences that entails
· Dumbfounded, if they want to talk but can’t or are afraid to talk about the experience
· Depression, at realizing they must now resume their former lives (that they couldn’t stay where they were)
Among the most challenging after-effects of a NDE for an adult is how that person relates to his or her family. Family members of an adult person who has had a NDE are often perplexed, scared and confused by the new behaviors and orientation of the person. The adult who has had a NDE will often take up to seven years to successfully integrate the experience, often with the help of trained counselors and an empathetic family. Moreover, one challenge to an adult person who has had a NDE includes considerable strain on his or her marriage. Statistics reveal that up to 70-75% of marriages end in divorce for adult NDErs. However, children who have had a NDE, when they get married as adults, tend to stay married with a marriage success rate of 80%! A deacon who recognizes the challenge that the NDE presents to a married couple may be of great assistance with healthcare givers in helping the NDEr and the family to better integrate the experience.
The effects resulting from a NDE can lead to profound life changes. It is estimated that around 80% of the people who had a NDE were changed forever by the experience. Despite minutes, hours, or even days being clinically dead many of these people experience improved brain activity rather than brain damage despite the fact that some of these people were already experiencing rigor mortis! Many of these people come to love and accept others without the usual attachments and conditions that society expects and supports. Many see the wonder and joy in meeting each person as another encounter with the Ultimate Divine Mystery that lies behind the person. Also, many NDErs manifest a different sense of time; some with a pronounced sense of timelessness. Such a development can be very disruptive to family life—especially as this pertains to appointments and bill paying!
The overall effects for those who have had a NDE is a more spiritual outlook on life, loss of the fear of death, a love for all people, a willingness to forgive others, a deep acceptance of the self, a stronger belief in God, and a deep sense of compassion for people and their suffering. Many of those who have had a NDE express a concern for social justice, understanding that we are responsible for each other and the world we are creating. 4 Also, there are those who tell us that they were shown why and how everything works and the future of all creation, but were not allowed to bring back such information. One person reports:
I saw and understood—without any judgment—the connection, the coherence, the logical and sometimes major consequences of every single act. I mean at every level and down to the smallest detail…The way all kinds of mechanical, electrical equipments work. I Knew and understood all about mathematics, electronics, physics, DNA, atoms, quantum mechanics….I also saw where evolution is headed, what its ultimate goal is. I realized that this grand scheme not only includes me, but everything and everybody, every human being, every soul, every animal, every cell, the earth and every other planet, the universe, the cosmos, the Light. (Von Lommel, p. 35)
There are significant challenges for those who have had a NDE and for those who are related to those persons. Among one of the most difficult challenges for the person who has had a NDE is getting the members of his or her family to accept and understand his or her experience. A significant number of those who have had a NDE will lament that they were often ignored or silenced when they wanted to talk about their experience by the medical staff at the hospital and family members at home. In some families, the person who has had a NDE may be referred to psychiatric care. The absence of a sensitive caregiver for a person who has had a NDE can result in years of depressive episodes in life. For many of these people the combination of feeling kicked out of heaven, i.e., having to return to this life, and the lack of understanding caregivers can make integrating the experience into life very difficult. The need for well-informed ministers, such as deacons, ministering to those who have had a NDE, may be critical for a person being able to re-integrate into this-worldly reality with greater ease and less family disruption.
Atwater, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to
Near-Death Experience (
4 Kenneth Ring, Lessons from the Light: What We Can Learn from the Near-Death Experience ( Needham, MA.: Moment Point Press, 1998), p.123-144.