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What Can Be Learned from Near-Death Experiences?

Gary Habermas

Should Christians trust the accounts of those who have been on the brink of death?

Distinguished Research Professor, Liberty University
January 15, 2013

Do Near-Death Experiences (NDEs) potentially produce evidential reports that may indicate consciousness beyond near-death states? And do NDEs present conceptual problems for Christians?

Evidential Reports

Critics take the many NDE reports of dark tunnels, seeing angelic beings or deceased family members, and the presence of a beautiful, enveloping light, to be subjective experiences common to humans. However, some subjects of NDEs relate evidential claims that can frequently be verified. The closer the person is to dying and the more meticulous their reports, the more the critics may be answered.

In dozens of accounts the subject of the NDE claims that, specifically during their crisis, they witnessed items which were subsequently confirmed. Such observations may have occurred in the emergency room or elsewhere when the person was in no condition to be reporting such details. Occasionally, the information comes from a distance away from the scene, and may not have been observable by the individual, even had they been healthy.

More evidential are confirmed reports during times when there was no quantifiable heartbeat. When measurable upper brain activity was also absent, many researchers conclude that it is an even stronger case. If blind persons can also offer accurate descriptions during an NDE, this could provide still another angle. Actually, these phenomena (and/or others like them) have been reported, even in medical journals.

For instance, in a well-documented incident, a young girl had nearly drowned, not registering a pulse for 19 minutes. The emergency room physician observed that he “stood over Katie’s lifeless body in the intensive care unit.” A CT scan showed that she had massive brain swelling, and she was without a gag reflex, while being “profoundly comatose.” Dr. Melvin Morse reported, “When I first saw her, her pupils were fixed and dilated, meaning that irreversible brain damage had most likely occurred.” Her breathing was performed artificially and she was given very little chance to survive.

But only three days later, the girl surprisingly revived and made a full recovery. Katie began repeating an incredible wealth of specific facts regarding the emergency room, her resuscitation, and even physical descriptions of the two physicians. Morse confirmed that, “a child with Katie’s symptoms should have the absence of any brain function and therefore should comprehend nothing.”

Katie recalled these recent details for almost an hour. Further, during her comatose state, she said that an angel named Elizabeth allowed her to view her family at home. Katie correctly reported very specific details concerning the clothing and positions of each family member, identified a popular rock song that her sister listened to, observed her father, and then watched while her mother cooked dinner. She even correctly identified the food: roast chicken and rice. Later, she shocked her parents by relating details from just a few days before (see Melvin Morse and Paul Perry, Closer to the Light (N.Y.: Random House, 1990), 3-14 and Transformed by the Light (N.Y.: Random House, 1992), 22-23).

How do we explain these confirmed details from the emergency room and especially from a distance away, particularly with the probable absence of measurable heart and brain activity? Medical conditions like oxygen deprivation or temporal lobe seizures, or psychological origins such as hallucinations or faulty memory, have all been proposed. However, in addition to weaknesses in these proposals, each suggestion concerns a subjective internal state. As such, every proposal is confronted by an enormous issue: internal conditions cannot account for verified external observations. More specifically, subjective brain states cannot account for accurate descriptions, particularly highly detailed accounts, especially at a distance when the heart and/or brain are probably not operating. Accordingly, NDEs do potentially produce evidential reports that may represent personal consciousness beyond near-death states.

Conceptual Problems for Christians?

Several tough questions regarding NDEs have been raised from a Christian perspective. Examples include unbelievers often reporting positive experiences. Or rarely is a final judgment mentioned. Are NDEs occultic in nature?

First, we must recall our context here: NDEs do not concern irreversible bodily death, but near-death scenarios. They allow us to discuss the moments after a near-death state, not entry into eternal life. Further, as Michael Sabom reminds us, when near-death survivors describe what they believe to be experiences of heaven or hell, they are describing their personal interpretations, which often differs significantly from what actually happened (see Michael Sabom, Light and Death (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998), 213-214; cf. 104-141).

The most serious problem is our requirement of citing only evidential accounts, which are almost always this-worldly, so these depictions of bliss fail to fulfill our criterion. Where’s the evidence that these subjects of NDEs were actually in heaven, without judgment? For the record, this critique would also apply to hell experiences—we simply don’t have any way to judge these private reports.

Could NDEs be occultic or satanic? Unquestionably, such aspects are sometimes described and we should definitely be very cautious. Yet there appears to be nothing necessarily or automatically occultic about the NDEs themselves. Further, aren’t these reports often within the range of biblical (supernatural though non-occultic) descriptions of an afterlife? Additionally, many subjects of NDEs are Christians or children without previous occultic association. Thus, as with life as a whole, some experiences are occultic and most others are not.

Don’t adherents of the other world religious also appreciate NDE research? NDEs do not determine which worldview is correct. Yet, if they provide evidence regarding a supernatural realm or an afterlife, that would seem to present serious challenges for naturalism. This may be the chief worldview contribution of NDE research.

Difficult questions do exist regarding NDEs; much research still must be done. There are also solid responses, as well. NDEs may even help answer some crucial issues in ongoing religious and philosophical discussions (for further details, see Gary R. Habermas and J.P. Moreland, Beyond Death (Wheaton: Crossway, 1998; Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2003), Chapters 7-9).