Over the weekend my parents told me they watched something on TV about near-death experiences (NDEs), and had seen neurosurgeon Eben Alexander talk about his purported NDE, which he documented in a recent bestseller. I’m interested in NDEs, having had an acquaintance (now dead) who went through an especially dramatic one, and utterly changed his life afterwards. I downloaded Dr. Alexander’s book and read it quickly — it’s a very, very slight book — but I’m not sure what to make of it. There’s a new Esquire piece out claiming to debunk his story, but I’m not willing to pay $1.99 to read it. After finishing the Alexander book, I was sorry I paid the $7 to read it on my iPad, so I’m not eager to devote any more money to the subject of Dr. Eben Alexander, and wish I hadn’t bought his book. If there was ever a book that deserved to be a magazine article, it was that one. But, the guy has sold two million copies, and, as an author who has sold only the tiniest fraction of what Eben Alexander has sold, good for him.
For those who haven’t read the book, Alexander says his experience moved him from being a firm materialist to someone who now believes in the existence of the spiritual realm. His experience, though, is not specifically Christian. It is fairly consonant with Christian teaching, but I think can fairly be described as universalist: God is love, the universe is made from love, the universe is suffused with consciousness, that sort of thing.
As a Christian, I believe in the existence of the soul and in life after death. I don’t need to have it confirmed by NDE stories. (And, for the record, I’m not persuaded that science has explained them all away as merely brain events.) What interests me about them, though, is how different they are for different people. Some have explicitly Christian experiences — and not all NDEs are blissful and peaceful. My acquaintance, R., went to Hell in his NDE, and was rescued by Jesus, who told him it wasn’t his time yet. R. came back to life, and dramatically repented of the degraded life he had been living, and devoted the rest of his days to serving God and others (he eventually died). I am not well versed enough in the literature of NDEs to say why some people have a hellish experience, and others have a heavenly experience. I do know enough about them to recognize that the professed religious creed of the person often has little or nothing to do with their NDE experience. This doesn’t trouble me overmuch, because though I am a Christian, I would be thrilled to discover that God is so merciful he welcomed those who do not share my beliefs into Paradise — indeed, I would expect that He does. Salvation is not merely about making sure you end up in the right place after death, but about beginning the process of union with God, and the abundant life it gives you, right here, right now.
Still, it’s not a trivial question to ask why, if Christianity is true, not everybody who has an NDE has a Christian NDE. To be sure, I am comforted by the apophatic emphasis in Orthodox Christianity, which stresses that God is so far beyond our finite human categories of thought that all we can really do is approximate Him and His nature in our thinking and talking. Eben Alexander keeps saying what most NDE people say: that human language is radically insufficient to describe what they experienced. I believe that.
I throw all this out to start a discussion about NDEs here. Again, I believe that they are real, but I don’t know how to distinguish between a real NDE and one that is a mere hallucination, or even a spiritual deception. It doesn’t seem right to say that the only NDEs that are real are those that confirm what I already believe. But how, then, do we discern which ones are worthy of credit, and which ones are not? You can solve this problem by saying that only those that conform with a pre-existing creed — scientific materialism, Christianity, etc. — are real. Neither one satisfies me.