For Part 2 in our series on NDEs (Near Death Experiences), I ordered Pim van Lommel's Consciousness Beyond Life (“CBL”). Unfortunately, there was a problem in that CBL is overwhelmingly a scientific look at NDEs, with little in the way of descriptive accounts of the sort we intended to evaluate in this series, and from those accounts that are present, nothing is suitable for evaluation.
However, all is not lost, for Lommel does provide something useful to sink our teeth into. CBL discusses twelve "NDE Elements," or factors common to NDE experiences on pages 17-40. In this entry, we will discuss the 12 elements in terms of our perspective on Christian theology and the afterlife. Not all of the 12 are relevant to our concern, but we will at least briefly describe all of them.
One: Ineffability The inability to describe in words what one saw during an NDE. We might expect this factor under any view of NDEs as it would certainly be the result of any genuine experience. Under our rubric, any stage in the afterlife -- even one in which the subject would inevitably find out that they are ultimately excluded from access to God -- might result in an ineffable experience. The poignant lack of God's presence in the fallen world -- as opposed to even the minimal presence associated with God simply "being there" manifested in what we might call another dimension or universe -- would sufficiently account for such an experience.
There is more that can be said related to our thesis of hell as shame and exclusion. We might ask of a subject:
- Were they made aware of their sins by anyone, whether God or someone else, while experiencing the NDE? Shame, as understood in the Biblical world, is based on what others think of you. If you are not aware of what others think of you, then you cannot experience shame as a result of their thinking or judgment. Put another way, the subject of a positive NDE who is without salvation is conceivably in a state where "ignorance is bliss" -- they have yet to meet God or anyone who will make them aware of their sins and what effect they will have in eternity. Of course, those that enter into a "hellish" NDE will, by the same token, be experiencing that reality.
- Did they have direct access to God at any time? This is the "exclusion" aspect. Did the subject get to "approach God"? Did they get to make petitions of God, as a client to a patron?
Two: Peace, Quiet, Lack of Pain As with the first factor, this would understandably be relative to experience in a fallen world, and also devolve to the same questions as above. Of course, if they have no body, it is not remarkable that they have no pain!
Three: Awareness of Being Dead
Four: An Out of Body Experience
Neither of these would be specially tied to any view of NDEs, or cause any epistemic problem for a thesis of hell as shame and exclusion.
Five: A Dark Space This one is particularly of interest, as what is described matches well with an understanding of hell as exclusion. Lommel says that persons describe this space as "an enclosed space, a void, or a well." He also notes that 15 percent of those who experience this void regard it as "frightening". If 85 percent do not regard the experience as frightening, this may be explained by the relative seriousness of the accountability for sin these persons may experience. Or, it may simply be subjective.
Another interesting point is that many see a light at the end of this tunnel and get pulled towards it and out into it. This might signify some sort of status or honor elevation from a fallen world. Lommel also notes that 1-2 percent of those who experience this darkness "find themselves pulled even deeper into the profound darkness." This is in accord with the idea of hell as darkness, as presented in the New Testament. Others describe experiences of falling, fire (though Lommel does not record that they felt burning), hearing screams and smelling a horrible stench. Any of this could accord with hell as shame. Alternatively, it could be argued that these experiences were merely some sort of dream, influenced by reading something like Dante, or Lewis' Great Divorce , a point Lommel acknowledges when he says that one description has a "remarkable similarity" to Dante.
Six: Perception of an Unearthly Environment
As with 3 and 4, this one is equivocal for our purposes.
Seven: Meeting and Communicating with Deceased Persons
This one is of interest, inasmuch as we would be prompted to ask how such meetings can be read in light of Biblical descriptions. In my view, the judgments of Jesus as depicted in Matthew 25 started in 70 AD and continue to this day as people pass on. Since people are seen to be judged together, it is hardly unlikely that they would be able to communicate with one another, no matter whether they are "sheep" or "goats." But can the "sheep" and "goats" communicate with each other? This is a question we should pursue as we examine more NDE accounts. Jesus' teaching of Lazarus and the rich man implies a chasm that cannot be crossed; but it also, nevertheless, has Abraham and the rich man communicating easily across that gap. The gap might thus be read as a status representation rather than a physical chasm.
Eight: Perception of a Being of light
An interesting point here is that Lommel notes that a "person's religious background is a significant determining factor" in how they identify this Being of light. As we noted in our last issue, no examples but one were found where an NDE subject asked who the Being was (i.e., specifically asking of “it” if it was Jesus) and got a negative answer. Lommel offers three accounts, and none report that the subject communicated with this Being of light but merely report subjective impressions.
Nine: Panoramic Life Review
Ten: Preview/Flash Forward
Eleven: Perception of a Border
Twelve: Conscious Return to the Body
As with 3, 4, and 6, these factors are equivocal for our purposes. I should note that for #11, the border is one which is perceived as a "point of no return" for the NDE subject, such that if they cross that border they cannot go back to being alive again.
This completes our survey of the twelve points. We will close with some miscellaneous observations on the rest of the Lommel CBL text.
- A notable set of statistics tracks religious allegiance before and after an NDE. "No religion" among NDE subjects grew from 46% before to 84% after. Roman Catholic went from 12% to 8%. Church of England went from 24% to 4%. It seems interesting that Catholicism, with its minor emphasis on experience through ritual, changed the least of all noted affiliations. However, the rest of the groups included (Jewish, Lutheran, etc.) all started with less than 2% of NDE subjects being allied with them.
- Another survey shows that after an NDE, subjects as a whole assigned less value to organized religion, attended church less, prayed more often and meditated a lot more often. I would suggest that this reveals that modern organized religion doesn't provide enough "meat" or reason to be loyal, which I ascribe to as well. Under such circumstances, it is no surprise that an experience like an NDE can grab a person's attention and inspire such devotion.
- Lommel provides a longer and more detailed account of the NDE
of Pam Reynolds, whom we mentioned in our last entry in this series. The
one relevant detail we may note is that Reynolds asked persons she met
in the NDE what the "light" was and whether it was God. The response:
"No, God is not the light, the light is what happens when God breathes."
This is of interest because in the Bible, the Holy Spirit is
functionally compared to wind, or breath, inasmuch as the word for
"spirit" can also carry those meanings. What this could mean, in terms
of Reynolds' experience, is open to speculation, but I might suggest
that it reflects something missing from the atmosphere of a
fallen world; namely, the presence of God, the Shekinah glory which
appeared over the tabernacle. But, rather than being localized like that
presence, the NDE subject visits some realm where the Spirit permeates
everything. This is also reminiscent of this passage: Col. 1:17 And he is before all things, and by him all things consist.
Could this reflect that, in a fallen and decaying world, God does not “hold together” the creation as closely, because His presence is not as manifest as it had been over the tabernacle, and perhaps, in the world visited by the NDE subject?
The importance of this is that it would also accord with non-believers being able to experience this light during an NDE. The localized Shekinah presence of God did not destroy or injure non-believers merely by being present in the world, and there was no barrier to them observing it.