Friday, April 15, 2011

Unexpected Miracles

Yesterday, I linked to a discussion between two New Testament scholars about the historicity of miracles. Some of the cases they discussed involve people who weren't expecting to witness a miracle or were even predisposed to not see one occur. Those cases are significant in light of the common skeptical objection that prior expectation makes people more likely to think something happened that didn't actually happen. The objection is framed differently in different contexts. Sometimes it will be expressed in terms of bias. Biased witnesses are less reliable. Or the objection is raised in the context of hallucinations. People hallucinate what they expect to see. Whatever form the objection takes, arguments like those are common. And some of the cases Michael Licona and Craig Keener address in the interview I discussed yesterday are insusceptible to that objection to some extent.

Two of the most prominent leaders of early Christianity, James and Paul, seem to have been unbelievers when they purportedly saw the risen Jesus. (On James, see here. On Paul, see here.) For that and many other reasons, the skeptical objection I've referred to above doesn't carry much weight as an argument against Christianity.

Concerning the paranormal in general, not just in the context of Christianity, here are some other examples:

"Those séances [involving Eusapia Palladino] led to the publication of a massive, graphically detailed account of eleven sessions with Eusapia, conducted by three very experienced researchers. That report describes, play by play, what happened during the séances, and perhaps most important, it documents how the investigators were all reluctantly converted to a belief in the genuineness of Eusapia's phenomena….Since the earliest days of the British SPR [Society for Psychical Research], many of its influential members had been reluctant to deal seriously with the physical phenomena of spiritualism….Eventually, the SPR felt pressured to respond, and so they assembled a team of their most experienced, highly skilled, and skeptical investigators to study Eusapia one more time, apparently with the aim of justifying the Society's negative assessment of the medium. Indeed, it seems that the SPR officers and investigators all expected to find nothing but fraud when they tested Eusapia. The members of this team were the Hon. Everard Feilding, Hereward Carrington, and W.W. Baggally. Feilding had already detected numerous fraudulent mediums and claimed to be a complete skeptic. Carrington was an amateur magician who had recently published a book, three-fourths of which was devoted to the analysis of fraudulent mediumship. And Baggally was a skilled conjuror who 'claimed to have investigated almost every medium in Britain since Home without finding one who was genuine.'…Despite the rigid controls and good light, many impressive phenomena occurred during the eleven séances. In fact, the table levitated completely so many times that the experimenters eventually tired of that effect and asked Eusapia to produce something else. Moreover, many impressive things happened even while experimenters virtually draped themselves all over Eusapia….After the séances had ended, Baggally itemized and counted all the phenomena reported. He concluded, 'Eusapia was not detected in fraud in any one of the 470 phenomena that took place at the eleven séances.'…Far more riveting, however, are the reflections of the investigators written after each session with Eusapia. They document, with great candor, the intellectual struggle each investigator experienced as he reluctantly came to believe that Eusapia's phenomena were genuine. Skeptical accusations of favorable experimenter bias in this case would be outrageous." (Stephen Braude, The Gold Leaf Lady [Chicago, Illinois: The University of Chicago Press, 2007], pp. 47-49, 51)

Braude goes into much more detail in the book, if anybody is interested. I've left out a lot. See, also, Michael Sudduth's summary of the Leonora Piper case in his PowerPoint presentation under section IV here.

In another context:

"In response to one critic's assertion these scientists [who have researched near-death experiences] are biased and that near-death research has been influenced by the researchers' beliefs, [Bruce] Greyson [one of the leading near-death researchers] retorted that 'he has it backwards: the researchers' beliefs have been influenced by their consistent research findings. Most near-death researchers did not go into their investigations with a belief in mind-body separation, but came to that hypothesis based on what their research found.' In fact, one researcher, Michael Sabom [who later affirmed the veridicality of near-death experiences], entered the field of NDE [near-death experience] research specifically to debunk reports of the NDE." (Chris Carter, Science And The Near-Death Experience [Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions, 2010], p. 200)


  1. What are we to make of the best selling books, "Heaven is for Real" (#3 on Amazon) and "90 minutes in Heaven" and the like?

  2. Several issues:

    i) We evaluate testimonial evidence for supernatural events in much the same way we evaluate testimonial evidence for natural events. Not all witnesses are equally credible. One has to sift through the evidence on a case-by-case basis.

    ii) Same thing with writers. When Jason and I mention evidence for the paranormal, we go out of our way to cite the most responsible researchers in the field.

    iii) Likewise, it's not as if these extrascriptural reports have the same evidential value as Scripture. However, I believe that Jason is pushing back against the alleged presumption against the miraculous. The claim that miracles are antecedently unlikely, so that it requires "extraordinary" evidence to overcome that high prior improbability.

    I think Jason is challenging that tendentious, convenient shortcut to which infidels are prone to as if that was a given.

  3. I guess part of my question concerns how these accounts square up with other NDE's. Do they fit the pattern and the acceptable evidence that gives credence to those NDE's that support mind-body separation?

    I remain skeptical because these accounts conflict with what we know Scripture teaches about heaven. I realize that may be a little off topic but as a pastor I am dealing with people right now who are giving credence to these books.

  4. I appreciate your concern. However:

    i) You need to clarify: which accounts conflict with Scripture? Accounts reported by Engwer's sources–or the best sellers at Amazon?

    ii) Apropos (i), in what way do which these accounts conflict with Scripture?

    N. B. Answer to (ii) may depend on answer to (i).

  5. i) I am thinking specifically of "Heaven is for Real."

    ii) In the boy's description of heaven that lasted 3 minutes he said everybody but Jesus had wings and a light above their head (i.e. a halo?). Jesus sits next to God on the throne and God is really big. The HS seats up there too and He is "kind of [the color] blue." The boy also saw Satan in heaven (incidentally he described this after watching "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe"). But angels carry swords to keep him out. The boy sat on Jesus' lap and saw his deceased sister and grandpa hanging out with Jesus too. This is all typical of his descriptions.

    I guess wonder why his experience was not "unspeakable" like Paul's (2 Cor. 12:4) or his encounter with Jesus terrifying like John's (Rev. 1:17). For that matter, every theophany we encounter in Scripture, it seems to be a terrifying experience for the recipient. Whereas most of these contemporary popular NDE's of heaven all sound a little too quaint and "feel good" to me and perhaps explains why the masses eats this stuff up.

    I am not seeking to deny the validity of NDE's, but it seems in our epistemological understanding we need something more substantial to interpret them. For example, why do Buddhists tend to have Buddhist NDE's and mormons have NDE's involving Joseph Smith, etc.?

  6. MSC,

    I agree with the principles Steve has laid out. I'll add some further comments of my own.

    I was addressing the arguments of skeptics, as Steve suggested, but I was also addressing the larger issue of how to evaluate miracle claims, as well as some of the evidence that Christian miracle claims are credible (e.g., the resurrection appearances to James and Paul).

    I've occasionally looked into NDEs over the years (reading books and articles, watching documentaries, etc.), but it wasn't until recently that I decided to study the issue in significantly more depth. I'm only in an early stage of that process. I'll outline my perspective so far, but keep in mind that this subject is still one I haven't studied in much depth.

    A combination of factors led me to my decision to study the issue more. One of the factors was seeing Christian reactions to the first book you mentioned, Heaven Is For Real. The Christians I've seen responding to that book seem to be largely ignorant of NDEs, and the Biblical passages they cite against the phenomena don't prove what they're supposed to prove. To give a couple of examples, why are we supposed to think that Luke 16:31 or 2 Corinthians 12:4 is a sufficient refutation of a modern report of an NDE?

    Luke 16 tells us that some unbelievers wouldn't be persuaded to believe even by a resurrection. But a resurrection can convince other people (John 20:27-29, Acts 17:31, etc.). The same Luke who wrote Luke 16:31 also wrote passages like Luke 24:37-49 and Acts 17:31. The fact that some people wouldn't become believers as a result of a resurrection doesn't prove that a resurrection would have no evidential value for anybody. Luke 16 is addressing a particular type of unbeliever, not everybody or even every unbeliever. The idea that Jesus and Luke were condemning any attempt to persuade people of the faith by extra-Biblical means, if that's what people have in mind when they cite the passage, is widely contradicted by the rest of scripture, including the rest of Luke's writings. Besides, persuading people of the faith isn't the only purpose NDEs could serve. A Christian might cite an NDE experience to encourage other Christians, not to attempt to persuade unbelievers of the truthfulness of Christianity. If a non-Christian cites NDEs to support some form of religious pluralism, for example, how would citing Luke 16 sufficiently address that argument? It wouldn't. Bringing up a passage like Luke 16 does little to tell us what to make of NDEs.

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  7. (continued from above)

    Similarly, citing 2 Corinthians 12 doesn't help much. (Here I'm addressing how I've seen the passage used in general, not just your comments on it.) The fact that Paul was forbidden to speak something he heard doesn't prove that all people who have similar experiences can't reveal anything about those experiences. Paul experienced something like an NDE, and he tells us about some aspects of it. The fact that he didn't tell us about other aspects of it isn't a convincing argument for dismissing all NDE reports. Even if some aspects of some NDEs are inconsistent with 2 Corinthians 12, I don't think the passage has much significance in addressing NDEs in general. Maybe somebody who had an NDE in modern times didn't experience anything that he'd be forbidden to speak about. Therefore, he can speak about everything he experienced. Citing Paul's NDE-like experience isn't much of an argument against modern NDE phenomena. Yes, Paul was forbidden to reveal some aspects of his experience, but so what? What's that supposed to prove?

    Those misrepresentations of Luke 16 and 2 Corinthians 12 are just a couple of the misuses of scripture I've seen in Christian attempts to dismiss NDEs. Your point about modern NDEs often being "too quaint and 'feel good'" is something I agree with, but with some further qualifications. The average NDE, from all I've learned about the phenomenon so far, doesn't involve nearly the level of detail or "too quaint and 'feel good'" material that we find in a book like Heaven Is For Real. And encounters with God and other heavenly beings in scripture are portrayed in a wide variety of ways. Abraham prepares a meal for the angels who visit him, Jesus takes children into His arms and blesses them, the risen Jesus eats with the disciples, etc. Compare how Jesus is portrayed in Revelation 1:13-18 to how He's portrayed in 7:17 and 14:4, for example. I think your point carries some weight, but not much.

    As far as I can tell, whether NDEs are consistent with the Bible has to be judged case-by-case rather than categorically. I'm not aware of any Biblical reason to dismiss NDEs in general.

    Even the best Christian material on NDEs that I've encountered has left some significant questions unanswered and has failed to make what I consider some of the most important points. And the best Christian treatments of the subject not only are inadequate, but are also few and far between and aren't well-known.

    (continued below)

  8. (continued from above)

    Aside from the poor Christian response to NDEs, I've also been concerned about how NDEs have been used by non-Christians. I frequently see the religious pluralism of NDEs cited as an argument against Christianity.

    We often hear about individual NDE accounts, like Heaven Is For Real, making the bestseller lists. But Jeffrey Long's recent book on NDEs in general, titled Evidence Of The Afterlife, also made the New York Times bestseller list. Chris Carter's book, which I cited above, is likewise about the evidence for NDEs in general, not just an individual experience. Carter's book presents a non-Christian, pluralistic view of NDEs, with an occasional comment about how NDEs contradict the Bible. Carter's book mostly argues against materialism, and he makes many good points along the way, but the book is also more subtly anti-Christian. It has a lot of pluralistic tendencies. In the foreword to the book, Neal Grossman comments that the message of NDE research is "universal love", and he writes that "Every near-death experiencer is convinced that the purpose of life is to grow in our ability to give and receive love." (p. xv) Later in the book, Carter writes, "If there is any consistent message that is brought back by those who have a classic NDE, it is this: after death there is more, and the purpose of life is to grow in love and knowledge." (p. 123) See, also, the recent PBS program here, which is hosted by a professing Christian, yet presents a largely pluralistic, anti-Christian view of NDEs.

    I'm in the process of reading The Handbook Of Near-Death Experiences (Santa Barbara, California: Praeger Publishers, 2009) by Janice Miner Holden, et al., edd., which was put together by some of the foremost NDE researchers in the world. The first page of the foreword, written by Kenneth Ring, ought to be enough to motivate Christians to address this subject far better than we have so far. Ring notes that for many people, NDEs have confirmed the general outlines of Western religious views of the afterlife (the existence of a soul that outlives the body, the existence of Heaven, etc.). But he also comments, on the same page, that NDEs have removed the fear of death and provided something like "the peace that passeth all understanding" (vii). He's taking Biblical concepts that the Bible applies to Jesus Christ and His work in the lives of believers, and he's applying them to pluralistic NDEs. The fear of death is removed by NDEs, and NDEs provide a peace that passes understanding. I suspect that a lot of people agree with that assessment. Polling has shown that Americans are largely pluralistic in their view of religion, even though most of them claim to be Christians, and I suspect that NDEs play a significant role in encouraging that pluralism. Books and television programs like the ones I've cited above are making the case that there's a highly evidential basis for that sort of pluralism. Books like Long's and Carter's use terms like "evidence" and "science" in their titles. People find such a view of NDEs appealing. There's a Heaven, and everybody or almost everybody goes there, usually without having to go through any sort of hellish experience first. And the hellish NDE reports often portray a Hell that's temporary and less intense than religions like Christianity have traditionally claimed.

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  9. (continued from above)

    I've recently been in contact with some Christian scholars on this subject. They didn't seem to know of much material they could recommend.

    One of the scholars I contacted warned me against assigning too much weight to the demonic deception hypothesis. I've said in the past (in response to John Loftus and in other contexts) that I think attributing non-Christian paranormal activity to demons is only a partial explanation. It shouldn't be the only explanation Christians offer. I think Christians often appeal to demonic activity too frequently. I don't know just how much weight I'd assign to demonic activity in the context of NDEs. At this point, I see no reason to think that even a majority of NDEs, much less all of them, are demonic deceptions. There are other possibilities. I have some familiarity with super-psi, but not much. I've read material by Stephen Braude and other scholars on the subject, but not a lot. I don't know how much to attribute to such phenomena. And many NDEs are supportive of Christianity or consistent with it. They pose no problem for a Christian worldview. Surely some individuals have fabricated NDE accounts, and surely some faulty memories, faulty subjective judgments, and other unreliable factors have been involved at times. But there are far too many people involved in NDEs, with far too much supporting evidence, to dismiss the entire phenomenon, or even a majority of it, with something like a fraud or hallucination hypothesis or a combination of such hypotheses. See, for example, the discussions of the relevant evidence in the books by Carter and Holden, et al., cited above.

    What should Christians think of NDEs, then? I'll make several points, and I would expect to revise and expand upon these in the months and years to come.

    - Any view of the afterlife has to account for all of the evidence, not just some of it. Evidence from NDEs has to be reconciled with evidence for a Biblical view of the afterlife, for example. We have more than NDEs to go by.

    - The evidence for a traditional Christian view of the afterlife is better than the evidence for a pluralistic or otherwise non-Christian view derived from NDEs. The God of the Bible has proven Himself more publicly, powerfully, and consistently, for example, than the God of the NDE. There hasn't been anything comparable to or better than the prophecies of Daniel or the miracles of Jesus, for example, in the NDE phenomena. The God of the Bible has demonstrated His power, including His knowledge of and sovereignty over vast amounts of history, in ways that are unparalleled and unsurpassed in NDEs. Though I don't recommend attributing all NDEs to demonic activity, I'm not aware of any evidence that would suggest that a more powerful type of being is needed to explain the phenomena. If we're looking for the miracle worker who carries the biggest stick, the God of the Bible is a far better candidate than the God of the NDE. Jesus is the most influential and supernaturally powerful person in human history, the central figure of humanity, and He was an exclusivist who frequently and explicitly contradicted some of the most popular modern interpretations of NDEs.

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  10. (continued from above)

    - NDEs are highly inconsistent with one another. In his book cited above, Carter makes some attempts to harmonize them. But he doesn't go into much detail. I don't see how it can be done. And those who attempt to harmonize NDEs aren't in much of a position to criticize attempts at Biblical harmonization. When one NDE seems to affirm Mormonism, another seems to affirm Evangelicalism, and another seems to affirm Hinduism, there may be an accompanying implication that the books of those religions are being affirmed as well (depending on the details of the relevant NDEs). If you don't think that the Bible is consistent with itself, how much more difficult would it be to harmonize the Bible and the other books implicated by NDEs? Or if the NDEs in question don't seem to endorse the books of these religions or anything like an inerrantist view of those books, I still don't see how even the broad outlines of Hinduism, Mormonism, Christianity, Judaism, etc. can be reconciled in a way that's consistent with all of the relevant NDEs. These religions contradict each other frequently, explicitly, and fundamentally. And what about the apparently different moral standards in different NDEs? People's actions in this life seem to be judged by different standards in different NDEs. I'll be studying this issue more in the future, but my impression at this point is that the inconsistencies of NDEs (inconsistencies in their religious views, moral standards, and other elements) constitute one of the most significant problems facing advocates of a view of the afterlife based primarily on NDEs. The problem can't be overcome by something like a vague analogy to having different experiences if you visit different parts of the world. Saying that God or some other entity is accommodating us, such as by giving one person a Christian NDE and another a Hindu NDE, isn't enough either. It would make sense for one person to experience a tunnel or light, whereas another person doesn't. That kind of variety and accommodation seems unobjectionable. But if one NDE affirms Christian monotheism, while another affirms the polytheism of Hinduism, then we seem to have a contradiction rather than an unobjectionable accommodation. And arguing that everybody is mistaken who thinks his NDE affirms Christianity or Hinduism, for example, is problematic. Advocates of a pluralistic view of NDEs often cite the highly subjective impressions of the experiencers, such as a sense of peace they had during the NDE or love they sensed from a light they encountered. If such highly subjective impressions are to be accepted at face value, then why not do the same for the more narrowly religious impressions that many NDE experiencers have had? Why not accept those impressions at face value as well? Many people in India claim to have had a Hindu NDE in which they encountered religious figures from Hinduism and experienced much of what a Hindu view of the afterlife would lead them to expect. If somebody is going to dismiss such details as misimpressions of the experiencers, ambiguous, unverifiable, etc., then why stop there? Why not apply similar reasoning to the details of NDEs that are more appealing to advocates of an NDE-based view of the afterlife? And what about the details of a given case? How reasonable is it to dismiss an experiencer as having been mistaken in his impressions? If he thought he saw a Hindu god or other Hindu religious figure in five different contexts within his NDE, was he mistaken all five times? How likely is that? Much more could be said, but I'll bring my point here to a close by noting, again, that I think the inconsistencies of NDEs constitute a major problem for NDE-based views of the afterlife.

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  11. (continued from above)

    - As I noted above, some elements of NDEs involve the highly subjective judgments of the experiencer. For example, listen to the caller around the thirty-fifth minute of the PBS program I linked above. He describes an NDE that's almost entirely consistent with Christianity, at least as far as he describes the NDE during his call. It even involves a pending judgment and a sense of his own guilt. Yet, he claims that the experience was inconsistent with Christianity. He claims that there's no Heaven or Hell, but that there is a judgment. How does he know that? He doesn't explain. Apparently, it's just an assumption he made or an impression he had during his NDE. How much significance should we assign to such impressions?

    - Michael Sabom made an important point in the closing chapter of his book Light & Death (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1998). Just as physical death is a process, the soul's departure from the body might be as well. He cited some possible Biblical support for the concept. If he's right, then maybe at least some NDEs occur during that process of the soul's departure from the body, a process that reverses itself, since those who report NDEs didn't experience death in the fullest sense of the term. They may have been in some sort of transitional phase involving the soul's departure from the body, a phase that can be, and sometimes is, reversed.

    - The idea that NDEs must be equivalent to the afterlife, so that everybody experiences Heaven or Hell as we'd expect them to after death, is erroneous and, I believe, one of the most distorting factors in Christian thought on this issue. The "near" in near-death experiences ought to be emphasized here. However much the body of an individual involved in an NDE has stopped functioning as it normally does, God knows that the individual hasn't yet died in the fullest sense of the term.

    - And why expect every non-Christian to have a negative experience in such a context? Unbelievers are surrounded with blessings in this life (Acts 14:17). Why think that any out-of-body or otherwise supernatural experience they have prior to death (in the fullest sense of the term) must be negative, let alone that it must be identical to Hell? What about non-Christians who have an NDE, but are later going to become Christians? God treated Cornelius favorably, even giving him a revelatory vision (Acts 10:1-4), before he became a Christian (Acts 11:14).

    - Though an NDE wouldn't have to be the same as the afterlife, it could be similar. God could give one person an experience of Heaven or something like Heaven or give another person an experience of Hell or something like it. There could be a variety of phenomena involved, even though people often classify them together under the broad category of NDEs.

  12. I want to add to my comments about Heaven Is For Real. I haven't read the book. I only know a little about it. Maybe it contradicts scripture. I don't know. Even if it does, the contradictions might be relatively minor or accompanied by other material that's significantly good. I don't know. But a lot of the criticisms of the book I've seen are based on faulty interpretations of scripture and bad reasoning. We don't want to be uncritical of such books, but we also don't want to be overly critical. We shouldn't be looking for things to criticize where there isn't actually anything worth criticizing. And if we have a vague impression that the book is unreliable, but don't know how to argue for that impression, then we should acknowledge that fact and not try to substantiate our vague impression by contriving bad arguments against the book. We should also acknowledge the possibility that the problem is with us. Maybe we're judging the book by some misconceptions we have, maybe we're not thinking through the issues enough due to our own laziness, etc.

    I'm not accusing MSC of doing those things. His comments so far are more reasonable than what I've seen from a lot of other Christians, and I agree with some of the points he's made.

    However, let me expand on something I said above about the differing images of Jesus in Revelation. Another passage that comes to mind is Revelation 3:20. Jesus is portrayed as knocking at a door and dining with people. That's a significantly different image than we see in Revelation 1:13-18 or 19:11-16, for example. Should we expect Jesus to interact with a three-year-old in a near-death experience the same way He interacted with an adult apostle who was receiving a public revelation (Revelation 1:17)? Jesus treated children differently than He treated Pharisees, His disciples, etc. during His earthly ministry. I'd expect the same in contexts like Heaven and heavenly visions.

    Regarding Luke 16, some other relevant passages to keep in mind are the accounts of Paul's conversion in Acts. If Luke meant to say, in Luke 16, that no unbeliever would be convinced by a resurrection (or something like a near-death experience), what do we make of Paul's conversion upon seeing the risen Christ? We could say that Paul was different than other unbelievers in some ways, but then we'd be saying that Luke 16 is only addressing a particular type of unbeliever. And I think that's the case.

  13. Jason,
    Thanks for your extensive response. I have begun dealing with this issue due to questions in my congregation about the "Heaven is For Real" book so this is not some academic exercise for me. I have a couple of questions for you.

    1) I have ordered Carter's book. Are there other books or resources you recommend on the topic?

    2) The point about the possibility of a process of death is interesting. In studying John 11, I think I came across a 2nd Temple Jewish belief that states a soul departs entirely from a body 3 or 4 days after death. Have you heard this? I wonder what its source is.

    Perhaps an underlying concern with some of the popular bestsellers is that these books seem to have a much wider audience than Biblically sound believers. IOW, a lot of unbelievers are reading these books. Because I often cannot find clear presentations of the gospel in them, I am fearful these books encourage what R. C. Sproul once said was the most common soteriological belief in America - i.e. Most Americans believe in salvation by death. Because God is good and loving, everyone will die and go to heaven and we know heaven is real because this boy or that pilot or this minister went there and you will go there too. I realize this is not an argument against NDE's, but rather a concern about the underlying message some of the more popular books describing NDE's seem to either directly, indirectly or simply unwittingly promote.

  14. thanks for these thoughts Jason.

  15. Hi Jason Engwer
    One other book, a comprehensive study spanning some thirty years of the neurological perspective of NDE's may well provide you with a comprehensive rounding out on your study into the phenomenon. The book by Dr Kevin Nelson is an examination of the reasons for NDEs, out-of-body experiences and other mystical states. The book is titled, 'The God Impulse' [ISBN 978-0-85720-190-4] Published 2011.

  16. One of the scholars I contacted warned me against assigning too much weight to the demonic deception hypothesis.

    Why? Is that because of an embarrassment with supernatural explanations?

    It seems to me that giving deceptive pluralistic revelations would be an excellent strategy by the powers of darkness to discredit the genuine ones.

  17. MSC,

    Since I'm not far into my study of this subject yet, I don't have a lot of resources to recommend. But I'll give you some of the ones I've come across so far.

    The best book I'm aware of that provides an overview of near-death research, including the data that needs to be explained and some of the theories proposed to explain it, is Janice Miner Holden, et al., edd., The Handbook Of Near-Death Experiences (Santa Barbara, California: Praeger Publishers, 2009). On the web, the International Association For Near-Death Studies has a web site that provides a lot of information, including links to other relevant sites.

    Alex Tsakiris has a webcast that covers a variety of paranormal topics, including near-death experiences. Michael Prescott has a blog of a similar nature. Neither of them is a Christian, and both have argued against Christianity at times. They take a view along the lines of the religious pluralism I referred to earlier. But they're highly knowledgeable of the evidence for paranormal phenomena, including near-death experiences, and they agree with Christianity on some of the issues involved, such as the existence of the soul and an afterlife. Tsakiris has had many prominent skeptics of the paranormal on his webcast, including Kevin Nelson, who Papalinton mentioned earlier in this thread. Prescott often interacts with the arguments of skeptics at his blog, and I know of one prominent skeptic who's posted there in the past. Both sites will give you the perspective of non-Christians who accept the veridicality of NDEs, including how they interact with skeptics.

    There aren't many resources to recommend that provide a Christian perspective. As I mentioned earlier, I think Christians have handled this issue poorly. Gary Habermasand Michael Sudduth have produced some good material about some of the relevant issues, like what near-death experiencers have reported about their experiences, the veridicality of those experiences, and some of the potential explanations for the phenomena. Much of what I wrote earlier in this thread, however, comes from my own thinking on this subject. Sometimes I come across a Christian source that's helpful to some extent, but even the best Christian material I've seen falls well short of what I think is needed.

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  18. (continued from above)

    I'll make a few recommendations about how to sift through the non-Christian sources you come across on this subject. Much more could be said, but I'll lay out some general principles that I think would be helpful for Christians who are new to this subject.

    When you come across a materialist or somebody else who's critical of the veridicality of NDEs, you need to ask how much they're explaining. It's common for skeptics to provide explanations of NDEs that are only partial explanations of some of the data. For example, they'll argue that somebody's brain was, or might have been, functioning at the time an NDE occurred, but they won't explain why the person reported such a high level of perception at a time when the brain would have been functioning at such a low level if it was still active. They address the issue of whether the brain was functioning, but they don't address the issue of whether such brain activity adequately explains the reported phenomena. They offer a hypothesis that explains some of the data, but not all of it.

    If you encounter somebody who accepts the veridicality of NDEs, but interprets them along the lines of the pluralistic view I addressed earlier, I'd recommend focusing on two points. The first could be called an external critique, and the second is an internal critique. First, ask whether they're adequately explaining, or even considering, other relevant evidence, especially the evidence for Christianity. As I said earlier, NDEs aren't all we have to go by. They're one line of evidence among others. Second, ask whether their alternative to Christianity is internally consistent. Does it make sense to say that one God, or whatever other entity, is producing all of the NDEs experienced by Hindus, Evangelicals, Mormons, Muslims, etc.? I addressed some of the problems with such a view earlier in this thread.

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  19. (continued from above)

    You mentioned "a 2nd Temple Jewish belief that states a soul departs entirely from a body 3 or 4 days after death". I have a vague memory of reading something about it, but that's all. Michael Sabom appeals to Biblical passages like Genesis 35:18-19 and Job 14:2. But we don't need Biblical or ancient extra-Biblical affirmations of the concept in order to consider it as a possibility or to conclude that it's probable. I'm not aware of any contradiction of the concept in scripture or from philosophy, science, or any other relevant source. But what I'm referring to here is the concept of the soul's gradual departure from the body, regardless of the timing issue you've mentioned. Placing the timing of the departure at "3 or 4 days after death" wouldn't be needed and seems problematic to me (e.g., Luke 23:43).

    You wrote:

    "Because I often cannot find clear presentations of the gospel in them, I am fearful these books encourage what R. C. Sproul once said was the most common soteriological belief in America - i.e. Most Americans believe in salvation by death. Because God is good and loving, everyone will die and go to heaven and we know heaven is real because this boy or that pilot or this minister went there and you will go there too. I realize this is not an argument against NDE's, but rather a concern about the underlying message some of the more popular books describing NDE's seem to either directly, indirectly or simply unwittingly promote."

    Yes, I think many people, in America and around the world, believe in universalism or that the large majority of people go to Heaven. They may allow for a temporary Hell before some people go to Heaven, but the large majority or everybody eventually goes there. And I do think that most presentations of NDEs encourage that point of view.

    (continued below)

  20. (continued from above)

    I want to offer an illustration of some of the points I made earlier in this thread. You can read or listen to an interview of Gary Habermas by Alex Tsakiris here. Apparently, the interview was recorded in late 2009, but it wasn't made available to the public until several months later. Tsakiris is, as I explained earlier, a non-Christian who believes in the veridicality of NDEs. He thinks they're evidence of some sort of religious pluralism and, therefore, evidence against traditional Christianity. Habermas makes some good points during the interview, but I don't think he answers some of Tsakiris' arguments adequately. Here, below, are some excerpts. Ask yourself how you'd respond if you were in Habermas' place. And if you would use some of the arguments I've presented, ask yourself if you would have known to use those arguments prior to reading this thread. Do you need to make more of an effort to think about this subject and research it?

    From the Tsakiris/Habermas interview:

    [Alex Tsakiris:] But I’m just saying all this is not outside the reach of science that we accept on a daily basis. And I think if we just apply that same criteria to the near-death experience data that we already have, and again, we’re leaving off the table the death bed vision research, the prayer research, and all that stuff. They all point in the same direction, and that’s that Christianity does not seem to–in the prayer research, in the death bed vision research-it does not seem to hold any kind of exclusive or superior position relative to other belief systems.

    It all seems to come back to the same thing that I read in my Yoga book over there. Love everyone and tell the truth. The Golden Rule that’s been passed on through ages throughout every tradition. That seems to be what it’s all about. It doesn’t seem to be about exclusively Jesus, the Trinity, or any of the other fundamental doctrines in Christianity.

    I don’t think that’s bad news. I think we can have a plurality of expressions of that higher consciousness. This is purely speculation. I think that’s what we are experiencing. But I come back to this. The data is in. Christianity can’t hold this position of saying we’re somehow the only way. We’re somehow the superior way of experiencing this higher consciousness….

    (continued below)

  21. (continued from above)

    Alex Tsakiris: Absolutely not. And again, I’d come back to dream research which is exactly the same. We sit down and ask someone what was your dream? Were you able to dream in color? Were you not able to dream in color? You had a lucid dream. What did that mean? How did it affect you later? And we look at the same criteria. What is the credibility of the person giving the testimony? Were there any alternative explanations? Were they sedated? Were they taking some kind of drugs? Were they drunk? Whatever. And then, what are the effects of that? So we’d look at that.

    Dr. Gary Habermas: What’s the conclusion?

    Alex Tsakiris: But just pain. I think that even makes it more clear. If we did a pain study-okay, describe the pain. What was the pain like? We do this. This standard stuff. And then we’d correlate that data and we’d compare how the pain was described over here.

    Well, these are all just subjective experiences. They are no more real or not real than the near-death experience as soon as we cross what we both have already crossed and said, “Look, somehow in some way we don’t fully understand our consciousness seems to survive our bodily death.”

    Dr. Gary Habermas: I agree with you.

    Alex Tsakiris: Done. That’s over. So now we have to-we have to–it compels us to look at these accounts and apply the same criteria that we do in science. And I come back and say when you do, you can hold the Christ Consciousness, you just can’t hold that it has any kind of superior position or preferred position. It just doesn’t seem to. The data’s screaming that. So you can deny the data and say, “Gee, we have to throw out all that data because it’s somehow subjective or it’s just someone’s account.” And I’d say, “No, we wouldn’t throw out that data if we were in any other area of science.”…

    (continued below)

  22. (continued from above)

    Dr. Gary Habermas: You’re talking sociological comparative experience, and I’m saying…

    Alex Tsakiris: Uh, what’s wrong with that? Open up any magazine that’s on your desk and we’re just inundated with that every bit of information about psychology and how we work and what motivates us is there. So to suggest that we have to throw that out or that takes…

    Dr. Gary Habermas: Oh, that tells me where people are and what they believe. That doesn’t tell me what is true. I mean, what the survey says is not necessarily reality. It could be. And then it may not be.

    Alex Tsakiris: So then what do you think of Howard Storm? That’s not-that doesn’t factor into this conversation? Because really, what I hear, I mean, over a cup of coffee and I’m just going to talk honestly-you know totally kind of-not that I’m talking honestly. And totally lay it on the line is I just hear this kind of double-talk from Christians all the time. I think it’s just sad.

    It’s just insulting because of course Reverend Storm had a genuine spiritual experience. But of course, this person over here that had a Kundalini experience, that was not real. Of course the prayer experience of these nuns-or maybe it wouldn’t be nuns–because they’re Catholic of course that’s valid. But this other prayer experience of this Buddhist monk, we have to somehow be suspicious of.

    And also just in listening to so many of the shows that you’ve been on. People have been willing to accept that God spoke to me, Jesus spoke to me, Jesus transformed me. Again, total acceptance of the reality of these spiritual experiences.

    And then to kind of turn it around and say, “No, we really have to discount that. That really isn’t hard evidence.” Here’s my evidence, and this evidence somehow trumps all this other. To me, that’s the same kind of stuff that we were talking about when we were talking about the Materialists. It just doesn’t add up…

  23. halo wrote:

    "Why? Is that because of an embarrassment with supernatural explanations? It seems to me that giving deceptive pluralistic revelations would be an excellent strategy by the powers of darkness to discredit the genuine ones."

    I see no problem with including demonic activity among the options on the table. But we should acknowledge that there are other options as well, and we need to discern whether the demonic view is the best explanation in a given case. Some type of psi or super-psi might offer an equal or better explanation in some cases, for example.

  24. Very interesting,

    I just listened to that Habermas-Tsakiris interview and did not think it was a bad display from Habermas.

    Specifically their main point of difference was about the NDE content that is beyond the empirically verifiable stuff (like seeing the shoe on top of the hospital) - the NDE content about pluralism such as visions of the hindu god Shiva etc, I did not think Tsakiris set his case out very strongly here.

    The first comment on the post was quite informative on this point:

    I heard Dr Habermas try multiple times to get into the idea of evidence, some kind of contact point, something verifiable, that would be useful across the board regarding the otherworldly aspect of NDE experiences. Not just that the data confirms that these folks have had very profound, real experiences. That seems to be undisputed. But that indeed they did actually see real angels, or the real Jesus, or real dead relatives, not that they simply believe they did, or saw manifestations, or their own projections of these things. His point was that there's very little that tells us one way or the other on this issue, and that can get sticky in scientific discussions. You mentioned pain and dreams -- while those are acknowledged as authentic and real experiences, I don't think any serious scientists are investigating, for example, whether the characters and events of people's dreams are really occurring, that they're floating off and actually doing these things they dream about. As far as I know most or all scientists approach it as something that the dreamers are experiencing subjectively within their own minds.

  25. One very basic objection that I wished Tsakiris has addressed (maybe someone here can) is with respect to the NDE content that is not empirically verifiable - the visions of Shiva etc, how does one know that they are not just imagining the gods they have been brought up believing in?

    Of course one can say this w.r.t Christianity, but is there data of people with, say, no knowledge of Vishna and from a different religion who then have a vision of Vishna etc. That would be stronger evidence.

    It wouldn't be until then that one would need to start favouring demonic (or other psi? - not sure what) frameworks for understanding it from the perspective of scripture.

  26. Also,

    W.r.t the prayer evidence. I found myself very much wanting to hear some of the actual evidence. They only very briefly touched on it and Habermas seemed to dispute that the prayer evidence suggested other religions prayers were just as effective. Be good to see the actual data here, which god was actually prayed to, the particular faiths of the persons praying etc.

  27. Also, with that book 'Heaven is for real', Tim Challies gave it a pretty scathing review. Unfortunately Rachel Held Evans agreed so that cancels it out! (she is a liberal evangelical blogger). Plus one has to bear in mind Challies' very strong cessationist leanings that would perhaps make him averse to such things. He might be right though, I would have to see the content of the book and have a better understanding of the kind of considerations Jason is talking about wrt to such experiences.

  28. halo,

    The view that people are "just imagining" details like seeing a Hindu god is problematic, for reasons like the ones I referred to earlier in the thread. The evidence suggests that the near-death experiencers aren't doing something like dreaming or hallucinating. They wouldn't be imagining things in that sense. And the idea that they're imagining things in the sense of misinterpretation is also problematic. It's unlikely that so many people would misinterpret so much. Before we even get to a detail like seeing a Hindu god, the fact that non-Christians are in some sort of neutral or positive realm, not Hell or some prelude to it, ought to be explained. I've offered some explanations in this thread, but how much does Habermas do it in that interview? How much do Christians in general do it when discussing such issues? I think Tsakiris' objections can be overcome if the good points Habermas made are supplemented by other points, like the ones I've made in this thread. But then we're going beyond what happened during the interview.

    It could be argued that people enter something like a dream state when leaving their bodies prior to death, or at least sometimes do, but that seems to me to be a highly speculative position to take. And it would need to be consistent with the veridical aspects of NDEs. We know that NDEs are significantly different than dreams that occur during sleep. And we know that there are many cases in which NDE experiencers acquire accurate information that we wouldn't normally associate with a subjective dream (e.g. meeting a person who recently died, even though the NDE experiencer hadn't previously known that the person had died). If we're to draw a parallel to dreams, it would have to be a vague parallel that's somewhat inconsistent. Using dream language could be misleading and would have to be qualified.

  29. Jason,
    One thought on 2 Cor. 12:4 to consider. When Paul says, "which a man is not permitted to speak" - anthropos is anarthrous. It seems the combination of the particular use of anthropos here and its anarthrous construction would support an indefinite sense. If that is Paul's intention, he seems to be saying the things here heard, no man (not just him) could speak.

    One can't squeeze too much out of that except to say that most direct encounters with God, whether theophanies, visions, spirit transportations to heaven and what not are of such an overwhelming nature as to leave the recipients in a state of otherworldly awe and at times - terror. This is what I would expect in most cases of NDE's since that is what we see in scripture. Granted, I am not familiar with most reports of NDE's, but the one's that sell millions of books seem to be of the "quaint and 'feel good'" variety. Something seems amiss to me here even if it is a child who experiences these things.

    Don't misunderstand me. I am open to further investigation and your comments have largely prompted that. But I am not impressed so far with the more popular accounts.

  30. Jason,
    You haven't mentioned Habermas and Moreland's "Beyond Death." What is your assessment of their position on NDE's if you have read it?

  31. Just listened to the Habermas interview and I was disappointed by how he handled the discussion. He seemed to completely miss Tsakiris' concerns about the inclusive nature of NDE's or simply didn't have an answer.

    On the other hand, Tsakiris seemed to be non-critical about how to interpret them, seeing them promote his brand of spiritual inclusivism. He seemed to hint that much of the data for spiritual/ heavenly, et. al. type encounters are of the "feel good" variety I've showed concern for already. Certainly, there would be no room for divine judgment in this case, perhaps in spite of some of the "hell" NDE's.

    Again I want to look at the data, but this is precisely the sort of thing that deeply concerns me about this whole phenomena at this point. Perhaps not exclusively, but it is leading me to the whole Satanic deception explanation. At the very least, I think we should not under-estimate the sinister and deeply clever way Satan can use this sort of phenomena for his deceptive ends. If this sort of hypothesis is correct, it would make uncovering the truth behind such phenomena quite difficult.

    Furthermore, such an explanation would hold no water with a guy like Tsakiris who I believe demonstrates that he has his finger on the pulse of much of the paradigm shift we see in the world away from materialist/ naturalist worldviews to a more inclusivist "spiritual/ metaphysical/ pomo" worldview. On that count, satanic deception is ludicrous and would be considered a fundamentalist/ primitive/ anti-intellectual cop-out; which may explain why a hard-line evidentialist like Habermas might not feel inclined to go that direction. I see a lot of red flags so far on this one.

  32. @ MSC
    " ... the pulse of much of the paradigm shift we see in the world away from materialist/ naturalist worldviews to a more inclusivist "spiritual/ metaphysical/ pomo" worldview."

    Whoa there, MSC. Source? Evidence?
    Do you mean the Deepak Chopra variety?

  33. MSC,

    Regarding 2 Corinthians 12, I agree that other individuals wouldn't have been permitted to speak what they heard if they had been in Paul's place. It's not something exclusive to Paul, as if only he couldn't speak the words in question. But it doesn't follow that the words spoken during Paul's experience are identical to what NDE experiencers are reporting. Other individuals in scripture, like Isaiah, do report words they heard from God in a context like Heaven or a heavenly vision. Paul is referring to something specific that couldn't be cited against NDEs in general or even non-Christian NDEs in general.

    I do think the reverence shown toward God in scripture carries some weight in evaluating NDEs, but some qualifiers have to be kept in mind. Some of the passages I cited earlier, like Revelation 3 and 7, could be applied to millions of people. They're referring to ongoing promises of God that are applicable to many people or large groups of individuals in the past. I haven't studied the relevant Biblical passages enough to know what sort of overall percentages are involved. I think we can say that encounters with God should involve some reverence, but that they can also involve other elements, like the ones in the passages I've cited in this context. And how much do NDE reports contradict that standard? My sense is that some cases I've heard about seem inconsistent with it, but some don't, and some seem difficult or impossible to judge on this point. Often, what we're getting is a vague description of vague impressions people had about a light, a being, some presence they sensed without seeing the entity involved, etc. And there are many references to awe, the intensity of the experience, and such. Scripture often gives us more detail, such as by telling us that the being encountered was God, that He was in some sense nearby rather than far away, etc. Should we expect an NDE involving a subjective impression of a light in the distance to have the same characteristics, if authentic, as a public revelation to the apostle John, for example, involving an identified member of the Trinity who appears next to him and speaks directly and explicitly to him? If a prophet or apostle has a sense of awe or fear in the presence of God, does it follow that an unbeliever or immature believer will? How Satan acts in the presence of God in Job 2 is different than how Isaiah acts in Isaiah 6. I think there's some value in the point you're making, but it has a lot of limitations.

    (continued below)

  34. (continued from above)

    I've read Beyond Death, but I read it more than a decade ago. I don't remember many of the details related to providing a Christian interpretation of NDEs, and I think at least one more edition of the book has come out since then. Somebody else, like somebody who’s read the latest edition recently, might be better at judging the book in this context than I am. I think it's a good book overall, but I think I'd remember more about its treatment of NDEs if it offered something significantly better than what I described earlier in assessing the Christian response to NDEs. But maybe I've forgotten or misremembered a lot of it. That could be. I'd be interested in hearing from anybody who has the book (I gave mine away) or has a more detailed memory of what it says on this subject.

    I think the interview with Tsakiris went poorly for Habermas in some ways, but he did make some good points, and I suspect he'd be better at making a case in print. Doing that sort of interview is difficult in some ways. And, like all of us, I would think that Habermas has learned from his mistakes. There's a lot of potential for him to offer the sort of good overview of NDEs from a Christian perspective that I've been looking for. He's studied NDEs a lot, and he already understands a lot of the issues involved. We'll see what he does from here on out. At least he's been doing more than the vast majority of other Christians on this subject.

    And I agree with you that there were a lot of problems on Tsakiris' end. I suspect that many of these people are so focused on their initial impressions of NDEs and the apparent implications they find appealing (e.g., everybody or almost everybody goes to Heaven), that they aren't thinking much beyond those initial stages of analysis. Just as Christians are expected to answer detailed external and internal critiques of their system, so should advocates of an NDE-based view of the afterlife. If the God of the NDE is so concerned about love, then why does he seem so unconcerned that people know him well and have accurate beliefs about him? What about the apparent inconsistencies among NDEs? Etc.

    You mentioned the issue of judgment. NDEs often involve some form of judgment, and some NDEs are hellish overall or have some negative elements within one that's positive overall. But the judgment is often one that involves anti-Biblical standards (and different standards from one NDE to another, it seems to me, as I mentioned earlier), and the negative consequences of the judgment are less than they are in the Bible. Remember, Tsakiris mentioned that "I think what they really resonate [in NDE reports] is he saw God and he saw that there was a morality. There was a right and a wrong and he experienced that." I think people like Tsakiris are open to things like absolute truth, objective moral standards, and judgment to some extent. At least they talk as though they're open to such things at times. But the extent to which they're open to those things, whether they define them Biblically, and whether they've applied the concepts consistently in their evaluation of NDEs are different issues. I think you're correct to use a phrase like "more inclusivist" to describe the views in question. We should be careful to avoid accusing all of these people of complete subjectivity, complete opposition to judgment, complete rejection of the concept of Hell, etc. Their views are often more nuanced than that.

  35. Just listened to the Habermas interview and I was disappointed by how he handled the discussion. He seemed to completely miss Tsakiris' concerns about the inclusive nature of NDE's or simply didn't have an answer.

    On the other hand, Tsakiris seemed to be non-critical about how to interpret them, seeing them promote his brand of spiritual inclusivism.

    Are you serious? Habermas made his point very well, that if you see something you could not have from your vantage point, and this is independently verified, this counts as objective evidence. If you see something else that you take to be confirmatory of your religion, there is no way to objectively confirm that.

    The only problem with Habermas is that he was too polite and did not press the issue that Tsakiris was being as "exclusivist" as Habermas.

    Tsakiris believed in a religion that differed from all others in which "God" gave everyone the NDE's he desired based on his upbringing. He's rolling his own religion that is just as exclusivist of the others he is trying to accomodate as Habermas' is of the ones that it explicitly rejects.

    He is pitting his limited deductions based on NDEs as the foundation of his religion, over and against the explicitly revealed religions of other faiths. It's not very convincing.

    Of course, I don't buy any of this. I think NDEs do not prove anything. The "mom" who cooked dinner: she could have mentioned the desire to cook that dinner to the person who later experienced the NDE, and he could have consciously forgot. But I still think Habermas (for once) made his point very clearly and accurately.

  36. Thnuh Thnuh wrote:

    "If you see something else that you take to be confirmatory of your religion, there is no way to objectively confirm that."

    Explain the relevance of whether what the person reports is "taken to be confirmatory of his religion". And explain why factors like the general trustworthiness of human memory and the general trustworthiness of human testimony wouldn't be applicable to what NDE experiencers report. What's your alternative? That all of these people were lying? That they were all mistaken in some other way? If the latter, then in what way were they supposedly mistaken, and why are we supposed to believe that?

    You write:

    "I think NDEs do not prove anything. The 'mom' who cooked dinner: she could have mentioned the desire to cook that dinner to the person who later experienced the NDE, and he could have consciously forgot."

    Are you familiar with the case in question beyond the vague outline you provide above? Or are you just speculating without knowing whether the details of the case make your speculation unlikely?

    How much do you know about NDEs? Given the simplicity and inadequacy of the objections you're raising, I doubt that you know much about the subject. It seems that one of the reason why NDEs "do not prove anything" to you, aside from your apparent desire for them to not prove anything, is that you don't know much about them.