I've said that near-death experiences (NDEs) are different than dreams in some ways, but similar in others. In this post, I want to discuss some of the similarities.
I'll begin, however, by noting that NDEs and dreams are mostly different. Chris Carter writes, "In one study, 94.7 percent of respondents stated that their NDE was not like a dream, but was very real (Ring 1980, 82-83)." (Science And The Near-Death Experience [Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions, 2010], note on p. 176) I've mentioned some of the differences in previous posts. For example, NDEs tend to involve heightened senses, such as sight and hearing, rather than senses that are diminished. NDEs tend to be more orderly. They're about subjects related to death and an afterlife, suggesting that the experiencer is aware of his context, as opposed to the wide diversity of contexts addressed in dreams. Beings encountered in NDEs generally seem to be appropriate in their setting, unlike many dreams, and they seem to behave in ways that make more sense.
Similarly, NDEs are different than hallucinations, out-of-body experiences, and other phenomena they're sometimes compared to. See, for example, Janice Miner Holden, et al., edd., The Handbook Of Near-Death Experiences (Santa Barbara, California: Praeger Publishers, 2009), pp. 193, 202, 249, etc., especially chapters 9 and 10.
Yet, there are some aspects of NDEs that are reminiscent of dreams. Some NDEs don't have any dream-like elements, but attributes reminiscent of dreams appear often enough among NDEs to constitute a widespread pattern.
What do we associate with dreams that distinguishes them from real life? People, objects, and events are out of place. Two individuals are together in a context in which they shouldn't be. You have a conversation with two relatives in a dream, at a time when one of them is dead and the other one is living, but the conversation is set in an earthly context, not a context like the afterlife. The individuals shouldn't be together, but they are together in the dream. Or there's an oversized animal or some other creature that doesn’t exist in the real world context that the dream corresponds to. A journey that would take an hour in real life takes five seconds in a dream. People say and do things they wouldn't say and do in real life. Etc. Terms like disorderly and irrational come to mind.
While such things occur frequently in dreams, they seem to be much less common in NDEs. But they are there to some extent.
I'll start with an ambiguous case. A near-death experiencer (NDEr) describes an encounter with his brother-in-law in a hellish aspect of an NDE that also had a heavenly element to it:
"I ran into my brother-in-law. I talked to him. He seemed to be working." (Michael Sabom, Light & Death [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1998], p. 171)
Would you expect to find somebody "working" in hell? Maybe the work is some sort of punishment, but it's also reminiscent of the sort of thing you'd encounter in a dream. You meet somebody who's doing something that seems inappropriate in the context in which you find him. The NDEr goes on to describe other aspects of his experience that are unusual, such as an admission by his guardian angels that he was taken to hell by mistake. They then take him to heaven. As I'll mention below, the theme of angels and other such beings making mistakes is common in NDEs, especially in particular parts of the world. This post is about dream-like aspects of NDEs, not inconsistencies from one NDE to another, but it's worth noting that Howard Storm is told, in his NDE, that angels don't make such mistakes. See the closing seconds of minute seven in the video here.
Cherie Sutherland describes the NDE of a seven-year-old, involving Jesus "wearing a red hat and having a round belly like Santa Claus". The girl also saw "people waiting to be born" (in Janice Miner Holden, et al., edd., The Handbook Of Near-Death Experiences [Santa Barbara, California: Praeger Publishers, 2009], p. 91). Sutherland describes another child's NDE that involved Jesus, but also reincarnation (p. 96). Neither a combination between Jesus and Santa nor a combination between Jesus and reincarnation makes much sense in an actual afterlife. They seem to make more sense in a context like a dream or hallucination.
Kenneth Ring refers to "frightening features" in otherwise heavenly NDEs (cited by Nancy Evans Bush, ibid., p. 65). And some NDEs are even more disorderly:
"Some of Ellwood's distinctions smash cherished preconceptions about NDEs, such as when she noted that 'we have not yet pinpointed the reasons why some are painful. Besides, some persons have had painful and radiant experiences in quick succession with no noticeable change of heart between them, and occasionally experiences will begin with peace and happiness then become painful, or vice versa' (95)." (Nancy Evans Bush, ibid., p. 76)
Note, especially, the qualifier "with no noticeable change of heart between them".
NDErs sometimes have a paranormal knowledge of the recent death of individuals whose death they shouldn't have known about through their normal bodily senses. NDEs seem to be generally accurate regarding who should be encountered in the afterlife and who shouldn't be. People encounter deceased relatives and deceased pets, for example, but not ones who are still alive. However, they do sometimes report seeing individuals who shouldn't be there, people who are still living (Janice Miner Holden, et al., ibid., p. 114). In other words, a heavenly NDE might involve seeing a relative in heaven who's still alive on earth at the time of the NDE.
As I mentioned earlier, the theme of mistakes in the afterlife, such as mistakenly sending somebody to hell rather than heaven or removing a person's soul to the realm of the dead too early, is common in NDEs in some parts of the world. Chris Carter explains that NDEs in India tend to be "more bureaucratic". He goes on:
"Messengers would sometimes escort the dying patient to a clerk, who would then consult some records and announce that a mistake had been made! The bureaucratic bungling would be corrected, and the person would then be returned to his body." (Science And The Near-Death Experience [Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions, 2010], p. 138)
That scenario seems to be common in Indian NDEs. According to Carter, more than 60% of the Indian NDEs in the studies he's discussing feature a person's being "sent back because of a mistake" (p. 140). Not only does the prevalence of such mistakes seem unrealistic and dream-like, but the tendency for such features to be common in one part of the world and not another raises suspicions as well.
More examples could be cited, but I think these are sufficient to make my point. Though NDEs are generally different than dreams, they often have dream-like features. How do we explain that?
NDErs frequently report that their senses are heightened during NDEs. Their eyesight is better. Their hearing is improved. They have more of an awareness of what's happening around them. Maybe dream-like experiences would be heightened as well. While experiences like dreams and hallucinations that occur outside of near-death contexts tend to be highly unrealistic and easily distinguished from the rest of life, maybe they tend to be more realistic under the conditions in which NDEs occur. They occasionally have the sort of features that such experiences would have in other contexts, but they're generally more realistic.
It could be argued that some or all of the NDEs I've described above are highly objective experiences that reflect what the afterlife, or a precursor to it, is actually like. Maybe Jesus appeared with the body of Santa Claus in order to accommodate the girl who was having the NDE. Maybe those who go from hell to heaven or from heaven to hell for no apparent reason are experiencing both in order to teach them something. Maybe if we knew more about the individual or God's purposes in letting that person experience both heaven and hell, the person's experience would make more sense to us. Etc. It would be possible to offer such explanations for some or all of the NDEs that are like the ones I've described.
But the same could be done with dreams. Why should we prefer such explanations to the conclusion that the experiences are highly subjective and unreliable?
To appreciate the significance of these dream-like features of NDEs, it might be helpful to imagine what NDEs would be like without them. Wouldn't they be more credible if they didn't have characteristics like the ones I've described above? When these dream-like aspects of NDEs are combined with other considerations I've discussed in previous posts (the existence of better evidence for a Christian view of the afterlife, the inconsistencies among NDEs, etc.), it seems likely that NDEs have these dream-like features because NDEs are like a dream in terms of their objectivity.