In the early years – the Eden of near-death studies – the accounts that made news were blissful narratives of radiant near-death experiences, and the world listened, transfixed….But as Kenneth Ring would describe it years later, "In 1978, a dark cloud of chilling testimony began to penetrate into the previous luminous sky of reports of near-death experiences" (Ring 1994, 5).
Ring was referring to the work of cardiologist Maurice Rawlings (1978) and Rawlings's lurid depictions of hellish near-death experiences. Ring's words point to the most common assumption about harrowing NDEs: that while radiant experiences are welcomed, these others are considered at best distasteful, at worst a dreadful portent that something like a literal hell might actually exist….
Whatever their reasons, most researchers and the public alike turned their backs….The response [that Bush received to an article she published on negative NDEs in 2002] was one letter from a friend and one note that an experiencer had found the article helpful. Otherwise, there have been no questions, no argument, not a word of commentary.
The will not to believe. The resistance to belief. A dark cloud of chilling testimony…
It was George Gallup Jr. who noted wryly, "As might be expected, hell is not a very popular concept among the general public" (1982, 73). It is not very popular with researchers, either….the fact of these experiences remains stubbornly somewhere in psychic orbit, awaiting resolution….
Moody himself claimed never to have heard an account featuring the archetypal hell (1977, 169); and in eight studies since then, some of them formative, researchers reported no unpleasant or distressing experiences of any kind….
…[Kenneth Ring's 1980 study] yielded only pleasurable experiences. Ring noted that despite occasional feelings of fright or confusion near the beginning, no one had described a mainly unpleasant experience (Ring 1980, 192-193)….
In Australia, a three-year search by sociologist Cherie Sutherland (1992)…found no distressing experiences….
Of 116 participants in the study [in 1982 by Michael Sabom], 78 reported an NDE, none distressing….
Over 23 years [in four hospital-based studies]…these researchers reported no distressing NDEs….
Rawlings took the position that only conversion to conservative, biblically literal Christianity would save readers [of his book on negative NDEs] from a similar fate.
Almost everyone in near-death circles looked the other way. Academia discounted Rawlings's work because too many easily verifiable facts such as names and affiliations were carelessly presented and sometimes downright wrong, statistical information was absent, his descriptions were often lurid, and his perspective not only lacked objectivity but also was biased by a strong born-again Christian proselytizing. With the central truth of Rawlings's disclosure obscured by methodological sloppiness and his theological stance, readers conveniently bypassed his point: The near-death experiences of some people do not conform to the classic, peaceful pattern. Some people believe they have gone to hell….
Gracia Fay Ellwood (2001, 91) later observed, "Garfield [a researcher who found some negative NDEs shortly after Rawlings' book was published] found almost as many 'negative' visions as blissful ones."…
Of the 55 NDEs in that study [in 1981 by some researchers at Evergreen State College, Washington], 11 (20%) were "negative," although only 1 was considered hellish….
Probably the single most-quoted finding of the Gallup study [of American beliefs about the afterlife] has been that only 1 percent of the NDEs included "a sense of hell or torment." Many later writers have misinterpreted this to mean a 1 percent total of distressing NDEs, although the text reads, "The picture is more complex than that..[I]t does seem clear that many of these people [in the sample of experiencers]…were reluctant to interpret their experience in positive terms" (Gallup and Proctor 1982, 76-77)….
In all, although 9 studies with 459 experiencers found no accounts of distressing NDEs (0%), 12 other studies involving 1,369 experiencers produced the accounts of 315 people (23%) who reported NDEs ranging from disturbing to terrifying or despairing….
People who have had a terrible NDE are notoriously reluctant to talk….
Distressing NDEs are likely to remain buried if questions are not designed to draw them out….
Bruce Greyson, editor of the Journal of Near-Death Studies for two decades, has been quoted as acknowledging, relative to distressing NDEs, that in the early studies, "we didn't try to find them because we didn't want to know" (Atwater 1992, 150)….
Distressing NDEs are more common than has been thought, with a percentage possibly in the mid- to high teens….
There is no evidence that these experiences are punishment for wrong beliefs or unacceptable or evil behavior, nor does evidence show that NDEs happen only to bad people….
As a field, near-death studies is overdue for exploration of the concerns of the religious institutional community, which has been largely silent about NDEs. Pastoral care has been virtually ignored in the NDE literature, as have the theological and sociological difficulties mystical experiences present to religious institutions.
(in Janice Miner Holden, et al., edd., The Handbook Of Near-Death Experiences [Santa Barbara, California: Praeger Publishers, 2009], pp. 63-67, 70-71, 81, 84)
Other contributors to the same book make some relevant points as well. For example, a study in East Germany found that more people had NDEs involving negative emotions than positive ones (p. 21). Children sometimes experience negative NDEs and NDEs that include life reviews (pp. 89, 246). NDEs generally don't seem to correspond to a person's moral or religious character (pp. 124-125). Two of the most prominent near-death researchers, Raymond Moody and Kenneth Ring, have suggested that some sort of paranormal "trickster" is involved in NDEs (pp. 210-211).
For my summary assessment of NDEs, see my comment in Steve Hays' thread here. I discuss the subject in more depth in the thread here and the other thread linked within it.
There's no need to limit ourselves to one explanation for all NDEs or all positive or negative NDEs. Two different negative NDEs could have two different causes. However, my impression at this point in my study of this subject is that most NDEs are roughly analogous to a dream that occurs while a person is partly awake. There's a combination of reliable and unreliable elements involved. People sometimes provide verifiable evidence that they left their body during their NDE or received information not accessible through their normal bodily senses, so the experiences are paranormal in that regard. And the experiences center around subjects related to death, as if the experiencer is aware of his context. In that sense, NDEs are different than dreams, which cover a wider variety of subjects, usually subjects that don't have much relevance to sleep. And NDEs frequently differ from the expectations of the experiencer. At the same time, there are many aspects of NDEs that suggest their unreliability, such as the widespread contradictions on religious and moral issues from one NDE to another.
A Christian could have a hellish near-death experience, much as a Christian could have a nightmare. A negative NDE might be a foretaste of Hell in some cases, perhaps a warning from God, for example, but each case has to be judged individually. Even a more subjective negative NDE, one that's similar to a nightmare, might be used by God for some purpose, just as He can use dreams and other events in our lives to teach us or accomplish something else. But just as atheists and others go too far in trying to deny that there's any supernatural element to NDEs, we shouldn't err in the other direction by making the experiences out to be more supernatural, more verifiable, or more significant than they actually are. NDEs are evidence for some aspects of the afterlife, but not much of it.
The best arguments for a traditional Christian view of Hell come from revelation and philosophy. Near-death experiences add only a small amount of weight to the case.
I'll briefly mention some other things I think we should learn from the research so far on hellish NDEs:
- There's a lot of bias against traditional Christian views of Hell in modern academia and the general public. The fact that a society is considered Christian in some sense doesn't tell us to what extent it's Christian or how committed it is to a traditional Christian view of Hell in particular. When atheists, agnostics, and other critics of Christianity claim that nations like the United States have a Christian bias, that Biblical scholarship is biased in favor of Christianity, etc., we should keep in mind that the alleged bias may only favor something less than traditional Christianity, such as by favoring some traditional doctrines, but not others. The mere fact that a society or group or individual can be referred to as Christian in some sense doesn't tell us much. Our Christian society seems to be highly biased against a traditional Christian view of Hell.
- Negative NDEs have forced NDE researchers and the general public to think more deeply about the afterlife and to think about the subject with more discernment. The initial view of NDE research, on the part of the researchers and the general public, was overly positive and simplistic. Whatever NDEs are, whether they're like dreams or more objective, God has allowed them to take on a wide variety of forms, from heavenly to hellish (and sometimes some of each). A simple and easy view of the afterlife, in which everybody or almost everybody goes to heaven, with little or no discipline or punishment for our sins, isn't just inconsistent with traditional Christianity. It's also inconsistent with NDEs. We have to think deeply and discerningly about NDEs and the afterlife in general. There is no simple, easy answer. Life involves tradeoffs. One thing is gained at the expense of losing something else. God has made life complex in many ways, including many aspects of the afterlife. That complexity has some advantages along with its disadvantages. Even if we'd prefer a simpler view of NDEs and the afterlife, that's not what God has given us.
- As the mounting information related to hellish NDEs forces researchers and the general public to provide more of an explanation for the phenomenon, the general tendency seems to be to transform hell into purgatory. Supposedly, negative NDEs and any afterlife they may foreshadow are meant to purify temporarily, not punish eternally. But a few problems with such a view come to mind. It's true that some NDEs involve a temporary negative experience followed by a positive one. The NDE begins negatively, but ends positively. But the presence of some NDEs that are purgatorial in that sense doesn't tell us that all negative NDEs should be viewed the same way. Why assume that all negative NDEs are purgatorial just because some are known to be? Should we make the reverse assumption, that heaven is only temporary and eventually leads to hell, on the basis that some NDEs begin positively and end negatively (such NDEs do exist)? If the NDEs that start negatively and end positively don't give us reason to conclude that all negative NDEs are purgatorial, then why are we supposed to believe that they all have that nature? Aside from the lack of evidence for a purgatorial view of all negative NDEs, the purgatorial view is contradicted by the Bible, some philosophical arguments, and some NDEs.
- I'll expand on that last point, that some NDEs contradict the concept of a temporary purgatorial hell. Chris Carter mentions that people who have NDEs often have the impression that the afterlife they're getting a foretaste of will last a long time, not just briefly (Science And The Near-Death Experience [Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions, 2010], p. 251). But individuals who have positive NDEs aren't the only ones who report such an impression. Elsewhere in Carter's book, he refers to some negative NDEs that involved the experiencer's impression that what he was experiencing would last "a very long time, perhaps even eternity" (p. 131) or involved "utter doom" (p. 132), which doesn't sound like a temporary purgatory. In her chapter in another book, quoted above, Nancy Evans Bush cites a type of negative NDE that involves the impression of eternal duration (p. 71). An article on negative NDEs at the International Association for Near-Death Studies web site notes that one type of negative NDE involves "being completely alone forever in an absolute void". It's sometimes noted that people who have positive NDEs expect heaven to last a long time, even eternally. To be consistent, we should note the parallel expectation among those who experience negative NDEs. Even if these NDEs provide no evidence that people who go to the real Hell will be there eternally, they do provide a counterbalance to simpler and more positive views of the NDE phenomenon. Those who claim that NDEs are highly objective experiences of the afterlife or a foreshadowing of it, yet reject something like a traditional Christian view of hell, need to address such data. Not only are some NDEs hellish, but some include an impression that hell is eternal.