Monday, May 23, 2011

Hellish Near-Death Experiences

Nancy Evans Bush seems to be the leading researcher today in the field of negative near-death experiences (NDEs). She's had a negative experience herself. She recently started a blog on the subject of negative NDEs. I don't agree with all of her analysis, but she's highly knowledgeable about the topic, and she makes a lot of significant points. Here are some of her comments in a book published a couple of years ago:

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.


  1. Very interesting. Thanks, Jason.

  2. These types of summary posts are very appreciated.

  3. My reaction, reading all that, is first a recharging of holy fear (if I can put it that way), but then courage when I think of the armor of God that I have been given.

    A relevant anecdote: I recently had something given to me, I believe by God, and I acted, in various ways, like I didn't deserve it, and I wringed my hands over other people not having what I've been given, and so on, and then what I'd been given was sort of taken away. My lesson I derived - that I really felt from it all - was if God gives you something own it boldly, and don't think, "But what about all those other people?" because that is really a questioning of God, or a putting of yourself above God. I.e. if God invites you into His house don't try to drag everybody on the street in with you as if God wasn't good enough to invite them as well. (This is not about evangelism.)

  4. Jason,
    Thanks for this post. I've been looking forward to more of your posts on this topic. I have begun my own research on NDE's as a result.

    One of the things that is most curious to me is the consistent reports of people encountering deceased family members/ loved one in their NDE's. I remember Sabom loosely connecting this with the possibility of encountering what he called "familiar spirits." This phrase occurs in the KJV translation of the Hebrew word in other modern versions which is translated generally as "medium." The term is connected to a meaning associated with "spirits of the dead" and a related Hebrew term that is translated "spiritist" or "necromancy/er."

    I am particularly interested in why the KJV translated the term "familiar spirits"? What evidence is there that such NDE encounters (can we include seances too?) involve spirits who imitate the dead (i.e. 'familiar' with dead spirits) or the possibility that there is actual contact with dead persons (not unlike Samuel with the medium at Endor). The latter seems to conflict with traditional Biblical interpretations of what happens to the spirits of the dead, especially unbelievers.

    I guess my main curiosity begins with the rather interesting translation in the KJV: "familiar spirits." Why did the KJV translators this phrase? Was it influenced by a particular view of the paranormal that was a prevalent carry over from medieval views and theology? Do you know the history behind the translation and why modern translations have departed from the KJV? I think this would be an interesting line of research.

  5. MSC,

    I don't know much about the history behind the terminology you've referred to (familiar spirits, etc.).

    Concerning deceased individuals encountered in NDEs, I think a Christian has a lot of options. It's not a matter of having no explanation. Rather, it's a matter of choosing among a wide range of possibilities.

    As I mentioned in previous threads, the demonic theory is one of the options on the table, and I'm not aware of anything in the NDE phenomenon that it wouldn't explain. But the fact that it's an adequate explanation doesn't tell us whether it's the only one or the best one. Appealing to demonic deception too quickly or too often is problematic, especially when Christians have such a bad reputation for doing that sort of thing. I think many Christians appeal to the demonic explanation because they're so familiar with it, whereas they're not so familiar with other possibilities, if they're even aware of the other possibilities at all.

    In those previous threads, as well as in this one, I've mentioned some of the other possibilities. Some form of psi is one of them. There could be something going on that's roughly analogous to dreaming while partly awake, as I've suggested. An emailer (I won't name him, since I don't know whether he'd want to be named) suggested another possibility. Some of the details of NDEs could be produced by the mind as it adjusts to a new environment. It fills in the blanks, so to speak, with familiar images, concepts, etc. while it adjusts to its new setting away from the body.

    (continued below)

  6. (continued from above)

    Scenarios like those would allow for the perception of meeting other beings (humans or others) without actually meeting those beings and without any demonic deception involved. Somewhat similarly, we can dream of meeting people while we sleep without actually meeting those people and without any demonic involvement.

    The fact that near-death experiencers (NDErs) sometimes have knowledge of the recent death of individuals, whose death they shouldn't have known about through their normal senses, needs to be explained. It's one thing to have a dream in which you speak with your uncle. It's something else if a dream informs you of your uncle's death that night, which you didn't know about when you fell asleep. Let's say that an NDEr is in surgery from 4 P.M. to 6 P.M. He has an NDE during that time. His friend unexpectedly died just after 4 P.M., but news of his death doesn't reach the NDEr until the day after the surgery. Yet, he reports that he unexpectedly saw his friend in heaven during the NDE. That sort of thing happens a lot. There are many cases of it in the NDE and deathbed vision literature. How do we explain that sort of phenomenon? Again, I think a Christian has multiple options to choose from. I'm not going to try to be exhaustive here, but I'll mention some of the possibilities.

    Psi could explain it, something like clairvoyance or telepathy. So could demonic deception. Or a revelation from God, whether in the form of a vision or something else. Or God could allow an encounter with the individual, as in the example of Saul and Samuel, which you mentioned. The fact that we don't normally interact with the dead in that manner doesn't prove that God doesn't sometimes allow exceptions. The same Bible that tells us what normally occurs with the dead also mentions the sort of exception you've referred to. We have to distinguish between a general tendency that allows for exceptions and something that always occurs. We also have to distinguish between attempts to contact the dead, involving our taking the initiative, and reacting to what somebody else has initiated, like when Moses and Elijah appeared before Peter, James, and John on the Mount of Transfiguration. We also have to distinguish between what's permitted on earth and what's permitted elsewhere. I'm not aware of any Biblical commandment against communicating with the deceased in the realm where NDEs occur, especially if the alleged deceased individuals were the ones who initiated the contact. What are you supposed to do? Ignore them when they walk up to you, speak with you, etc.? Samuel seems to have expected Saul to listen to him, and he replies when Saul speaks. Similarly, we shouldn't pray to angels, yet we can react to them if they appear before us on earth or if we encounter them in another realm. John interacts with various heavenly beings in Revelation, for example.

    Of course, there's not much to explain in most cases in which an NDEr meets somebody during an NDE. If his grandmother died twenty years before the NDE, there's nothing supernatural about his expectation that he would see her in heaven or some precursor to heaven.

    But there are other cases in which an NDEr meets somebody who shouldn't be there, such as an individual who wasn't dead yet. I'll probably be posting on that subject, as well as some related NDE phenomena, later this week.

  7. Alex: Some good balanced views overall in this post; I like alot of what you've said. I'd have to disagree with comparison to a dream state on alot of levels, but I won't get into that.

    You write: Of course, there's not much to explain in most cases in which an NDEr meets somebody during an NDE. If his grandmother died twenty years before the NDE, there's nothing supernatural about his expectation that he would see her in heaven or some precursor to heaven.

    Alex: Here I would disagree. Remember that most naturalistic accounts of NDE appeal to hallucinations. It strikes me as odd that any kind of hallucination would be so consistent and cohere so well with who should/shouldn't be on the other side. Granted that NDE'ers do sometimes see living people in these experiences, aside from angels, the overwhelming amount of beings encountered are deceased relatives.

    In most dream states and hallucinations I know of and have experienced (quite a few), a coherent and consistent narrative, correlating so well to actual real life circumstances, is the last thing we would expect; so I think even this aspect does need to be explained.

    Another thing that might be worth looking into is how often deceased relatives are experienced in hellish NDEs. I haven't read of one yet. Certainly some people have an expectation or at least a fear that some of their relatives are possibly not saved. Were these types of NDEs mere projections of the NDEers present beliefs about the afterlife, we might expect hell to be populated w/loved ones as well. I have a close friend who gave into homosexual practices for the last 2 yrs of his life and died of drug overdose while living with his gay partner. He also apparently became so depraved at some point that he tried to seduce others into the same sort of lifestyle to appease his homosexual benefactor. I can tell you that his (probably not so nice) afterlife experience is on my mind much more often than any other loved ones who have passed away.

  8. Alex Dalton,

    The dream analogy isn't meant to cover a lot of levels. I use terms like "roughly analogous", "somewhat similar", etc., because the similarities are vague and accompanied by some inconsistencies. And I've included the qualifier that the person is partly awake at the time. I don't deny that NDEs have some objective and paranormal elements. They do. But they also have some subjective and unreliable aspects.

    When I referred to "not much to explain in most cases in which an NDEr meets somebody during an NDE", I was addressing how a Christian would explain an NDE. A purported encounter with an NDEr's deceased grandmother in an NDE can be problematic for an atheist offering a naturalistic explanation for the NDE, yet not be problematic for a Christian. My point was that a Christian has no need to choose among options like psi, something analogous to Saul's encounter with Samuel, etc. in order to explain an NDEr's meeting his dead grandmother in an NDE. In my surgery example, the NDEr's knowledge of his friend's death needs to be explained by some such means. No such explanation is needed for the encounter with the deceased grandmother.

    I think there's some significance to your point about meeting people in hellish NDEs. It does seem that people encounter individuals they know far more often in heavenly NDEs. However, it does sometimes happen in hellish ones or in a hellish portion of one that isn't hellish overall. See, for example, p. 171 in Michael Sabom's Light & Death (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1998).

    NDEs seem to combine the experiencer's expectations with other factors, like their perception of the paranormal realm they're inhabiting. That's why I use the analogy of dreaming while partly awake. NDEs involve paranormal elements, orderliness, and heightened senses, for example, that differentiate them from ordinary dreams.

  9. Ah - was misreading you. I agree largely with what you say. And if the NDE is simply one of many altered state of consciousness, I see no reason why we would expect consistency of theological content anymore than we would across the spectrum of other ASCs. We know that people of all religions have visionary experiences that they perceive as revealing distinct info., often affirming their own beliefs.

    Were it possible, teasing religious interpretation of the experience apart from the experience itself would, I think, eliminate alot of this content. But then again the religious beliefs themselves might directly affect or determine the perceptions themselves in this type of experience.

    But some info. that is "revealed" in the NDE (e.g., premortality - this one disturbingly fairly often) is not a part of NDEers previous religious beliefs.

  10. Here is an interesting testimony of a man who experiences or perceives the eternity of hell that Jason speaks of, in what is overall a positive NDE:

  11. If you watch that testimony, notice that besides the standard OBE, tunnel, light, paradise, etc. that we normally hear about, there are elements that, while not considered part of the core NDE in some of the classifications, show up again and again in these experiences:

    - colors more vivid than waking perception; vision is sharper/ clearer

    - telepathic communication

    - experience of timelessness

    - a sense of instant and expanded knowledge ("there is no just know.")

    Also - as he is on his way towards what he perceives as hell/the void/eternal separation, he cries out to God and asks for another chance. It as at that point that the experience turns positive, and he perceives the living river and God. I have read quite a few NDEs where the person cries out to God and is saved in some way from the hellish experience. Howard Storm's is the most famous.

    I think an interesting question for us as Christians would be whether or not an individual can actually be saved in an NDE. Perhaps, if the individual is still alive (though external signs of life have ceased), but on his way towards spiritual death, he can cry out to God/Jesus and be saved.

  12. Thanks for the link to the video, Alex. I hadn't seen that.

    I don't see any problem with the concept of a conversion to Christianity during an NDE. I think it's possible even during an NDE that's dream-like. A conversion during an NDE that's more objective would be even less problematic. Death in the fullest sense of the term hasn't occurred yet when an NDE happens. God knows that the person will physically survive whatever led to the NDE. In that sense, a conversion during an NDE wouldn't be equivalent to post-death salvation. It could only be classified as such if we changed the definition of death. When people discuss whether there's an opportunity to be saved after death, it's assumed that death in the fullest sense of the term is in mind, not something the person will go on to physically survive. If an NDE involves any sort of death, it's death in a lesser sense.

    A conversion NDE experienced by one of his patients, in his presence, was what led Maurice Rawlings into the field of near-death research:

    "Whenever I stopped pushing on his chest in order to adjust the pacemaker, the heart would stop, and Charlie's eyes would roll up, he again would sputter, turn blue, and begin to convulse. With bare hands, just like you can, I would reach over and start him up again. But this time he was screaming the words, 'Don't stop! I'm in hell! I'm in hell!' Hallucinations, I thought. Most victims say, 'Take your big hands off me, you're breaking my ribs.' But he was saying the opposite: 'For God's sake, don't stop! Don't you understand? Every time you let go I'm back in hell!' When he asked me to pray for him, I felt downright insulted. In fact, I told him to shut up. I said I was a doctor, not a minister and not a psychiatrist. But the nurses gave me that expectant look. What would you do? That's when I composed a make-believe prayer. I made him repeat the make-believe prayer word for word to keep him off my back. Meanwhile, I resuscitated with one hand and adjusted the pacemaker with the other. 'Say it! Jesus Christ is the Son of God, go on and say it!' I said. 'Keep me out of hell, and if I live, I'm on the hook. I'm yours. Go on, say it!' And then a very strange thing happened that changed our lives. A religious conversion experience took place. I had never witnessed one before. He was no longer the wild-eyed, screaming, combative lunatic who had been fighting me for his life. He was relaxed and calm and cooperative. It frightened me. I was shaken by the events. Not only had that make-believe prayer blown out the soul of Charlie McKaig [the patient], but it backfired and got me too. It was a conviction I cannot express even to this day." (To Hell and Back [Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1993], pp. 36-37)

  13. "About the author: Born in Humansville, Missouri..."


  14. Another hellish NDE perceived as eternal:

    Also another case where the suicide that cried out to God for forgiveness as she was killing herself, went to hell, was rescued by Christ, and taken into the light/God's presence.

    Jason - if its possible for conversion during an NDE, why could a person not be converted upon their actual deathbed, prior to the *actual* death, but after all signs of life have seemingly ceased - in this altered state on the way to spiritual death? Seems that this would have positive implications for theodicy (re: divine hiddenness), some of the thorny issues of exclusivism (e.g. "what about those who haven't heard?"), etc.

  15. Another hellish NDEer rescued after calling on Jesus:

  16. Alex Dalton said:

    Jason - if its possible for conversion during an NDE, why could a person not be converted upon their actual deathbed, prior to the *actual* death, but after all signs of life have seemingly ceased - in this altered state on the way to spiritual death?

    1. First I want to say thanks for these NDE links, Alex! I've just watched the Mickey Robinson one. It's quite amazing he didn't succumb to his multiple injuries. Indeed, one or two of them should've killed him. Or so I would've thought based on what (little?) medical science I happen to know. I'll check out the other ones too.

    2. As to your question, I'm obviously not Jason and obviously nowhere near as knowledgeable and well-read as he is on the topic, but if I could take a crack at it, I'd just say, if they were converted upon their actual deathbed, then they wouldn't have the rest of their lives to live. So it could be a blessing for them, their friends, their family, and others with whom they would presumably share the gospel.

    3. Also, I wonder what this state between life and death would entail exactly?

    This might prove unnecessary for me to delve into, but here's some brief background over the criteria for death. Usually the three major organs which need to irreversibly cease functioning in order to call death are the brain, heart, and lungs. But there's frequent debate over this. For instance, there's the question of whether irreversible cessation of brain function alone is sufficient to call death. There are questions over whether the entire brain needs to cease functioning or only certain parts of the brain (e.g. brainstem). There are questions over definitions of words like "irreversible" and "functioning." The use of modern medical science and technology likewise factors into the equation since sometimes possible to prolong one's life almost indefinitely using modern medical technology. There are probably other issues, but I believe these are the main ones.

    Now, when you say "actual deathbed, prior to the *actual* death, but after all signs of life have seemingly ceased," I suppose this means that to, say, an observing doctor the patient would seem to be dead since they no longer have "signs of life" whereas from the patient's perspective (if it's even possible for him to be aware) he may be dying but hasn't actually died yet. Perhaps his brain, heart, and lungs are still indetectably functioning in some capacity, but irreversibly deteriorating to the point that these organs will cease to function sooner or later. If the patient is still alive in that narrow window or space after any and all signs of life are indetectable to the doctor using our best medical monitoring devices and the like but prior to their spirit leaving their body (which is certainly possible since it's possible our criteria for death and/or medical technology could be vastly improved), then it's only a matter of time before their spirit leaves their body since the doctor would presumably call death. In short, their death is at least imminent if not already sealed.

    So in this narrow window I wonder if this means their spirit is still tied down to their physical body in some way since I would think if their spirit had left their physical body then they'd certainly be dead?

    If their spirit is still tied to their physical body, then they'd presumably be subject to their physical body's limitations including their brain having irreversibly ceased to function as far as modern medicine can tell. In which case, if their brain has irreversibly ceased to function or at least is irreversibly ceasing to function such that modern medicine can't tell whether it is even functioning, then would they be conscious enough to so much as cry out to God?

    Sorry, nothing solid here, I'm just wondering myself.

  17. Alex Dalton,

    Only a minority of people in near-death circumstances report an NDE, and it seems that only a tiny percentage of that minority report any message calling them to convert or any impression that they should do so. What we're considering, then, is something that might happen, not something that we can expect to happen with everybody or every person who didn't hear the gospel in this life, for example. And I see no need to propose such a scenario in a theodicy. The principles Paul lays out in Acts 17:26-27 are sufficient without adding something like a near-death or post-death presentation of the gospel. That sort of gospel presentation could strengthen a theodicy, but it wouldn't be necessary.

    The scenario you've described is possible. So are a lot of other scenarios of a similar nature (e.g., a dying individual converts in the closing moments of his life, before his soul leaves his body, but there are no signs of the conversion that any onlookers could discern). I've said before that I think it's acceptable for people to hold out that sort of hope for those who have died without any discernable conversion. But that sort of possibility isn't equivalent to a probability, much less should we expect it in every case or think that it's something God must do in order to be just. As long as parameters like those are kept in place, I don't see a problem with allowing the sort of possible scenario you've described.

  18. On this topic, here is a critical analysis about NDE from a Christian point of view: