Sunday, October 02, 2011

The Moral Dimension Of Near-Death Experiences

In a previous post, I discussed the research done by Nancy Evans Bush on negative (hellish) near-death experiences (NDEs). Her blog has a lot of valuable information on the subject. She recently posted a few articles on the history of research into negative NDEs and possible reasons why those experiences haven't been more prominent in some studies: here, here, and here. She makes too many significant points for me to repeat all of them here. Among other things, she addresses some common misconceptions about negative NDEs. For example, in the third post linked above, she comments, "The Gallup study reported 1% hellish NDEs but as many as 28% in some way unpleasant." As I've mentioned before, NDEs are more complex than they're often made out to be. Sometimes an NDE will be mostly positive, but have some negative elements. People often think of Heaven as entirely positive, involving an absence of things like pain and fear, yet NDEs that involve such negative elements sometimes are classified as heavenly because positive elements are judged to be more prominent. In a recent post, Evans Bush makes another point I've mentioned in the past:

For one thing, there is no hard evidence that character traits “cause” any type of NDE. The list of character traits that people assume help to create a distressing NDE include: being hostile, cold, repressed, suppressed, unloving, controlling, rigid, sinful, guilt-ridden, non-God-loving, fearful, mean. Although authors, even some researchers, have said those traits are connected to distressing NDEs, no testable evidence has been produced in support; the list is based on guesswork, assumptions, and experiencers’ self-assessments (“I think I was unloving”), not on factual evidence.

By contrast, there are individuals with a perfect fit to those descriptions who have had pleasant, even blissful NDEs. Some describe themselves as having been unloving, even hostile, before the NDE, whereas afterward they have become open and affectionate. On the other hand, some kindly, friendly, peaceful, religious, loving people have had a really difficult experience. Perhaps there are subtle factors we don’t know about or can’t capture that make a difference; but in broad terms, the observable characteristics of a person simply do not always match up to the type of NDE.

As I've noted before, sometimes a person will have a positive NDE, then a negative one, or vice versa, with no discernable explanation for the change. Some NDEs involve some sort of moral evaluation of a person's life, and some don't. When there is an evaluation, those evaluations seem to differ in the moral standards that are applied. And so on. NDEs don't just differ and contradict each other on religious matters. They do so on moral issues as well. Just as NDEs often are supportive of some form of religious pluralism, they're also sometimes supportive of some form of moral pluralism. People coming from a lot of different religious perspectives have positive NDEs, but so do people coming from a lot of different moral perspectives. If NDEs are going to be taken as evidence that we should overlook our religious differences, then should they also be taken as evidence that we should overlook our moral differences? I suspect that many religious pluralists who cite NDEs in support of their point of view wouldn't want to be so pluralistic about morality.

I've outlined my view of NDEs in previous posts. I consider them paranormal, and I think they give us some information about the existence and nature of the afterlife, but I think they're largely subjective. They're something like a supernatural dream state that the soul enters under conditions that aren't yet fully understood. Apparently, some near-death conditions produce the experiences, but similar phenomena sometimes occur under other circumstances. Since I think NDEs are so subjective, their pluralism and their differences and contradictions on matters like religion and morality don't have much significance to me. But for those who take NDEs to be highly objective experiences of the afterlife, the pluralism of the experiences and the differences and contradictions among them are major problems. I've discussed the religious problems with NDEs in the past (for example, in the comments section of the thread here). But I think even most religious pluralists would find the moral dimension of NDEs troubling if they knew much about the subject. Have they given the issue much thought? Or do they find the religiously pluralistic element of NDEs so appealing that they focus on that aspect of NDEs while neglecting other aspects? They need to explain the entirety of the NDE data, not just the portions they find appealing.


  1. Jason,
    Thanks again for your posts on NDE's. I find them the most thought provoking inquires from a Christian perspective. Do you think you might write a full length book on the topic sometime?

  2. MSC,

    Thanks for the encouragement.

    I don't know whether you have a paper book, an ebook, or both in mind. I'll address both.

    I doubt that I'd be able to get a paper book published without publishing it myself. I don't have much in the way of credentials, and I know little about publishing. If I did get a book published, I would expect the sales to be pathetic. My online material on NDEs, which is free and so easy to access, gets almost no response. It seems that few Evangelicals are interested in addressing NDEs in depth. The neglect of the subject, among Evangelicals and some other groups, makes little sense. But the same can be said about the neglect of a lot of subjects.

    Something more promising than getting a paper book of my own published would be writing an article for a periodical or, say, a chapter for a book that somebody else is getting published. I don't expect either of those scenarios to occur, but they seem more promising than having a paper book of my own come out. Maybe one of those scenarios will happen someday, but I have no reason to expect it.

    If I'd ever produce an ebook, I wouldn't expect it to come out anytime soon. I'm still in the beginning stages of my research. There's a lot more I want to look into. I'll probably use formats like blog posts for the near future, but I might eventually produce something like an ebook. But that, like a paper book, probably wouldn't get much of a response.

    By the way, Gary Habermas has recently written an article on Christianity and NDEs. I think it's due out late this year.