Tuesday, October 19, 2021

A Good Discussion Of How Christians Should View Near-Death Experiences

Jordan Cooper just did a two-part series of videos on near-death experiences (NDEs), here and here. The first is about the evidence for the paranormality of NDEs. The second is about how Christians should view them, and it's the more important of the two. His view is somewhat different than mine, but he provides one of the best overviews of NDEs I've seen from an Evangelical. For my own articles on the subject, you can go here.

I left two comments in the thread following the second video. The first comment explained my view of NDEs and why I prefer it to Jordan's. The second comment expanded on a point Jordan made in his second video. The first comment disappeared shortly after I put up the second one. I suspect that's a problem with YouTube reacting to my posting twice in a short period of time. I don't know if that first comment went into moderation, was deleted, or whatever else. The second comment is still there, though.


  1. I received an email notification of a response to my first comment, the one that wasn't showing up on my screen. When I follow the email link to that response, I can see my comment on the screen with the other comments. But I still can't see that first comment if I access the YouTube thread through the link in my original post above. If anybody wants to read my first comment, you should be able to access it here. I don't know why it's appearing when the thread is accessed in one way, but not appearing when the thread is accessed in another way. I had a similar problem with YouTube comments when I replied to a Tovia Singer video last year. Please let me know what you can and can't view in the links to Jordan Cooper's thread. I'd like to know if other people are having the same problem I'm having.

  2. Hi Mr. Engwer, I had a couple questions regarding your interpretation of NDE's and current literature on the subject. I think I'm mostly in agreement with your view but I'm nowhere near as well read on the literature. One aspect of your case that I think is incredibly important is the fact that people see different sort of figures when they die from different religious and cultural backgrounds. My mind immediately goes back to a quote from Ian Wilson in discussing past life regression therapies and how patient's memories seemed to reflect the beliefs of their therapists rather than cohere to a common pattern between cases. I'm curious if there have been any studies examining a possible connection between NDE reports and the influence of either the scholars collecting and interviewing the patients or the patients own religious backgrounds. As far as different religious figures or perhaps even fictional or still alive figures appearing in various NDE's I'm curious if we can say that the overall context of the reports can strengthen the idea that the patient's really are seeing these figures in their experiences rather than simply misinterpreting a real but unidentified figure given their cultural background. IE can a person really argue that when someone claims to see Jesus or Muhhamad or Krishna can we really say they aren't misidentifying the same figure. If we can rule out this hypothesis than I think it greatly strengthens your overall case. The last question I had is I have often heard that Jesus or overtly christian themes are almost always absent from NDE reports. I'm curious as to how accurate this statement is. Granted that it might not make up the majority of cases but even if it only made up say 15% of cases in the west that would be significant given that most of the tropes of contemporary NDE accounts actually aren't that universal but rather make up a minority of cases. The last question I have has to do with the historical christian response given by the church in the last couple of decades. Given that early christian responses to NDEs were to view them with suspicion and some even claimed they were demonic, I'm curious if this might explain some of the non-traditional theological conclussions held by certain NDE patients. Given that they often times were shunned by the orthodox community they might have had to turn to other spiritual traditions to interpret their experiences. Given that the long history of New Age and Theosophical thought within the North American context I wonder if that perhaps might explain some of the correlations between certain cases and non-orthodox theology. Also given the long history of paranormal research to ideas within spiritism and theosophical thought I wonder if this might have biased contemporary thought about NDE's. Thank you for your time.

    1. Hi,

      I've addressed some of those issues in my collection of posts linked earlier, so you can go to that collection for more information. Some of the discussions occurred in the comments sections of the threads or at other sites I linked, so you could do a Ctrl F search to find relevant material if you want more of it.

      Many NDEs are somewhat vague on the issues in question, but we need to be careful about what we make of that vagueness. Given the low religiosity of so many people in places like the United States, their religious perspective could easily be reflected in the sort of vagueness we often see in NDEs. The fact that some people in their culture are more religious or that the culture has a more religious history doesn't change the fact that most individuals within the culture don't think much about religious matters. And even where people are more religious, such as in a Hindu or Muslim area of the world, I wouldn't assume that the average person's religious views go much beyond an introductory level, nor would I assume that the average person has much conviction in or commitment to his religious views. People who are highly convinced of and committed to a highly detailed religious belief system are likely to be a minority in any nation.

      And NDEs, like dreams and other experiences in life, are going to be shaped to some extent by factors other than the beliefs, desires, and such of the experiencer. We don't know much about the apparently nonmaterial realm in which NDEs occur, so it's difficult for us to judge such environmental influences accordingly (e.g., how much perceptions of light or beings of light are affected by the nature of the environment in which NDEs occur). Just as we can't explain every detail in every dream we experience, I wouldn't expect to be able to explain every detail in an NDE. There could be multiple factors simultaneously determining the nature of an experience: the character of the experiencer, the nature of the information the experiencer is receiving by means of telepathy or clairvoyance, the nature of the environment in which the NDE is occurring, etc. Considering the primitive state of our knowledge of NDEs, we shouldn't expect to know much about certain aspects of them.

    2. The scenario you referred to in which experiencers are "misinterpreting a real but unidentified figure" is a common suggestion in discussions of NDEs, and I've addressed it in various places in my collection of posts linked above. By its nature, that kind of suggestion gets weaker the more often it's appealed to. The more often your hypothesis has to appeal to misinterpretations, faulty memories, and such, the worse the hypothesis is. Not only do the experiencers have visual and auditory perceptions to go by in making their judgments, but they also had access to whatever was presented to them through telepathy or clairvoyance in a more subtle manner. Their impressions of who the figure they met in the NDE was supposed to be could be wrong, but that's not equivalent to a probability that the impressions are wrong, and it doesn't even justify neutrality on the subject. Rather, the people who want us to not accept the individual's identification of who he met should be providing a reason for not accepting it.

      The deities, angels, and other figures associated with belief systems often have traits that make them distinguishable from other figures: the color of their skin, the clothes they wear, events they refer to that they experienced, etc. For example, one of the NDEs in Bruce Greyson's recent book involved a perception of meeting Jesus, who talked about dying on a cross (After [Broadway, New York: St. Martin's Essentials, 2021], approximate Kindle location 2470). It isn't just the dying on a cross that suggests Jesus, but also other aspects of the situation: that it occurred in a context closely related to the afterlife; that Jesus is one of the figures who could most plausibly be encountered in such an environment; that the figure was receiving a lot of attention, in contrast to other figures who were more in the background; that the figure seemed to speak with unusual authority; and so on. In other words, a lot goes into forming our impressions of the identity of a figure we've met. The impressions people form are often more difficult to dismiss than critics suggest. Another figure encountered in an NDE discussed in Greyson's book was perceived as Cernunnos, a Celtic deity, and had horns in accordance with what that deity was expected to look like (2690). How many humanlike figures have horns, how many would be a prominent figure the experiencer's attention was drawn to in an NDE, etc.? I see no reason to think Jesus, an angel, or some other such figure was being mistaken for Cernunnos. The figures people meet in NDEs aren't blank slates. There are some details to go by in identifying the entities involved, though the amount of detail ranges across a spectrum. You can find more examples of particular religious figures who were encountered in NDEs if you search my previous posts, the discussions at other sites I've linked in the past, the books and articles I've cited, etc.

    3. NDE researchers will occasionally refer to studies that have been done on the religious components of NDEs, studies that allow us to draw upon a larger set of data, but I don't know of much that's been done in that area. For example, Greyson's book cited above mentions that a third of experiencers in the cases he's studied identify a "godlike" being they encounter in their NDE "as an entity consistent with their religious beliefs" (2722). He goes on to say that the other two-thirds "said they could not identify the godlike being". So, a third interpreted their experience in line with one religion or another, but most experiencers were undecided and admitted it. That sort of information gives us some details to go by, but not a lot. It seems that Greyson was focused on his own research in the United States when he made the comments I just cited. I doubt that his research in such a secular nation would be entirely consistent with what would be found in more religious contexts. I haven't come across much information on issues like these, and I don't think it's just because the researchers don't have much interest in it. As I said above, most people, including most experiencers of NDEs, don't have much interest in religious matters. And the researchers and experiencers are living in cultures that tend to not have much interest in religion. If you want a large amount of information about the religious aspects of NDEs, you have to piece together a lot of scattered information. You'll occasionally come across studies that have been done on the religious content of NDEs, but you won't come across that sort of work nearly as often as you come across work on nonreligious issues.

      Nonreligious figures are a more prominent part of NDEs than religious ones. We can have more confidence about the identification of those figures by experiencers, and those nonreligious figures have religious implications that tend to be overlooked or underestimated. Many experiencers report meeting a deceased relative, friend, or acquaintance. It's one thing to suggest that somebody mistook an angel for God or some such thing. It's something else to suggest that he was mistaken about meeting his deceased mother or a deceased uncle. And the state of deceased individuals in an NDE gives us some theological information. If an experiencer meets his deceased grandparents before being brought to a figure he identifies as God, it's not as though the credibility of his identification of that figure as God is all we should be concerned about. If the evidence suggests his grandparents weren't Christians, but he's meeting them in a heavenly realm, then there are theological implications to his meeting his grandparents in that manner. Christians often respond to NDEs by trying to cast doubt on how religious figures in the NDEs were identified, but the nonreligious figures also have theological implications. If your view of NDEs requires you to not only frequently reject the experiencers' identification of the religious figures they met, but also to frequently reject their identification of nonreligious figures, that's a major problem with your view.

    4. In response to a scenario like the one I just referred to (an experiencer meeting his grandparents in a heavenly realm), somebody could propose a lengthy intermediary state in which non-Christians are still in a heavenly (or other) realm while awaiting a later judgment. Or he could propose a situation in which the non-Christians in question became Christians just before they died, though nobody on earth knew about it. Or he could propose some form of postmortem salvation. Or whatever else. But none of those responses to this theological component of the NDE change the fact that the presence of the man's grandparents in a heavenly realm is a theological component. Whether that component can be reconciled with Christianity (or Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, etc.) and the manner in which it's reconciled are different issues than whether there is a theological component that needs to be addressed. I think something like my dream model of NDEs is a much better explanation than something like a lengthy intermediary state, postmortem salvation, and such or some combination of such proposals. But whatever view of NDEs a person takes, it has to address not only the identification of entities like angels or a being of light who was perceived as God, but also many other issues, like the state of relatives, friends, and other individuals who were encountered.

      Many NDEs in India involve components associated with Hinduism, such as yamadoot-like figures, the use of books in judgment contexts, and mistakes being made in contexts like taking individuals to the afterlife before their time. Such aspects of an NDE don't have to be explicitly Hindu in order to support a Hindu interpretation. Some NDEs are explicitly religious in one way or another, but we have to take more than their explicit components into account. A Hindu backdrop doesn't have to be accompanied by explicit statements affirming Hinduism or the presence of a Hindu god in order for the Hindu backdrop to have religious significance.

      Similarly, we have to pay attention to what's absent, as Jordan Cooper mentioned in his second video and as I mentioned in my responses in his YouTube thread. A lack of concern for things like love for God and God's holiness is significant, even though that lack doesn't take the form of an explicit statement.

    5. You can read my previous posts linked above if you want more. I've cited a lot of resources that discuss some religious aspects of NDEs (e.g., Shushan's book on NDEs in indigenous religions, Todd Murphy's article on NDEs with Buddhist content in Thailand), but the information is widely scattered across a lot of different places and seldom analyzed from a traditional Christian perspective.

      What you've said about the biases of experiencers and researchers is relevant, just as it's relevant to other areas of life (philosophy, history, science, etc.). The significance of bias is going to vary across a spectrum, depending on the circumstances involved, so you have to make judgments according to what's involved in each case. In the context of NDEs, there's been a wide diversity of experiencers and researchers, including Evangelicals, so the areas of agreement across that diversity are more significant accordingly. And even where there's bias, that's just one factor to take into account among others. See my post here regarding bias issues. The post isn't focused on NDEs, but it's relevant. The poor quality of the Christian response to NDEs has had some influence on experiencers and researchers, but not enough to explain all or even most of the anti-Christian aspects of what's been reported about NDEs. The aspects of NDEs that are most problematic for Christianity can't be explained by biases on the part of experiencers and researchers.

  3. Dr. Licona and Habermas are live right now discussing NDE’s: https://youtu.be/JiCoNKA-q5I

    1. Thanks!

      Here's a portion of the video in which Habermas discusses his upcoming multi-volume work on the resurrection of Jesus. It sounds like the first volume should be coming out in a little over a year. And he provides some other significant details about the contents of the work. Licona then discusses a couple of books he's working on.

      Habermas makes many good points about NDEs, especially as evidence against materialism. But I disagree with his agnosticism about the contents of NDEs. See here for the beginning of a discussion between Habermas and Licona about NDEs and religious exclusivism.

      The testimony of the experiencers is itself a form of evidence. See this segment of Habermas' discussion with Licona beginning at 27:28, where Habermas advocates agnosticism about an unbeliever claiming to see Jesus in an NDE. He goes on, at 28:02, to say "that's probably true" about widespread testimony from experiencers about certain aspects of what they experienced. Where did Habermas get the "probably" in "that's probably true"? He got it from testimonial evidence.

      Let's say you have tracking devices attached to the legs of ten people. Each of the ten goes outside the building and comes back reporting that it's raining outside. The tracking devices will give you the sort of evidence Habermas appeals to in arguing against materialism from NDEs. The evidence from the tracking devices will give you reason to conclude that the individuals in question did go outside the building. But do we reject their testimony about it raining outside just because it's lesser evidence in some ways, because we can imagine possible scenarios in which they were lying, hallucinating, or mistaken in some other way, etc.? No. Their testimony about the weather is in a different category than the evidence from the tracking devices, but their testimony still gives us reason - a lot of reason, in fact - to conclude that it's probably raining outside.

      Or if you want to think in terms of an example in which the testimony varies widely, since that's what we have with NDEs, do we accept people's testimony about the contents of their dreams? Typically, yes. And we can reason from that data and other information we have to what we think is the best explanation for what's going on in the context of dreams. We can do the same with NDEs.