Sunday, June 23, 2024

Will we tell them it's a false hope?

Jeffrey Long, a prominent researcher in the field of near-death experiences (NDEs), recently did an interview with Danny Jones. Long has collected a large database of NDEs at the NDERF web site. He and his collection of NDEs are often mentioned in discussions of NDEs and related phenomena. I want to comment on some significant parts of his recent interview with Jones.

Go here to see a discussion of a Jewish woman's NDE that had "visuals" that were "overwhelmingly Jewish". Notice a couple of things. First, though I don't agree with Jeffrey Kripal and Danny Jones' characterization of Elizabeth Krohn's NDE as "overwhelmingly Jewish" (judging by what little I know of her experience), it is true that NDEs often have one or more elements that are supportive of a particular religion. Secondly, Jones' comment illustrates a point I've been making for a long time, a point frequently overlooked or underestimated. We shouldn't just be looking for things like audible communication and words in NDEs and other such experiences. Other factors, like visuals (symbols, certain types of buildings, etc.), matter. I've often cited the example of Indian NDEs that have visuals or other elements that align with Hinduism in some significant way. People frequently act as if the only way an NDE could support a belief system like Hinduism is if it does so with something like the appearance of an explicitly Hindu god or an explicit audible communication promoting Hinduism. But the experience can be supportive of Hinduism in ways that are implicit rather than explicit. We have to take all of the evidence into account, including more implicit forms of evidence and ones that involve a lower rather than higher level of probability.

Here Long discusses research on reincarnation and refers to how reincarnation is "quite regularly expressed" in NDEs, to the point of involving "hundreds" of cases. We've discussed reincarnation elsewhere. See our collection of posts on the subject here, for example. Much of the evidence cited for reincarnation in paranormal research is genuine evidence of something paranormal, but reincarnation isn't the best explanation for it. And the hundreds of cases Long refers to could be a small percentage, given that his database alone contains a few thousand reports.

Later in the interview, Long refers to how there will be a "wonderful" afterlife for "all of us", seems to suggest a belief in universalism, and says that his ongoing research on hellish NDEs has led him to think that only a tiny percentage of NDEs are of that nature. Go here to watch him saying there's not "a shred of evidence that we - you, me, anybody - is at risk for a permanent, being condemned to some permanent, involuntary hellish realm". He suggests that any hell anybody experiences will only be temporary and that there's a good chance that it will be easy to get out of, such as simply by desiring to leave. He says that only a "very, very small" percentage of NDEs are hellish. Sometimes hell is defined narrowly enough to leave out many negative experiences that others would classify as hellish. So, a lot depends on how narrowly Long is defining hellish NDEs. He explains that his research on the topic is still underway ("preliminary"), but it looks to me like his current view of hellish NDEs is substantially out of step with the work of other researchers. See my article on hellish NDEs here for further discussion of the subject. I'd estimate the percentage of NDEs that are hellish at twenty-something, which is significantly more than Long suggests.

He's not alone in using NDEs to promote universalism or something close to it. I've heard similar sentiments from other researchers, including some of the biggest names in the field.

You can go here to see my collection of posts on NDEs and related phenomena (deathbed visions, shared death experiences, etc.). Go here for a post that's particularly relevant to the interview with Long. In that post, I review a book by Gregory Shushan on NDEs among adherents of indigenous religions, and I provide an outline of my view of NDEs and the evidence for it.

Shushan's work illustrates some problems with Long's view. Shushan has studied NDEs and related phenomena throughout history, so he isn't limiting himself to a modern database like Long's. That allows you to get a better idea of how NDEs have varied across time, across cultures, and so on. Even if they live in the modern world, people like adherents of indigenous religions are often unlikely to contribute to something like Long's internet database. Many people don't have access to the internet, for whatever reason, aren't interested in using it, aren't interested in participating in something like Long's research, etc. So, while Long's work is important and should be taken into account, there's also a lot of other data that need addressed.

And that other information that needs addressed includes what we get from some fields that paranormal researchers and those most interested in their research often overlook or underestimate (or even despise), such as the evidence from organized religion and philosophy. We have to explain the evidence as a whole, not just some of it. Just as adherents of organized religion are often negligent about the evidence from paranormal research and other fields, people in and closely affiliated with those other fields are often negligent about the evidence from organized religion.

In other posts, I've mentioned another NDE researcher, Steve Miller, a Christian who's published some books on the subject and is often interviewed by Christians, such as on Sean McDowell's YouTube channel. See here, here, and here regarding my interactions with Steve. My view of NDEs is significantly different than his, but I want to focus here on a point he's made and place it next to one of Long's points. Steve has referred to a collection of NDEs he's looked at that involved encountering Jesus about one out of five times. Go here for his discussion of the topic with Sean McDowell. Set that next to the NDEs Long referred to that are supposed to be supportive of reincarnation in one way or another. We can ask further questions about both types of NDEs, the ones with Jesus and the ones associated with reincarnation. How much does the Jesus in those NDEs align with the historical Jesus? How good is the evidence that the figure seen should have been identified as Jesus? How good is the evidence that reincarnation was promoted by the NDE in question? Etc. But let's start by taking these claims at face value. The historical Jesus, like historical Judaism and historical Christianity, was opposed to reincarnation. So, that raises the potential for a contradiction among these NDEs. You could argue that the historical Jesus didn't oppose reincarnation, that he's changed his mind on the subject since then, that the Jesus of NDEs is a different Jesus, or whatever, but there's at least some significant potential for inconsistency among these NDEs that needs to be addressed. Then there are all of the comments experiencers make about how their deceased relatives are still in heaven and recognizable (not on earth or elsewhere in a reincarnated state), how they got a sense or were told that they would be in heaven permanently after their final death, and so forth. Much of what's reported in NDEs seems inconsistent with universal reincarnation. Any attempt to reconcile NDEs with reincarnation would have to involve a lot of qualifiers and a significantly different view of reincarnation than you typically get from advocates of the concept. And there are many other actual or potential inconsistencies among NDEs on other issues, some of which I've discussed in other posts.

Notice, again, that even details that aren't the most explicit have implications, including in religious contexts. The presence of certain people (e.g., deceased relatives) in a heavenly realm has implications for soteriology, for example. The existence of Jesus has implications for Jesus mythicism, the presence of the gods of indigenous religions in certain NDEs has implications for the existence of those deities, hellish NDEs have implications for the existence of suffering in the relevant contexts (even under an interpretation involving a hell that's only temporary), etc. NDEs aren't as non-religious, non-doctrinal, and such as they're often made out to be.

And anybody who wants to harmonize NDEs in general, or even just the large majority of them, or harmonize paranormal phenomena more broadly, so that they're viewed as highly veridical and consistent with each other, isn't in much of a position to object to something like harmonizing the gospels or harmonizing the Bible in general. The sort of harmonizing Christians are often criticized for is simpler and more evidential than the sort of harmonizing that would be involved in reconciling NDEs or paranormal phenomena in a paradigm that takes those phenomena as highly veridical.

Something like Shushan's dream model of NDEs, discussed in my review of his book linked above, makes more sense than a highly veridical view of NDEs. And a point Shushan and H.H. Price, whose work Shushan draws from, have made is that an afterlife or afterlife-like experience could be a group experience. Something like an NDE could be shaped not only by the mind of the experiencer, but also by the minds of one or more other individuals (other people currently in a disembodied state, other people with whom the experiencer has something significant in common, embodied people under certain circumstances, etc.). That brings up another shortcoming of a database like Long's. Modern NDEs, like Long's, could be shaped to some extent by modern factors that you wouldn't see in NDEs in ancient China, medieval Europe, or Africa a thousand years from now.

At the time I'm writing this, the interview with Long has more than 100,000 views after only being up for a few days. NDE videos frequently get views in the millions.

Christians have handled the subject poorly, much as they've handled so many other paranormal subjects poorly. When I've seen NDE videos on Christian YouTube channels, I've often noticed that the most popular comments beneath the video involve somebody recounting his own NDE. How many people clicking the like button on those comments, which makes them appear higher on the screen, are aware that so many other NDEs aren't supportive of Christianity or are even anti-Christian in various ways?

The view that NDEs are highly veridical is too problematic, but so is the view that they aren't paranormal and the view that they're demonic. Christians need to think more broadly and deeply about these issues, and they need to get more involved in other ways.

Some of the most prominent researchers of NDEs are medical professionals (including Long). They have a lot of influence not only in the contexts that are the most explicitly related to NDEs, but also ones with less explicit connections. Over time, we're probably going to see more and more doctors, nurses, staffs in facilities like nursing homes and hospices, and so on being influenced by the work of individuals like Long. It's not just a matter of how people like nurses and hospice workers are formally trained in medical schools and elsewhere, though that's significant. It's also a matter of what these people do in their free time, as they're looking for answers regarding the experiences of their patients and other people they encounter and as they're preparing themselves for handling the situations that come up in the contexts in which they work. We're probably going to see more and more encouragement to think in terms of concepts like religious pluralism and universalism. Christians aren't doing much about it.

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