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Ask the Patriarch 153
Near Death Experiences

from: Glenn Berg

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Dear apathetic agnostic,

A question for you about near-death experiences. 

The thing I have noticed about NDEs is that often they can be proved to have grounds in reality i.e.:

a) People who have died at the same time for example the case of a fire crew who attended a forest fire and were overcome and spoke to each other outside of their bodies(although it was probably more of an out-of-body experience, that a full-blown NDE) and when they 'returned' to their bodies, were in agreement as to what they said outside of their bodies. 

b) People who have had death-bed visions that have been witnessed by the living (witnesses are classed as evidence when it come to the law, so why not when it comes to experiences like this?)

c) People who have never received instruction in christian doctrine who come back, with understanding.?

The Patriarch replies:

Glenn:

Really, you have not provided enough details to investigate these supposed reports. I can't respond with any certainty to unattributed anecdotes. And are we really taking about near death experiences here?

Technically, a near death experience requires the individual to be clinically dead, and then resuscitated. The most common cases of being brought back from the dead are those who suffered cardiac arrest in hospital. The common thread in this type of NDE is coming out of a dark tunnel and into the light. What causes this particular experience is not known, but it is suspected to be an effect of the brain shutting down. Regardless, most people who are brought back from being clinically dead do not report these expereinces.

Let's deal with your first example. I would suggest that this was not an NDE. If the event occurred, then most probably the firemen were overcome with smoke and passed out. They did not die. They recovered, probably with medical intervention.

Did they really communicate with each other while they were unconscious? Who knows? I can think of two non-supernatural possibilities and there are probably many more.

First: They would have not all passed out simultaneously, and losing consciousness can be a gradual process. Perhaps one or more were talking, saying goodbye to each other. These exchanges during loss of consciousness could have got into the dreams of several of them, and on discussing it later became a shared fantasy.

Second: Perhaps this incident arose out of research by an NDE researcher. It has been well established that some of these researchers are quite adept at unconsciously implanting false memories in line with what their own preconceptions of an NDE should be. There is a wide range of reported NDEs, yet individual researchers seem to find experiences in a consistently narrow range, different from other researchers' findings. There is one notorious case of an NDE investigator[1] who managed to elicit visions of hell from nearly everyone he interviewed. And yet no other investigator finds such visions.

Interestingly, the second example you use - deathbed visions, which again is not true NDE - is something of which I have second-hand experience. My stepmother witnessed them twice, so, in the absence of any specific documented example from you, we will use her two experiences. As she tells it:

In her teens she nursed her father through cancer. At the last moment before he died, he looked towards the door, and said "Mother!" He then died.

In her seventies, she nursed my father through cancer. At the last moment before he died, he looked towards the door, and said "I see an angel; my mother." He then died.

How do I account for this? I have no reason to question my stepmother's veracity on this issue; we can assume her reporting of last words is true. The first case is probably an hallucination brought on by a painful death. The second case is probably an hallucination brought on by a painful death and influenced by hearing the story of my stepmother's father's death at least a hundred times through the forty years they spent together. (My stepmother has never been one to tell what she considers a good story just once.)

Your final example of someone dying and coming back with an understanding of Christianity will not be addressed. I don't believe it. You have provided absolutely nothing to support this assertion. At best, it is an invented "true story" to support some pastor's sermon. It did not happen.

Footnote:

  1. Maurice Rawlings; those interested in his findings can google his name. There are numerous references.