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Near Death Experiences – Beyond Belief?

Hieronymus Bosch via Wikipedia

A Near Death Experience (NDE) is a personal experience reported by those who have been revived after being clinically dead or, alternately, by those who have approached the point of death.

Religious and non-religious persons, alike, have reported NDEs.

Although specific details differ, a large number of reports from so-called developed nations could be summarized as follows:

• A person leaves the body and watches a medical team trying to revive them

• A glorious, warm light appears at the end of a tunnel as if a portal to another dimension has opened

• If the deceased person enters the portal, the light grows larger and they are suffused with a profound sense of belonging and love

• Others report being greeted by departed friends, loved ones or spiritual beings

• Individuals are often told (or sense) they must return to their bodies to do more work on Earth

• Individuals often do not want to return to their bodies but of force calls or directs them back

• Others do wish to return for the sake of a loved one on Earth or to fulfill a duty or complete a project

Although NDEs exhibit cultural differences, there are core similarities:

Tribal people may report paddling in a canoe down a long dark river for three days towards the sun…rather than floating down a tunnel towards the light. The experience, whatever the cultural differences, usually have a deep and long lasting effect. It often leaves behind a legacy of profound spirituality and removes the fear of death.¹

Near Death Experience

Near Death Experience: dat’ via Flickr

Many people have reported a NDE. The overwhelming majority report positive experiences, with only about 8% reporting negative, hellish encounters where a portal leads downward to an intolerable, horrific place of suffering.

The depth psychologist Carl Jung had an NDE. Jung said that dying was like “stepping out of a tight shoe.”² After seeing the Earth from space and feeling deeply serene, Jung returned to his physical body.

As with many NDE reports, Jung found the regress to his body disquieting.

A growing body of psychiatrists and neurologists try to explain NDEs by arguing that the brain is oxygen deprived and the individual hallucinates to ease the potentially upsetting transition from life to nothingness.³

This materialistic trend seems to be increasing, which is hardly surprising given the scientific enthusiasm of our times—often involving scientism.

Most people having undergone an NDE believe their out-of-body experience was real and not hallucinatory.

Scientific research has also found a correlation between electrically stimulating specific brain centers and the experience of leaving the body and seeing it from a distance. This finding, however, neither proves nor refutes NDE reports. The issue might remain ambiguous for many years because arguably the best way to know about a NDE is to have one.

Photographic illustration of a near-death-expe...

Photographic illustration of a near-death-experience. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

No matter how convincing NDEs are to NDEers, the intensely private character of the experience puts them at the fringe of contemporary science. And scientists seeming to have a definite answer become unscientific the moment they overextend themselves in the discussion of their experimental results.

Sort of a Catch 22 when talking about the afterlife.

I personally believe in NDEs. But I think we have to accept that paranormal phenomena like this come down to belief. As long as we’re embodied, that is.

¹ Danny Penman, “Near-death experiences are real and we have the proof, say scientists”, August, 1 2007. (link has changed since last revision)

² C. G. Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, revised, ed. Aniela Jaffé, trans. Richard and Clara Winston, New York: Vintage Books, 1961, pp. 289-298.

³ I’ve seen some weak attempts to square this with Darwinian theory but personally remain unconvinced.

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Neanderthal Skeleton, AMNH

Neanderthal Skeleton, AMNH (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When we speak of the afterlife, we’re pointing to a belief that a spirit, soul or energy continues after death.

This belief arguably dates back to prehistoric times (115,000 – 200,000 years ago) where archeologists have found Homo neanderthalensis in Israel and Spain buried with food items, tools and possibly weapons in hand, often in the fetal position facing sunrise or sunset.

Some scholars maintain that we cannot know the precise meaning of these ancient burial practices. Others say they point to a belief in the afterlife.

Historically speaking, most if not all world religions are premised on the belief in life after death. And the vast majority include some kind of scenario where the soul may travel to various heavens, hells or underworlds.

Recent studies on near death experiences (NDEs) support the idea of an afterlife, although skeptical scientists say that NDEs are hallucinations caused by oxygen shortage.

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Virgin Mary statue said to have miraculous properties, photographer unknown, effects by MC

Heaven is a place where nothing… nothing ever happens.

If taken literally, this song lyric from the mid-1970s to early 90s pop group Talking Heads represents a view of heaven that was probably influenced by a particular New York City intellectual/arts scene.

Apart from that kind of Zen outlook, we find as many different ideas about the nature of heaven as there are people who’ve speculated on it.

Heaven is difficult to know about, because it seems that, if it truly does exist, one must pass on to experience its fullness.

The Hebrew Old Testament (OT) emphasizes a select few outstanding individuals who will see God “face to face.” And some passages indicate that God resides in a “high” place (Psalm 19:2-5). But the OT also says that the dead seem to, somewhat like the ancient Greek and Mesopotamian departed, meet their ancestors in an underworld (sheol).

The “heavens” (plural) in the OT is an inverted dome above the disc of the earth, separating the waters above and below (Genesis 1:6-9).

In the Christian New Testament the aim of Jesus’ ministry is to invite all of God’s chosen to join him “at the right hand of the Father” to enjoy a new vision of heaven, a heaven where anyone is welcome.

Several NT passages speak directly to “losing one’s life” in this transient world to gain a lasting, true and happy existence in heaven.

As for the constitution of heaven, Christ speaks in parables and metaphors because it’s too glorious to be described literally. Throughout history orthodox and unorthodox Christians have depicted countless types of heaven, some on the basis of mystical vision, others on the basis of speculation and others, perhaps, on the basis of some combination of mystical experience and cultural filters.

Thomas Aquinas depicted in stained glass

Thomas Aquinas depicted in stained glass derivative work: Beao via Wikipedia

Pseudo-Dionysus, or Dionysus the Areopagite, spoke of three levels of heaven, each inhabited by different kinds of spiritual beings. St. Thomas Aquinas notes that Dionysus’ view of heaven is supported by scripture. And the general Christian understanding is also scriptural. The NT says there are “many mansions” in God’s house (John 14:2).

For some saints and (often) ascetic mystics, heaven may be partially experienced as a blessed union with God, united as ‘husband and wife.’ This may involve beholding the “face” and being “illumined” by the glory of God to become like an angel (Matthew 22:30, Mark: 12:25), “neither male nor female” (Galatians 3:28).

For many good and honorable worldly persons, heaven is usually seen as a blissful, carefree environment where one reunites with deceased friends and loved ones.

The Islamic Koran speaks of a land of “flowing, crystal streams” that awaits God’s elect. Some criticize Islam for having a simplistic view of heaven, while others say that the Koranic view is allegorical.

Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism all affirm heavens, although not as permanent abodes. By and large, the heavens of Asian religion are taken as stepping stones for the reincarnating soul whose ultimate aim is to achieve the unity of atman-brahman (Hinduism), nirvana (Buddhism) and jin (liberation in Jainism).

Many schools of Buddhism don’t posit any soul whatsoever, only the illusion of a soul.This matters if one it to see heaven as a union of the personal, created self, with the creator. In Buddhism the self just disappears once one realizes it never was. What happens after – experientially speaking – depends on which Buddhist school one believes in.

Carl Jung

Carl Jung by o admirador secreto via Flickr

Contemporary reports about the existence and character of heaven come from those who’ve undergone Near Death Experiences (NDE).

The Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung had a NDE but he didn’t experience heaven in the traditional Christian sense (Jung’s father was a Lutheran pastor). In his Memories, Dreams, Reflections (1963), Jung describes dying as something like “stepping out of a tight-fitting shoe.” He says that after seeing the Earth from space and feeling a deep serenity, Jung was resuscitated and unhappily returned to his body.

Some believe that aliens (ETs) are indistinguishable from angels. But most religious and spiritually-minded people do not uncritically believe that ET’s derive from heaven. The cosmic heavens of astronomical observations, they say, are of a far lower order than the heaven experienced by bona fide saints. Likewise, angels are often said to reside in an entirely different order of reality than the observable universe.

Heaven is also said to lie beyond and above the so-called ‘astral’ realms where New Age enthusiasts tell us that energy beings apparently exist. Some pro-ET figures like Rael believe that angels and aliens are highly similar, if not identical.

The celebrated mythographer, Joseph Campbell, argues in The Hero With a Thousand Faces (1968) that “heaven doesn’t exist” because it would take too long for the Virgin Mary, travelling at the speed of light, to get there. Here Campbell, despite his impressive erudition, entirely misses the point that heaven is a different reality, beyond and above the observable universe and its apparent laws of time and motion.