Question: I need your opinion concerning a matter that has shaken my soul and made me introspective about my deepest religious beliefs.
Almost four years ago, I survived a heart attack. I was in cardiac arrest twice and "died" on the table but was brought back.
I've always been a science- and evidence-oriented person, but what I experienced can only be described as an out-of-body experience. At the beginning of the operation, I was awake, conscious and in severe pain. Then everything in the room went black, followed by a sensation of floating, feeling incredibly well, and being surrounded by a blinding white light.
My doctor sounded far away, repeating, "Don't go. Stay with us, George!"
I heard the voices of my deceased parents and grandparents asking me what I was doing there. Before I could answer, I sensed or felt I heard a voice I truly believe was the voice of God telling me it was not yet my time. I awoke and experienced a rapid recovery.
Do you believe in the existence of such experiences? — George, via firstname.lastname@example.org.
Answer: What you're describing is called an NDE (near death experience). According to Dinesh D'Souza in his wonderful book, "Life After Death: The Evidence," the term was first used by physician Raymond Moody in 1975.
Moody reported on 150 cases of people who'd had NDEs like yours: floating above their bodies, seeing a bright light, meeting deceased family members, then reaching some kind of barrier and being told to return to life.
NDEs are nothing new. Plato recounts an NDE in "The Republic."
Ernest Hemingway, wounded by shrapnel in WWI in Italy, wrote to a friend: "I died then. I felt my soul or something coming right out of my body, like you'd pull a silk handkerchief out of a pocket by one corner. It flew around and then came back and went in again and I wasn't dead anymore."
Even the atheist A.J. Ayer wrote of an NDE when, after a heart attack, he was "confronted by a red light, exceedingly bright" that he recognized was "responsible for the government of the universe."
This didn't convince Ayer of the existence of God but did provide "rather strong evidence that death does not put an end to consciousness."
The most famous researcher on death and dying, Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, even reported that blind patients had NDEs and could suddenly describe accurately the jewelry of their attending physicians! Today, there's even an International Assn. for Near Death Studies and a journal, the Journal of Near Death Studies.
All this spooky stuff blurs the boundary between science and faith, and that, in my opinion, is a problem. It tries to use scientific methodology to prove (or disprove) religious beliefs, and this can't — and shouldn't — be done. Even if NDEs are real, they don't prove there's life after death. They only prove, at most, that dying might take longer than we think.
The way our consciousness disconnects from our body might well be a gradual fading. In other words, people who've experienced NDEs were close to death but never really dead. I can't quite explain the "floating" or blind people suddenly having sight, but frankly, I'm not interested in such "research." The most important thing to me is that NDEs are not the way we build our faith in life after death.
The belief that death is not the end of us is an article of faith, not a conclusion from a neurological experiment. I believe in heaven (I call it The World to Come) not because some patient could see that an ER doc was wearing a Mickey Mouse tie, but because God has promised us life eternal if we obey the Torah, the Koran, or accept the atoning death of Jesus (take your pick).
Life after death can't be confirmed or refuted by science because it's not a scientific but a religious belief. Science talks about the heavens. Religion talks about how to get to heaven. Why can't people keep this straight?
Furthermore, the fixation on NDEs, tales of previous lives, and so forth just further erodes religious faith by making the only valid confirmations for our faith be scientific ones. I'm prepared to accept reports from people who've visited Bemidji, Minn., that the city exists, even though I've never been there, but I'm not prepared to believe in life after death because people tell me they saw it while "floating" in the emergency room! Call me old fashioned, but my proof for heaven is in my soul.
I don't mean to say that experiencing an NDE can't strengthen your faith. It seems to have done so, and research suggests it does so for others. However, it's a faith supported by a kind of pseudo science and thus is vulnerable to further discoveries.
For example, there's some indication that when the brain dies it produces a sensation of bright light. So the light of an NDE might not be heaven at all but the last luminescence of a dying brain. I don't want my faith held hostage by a guy in a lab coat.
I'm less interested in reports of the nearly dead than I am of reports of the totally alive who can read the first stanza of this great poem and come back to life and believe, fully and joyously and hopefully, that one day soon, death shall have no dominion:
"And death shall have no dominion.
Dead mean naked they shall be one
With the man in the wind and the west moon;
When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone,
They shall have stars at elbow and foot;
Though they go mad they shall be sane,
Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again;
Though lovers be lost love shall not;
And death shall have no dominion."
—Dylan Thomas, 1936
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