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What Happens When You Die?

Updated: Jun 23, 2023

In my previous post entitled Do you have a Soul?, we dove deep into the various speculation surrounding the existence of the soul. We discussed the historical origins of the idea of the soul found in Plato and then we unraveled many of the logical flaws associated with belief in a soul. I came up with every reason why the existence of the soul is rationally uncouth. And yet, I concluded that the idea of the soul (or the continuation of consciousness after we die) is something that I cling to in spite of all the logic that speaks against it.

The reason why I cling to it so strongly is because of the evidence presented by NDEs or Near Death Experiences. NDEs are experiences people have when they die for a short period of time and then come back to life. These experiences have become more frequent since the 1960s due to the proliferation of medical technology designed to resuscitate individuals who would otherwise perish.

There are sixteen traits that are usually associated with an NDE as identified by the psychiatrist Bruce Greyson. People vary in which traits apply to their particular NDE, but usually these events are accompanied by an out-of-body experience where the people float above their body in spirit form. Once they recognize they are looking at themselves, they see a bright light that draws them up to a heavenly realm where they meet God and people from their past. In the end, the people who return from such an experience claim their NDE to be one of the most transformative moments of their lives.

The first person to ever write extensively about Near-Death Experiences was Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, a psychiatrist who spent a great deal of time with patients who were terminally ill. Kübler-Ross did her training in the early 1960s and, during that time, doctors didn’t really know what to do with people who were dying. The goal of the doctor was to keep people alive and if the patient wouldn’t respond to any of the treatments, then the doctor was perceived as a failure. Therefore, it was very common for doctors in the early 1960s to completely neglect a patient once the diagnosis was fatal. They would just let the patient languish in dark rooms in a corner of the hospital until the disease had taken its course.

Kübler-Ross was the first doctor to simply ask these patients how they were feeling and what they needed to be more comfortable. The more she did this, the more she realized that doctors needed to be trained on how to properly deal with death and dying. This need prompted Kübler-Ross to write a book called On Death and Dying, in which she talks about all manner of issues related to the subject of death, including the now famous five stages of grief. The book was a runaway success making Kübler-Ross one of the most important physicians of the 20th century.

Interestingly, in the original manuscript of the book, there was a final chapter where she outlined a number of very strange cases where certain patients described the experience of leaving their body. The descriptions of these events varied from person to person, but they were happening so consistently that she started to write them down.

One example of this type of experience came from a patient named Mrs. Swartz, who was suffering from Hodgkin’s disease. Mrs. Swartz went into cardiac arrest as they were wheeling her off an elevator and after doctors revived her, she told Kübler-Ross that she watched the whole experience from the ceiling. Mrs. Swartz even mentioned floating down behind a med student who was taking notes as the situation unfolded. She said that the med student had drawn doodles at the top of the page while the doctors were trying to revive her. Skeptical of the claim, Kübler-Ross checked and found that this was indeed true. Mrs. Swartz had accurately described details that she should not have known.

Another example was from young girl who was dying of leukemia. She told Kübler-Ross that a man visited her in her room. When the young girl described the man, it was clear that he wasn’t a doctor and Kübler-Ross became very upset that this young girl could have been harmed by this stranger. Kübler-Ross approached her parents and apologized for the lack of security.

When Kübler-Ross gave the description of the man and what he had been wearing, the girl’s mother became interested and started to ask more questions. Eventually her mother said, “That’s quite strange because her description sounds a lot like my brother who passed away before my daughter was born. In fact, her description of the clothing is exactly what my brother was wearing the day that he died.”

She ultimately kept these various accounts out of her final manuscript for fear that it would detract from the impactful nature of her research on death and dying. However, what I find to be so interesting about Kübler-Ross’ accounts of Near-Death Experiences is that she wasn’t trying to prove that there was an afterlife. She was a doctor simply caring for her patients and writing these stories down as they were presented to her. This fact lends credence to her account and piqued my interest in NDEs, so I started doing more research.

It should come as no surprise that NDEs are not universally accepted as authentic or real experiences. Many skeptics claim that such an experience is the natural result of the brain shutting down. Their argument is that an NDE is simply the cascading effect of the brain releasing chemicals in a last ditch effort to save itself. Often the people who promote this explanation do not believe in God or an afterlife and have a vested interest in disproving the claims of NDEs.

Likewise, those who tend to affirm that NDEs are reflective of real experiences very often believe in a God and an afterlife. This is understandable because the NDE is perhaps the only tangible possibility of giving credence to the belief that human consciousness can continue beyond this life. Clearly, I believe in God and an afterlife, so I would like to believe that these experiences are authentic. However, what most people do not realize is that NDEs are not all positive news for the religiously minded.

What makes NDEs so compelling is that the experience tends to be very similar for all humans regardless of their ethnic or cultural background. For those who actually walk towards the light and enter into the heavenly realm (which only represents 10% of the people who have an NDE)*, they will interact with a powerful light, which is often referred to as a “Being of Light.” This light is often interpreted by the person experiencing the NDE to be God. One would assume that meeting God in person would clarify a lot of our questions about religion—as in, which religion is right and which religion is wrong? Unfortunately, this is not what happens.

It seems that your guides through the heavenly realm tend to come in the forms most expected by your religious background. If you’re Christian, you will meet Jesus. If you are Muslim, Mohammed will meet you. If you are Jewish, then it is likely you will meet Moses. In other words, our vision of heaven often matches what we have been preconditioned to expect from our religious upbringing. This discrepancy has given more credence to the skeptics who say that the NDE is simply a creation of our brains.

However, there are two issues with this argument. The first has to do with the impact the being of light has on the person experiencing the NDE. Most people describe an intense feeling of unconditional love and acceptance unlike anything they have ever known in their entire lives (we will come back to this point later). This description is important because it lets us know that a person’s religion has nothing to do with whether or not you will go to heaven. In other words, you don’t have to believe in Jesus to go to heaven. Likewise, you don’t have to believe in any other religious tradition to go to heaven. It seems that God is a lot more liberal than we are when it comes to handing out tickets and admitting people into heaven.

The second issue with the claim that an NDE is simply the result of a brain shutdown function is that many people who experience an NDE meet dead relatives in the heavenly realm. Often they will meet people they never met or knew during their lifetime. Upon returning to their bodies, it is not uncommon for people to research and discover that the unidentified person had passed away many years prior, but the family either did not know about the death or it was never spoken of by the family. The oddity of these meetings is often explained by skeptics as the brain digging deep into the recesses of the subconscious and drawing upon information that already exists within the brain.

In my mind, the largest problem with the skeptic’s position that the NDE is attributable to a brain shutdown mechanism has to do with why the brain would produce an experience like the one these people are claiming happened to them. Of all the ways the brain could possibly shutdown, why produce an experience where the person has an encounter with God. If there is no God, it’s hard for me to believe that the brain would evolve to create the ultimate experience of God for humans following their death.

This issue becomes all the more pertinent when you realize that the experience of God during an NDE applies to the religious and non-religious alike. Dr. Eben Alexander, the author of Proof of Heaven is one of the most profound cases in this regard. A neurosurgeon and neuroscientist who was an avowed atheist, Dr. Alexander was transformed by his NDE. His experience convinced him that God exists. His story is enhanced by the fact that he was braindead during his NDE as result of contracting bacterial meningitis, contradicting the skeptic’s claim that the brain is involved in the NDE vision.

Neuroscientists other than Alexander have claimed that many of the features of the NDE can be recreated with certain drugs like Ketamine. People who have been given injections of Ketamine will often report the feeling of becoming separated from their bodies. They also claim to have the feeling of unconditional love and acceptance that often accompanies NDEs. That said, drugs have been unable to reproduce the full range of experiences that accompany the NDE, particularly when people travel into heaven to be with God.

Ultimately, a wide range of explanations have been produced by the scientific community that associate NDEs with normal brain function gone awry due to the body being starved of resources. I find these explanations convincing to a point, but until science can intentionally manufacture the entire experience from start to finish, I think there’s reason to believe that NDEs point to something much more profound.

Something that’s always intrigued me about NDEs is how the people who have the opportunity to meet God (or the Being of Light) describe that encounter. As I stated earlier, they say it involves an intense feeling of unconditional love and acceptance. This love is so powerful that it often changes their character. When they are revived, they will often love people to a fault because that unconditional love has been infused into their character. Their description of God’s love sounds strikingly similar to the way that Jesus describes God’s love in the New Testament. Jesus describes a God whose love has no boundaries and whose forgiveness is limitless (see the parable of the Prodigal Son Lk. 15:11-32 for the best illustration of this type of unconditional love).

Another feature of NDEs that mirror Jesus’ description of God’s love comes from those who experience a life review when they enter into the heavenly realm. During this life review, people will see a panoramic collage of images floating in front of them. These images contain scenes from their life that all seem to overlap and blend together with one another. The life review is described as being similar to watching a television show, but much more visceral.

You can feel all the emotions of the moment, not just what you were feeling, but also what others were feeling. If you hurt somebody, you can feel the negative ripples of how that moment impacted their lives. Likewise, if you help somebody, you can feel the positive effects. They say it is as if you are reliving all the moments of life in a singular instant. Interestingly, the only judgment people feel during this review process is within themselves. They don’t feel any judgment from God. God’s unconditional love offers forgiveness.

I think the reason why the NDE is so similar to what we find in religious texts is because I believe that some of the descriptions of the afterlife found in the scriptures of the Bible are derived from ancient people who experienced NDEs. I don’t think Plato was guessing about the idea of a soul when he first developed it. People have been having these experiences for thousands of years. More importantly, I don’t think religion has informed these experiences. Quite the opposite. I think NDEs have informed our religions and this is particularly true of Christianity.

One of the reasons why I choose to be a follower of Jesus’ movement is because Jesus’ depiction of God so closely mirrors the descriptions of God from Near-Death Experiences. Jesus’ call for us to love others as God has loved us is perhaps the most important teaching we can take to heart. Our actions have an enormous impact on the world and NDEs suggest that each of us will know one day just how deep of an impact they had. At my church, our motto that is spoken at the end of every service is: Choose love. Be the light. Change the world. If the Near-Death Experience is any indication, that’s truly all the matters.

* Ed. Janice Holden, Bruce Greyson and Debbie James The Handbook of Near-Death Experiences: Thirty Years of Investigation (Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger Publishers, 2009), 18-27, 41-62.

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