The movie based on the book releases this week. Since this child’s account of his near death experience is consistent with Christianity, it may be tempting for Christians to find this story encouraging. But we’ve got to be careful accepting people’s experiences as confirmation of the truth of Christianity. People of other faiths and no faith have near death experiences that are quite different and supposedly teach us things that are inconsistent with Christianity. So if you take some experiences as reliable testimony, how do you counter the others? That’s the problem with finding the experiences themselves authoritative in any sense.
We haven’t written on this story in particular. Tim Challies reviewed the book and helps give us a biblical way of evaluating these reports. We have written on other accounts and what we can and can’t learn from near death experiences. Here’s one of those posts:
The cover story of Newsweek is Dr. Eben Alexander’s account of his near death experience and his discovery that his physicalistic worldview was unable to account for a real experience.
Dr. Alexander, a neurologist, contracted bacterial meningitis that shut down his cerebral cortex. There was no higher-order brain activity during the time he was monitored in the hospital. He says he was beyond a vegetative state. During this time, however, his consciousness—his mind—was aware and active. The doctor admits that he previously dismissed such accounts because he was a physicalist. He didn’t believe in the mind, only the brain. But he had to abandon that view when his own experience provided counter-evidence. There was no physical explanation for how he could have had conscious experiences when his brain was shut down.
He says there was no “scientific explanation” for this. That’s not quite true. There’s no physical explanation for his experience. There’s no scientific explanation if you define science by the philosophy of physicalism. There is a scientific explanation when his and other experiences are studied carefully and scientifically. It’s just that the explanation isn’t a physical one.
Gary Habermas and J. P. Moreland co-authored a fascinating book about their careful investigation of near death experiences. Even after discounting many testimonies that can have other explanations, there are many reports, like Dr. Alexander’s, that have no other explanation so they must be taken seriously. What this indicates, as Dr. Alexander concluded from his own experience, is that physical explanations are not exhaustive—that there is a non-physical conscious mind and a non-physical world.
What we can’t conclude from these experiences that appear to be real is that what they heard and learned during these experiences are necessarily true. An experience can be real without the conclusions of the experience being accurate. That happens to us all the time even in this life. We have an experience, but we’re mistaken about what we think about it. It can happen in death, too. After all, once we have evidence for a non-physical world, we have reason to believe from the Bible, which tells us about this world, that there are beings there that deceive us. There are also beings who tell us the truth. But which do people encounter in their near death experiences? It’s hard to tell.
The reports from these experiences vary significantly. They can’t all be true because they present different claims about that reality. That doesn’t mean the experience didn’t happen—remember, these are experiences that have no other explanation. We can conclude there is evidence of an afterlife from these reports, just not what the nature of it is. For that, we have to return to the evidence for religious claims we all have access to in this life. Yes, we’re back to evidence for the reliability of the Bible—or other religions.
And that’s where Dr. Alexander’s experience can’t inform us. While much of what he experienced during that time could be construed to be consistent with Biblical descriptions of Heaven, that doesn’t mean that’s what he saw. What he tells us he learned there isn’t what the Bible tells us. He was told, “You have nothing to fear.... There is nothing you can do wrong.” Now, the doctor’s own explanation of his religious beliefs prior to this don’t make him a Christian, even though he said that’s how he thought of himself. So it wasn’t that He was being reassured of his salvation. He didn’t belief Jesus was the incarnate God who sacrificed Himself for our sins. What he learned during his experience is no more authoritative than his (or anyone’s) religious convictions. Despite the extraordinary nature of near death experiences, we’re right back to evaluating competing religious claims and the evidence for them.
We can learn from valid near death experiences that the non-physical mind is real and that some kind of life apart from this world is real. The physical isn’t all there is. What we can’t learn from any near death experience is what we can learn here and now from the Bible.
Here’s a very interesting talk from Gary Habermas on near death experiences.