By Elias Ayala
(M.A.T. & Mdiv)
A Near Death Experience, or hereafter, an NDE, is “an unusual experience taking place on the brink of death and recounted by a person after recovery, typically an out-of-body experience or a vision of a tunnel of light”. There have been multiple recorded cases of such experiences that either share common characteristics, or differ greatly due to the apparent religious nature of the experience. The problematic issue is not in the fact that such experiences can be had, but rather, in the great diversity with which such experiences have been and can be interpreted. Furthermore, the subjective nature of the interpretations are compounded upon the problem that the individual experiences can and often do differ in content thus reflecting completely different worldview perspectives.
How should the Christian understand these unusual experiences? There is nothing in scripture which suggests that such experiences are impossible. Indeed, as believers in scripture we understand that death is not the end of the story. The Christian faith has a robust understanding of the after-life and experiences in which one describes things similar to an “after-life” reality is not necessarily in contradiction to God’s Word. However, concerning the present question, one must use discernment and follow the wisdom laid down for us in scripture: “But test everything; hold fast to what is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21). If our experiences or interpretation of our experiences contradict the Word of God, then we should side with the Word of God. The scriptures provide for us a God’s-eye commentary on all of life’s experiences and thus, God’s interpretation of reality should always take precedent over our experiences.
But, does scripture even remotely address this issue? Perhaps it does provide for us a similar experience. In 2 Corinthians 12:2-4, Paul says that, “I knew a man in Christ who fourteen years ago, whether in the body I do not know, God knows, such a one was caught up to the third heaven. And I know such a man whether in the body or out of the body, I do not know, how he was caught up into Paradise and heard inexpressible words, which it is not lawful to utter”. Here Paul describes possibly that a man had an outer body experience and was translated into the third heaven. Although we are not told that this experience occurred while the man was near-death, it matters not since the possibility of interpreting such an experience as an “outer body” phenomena leaves the question open. Thus, it does not seem that such an experience as an NDE is completely off the table scripturally speaking.
Thus, the real issue lies not in the experience itself, but in the interpretation of the experience. The Word of God must be our standard of interpretation. If the Bible does not allow for a particular interpretation of an experience, then we should bow to the authority of God’s revealed Word. If our interpretation of a particular experience is within the realm of what scripture allows, then we should proceed with caution always remembering that God’s Word is the standard, not the experience in question. Dr. Gary Habermas summarizes the issue rightly when he writes, “…Christians must be careful not to endorse non-biblical interpretations of these experiences or accept them as revealing truth on par with scripture”.
(Multiple Authors) Habermas, Gary. If God Made the Universe, Who Made God. Contributing Article: What Should a Christian Think About Near Death Experiences? (Nashville, Tennessee, 2012), 157.