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Jun 19, 2020

Science, Religion, and the Challenge of Near-Death Experiences

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Atif Khalil

University of Lethbridge

Atif Khalil is on the faculty of Religious Studies at the University of Lethbridge.

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Science, Religion, and the Challenge of Near-Death Experiences

My first exposure to what is now commonly referred to as a near-death experience (NDE) came many years ago at a conference when a leading Muslim religious authority was asked by an audience member to comment on the phenomenon: Was it real? And if so, what might Islam have to say about it? The scholar, an erudite, thoughtful, and well-read man, went on to describe some of the features associated with the experience but concluded that because death is by definition the point of no return, near-death testimonials are almost certainly hallucinatory in origin and therefore can have no real bearing on Islamic conceptualizations of the posthumous states of the soul and life after death. The answer seemed to satisfy the intellectual curiosities of the questioner, a believing Muslim.

426Px Doorway In Ben Youssef Madrasa

Some years later, I stumbled across an account by an American woman of a gripping NDE that purportedly occurred in the short duration she was clinically dead at a hospital and that completely changed her life. What struck me about her richly detailed testimony was its similarity to what we read about in premodern otherworld journeys of holy men and women—sages, seers, and Sufis—particularly with respect to the topography of the afterlife. It was as if we were dealing with a similar genre of literature, grounded in what seemed to be for all intents and purposes a very similar kind of experience.1 What stood out was the woman’s claim that the key to unlocking the nature of our relationship with the fantastic, mind-boggling world she encountered lay in understanding the power and scope of imagination. But the American woman’s account, and others I would go on to read in subsequent years, also raised some serious questions that could not be easily answered by mainstream science or the prevailing orthodoxies of the major religions. The theological challenges in particular presented by NDEs were significant enough, it appeared, to warrant further inquiry.

[The panoramic life review] involves not only watching one’s entire life played out in all its details in a state of hyper-clarity but also, and perhaps more importantly, directly facing the consequences of all one has done to others.

Researching the Near-Death Experience

The NDE entered our cultural lexicon and gained currency shortly after Raymond Moody published Life After Life in the mid-1970s. The first systematic attempt to describe the phenomenon of seemingly returning from death (or at least its brink), his work quickly became a bestseller.2 While it was not, strictly speaking, an academic work (bestsellers rarely are), it was rigorous enough—based on Moody’s research as a physician—to help open a new area of study, which has grown exponentially since the book first made its appearance. The field he inaugurated, now known simply as near death studies, has over the last few decades spawned hundreds of articles and books by authors ranging from neuroscientists and psychologists to medical doctors and near-death experiencers. Moody himself likely did not imagine how instrumental a role his work would play in charting the terrain of a field of research centering on not only the science of death and the frontiers of mortality but also consciousness, the soul, sentience, the mind-body problem, and the very nature of human selfhood.

Despite the rapid growth of the field, those at its center have struggled to arrive at an acceptable and agreed-upon definition of the NDE—a challenge compounded by the obstacles we face in defining death itself. According to Bruce Greyson, a professor emeritus of psychiatry and neurobehavioral sciences at the University of Virginia, NDEs are “profound psychological events with transcendental and mystical elements, typically occurring to individuals close to death or in situations of intense physical or emotional danger.”3 Since not all NDEs are precipitated by imminent death, or even a fear of it, some experts have introduced the category of the “spiritually transformative experience” (STE) to include NDE-like phenomena not preceded by the prospect of one’s own demise. On the Near Death Experience Research Foundation (NDERF) website, the largest online repository of NDE accounts, the testimonials (which are self-reported and often anonymous) are divided into NDEs, STEs, and “probable NDEs.” The difficulty in producing a precise definition, however, should not prevent us from recognizing some of the remarkable implications NDE research presents us with.

While NDEs may seem rare, a Gallup poll conducted not long after the release of Life After Life found that up to one in twenty Americans claimed to have had one. A more recent study of the German population put the figure at 4.2 percent.4 For those who accept the objective reality of the NDE, an experience that almost always brings with it a renewed sense of belief in a higher power and in the possibility of life after death, the high percentage of NDEs in the West may be seen as a providential gift for a society struggling with existential questions of meaning and purpose. The same line of reasoning was used by Joel Ibrahim Kreps in a detailed article—appropriately entitled “The Search for Muslim Near-Death Experiences”—to account for what appears to be the dearth of NDEs in the Islamic world: Muslims may be among the least in need of such experiences, he argues, because despite the encroachment of Western secular culture and its adverse effects on traditional modes of religious life and thought, faith is still very much alive.5 This argument may explain why in a comparative study of the survivors of two earthquakes—one in China (officially atheist) and the other in Pakistan—forty percent of the Chinese reported NDEs, while only a negligible number did so in Pakistan. The suggestion that Muslims are reluctant to reveal NDEs out of a fear of reprisal from clerical authorities was considered by Kreps but eventually discounted.6  Moreover, the premise, at least for those who propose it, appears to rest on a stereotypical view of Islamic society as entirely straitjacketed by stifling dogma. While this might be true for certain parts of the Muslim world, it would not apply to it as a whole, and especially not to regions where traditional forms of piety are still vibrant and alive and where NDE accounts would easily be subsumed into the broader category of the otherworldly journeys of saints and pious personalities, with which Muslims connected to their own histories are quite familiar. Any reluctance to reveal a positive NDE would then likely stem simply from a concern to safeguard the soul from spiritual pride7—a danger that was well-recognized in medieval Western spirituality—and that those who had such experiences often had to weigh against the benefits others might derive from hearing their testimonials.8 With that said, Muslim NDE accounts are not entirely nonexistent either, and it may just be a matter of time before, despite their relatively few numbers, more are brought into the open for scholarly scrutiny.9

Motifs in Near-Death Experiences

The research to date has found certain recurring elements among Western NDEs. Not everyone has every single one of them. Many have some of them, some have many of them, and a few have all of them. In one extensive survey, carried out by Jeffrey Long,10 these elements include what is known as the out-of-body experience (OBE), in which the near-death experiencer might experience the body being taken off, almost like a garment, and gaze upon it from an aerial vantage point. This might take place on an operating table, where the body is surrounded by doctors and nurses; at the site of a car accident; on the scene of a medical emergency at home; or just about anywhere NDEs occur. The soul, or subtle body, may be able to pass through walls and solid objects and also transport itself from one place to another almost instantaneously, simply by thought. Three quarters of those in Long’s study reported an OBE. The experience is of course not confined to the NDE,11 and—aside from the question of whether or not it is hallucinatory—it is well-known that some adepts of the world’s mystical traditions could induce them at will.

The OBE itself might precede passing through a tunnel, the image of which calls to mind the Dutch Hieronymus Bosch’s famous sixteenth-century painting “The Ascent of the Blessed.” This component of the NDE may begin with discerning a point of light in the distance, toward which the near-death experiencer is pulled by an almost irresistible force, as if drawn by a magnetic power. As the light grows larger, one finds oneself passing through a long vortex, which is usually dark but occasionally multicolored, and narrow and spiraling in shape. The journey might be accompanied by meditative chants, sacred music, prayers, a soothing hum, or serene silence. One might even find others traveling toward the tunnel’s end at a distance. A third of the respondents in Long’s study had this experience.

The NDE may also include an encounter with the light itself, described by some as the “light of God,” which exudes pure love and compassion. Often, this particular element, experienced by almost two-thirds of near-death experiencers in Long’s study, is described as the most riveting and unforgettable part of the journey, with near-death experiencers struggling for years in its aftermath to recapture the euphoric completeness they felt in the light’s presence. One particular near-death experiencer recounted only reexperiencing something similar when she met the shaykh of a Sufi order:

Then I began to see a pinpoint of light in the distance and realized we were traveling very rapidly towards it. As we did so the light became incrementally larger and larger. The color was a very special glowing white, very pure.

As we got very close to the light I saw tens of thousands of beings dressed in white gowns all facing the Light and singing a music I had never heard the likes of before. They were in the service of The Light and apparently ‘singing’ praises to The Light. The Light was filled with the most extraordinary, overwhelming and indescribable feeling of Love.... I have encountered that same feeling only once again, in the presence of a living Sufi Master.12

The Buddhist philosopher Ken Wilber speculated that the fleeting and transient nature of the experience of the light in an NDE is an encounter with the subtle mind, after which, due to the individual’s inability to withstand its presence, he must descend into the lower rungs of the cosmic hierarchy, one by one, in line with Buddhist metaphysics, until he is incarnated again in human form on earth.13 Indeed, many near-death experiencers are so drastically transformed by their experience that they feel as if their reentry into the body itself amounts to a kind of reincarnation. In many cases, near-death experiencers return with radically altered priorities, inspiring them to pursue more meaningful, selfless vocations.

Perhaps the most well-known component of the NDE is the panoramic life review, encountered by more than a fifth of near-death experiencers in Long’s survey. This involves not only watching one’s entire life played out in all its details in a state of hyper-clarity but also, and perhaps more importantly, directly facing the consequences of all one has done to others, on the receiving end, with the only qualification being that both pain and happiness are exponentially magnified. The real intention behind every deed is also revealed so transparently that no room is left for dispute, let alone an appeal before the light’s court. In this respect, the NDE life review reminds one of the Qur’anic verse “He who does an atom’s weight of good shall see it, and he who does an atom’s weight of wrong shall see it” (99:7–8). Observing how the ripple effects of even the most seemingly trivial aspects of his life were amplified in his life review, one near-death experiencer wrote,

You will be responsible for yourself, judging and reliving what you have done to everything and everybody in very far-reaching ways. Very small, seemingly inconsequential things such as the day when I, nine years old, walked through Seneca Park and loved the appearance of a tree. In my life review I could experience a bit of what the tree experienced in my loving it, two little photons of love and adoration. It was somewhat like the leaves acknowledging my presence. Can a tree experience that? Yes it can.14

Howard Strom, a professor at Northern Kentucky University who had a riveting NDE, learned how insignificant his accomplishments were in the eyes of the angels. The highlight of his life was not his degrees or academic achievements but the time he consoled his sister by holding her in his arms after a traumatic episode in her life. Not long after his NDE, he left his position teaching studio art to become a Unitarian minister.15

Yet another component, encountered by more than half of near-death experiencers in Long’s study, is the meeting with deceased friends, relatives, loved ones, religious figures, angelic powers, guardian angels, or the enigmatic “guide” who leads one through the unknown territory of the afterlife and sometimes oversees the life review itself. A South African Muslim father recounted the NDE of his son, a drug addict who tried unsuccessfully to commit suicide, in which he met the family’s deceased Chishti Sufi shaykh, relatives who had died, as well as the Prophet Muĥammad—all of whom instructed him to return (to his life) to care for his child. The father’s conviction in the veridical nature of the son’s experience rested partly on the fact that, to the astonishment of his physicians, he not only made a virtually impossible recovery, eventually reforming his life, but also accurately described family members he had never met before.16 Another near-death experiencer, a Turkish Muslim man identified as Halil on the NDERF website, who passed out from a heart attack, also met deceased relatives following the life review. He related meeting a young man who looked similar to his father:

I asked him who he was. He told me that he was my grandfather. Ever since I had known him, he was in a wheelchair. I was very surprised. He asked me to say "hi" to my grandmother, his wife. Then he asked me if I wanted to meet my deceased father. We walked for about five minutes. In the distance, I saw my father. When we got closer, he welcomed me with open arms. He told me that I had been a good person, but that I needed to make sure my daughter would never lose her religion. My grandfather, father, and myself were walking along a field, and we saw a beautiful Mosque in the distance. As we got closer, I could feel my walking became more and more difficult. It felt as though I gained all this extra weight. They entered, but I could not.

I could feel myself being pulled back. I heard an authoritative voice say, “You shall not enter. You have not finished your life. When you have completed your life and continued to be a good person, you will earn your place here.”

Suddenly, I saw complete darkness. Then I opened my eyes and realized I was in a hospital bed.17

The final part of Halil’s account involved what Long described as confronting a barrier, door, or gate, beyond which one is not allowed to pass (experienced by 31.0 percent), and being instructed or given a choice to return (encountered by 58.5 percent). Other components of the NDE, some of which were present in the case of Halil, include being shown heavenly or otherworldly realms (40.6 and 52.2 percent, respectively),18 feelings of peace (52.5 percent), acquiring a special kind of knowledge (56.0 percent), and experiencing greater consciousness and alertness than one normally does in everyday life (74.4 percent).19 While exploring these in greater detail is beyond the scope of this article, it is useful to take of note of them in order to at least recognize some of the recurring motifs in the literature.

Science, Theology, and Near-Death Experiences

The implications of NDEs, provided one acknowledge their veridical nature, needless to say, are far-reaching. Today, two groups are most resistant to accepting their authenticity. Unsurprisingly, the first comprises those who hold a worldview in which only matter exists and those for whom consciousness is reducible to the brain’s neurochemistry. The vigor of their opposition seems to stem at least in part from holding on to a view of existence that leaves no room for the soul, for life after death, for the survival of consciousness, for a world of spirits, and for an immaterial deity. The dogmatism of such “fundamaterialists”—if we may use a term employed by Huston Smith20—might explain the lengths to which many will go to find alternative explanations for the phenomenon, since to acknowledge its truth would form unrepairable fissures on the foundation of modern materialism. Charles Tart, who has been at the forefront of research into parapsychology, speculates that this resistance may be rooted in a subtle, even subconscious, fear that if the soul survives death, one may be judged for a life that was not very good. The “materialist position,” he speculates, “is marvelously psychologically appealing because it rejects this belief.”21 Whatever the underlying reasons may be for such fierce opposition (and one must be careful not to psychologize away the beliefs of one’s intellectual opponents, since comparable lines of reasoning could be applied to oneself), scientific materialists have to their advantage the support of institutions of higher learning where their own convictions regarding the structure of reality form the official creed.

The second group is made up of, for lack of a better term, religious exclusivists—those for whom truth and salvation are only to be found in their fullness in their own faiths. Particularly challenging for them is that the sacred imagery and topography of the afterlife do not conform to the symbolic repertoire of a single religion—their own—but reflect instead the diverse landscapes of the world’s many wisdom traditions. Typically, near-death experiencers experience symbols drawn from the religions closest to home. A Jew may find himself being judged by rabbinic authorities, a Hindu might be saved by Krishna, a Catholic might find herself in the presence of the Virgin Mary or Christ, and a person of indigenous origin may receive knowledge at the hands of his own ancestors. Black Elk (d. 1950), after passing out in his youth, had an NDE in which he was shown a First Nations mandala, with a circular hoop, the four directions, and the center of the world on an axis stretching from the sky to the earth. This was accompanied by the sight of horses galloping around lightning and thunder. Upon being escorted to a council where he was introduced to six grandfathers seated on clouds, he received a special power from each one of them. “I saw more than I can tell and I understood more than I saw,” he recalled, “for I was seeing in a sacred manner the shapes of all things in the spirit, and the shape of all shapes as they must live together like one being.” Later, when he revealed the NDE to a medicine man, he was helped to ritually reenact the vision, after which he was able to assume the vocation of a shaman and medicine man himself. Black Elk had another NDE many years after the first one, in which he received prophecies about the fate of his people that came to pass.22

Curiously, exclusivists are sometimes pleased with the NDEs of their own coreligionists because they appear to corroborate (or at least come close to corroborating) their own eschatological beliefs. Yet they are troubled by the NDEs of outsiders, particularly because only in the rarest instances are they guided to adopt the exclusivists’ religion. Cross-cultural conversions in the immediate aftermath of NDEs seem, in fact, to be few and far between. When they do occur, it is usually after a period of reflection and soul-searching, during which the near-death experiencer might try to find a religion or spiritual tradition that will allow him or her to embody most fully the teachings drawn from the experience. In these scenarios, conversions are not the direct but the indirect result of the NDE. A perusal through the innumerable NDE accounts available both in print and online makes it clear that NDE testimonials do not identify a single religion that humanity as a whole must follow or would even be better off following. When Howard Strom inquired, “Which religion is best?”, the angels informed him, to his surprise, “The one that brings you closest to God.” The implication was that different religions may do that for different people. Strom himself decided to become a Unitarian minister because he was rescued from demons by Christ. At the same time, the theology he developed after his NDE was deeply universal in character. This naturally presents a problem for exclusivists of any stripe, whose ecumenical sympathies (if any) intended to foster peaceful relations between religions are usually confined to the social and political spheres and do not extend into the domains of theology and eschatology. When the Protestant philosopher William Lane Craig, an intelligent and nuanced voice for the evangelical movement, was asked in an interview about his opinion regarding NDEs, his answer was that they could not be taken at face value because they conflicted with the normative biblical understanding of the afterlife, most notably the physical resurrection, which for Craig could only take place after the second coming of Jesus.23

Some exclusivists may even resort to the argument (common in interreligious polemics) that the visionary experiences of religious outsiders are diabolical, while their own are divine. This view may account for the supernatural components of the NDE that cannot be explained through conventional materialistic models of the mind, but it begs the question of why the NDEs of one community should be accepted while those of another should be rejected. Either they should be accepted across the board or summarily dismissed, if for no other reason than consistency. Certainly the “enhanced intuitive sensitivity” near-death experiencers claim to experience after being brought back from death––enhancement in clairvoyance, telepathy, precognition, and other psychic abilities––cuts across the board and effects everyone, without discrimination.24 Another problem with contesting the NDEs of outsiders is that one has to produce a coherent explanation to account for the profound ethical and spiritual transformations brought about in their aftermath, since near-death experiencers often become more conscientious, selfless, and sympathetic in the wake of their experience, and their doubts about God, the soul, and the afterlife (if they had any) usually disappear.25 In other words, the same experience that may lead to a significant deepening of faith, or at least an understanding of it, for an insider may lead to analogous, though not necessarily identical, developments in an outsider.

When we consider the inability of the prevailing theologies of organized religions in the West to comprehensively explain some of the defining features of the NDE, it is not surprising to find that many near-death experiencers from Europe, North America, and Australia tend to develop an ambivalent attitude toward institutionalized religion. At the same time, their interest, both theoretical and practical, in the content of religion grows. To quote one authority, “If religious affiliation declines, people also report an increase in religiosity, and a greater interest in spirituality, meditation, prayer and surrender.”26 At least some of the research so far has found that while church attendance and the value ascribed to organized religion may diminish among near-death experiencers, prayer, meditation, the quest for spiritual values, and the search for guidance may increase.27 While comparable studies have yet to be undertaken of Muslim near-death experiencers, the limited testimonials available suggest that religion should play an integral role in the near-death experiencers’ lives. Halil from Turkey was informed by his grandfather that he had to return so his “daughter would never lose her religion.” And in a Pakistani physician’s story published in the Urdu magazine Al-Balagh, the message he was given during his NDE included instructions to guard the “rights of God” and see to it that his sustenance remained halal—that is to say, within the bounds of Islamic law.28 In the account of an Iraqi colonel whose NDE took place in 1966, men dressed in white robes inquired, before sending him back, why he continued to neglect his salah (ritual prayers).29

Now, one might be tempted to see in this apparent dichotomy simply a reflection of the differing attitudes toward religion in the Islamic world and the West, and therefore proof that the phenomenon has its point of genesis in our collective cultural perspectives. The “cultural source theory,” incidentally, has also been used in secular scholarship to explain away the transcendental foundations of religion. With respect to NDEs, however, such a line of reasoning ignores aspects of the experience that seem to bolster claims to their objective reality, as extensively documented in the research of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, Kenneth Ring, Diane Powell, Penny Sartori, Charles Tart, and numerous others. It also overlooks the fact that behind the slightly varying attitudes toward the role and function of institutional religion found in NDE testimonials, there are some underlying cross-cultural uniformities, and these may well form an “invisible geometry”––to use another expression of Huston Smith30—that binds together our religious and spiritual history as a species. In other words, when NDEs are comparatively examined, a metaphysical substrate of beliefs emerges that only an extreme reductionism could ignore.31 And at the center of these lies a common set of doctrines that includes the recognition of an unseen world vastly more real than our own, the fleeting nature of our embodiment on earth, the continuity of consciousness after death, the existence of a soul, a final accounting, a just order, the ethical seriousness of our choices, the need for charity and self-transcendence, and beyond it all what one might simply term the “Absolute” or the “One” (whose salient qualities are love, compassion, and mercy).”

Can Religion Accept the Near-Death Experience?

It should be clear by now that, for the modern theologian (of any religious persuasion), the NDE stands as a doubled-edged sword in that it presents both promises and challenges. On the one hand, the central tenets of religion appear to be corroborated through the experience insofar as we are dealing with the metaphysical substrate of religious belief. This can be particularly valuable for those struggling with questions of meaning and purpose in a largely post-religious, secular culture, such as in the West, where faith is often equated with unintelligence and where the Hydra of nihilism lurks behind the corner of theoretical materialism (the dogma of the age)––a danger intuited through an almost prophetic foresight by Nietzsche more than a century ago. On the other hand, no religion’s unique creed is cross-culturally confirmed. In other words, no particular religion is singled out as the one humanity as a whole must follow, at least not if we are to consider the collective testimonies of near-death experiencers. This naturally presents an impasse for religious thinkers, especially those who take the particular truth claims of their own faiths in their normative, mainstream formulations seriously. Wherein lies the solution, if there be one at all?

At risk of simplifying matters, there appear to be two possible responses to the dilemma at hand. One might, drawing on the explanatory model of materialists, reject the NDE altogether as a hallucinatory byproduct of the dying brain. The problem with this line of reasoning, however, is that analogous arguments are usually used to dismiss the experiences of the founders of the religion, and beyond that, to dismiss most encounters with the unseen world (¢ālam al-ghayb). The approach also overlooks the growing body of evidence that suggests NDEs are in some cases verifiable forays into the posthumous states of human consciousness. The other option is to accept their veridicality but within the hermeneutic framework of a religious universalism that can respect and even acknowledge the legitimacy of the experiences of theological others. But, for Muslims at least, is such an approach possible within the constraints of Islam? Expressed differently, does the faith have within itself the conceptual resources for a theology that can integrate and make sense of the other’s NDE on its own terms?

The answer, it would appear, is that it does, but the foundations for such a theology of difference would have to be drawn not so much from conventional classical sources as from the meditations of those philosophers and mystics, ranging from Ibn al-¢Arabī to Mullā Śadrā,  who explored in great detail the nature of symbolism, imagination, and most importantly the mundus imaginalis or imaginal world (¢ālam al-khayāl) alluded to in the introduction.32 This was a world that for them stood as an intermediary or in-between zone (the barzakh), between the ineffable divine essence and our own world of senses. It was a world we would enter into after death. It was a world that some encountered while alive through mystical experience or the veridical dream. And it was a world where truth assumed a variety of forms, in keeping with the receptivity of the soul. The precise formulation of such an Islamic theology of the NDE, at the center of which would have to lie a refined understanding of imagination (khayāl), would have to be articulated in light of a more thorough analysis of current NDE research, as well as the trajectory it takes in the years to come, not to mention a creative reflection over the full range of possibilities offered to us by the primary and secondary sources of the Islamic tradition itself. In fact, such a theology would even hold the promise of being more comprehensive than the relatively unidimensional ones produced by at least some of those working in the field of near death studies, who have no background in the rich history of religion and mysticism, who rely largely on accounts of only the first stages of entry into the afterlife by modern Western near-death experiencers, and who occasionally speak of reality in the same absolutist and dogmatic terms that they criticize religious exclusivists for using.

Despite the relative comprehensiveness with which Ibrahim Kreps dealt with the subject of Muslim NDEs in his own learned essay, he glossed over the deeper religious questions raised by the phenomenon. In some respects, this is not surprising, as there do not seem to be, to date, any serious engagements from within the faith communities of the doctrinal ramifications of NDEs, especially with respect to eschatology. Carol Zaleski wrote more than thirty years ago that “academic circles have not seen much theological debate over the implications of near-death research.”33 While her observations seem just as relevant today as when she first made them, this state of affairs cannot last long, in light of the growing global popularity of NDE testimonials, as well as the promises and challenges they present to the world’s religions.