Maria was dead. The hospital staff worked heroically to save her, but the heart attack was just too severe.
Somehow, though, Maria saw the whole resuscitation process from above. She saw something else, too, as she drifted from the room. A tennis shoe: Third floor of the hospital, on an outside window ledge. Maria would later describe it as a man’s left sneaker, dark blue with a wear mark over the little toe and a shoelace tucked under the heel.
Then, suddenly, Maria was alive. Not only was her recovery miraculous, so was the pinpoint accuracy of her claim, according to the initially-skeptical woman who tracked down the sneaker. “The only way she could have had such a perspective,” marveled the woman, “was if she had been floating right outside and at very close range to the tennis shoe. … It was very concrete evidence for me.”1
It might be “very concrete evidence” for the skeptics around you as well. Stories like these, and there are literally hundreds,2 cogently imply that consciousness survives death—that there is a supernatural realm and an afterlife.
The top U.K. medical journal, The Lancet, vetted and published an equally-flummoxing account.3 A patient in cardiac arrest was brought into a Dutch hospital, unresponsive and not breathing. The medical staff removed his dentures to insert a ventilation tube, storing the teeth in the drawer of a nearby crash-cart. Days later, when the patient regained consciousness, he was told that his dentures were lost in the chaos of the moment, but the patient knew precisely where they were, even identifying the nurse who put them in the cart. The nurse reported being “amazed because I remembered this happening while the man was in deep coma and in the process of CPR. … He was also able to describe correctly and in detail the small room in which he had been resuscitated, as well as the appearance of those present.”4
Welcome to the new apologetics. Evidential cases of “near-death experiences” (NDEs)—that is, cases where there is confirmed, corroborated evidence of a near-death person inexplicably knowing unknowable facts—offer another way in to the contentious conversation about the afterlife.
For some audiences, it will be a better way in to the topic. That’s because these kinds of NDEs shift the debate about the supernatural onto the data-driven ground of rationality and reason. In other words, equipped with evidential NDE stories, Christians can step to the naturalist’s side of the debate, addressing the big, metaphysical questions on empirical terms, not just “religious” terms.5 So like Paul at Mars Hill (Acts 17), engaging the Greeks from within their worldview, NDE data empowers followers of Jesus to evangelize from within the scientific worldview of their audience. That at least keeps people listening, a prerequisite for persuasion.
It may also earn us the right to be heard on the striking “testimonial” NDE evidence—people blind-since-birth claiming to see for the first time during their NDE; children claiming to meet miscarried siblings and great-grandparents they never heard about; recurrent testimonies about encountering God and Jesus, and the inexpressible love flowing out of them. One person could only characterize the experience this way: “If you took the one thousand best things in your life and multiplied by a million, maybe you could get close to this feeling.’”6
Again, that all falls into the category of eyewitness testimony, rather than verifiable facts like the tennis shoe and the dentures. And even though some of these stories have been recanted,7 the cumulative weight of so many similar testimonies, and the profoundly changed lives that result, can be impressive evidence to any open-minded skeptic.
The proposed apologetic strategy, you see, is to combine NDE cases of confirmed facts with subjective testimonies from credible witnesses. Then maybe point your friend toward some books, to see for themselves (I’ve listed a few of the more readable ones below).
Here’s one more evidential case, arguably the most provocative. A woman was pronounced dead-on-arrival at the hospital, but the medical team restored her heartbeat. She later awoke from her coma claiming to have floated over her body while the staff revived her. Nurse Norma Bowe had heard it many times before, dismissing such stories as dreams, brain malfunctions, or drug reactions.
This patient, though, had a habit of memorizing numbers because of her obsessive-compulsive disorder, and she told Norma the 12-digit serial number she saw atop the respirator during her out-of-body experience. Norma indulged her, writing it down.
The machine was seven feet high, so it required a maintenance guy and a ladder to check it out. Yes, there was a number up there, he said. Can you read it off to us? Sure, 12 digits—the exact number the patient had given to Norma.8
For everyday evangelists, that’s not a bad closing argument to open more doors. Seriously, is there any hypothesis that explains such things better than “life after life”?
Some popular NDE resources:
- Eben Alexander, Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife, Simon & Schuster, 2012.
- John Burke, Imagine Heaven, Baker Books, 2015.
- Todd Burpo, Heaven is for Real, Thomas Nelson, 2010.
- Jeffrey Long, Evidence of the Afterlife, HarperOne, 2010.
- John C. Hagan, editor. The Science of Near-Death Experiences, University of Missouri Press, 2017.
- Kimberly Clark Sharp. “Clinical Interventions with Near-Death Experiences,” in Bruce Greyson and Charles Flynn, eds. The Near Death Experience: Problems, Prospects, and Perspectives (Springfield, IL: C.C Thomas Publishers, 1984): 242-255.
- See, for example, Gary R. Habermas, “Evidential Near-Death Experiences,” in Jonathan J. Loose, J.L. Meluge, and J.P. Moreland (eds.), The Blackwell Companion to Substance Dualism. (Hoboken NJ: Wiley, 2018): 226-246.
- Pim van Lommel, van Wees, R., Meyers, V., Elfferich, I. “Near-Death Experience in Survivors of Cardiac Arrest: A Prospective Study in the Netherlands.” The Lancet 15 (December 1, 2001): 2039-2045.
- Ibid., 2041.
- In fact, this strategy may be more important than ever, if a recent Gallup poll is to be believed. To the question “Do you believe in God?” only 81 percent of Gallup’s U.S. sample said “yes.” That’s down from 87 percent just five years ago, 92 percent ten years ago, and 98 percent in the 1960s. Jeffrey M. Jones. “Belief in God in U.S. Dips to 81%, a New Low,” (Washington DC: Gallup, June 17, 2022), https://news.gallup.com/poll/393737/belief-god-dips-new-low.aspx
- Janice Miner Holden, Bruce Greyson, and Debbie James (eds.). The Handbook of Near Death Experiences: Thirty Years of Investigation (Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger Publishers, 2009), vii.
- For example, there is the high-profile case of Alex Malarkey. See Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra, “The ‘Boy Who Came Back from Heaven’ Retracts Story,” Christianity Today January 15, 2015, www.christianitytoday.com/news/2015/january/boy-who-came-back-from-heaven-retraction.html
- Norma Bowe, now a professor at Kean University, has recounted this story many times, including to Erika Hayasaki for her book, The Death Class: A True Story about Life (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014), 11-12.
There is an unmentioned possibility, the occult. There are intelligent spiritual forces out there which interact with our brains. Separating my thoughts from those of other forces, whether the Holy Spirit or Satanic forces is hard to do, hence the term “familiar spirit.” So, what if spiritual forces communicated that detailed information to the individuals described, in such a personal way they couldn’t distinguish between their own experience and a vision (as in a vivid dream)? That way, they didn’t float around at all, but had an accurate (supernatural) vision giving them information they could not possibly have accessed in a normal way. If so, the evidence points to the reality of the supernatural, but not necessarily to what happens to you after you die.
I suggest this in the light of Eben Alexander’s book. Jesus is nowhere to be seen in his experience of “heaven.” As a Bible-believing evangelical, I have a huge problem with that. Positively, of course, we have an excellent idea of what we as believers may expect when we look at the biblical record of the resurrected Lord.
While it’s polite to stick with the positive, I was struck by John Burke’s recounting of bad NDE stories as well!
Thank you for this essay! I feel comforted by the possibility of connecting with loved ones (with consciousness) somehow across what seems a solid barrier between life and death. It evokes eternity, the ever-livingness of our Creator and our longing and incomplete knowledge of what eternity may be, from our vantage point in this dimension of time and space. This discussion connects with resurrection theology — what, really, is death and what, really, is life. And of course it sparks humility, our great longings explored with our limited human capacities.