Skip to main content

If the thousands of global reports of “near-death experiences” (NDEs) are to be believed, they support much in Christian theology, including consciousness surviving physical death and the existence of a supernatural realm, a supreme being of unfathomable love, an intercessor named Jesus, and an afterlife with both glorious and ghastly destinations. Conversely, many NDE reports stand in tension with Christian theology on the issues of who is invited into heaven and whether a postmortem “second chance” may be available. After reviewing a half-century of evidence for NDEs as objective reality, this article discusses the myriad theological implications. It concludes that the current, prima facie case for NDEs can be a penetrating apologetic, offering a data-driven argument for the supernatural. At the same time, these accounts, if credible, raise questions about whether the Christian doctrine of salvation should be broadened. Michael Zigarelli is professor of leadership and strategy at Messiah University.

Reports of near-death experiences (NDEs)—“events that take place as a person is dying or, indeed, already clinically dead”1 —transcend generations, cultures, and worldviews. Studied mostly in western countries, but increasingly examined around the globe,2 the typical experience involves an out-of-body journey, seeing one’s body from above, traveling through a tunnel to a place of indescribable beauty, encountering spiritual beings and deceased loved ones, and most profoundly, communicating with an ineffable, supreme being of light and unconditional love, with an ultimate return to one’s earthly body. Not surprisingly, for those claiming to have had such an experience, it is almost always transformational. Illustrative is 28-year-old Janice, who effervesced after a blissful NDE: “I was always a professed atheist, but after my experience I know there is a God. He was waiting for me at the end of the tunnel……. I felt a peace and tranquility I had never known. I find it very reassuring now because I know our spirit does outlive our body.”3

Janice represents multitudes across borders and belief systems who proffer similar accounts. Their NDEs are not always positive, but they are always epiphanic. For skeptics, though, these stories “rank right up there with alien abductions, psychic powers, and poltergeists as fodder for charlatans looking to gull the ignorant and suggestible.”4 Subjective tales at best, and possibly fraudulent for material gain, the doubt is only amplified by high-profile hoaxes like the 2010 book, The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven,5 a canard later retracted in its entirety.

There is, however, far more at stake for Christians, as well as for naturalists6 —strange bedfellows in their rejoinder—when responding to NDE reports. Beyond mere eye rolls and snickers, their reactions tend to be ardent, even fierce, as fundamental elements of their worldviews are implicated, potentially threatened, by NDE details.7

Janice’s comment, for example, would prompt indignation from each group, albeit for different reasons. By contrast, the purpose of this article is to take a dispassionate look at the prima facie evidence for NDEs as reality, and then to juxtapose those findings with Christian theology, identifying the congruence and incongruence. Its posture throughout is akin to a detective rather than to a prosecutor or defense attorney; that is, the intention is simply to investigate, piecing together evidence to see where it leads. In the end, “where it leads” will be the purview of the jury of readers.8

Near-Death Experiences: Evidence of Eternity?

Raymond Moody, a polymath with PhDs in philosophy and psychology, as well as an MD, coined the term “near-death experience” in the field’s inaugural study, also addressing this predictable objection: “The question naturally arises whether any evidence of the reality of near-death experiences might be acquired independently of the descriptions of the experiences themselves.”9 For NDE researchers, the answer then was the same as it is now, a half-century later: “In quite a few instances,” reported Moody, “the somewhat surprising answer to this question is ‘yes.’”10 But is there really a case to be made, beyond subjective testimony, that NDEs offer evidence of life after death? This section will summarize that case, examining the prevalence and pattern of NDEs, the best known “corroborated” reports, the NDEs where the blind allegedly see, and the life changes that often follow an NDE. Throughout, the goal will be to present the evidence, rather than to cross-examine it.

The Prevalence and Pattern of NDE Reports

In the 1980s, the Gallup organization estimated that in the United States, “8 million people have had near-death episodes.”11 More recently, Pim van Lommel, from the department of cardiology at rijnstate Hospital in Holland, reported an upsurge in that statistic, along with a rationale: “Near-death experiences occur with increasing frequency because of the improved survival rates resulting from modern techniques of resuscitation. . . . According to a recent random poll in the United States and Germany, about four percent of the total population in the western world have experienced an NDE      (that is,) about nine million people in the United States . . . and about 20 million people in Europe.”12

Whatever the exact number, then or now, NDEs seem to be common occurrences, however uncommon they are in content. Moreover, after thousands of documented and published reports, a core set of elements has emerged as the typical NDE, at least the blissful ones. radiation oncologist Jeffrey Long explains, in what he represents as “the largest scientific NDE study ever reported,”13 a review of 1,300 cases. He writes that although “no two near-death experiences are identical . . . when many near-death experiences are studied, a pattern of elements that commonly occurs in NDEs is easily seen,” usually appearing “in a consistent order.” 14 Based on Long’s dataset, here is that order, along with the percentage of respondents reporting each element:15

1.An out-of-body experience; that is, separation of consciousness from the physical body (75%)
2.Heightened senses, such that everything feels more clear and more real than ever (74%)
3.Intense and generally positive emotions, especially peace, joy, and uncon- ditional love (76%)
4.Passing into or through a tunnel (34%)
5.Encountering a mystical or brilliant light, brighter than the sun but not painful (65%)
6.Encountering other beings—mystical beings and/or deceased relatives and friends (57%)
7.A sense of alteration of time and space, completely different from that on earth (61%)
8.A “life review” of every moment, often focusing on the feelings of others (22%)
9.Encountering another, unearthly world (52%)
10.Gaining special knowledge, as if you knew everything (56%)
11.Encountering a boundary, a point of no return (31%)
12.A return to the body, either voluntary or involuntary (59%)

Further, the pattern appears to be consistent in studies of children16 and, as detailed below, even the blind have reported many of these same elements from their NDEs. Indeed, claims Long in a later study, some of these elements may be universal, similar “regardless of the experiencers’ age, cultural beliefs, education, or geographical location.”17

Sociologist Allan Kellehear fleshed out this latter point in his census of 275 NDEs from non-western cultures, finding significant similarities to western NDE reports, among them the sense of traveling to another world, meeting beings in that other world, a life review, and perceiving an out-of-body experience.18 Building on that work, research by ethnohistorian Gregory Shushan examined Native American, Oceanian, and African traditions, ultimately supporting Kelle-hear’s finding of overlap between western and non-western NDEs, and concluding that NDEs “originate in phenomena that are independent of culture.”19

The point, then, is that there does appear to be some universality to the experiences, across demographics and across time. In fact, this pattern has been relatively stable since Moody first described it in his seminal NDE study of 150 cases in 1975.20 From an evidential standpoint, it seems implausible that researchers would discover such convergence in NDEs if those experiences were purely subjective, like dreams or hallucinations. The more commonality uncovered across NDEs, the stronger the evidence that they represent real events.

It is also germane to note, given the context of this article, that NDEs often include meeting Jesus. Bruce Greyson and Janice Miner Holden, among the most published researchers in the field, report, respectively, that one-third of NDE interviewees who recall meeting a divine being testify that it was Jesus, but that Jesus’ physical characteristics vary from account to account. More specifically, the variance includes “different clothing,” height ranging from about six-feet to “tall as a ceiling,” skin color from “quite dark” to “suntan,” eye color from “dark brown” to “piercing blue,” and voice from “telepathic” to “musical” to “like thunder . . . almost deafening.” Holden concludes this analysis with a reminder that “the presence of perceptual variation does not preclude the possibility that at least some perceptions in NDEs might be veridical.”21

Corroborated NDE Reports

The cumulative weight of thousands of accounts, combined with the uncanny similarities across those accounts, is suggestive evidence of NDEs as objective reality, but in no way is it conclusive. Neither are the recent, scientifically-designed NDE experiments conclusive.22 But inching closer to that standard are the myriad NDEs reports whose factual claims have been corroborated by others.

More formally, the term for such phenomena is “veridical NDE perception,” which “refers to any perception—visual, auditory, kinesthetic, olfactory, and so on—that a person reports having experienced during one’s NDE and that is later corroborated as having corresponded to material consensus reality.”23 This includes events like seeing what is near one’s body while one is in cardiac arrest; seeing what is happening away from one’s body, for example in other rooms in a hospital or even miles away; encountering a deceased relative whom one presumed was still alive but who had actually died near the time of the NDE; or any other corroborated perception that “could not have been perceived through normal sensory means or deduced from logical inference.”24 In plainer English, it is perceiving something that should be impossible to perceive because of the position or condition of one’s physical body at the time. The implication, accordingly, is “the ability of consciousness to function independent of the physical body.”25 Examples abound. Among the most widely reported are the following.

Accurate Reports about Events Near the Body    Consider this account published in the highly-regarded UK medical journal, The Lancet.26 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 and put the dentures in the drawer of a nearby crash-cart. After resuscitation, the staff moved the patient to another room. Days later, when he regained consciousness, he was told that his dentures were lost in the chaos of the moment. But the patient knew exactly where they were, even identifying the nurse who put them in the cart. The account went on to quote the nurse as saying: “I was especially amazed because I remembered this happening while the man was in a deep coma and in the process of CPr. When I asked further, it appeared the man had seen himself lying in bed, that he had perceived from above how nurses and doctors had been busy with 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.”27

In another flummoxing account, 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 Bowe that she saw a 12-digit serial number atop the respirator during her out-of-body experience. Bowe indulged her, writing it down. The machine was seven feet high, so it required a maintenance man and a ladder to check it out. Indeed, there was a number up there—the exact 12-digit number the patient had given to the nurse.28

Beyond these accounts, the NDE report “widely-recognized as containing . . . the most detailed and objectively corroborated content”29 involved a 35-year-old woman named Pam Reynolds. In 1991, Reynolds’ body temperature was cooled to 60 degrees for aneurysm surgery in her brain. This induced cardiac arrest, stopped her breathing, and flattened her brainwaves, a total shut- down of the brain. To doubly-ensure that there was no brain activity during surgery, the medical team taped devices in her ears (like modern earbuds) to emit a 95-decibel clicking at 11-clicks per second, allowing them to monitor continuously for any brain activity. They observed none, of course, at a body temperature of 60 degrees.

Reynolds’ vivid account of her NDE included accurate details about the use and appearance of a cranial saw used in her operation—she described it accurately as looking like “an electric toothbrush”—and the presence of a small toolbox with bits for the saw, none of which were visible before the operation began. She also reported seeing an unexpected (to Reynolds) procedure in her groin area during what was to be brain surgery, as well as hearing a conversation where a woman said that the arteries on the right side of her groin were too small and a man responded to try the left side, none of which would be audible to Reynolds with the incessant clicking in her ears, even if she were not incapacitated. Moreover, Reynolds also recalled that the medical team gave her two defibrillator shocks, which was accurate, even though there is no standard for how many shocks are required for restarting a heart.

In the many interviews that followed, Reynolds and the medical personnel in the room explained that Reynolds had received only a general description of the operation, without reference to the tools involved. Moreover, this predated the widespread public use of the Internet, so there is no evidence that Reynolds would have had foreknowledge of the procedures or equipment before describing her NDE.30

Such stories of veridical NDE perception, and there are dozens in print,31 resemble Moody’s early findings. Health professionals have been “utterly baffled,” wrote Moody, by similar, inexplicable phenomena in their operating rooms—“how patients with no medical knowledge could describe in such detail and so correctly the procedure used in resuscitation attempts.”32 And the “baffling” stories from hospitals continue to mount. One surgery patient somehow knew that there was a penny atop one of the cabinets in the operating room. Another correctly claimed there was a “1985 quarter” atop an eight-foot-high cardiac monitor. Still another knew that one nurse who had resuscitated her was wearing plaid shoelaces during the emergency, shoelaces that the nurse had never worn before that day.33 NDE researchers accord considerable weight to these alleged visions “from above” when evaluating an event’s authenticity.

Accurate Reports about Events Away from the Body      The cases of the dentures, the 12-digit number, and Pam reynolds, among similar others, imply that con- sciousness survives clinical death. Skeptics, though, object that NDE reports of events in the room may have been tainted by residual sense perception, despite one’s seeming incapacity. Harder to explain are accurate NDE testimonies of events away from the incapacitated person’s body; that is, veridical perception at a distance. Here are two examples from this species of NDEs.

Social worker Kimberly Clark Sharp tells of a migrant worker named Maria who had a severe heart attack while visiting friends in Seattle. After resuscitation in the hospital, Maria told Sharp, who was involved in Maria’s care, about her NDE that included details of the resuscitation process. Even more perplexing, Maria also described a tennis shoe she saw on a third story window ledge of the hospital as her consciousness floated upward. It was a man’s left sneaker, Maria said, dark blue with a wear mark over the little toe region, and a shoelace tucked under the heel. Incredulous but curious, Sharp proceeded to the third floor and eventually found the shoe, exactly as Maria described it.34 In Sharp’s words: “The only way she could have had such a perspective was if she had been floating right outside and at very close range to the tennis shoe. I retrieved the shoe and brought it back to Maria; it was very concrete evidence.”35

Maria’s story, given its jaw-dropping implications, has been republished often, including by philosopher and apologist Gary Habermas in Christian Scholar’s Review.36 Habermas, who is no stranger to crafting evidential cases,37 supplemented that 1996 article with further accounts of veridical NDE perception at a distance which seemingly have never been discredited. In one instance, a patient in Hartford (Connecticut) Hospital claimed to have floated above the hospital during her resuscitation and saw a red shoe on the roof. When a skeptical employee later went to check the roof, he indeed found the red shoe, just as the patient had described.38 Habermas continued to collect similar accounts throughout his career, claiming by 2018 to have found “more than 100 evidenced NDEs reported at a distance away from the experiencer.”39

Accurate Reports about Deceased Persons  Supplementing the evidential case for NDEs are the reports of meeting the deceased during the experience: friends, relatives, strangers, there are even many reports of meeting deceased pets.40 The largest NDE study to date estimates that more than 50 percent of such experiences include seeing or meeting other beings, including those who had passed away.41 Of course, any claim of meeting people known to be deceased might be dismissed as wishful thinking based on foreknowledge. However, statements about meeting someone not known to be deceased at the time of the NDE offer more intriguing evidence. I will again pick out some of the better-known cases.42

Jack Bybee was hospitalized with severe pneumonia in South Africa. Among the nurses attending to him was 21-year-old Anita. In Bybee’s NDE, he claims to have met Anita who told him that he “must return,” but also to tell her parents she was sorry she had wrecked the red MGB and that she loved them. As Bybee recovered, he told another nurse about his NDE. To his surprise, the nurse burst into tears and ran out of the room. Unbeknownst to Bybee, Anita had recently been gifted a red MGB sports car by her parents and on her inaugural drive crashed into a concrete pole and died.43

Neurosurgeon Eben Alexander reported his own especially bizarre NDE, after a seven-day coma. Alexander recalled riding on the wing of a butterfly over the countryside with a woman—a “guardian angel” who spoke to him telepathically, assuring him that he was loved, that he had nothing to fear, and that he could do no wrong, but also that he had to go back. After his recovery, Alexander, who had been adopted as a young child, reconnected with his birth family and received a picture of his sister, whom he had never met or seen and who had died years earlier. Stunned, Alexander recognized her as the “guardian angel” from his NDE. Moreover, as a Duke-trained brain surgeon with appointments at Harvard Medical School, Brigham & Women’s Hospital and other top facilities, Alexander was further able to examine his charts and conclude there was no plausible way known to science that his brain could have functioned to produce these images during his coma.44

Undoubtedly, such stories, absorbing as they are, may engender suspicion because they can bring with them media attention and book deals. However, complementing reports like those from Jack Bybee and Eben Alexander are similar reports from children, people who are unlikely to fabricate this kind of tale for material gain and who, in most cases, have never even heard of NDEs. Add to that the striking specifics of some children’s NDE stories and their credibility increases still more.45 For example, returning to the work of Netherlands cardiologist Pim van Lommel, a five-year-old patient contracted meningitis, fell into a coma, and had an NDE in which a little girl hugged her and said: “I’m your sister. I died a month after I was born. I was named after our grandmother. Our parents called me Rietje for short . . . (but) you must go now.” After being revived and recounting the story of the angel sister, the patient’s parents were so shocked that they left the hospital room to compose themselves. Indeed, they had lost a daughter named Rietje to poisoning a year before the patient was born, but decided not to tell their children until they were old enough to understand.46

NDE Reports of the Blind Seeing, Some for the First Time

Supplementing the enigmatic evidence of veridical NDE perception, there is also this to consider: What if a person blind-from-birth reported “seeing” actual events during an NDE? After learning of such reports, Kenneth ring, professor of psychology at the University of Connecticut, along with Sharon Cooper, un- dertook their own study, consisting of 31 subjects who were blind when they had an NDE. Fourteen were blind-from-birth.47

The researchers discovered several commonalities across the experiences of their interviewees: a feeling of peace, well-being or being loved (95%), a separation from the physical body (67%), meeting others during the experience (57%), seeing their own physical body (48%), being told to return or being given a choice (48%), going through a tunnel or dark space (38%), seeing a radiant light (38%), and a life review (19%).48 Juxtaposing these findings with the published NDEs of sighted individuals, ring and Cooper conclude:

There is no question that NDEs in the blind do occur and furthermore, that they take the same general form and are comprised of the very same elements that define the NDEs of sighted individuals. . . . Overall, 80% of our respondents reported (visual impressions), most of them in the language of unhesitating declaration. . . . Like sighted experiencers, our blind respondents described to us both perceptions of this world and other-worldly scenes, often in fulsome, fine-grained detail.49

Additionally, ring and Cooper present what they characterize as “inexplicable data” from interviews with two blind-from-birth subjects, ages 8 and 22, who provided strikingly-specific testimony of seeing, for the first time, people, places, and events during their NDE. In one instance, a boy had an NDE when his heart stopped for four minutes because of pneumonia. During this time, the boy claimed to have seen his blind roommate seek assistance for him, a fact later confirmed. The boy also gave a detailed description of the recent snow, the plowed streets, and a streetcar he saw as his body allegedly floated above the building. In the other instance, a young woman, after being involved in a car accident, saw and was able to describe accurately the physical appearance of two friends from childhood who were also blind and had since died.

The researchers’ conclusion: “There seems to be little doubt that (the subjects) had a clear, detailed, almost preternatural visual encounter.”50 That said, no case exists in ring’s dataset, nor in any other to date, with the depth of corroboration described in the cases earlier. Consequently, this line of research offers, at present, what might be categorized as preliminary evidence that the blind see during NDEs, even if they have never seen before.

Changed Lives after an NDE

The case for NDEs as reality further includes the “profound and long-lasting aftereffects” of the experience.51 Of course, changed lives in the wake of an NDE are not evidence that anything real actually happened in the event, but the encounters are apparently real enough that they transform the way some people think and live.

How so? For one thing, they no longer fear death. “Almost without exception, people who have had near-death experiences hold a firm belief that some part of them will live on after death,” practically eliminating their former anxiety about the end of life.52 For another, they no longer fear life, “letting go of having to be in control all the time, taking more risks, and enjoying life to the fullest.”53 Many even believe to have unlocked the meaning of life: Among our highest purposes, they claim, are to nurture our relationships, to express our love, and to engage in altruistic behavior.54 Also tellingly, one professor of psychiatry at the University of Virginia School of Medicine reports, after reviewing the literature, that those who had attempted suicide become significantly less suicidal after an NDE, as compared with those who attempted suicide but did not have an NDE.55

As one might expect, there is sometimes a manifest, even radical, change in their worldview. Crystal McVea claims to have broken “all ten” of the Ten Commandments and to have spent her life “disbelieving in God’s existence and his love for me.” Then, at age 33, her heart stopped for nine minutes from complications with pancreatitis. During that time she remembers being escorted to another realm by two angels overflowing with love for her. McVea also claims to have met God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit on that journey—one being of radiant light and unconditional love, creating in her “a profound and persistent desire to praise and worship him.” Instead of asking God why he let such bad things happen to her, as she always planned to ask in this moment, she instead fell to her knees and asked: “Why didn’t I do more for you?” After that experience, McVea became a devout believer, an author, and a public speaker.56

Other transformation stories begin with distressing rather than blissful NDEs. After overdosing on cocaine, Paul Ojeda recalls that he saw no light, only a black tunnel into which he was falling deeper and deeper. Believing he was dead and on the way to hell, Ojeda remembers thinking: “I’m a good person, I shouldn’t be going here.” Ojeda had long been distant from God, but when he realized the hopelessness of his situation, he says he cried out: “Please Lord, I don’t want to go to this place. Please save me!” He claims to have seen no face or figure after his plea, but had an unmistakable sense of God beside him asking Ojeda: “What have you done with the life I’ve given you?” God then replayed Ojeda’s entire life for him, from which Ojeda saw he had done nothing meaningful with his 30 years. After waking up in the hospital, he vowed to “find the God that pulled me out of hell.” Ojeda now leads a church that serves the Hispanic community in Austin, Texas.57

Something similar happened to Howard Storm, an art professor and an atheist. In his NDE, he was greeted by some friendly, non-descript figures who led him down an increasingly dark corridor. When it became pitch black, the figures turned on Howard, biting him, tearing at his skin, leaving him in level-10 pain from head to toe. He claims to have then heard a voice saying, “Pray to God.” Storm thought, “I don’t believe in God,” but he would try anything to end the torture. The best he could come up with was: “Yea though I walk in the valley of the shadow of death, for purple mountain majesties, mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord, one nation under God, God bless America.”

Storm says that the creatures became profane and retreated from his patch- work prayer, at which point he cried out in desperation “Jesus save me!” Then, Storm claims, Jesus did just that, entering as light into that darkness, picking up Storm, hugging him and healing his wounds, then taking him rapidly upward. The joy and love Storm felt were so indescribable that after the experience, he too relinquished his former life to become a pastor.58

The many similar stories do not all culminate in the person converting to Christianity or even to becoming “religious” in any way. And importantly, these stories also remain uncorroborated; by their very nature they are testimonial evidence that cannot be verified externally. The point, however, is that some NDEs have been sufficiently authentic and intense to prompt Damascus-road-like changes in worldview, augmenting the developing case that NDEs may indeed be evidence of a realm beyond our own.59

The Emerging Implications for Christian Theology

At the very least, the NDE evidence for an afterlife appears too abundant and too peculiar to ignore. Notwithstanding, “academic theologians have generally shunned the issue, with few exceptions,”60 a shunning that seemingly continues as implied in a recent book review by Benjamin DeVan in Christian Scholar’s Review. Specifically, DeVan observes that the Zondervan book Four Views on Heaven “declines to evaluate near death, out of body, dream, or visionary experiences. Yet, those experiences would seem to add important data to the conversation.”61 Such disinterest has long been the posture of Christian academics, “with few exceptions,”62 toward NDE reports.

To partially address that gap in the literature, I turn next to the potential theological implications of the NDE evidence, examining where the data match the dogma and where they do not. First, though, I should be clear that definitionally, I will follow theologian roger Olson’s baseline framing of traditional Christianity (who himself followed what C. S. Lewis called “mere Christianity”) as those areas where there has been “broad doctrinal consensus” that unites most Christians across all major branches of the faith. That is, continues Olson, “what all Christians of all churchly persuasions believed doctrinally for about a millennium and a half,” beliefs that are still held by “at least conservative Christians of all denominational persuasions.”63 As we will see, the NDE evidence parallels some aspects of Christian theology, as so defined, but not all.

NDE Congruence with Christian Theology

The totality of NDE evidence supports several tenets of traditional Christian theology. First and most fundamentally, it implies that a supernatural realm exists. The number of NDE reports and their overlapping narratives comport with the biblical presupposition that there is indeed a realm beyond nature. Additionally, one is hard-pressed to explain the many corroborated accounts in exclusively naturalistic terms. As Habermas aptly summarizes the data, “The naturalist position does not do well when attempting to refute the hundreds of NDE evidential cases. Hence, the naturalist view is by far the weaker explanation here; it is not even close.”64

Second, and relatedly, the NDE evidence implies that a supreme being exists whose essence is love and light. Testimony after testimony describes near-death individuals meeting a divine being of light before whom they experienced nothing but unconditional love and acceptance. This is, in fact, among the most consistent elements of western NDEs from the earliest studies through the present day.65 Such stories from Christians and non-Christians alike correlate closely with New Testament descriptions that “God is love” (e.g., 1 John 4:8) and “God is light” (e.g., 1 John 1:5), as well as similar imagery in the Old Testament (e.g., 1 Chronicles 16:34; Psalm 27:1, 86:15; Isaiah 60:1; Micah 7:8).

Third, NDE evidence implies that an afterlife exists for human beings. There is abundant data, especially from corroborated NDEs, that people outlive their natural bodies—that consciousness survives the physical death and then segues elsewhere—as anticipated by Christian doctrine. Also congruent, copious and sometimes chilling NDE testimony suggests that the afterlife entails both heavenly and hellish trajectories, the former being indescribably beautiful and blissful, the latter being distressing and uncomfortable, possibly painful.66 Digging deeper, the reports of blissful NDEs also align well with the Christian understanding that in the afterlife, people are free from pain, sadness, and anxiety, as depicted in teachings like Revelation 21:4: “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain.” And elevating that hope, NDE testimony points to an afterlife where people are reunited with friends and loved ones, a likelihood implied in both the New Testament (e.g., Matthew 26:29: “I tell you, I will not drink from this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom”) and in the many places where the Old Testament says a deceased person was “gathered to his people” (e.g., Genesis 25:8, 35:29, 49:33; Numbers 20:24, 27:13).

Fourth, NDE testimony implies the existence of Jesus as a supernatural being. Legions of people who have had NDEs, regardless of whether they believed in Jesus before their experience, report meeting Jesus as their ambassador to the supernatural realm, estimated at about one-third of those NDEs that included a divine being, according to Greyson’s research as noted above. Given the nature of these alleged encounters, no corroboration of such testimony exists; nevertheless, the voluminous testimony in these western studies does resonate with traditional Christian theology of Jesus as real, resurrected, and divine. At the same time, although still a bit inchoate, the research on non- western NDEs is less likely to report subjects meeting a being that they called “Jesus.”

Fifth, there is accumulating evidence from many who recall a “life review” during their NDE, testifying that the chief focus of the review was their care for others, as interpreted from others’ vantage point. For example, based on 88 NDEs that included life reviews, Long found that “NDErs typically describe their life review from a third-person perspective . . . (including an) awareness of what others were thinking and feeling . . . when they interacted with them.”67 This at least loosely parallels biblical assertions that a primary purpose of life is to love one another (John 13:34-35; 1 Corinthians 13:13; 1 Peter 4:8) and even to lay down one’s life for another (e.g., 1 John 3:16).

Collectively, then, there appears to be considerable congruence between the prevailing storylines of NDEs and some major tenets of the Christian faith, a finding that should be of great apologetic import if the corroborated evidence continues to move toward “beyond a reasonable doubt.” However, there also happens to be some noteworthy incongruence.

NDE Incongruence with Christian Theology

Who is Invited into Heaven?   As described poignantly and often by Christian philosopher Dallas Willard, humans are “unceasing spiritual beings with an eternal destiny in God’s great universe,”68 a soul existing within a natural body, but receiving an imperishable, spiritual body after death.69 And although Christian traditions have long jousted over the criteria for who goes where in the afterlife, they are unanimous on this much: One is saved by grace through faith in Jesus—that is, “saved” from an eternity apart from God by Jesus Christ, the resurrected Son of God.

An example of this convergence is the 1994 statement entitled “Evangelicals and Catholics Together,” signed and endorsed by a veritable who’s-who of Protestant and Catholic scholars at the time.70 Among the many joint affirmations in the document is this declaration about salvation: “We affirm together that we are justified by grace through faith because of Christ.” Setting aside other qualifiers, this framing of salvation is one on which Protestants and Catholics agree. In the same way, the Orthodox Church tradition generally aligns with this soteriology.71

It is here that NDE research and traditional Christian theology may stand in some tension: The research proffers no evidence or even suggestion that only followers of Jesus have a blissful NDE, a point one might infer from some of the anecdotes shared earlier in this article. There are a plethora of similar anecdotes, as well. Among reports of those allegedly experiencing a euphoric NDE are Muslims in multiple studies,72 an agnostic, “lapsed Catholic,”73 a self-described “eclectic pagan,” Buddhist, nature-worshipper who was decidedly not Christian,74 a mafia figure who managed a mob-owned resort as well as a ring of prostitutes,75 and a violent, abusive husband and father.76

Summarizing this circuitous line of research are these two representative quotes:

People of every religious affiliation have reported NDEs, including Buddhists, Christians of all denominations, Hindus, indigenous religious adherents, Jews, and Muslims. religious non-adherents have also reported NDEs, including agnostics, atheists, and people who describe themselves as spiritual but not affiliated with an organized religion . . . . Several researchers have found no relationship between NDErs’ religious affiliation or non-affiliation prior to their NDEs and either the incidence, contents, or depth of their NDE.77 Whether it’s had by a Hindu in India, a Muslim in Egypt, a Christian in the United States, or an atheist in Iceland, the same core near-death experience elements are present in all, including: feelings of peace, out-of-body experience, tunnel experience, beings of light, a life review, reluctance to return, and transformation.78

If indeed these experiences are authentic representations of reality, then a logical inference is that there may be a wider aperture to a paradisiacal afterlife than is traditionally understood in Christian theology—not the unbounded aperture of universalism, given the reports of hellish NDEs, and not a salvific process without Jesus, for there is not a whiff of such evidence in these reports, but an aperture that may be less narrow than the “narrow gate” is sometimes interpreted to be.79

However, Habermas is quick to counter that this is not a logical inference, but “a false inference.” Because there is no independent corroboration of meeting religious persons or of the specifics of their heavenly journey, these cross-cultural testimonies are merely the individuals’ interpretations, with no bearing on theology. For the same reason, Habermas continues, unverified accounts like these cannot be used by religious pluralists as evidence that there are many pathways up the same mountain to God.80

Other Christian theologians concur,81 and it is indeed true that there is nothing demonstrably provable in these cross-cultural testimonies, nothing externally verifiable. I respectfully retort, though: How many people must offer a similar testimony, independent of one another, before that narrative is accorded meaningful weight? In a court of law, testimonial evidence is still evidence, and in the court of canon, a matter is “established by the testimony of two or three witnesses” (e.g., Deuteronomy 19:15; 2 Corinthians 13:1). So, what about two- or three-thousand? Stated differently, given the quantity and consistency of these data, might they be interpreted abductively, with the best available explanation being a “wider aperture”? If so, orthogonal to Habermas, it would clearly touch the traditional Christian doctrine of salvation.

Is There a Postmortem “Second Chance” for Salvation?       Beyond the blissful NDE accounts of non-Christians, there is also this tension with the doctrine of salvation: the testimonies by those who, in the midst of their hellish NDEs, claim they called out to God and were subsequently rescued by him. Consider, for example, the aforementioned stories of Crystal McVea and Howard Storm, people who did not put their faith in Jesus before their NDE but were allegedly on the way to being redeemed after leaving the natural realm. Other testimonies along these lines exist as well.82

Although statistics on this question appear unavailable, such stories raise the question of whether a postmortem opportunity exists for redemption and admission into a heavenly afterlife. With one voice, the Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox traditions have long insisted that the answer to that question is “no.” From the days of Augustine, Christian theology has remained consistent that faith in Jesus is a prerequisite for salvation, and that this faith is a premortem decision. The most widely-quoted scriptures in support of this position appear to be Hebrews 9:27—“Just as people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment”—and Luke 16:19-31, the parable of “The rich Man and Lazarus,” where Jesus tells the story of a wealthy, stingy man who, after death, begged for relief from “hades,” but to no avail, even hearing from heaven “those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.”83

But some Christian theologians, arguing for the possibility of postmortem redemption, contend that these passages need not be interpreted preclusively. James Beilby, for example, points out that even if Hebrews 9:27 is teaching “death-then-judgment,” the verse does not exclude the possibility that post-mortem conversion may exist before the judgment.84 Moreover, he continues, “the Luke 16 parables concern money, not eschatology.”85 His point is that such passages, among others,86 are not hermeneutically-dispositive of the issue, opening the door to his thesis that the “unevangelized” and the “pseudoevangelized” will have a “postmortem opportunity” to respond affirmatively to the gospel message.87

Notwithstanding, even Beilby insists that there can be no “second chance” for those who heard the gospel rightly presented and then rejected it: “If the theory of Postmortem Opportunity amounts to offering a second chance to those that have had a viable first chance, then it should end up on the scrap heap of theological theories. There is no second chance.”88 As shown above, though, some NDE reports stand at variance with this theology, implying not only the possibility of a “first chance” after death for the unevangelized and pseudoevangelized (pro Beilby), but also a second chance for those who presumably had ample opportunity to hear the genuine gospel message, knowingly rejected that message, and nevertheless still claim to have been rescued from a hellish experience after begging God for mercy postmortem (contra Beilby and most others).

Of course, all NDE stories along these lines remain at the level of testimonial evidence. The point is hardly moot, though. There is potential alignment in these “second chance” reports with the soteriological position of Dallas Willard, possibly the most-cited Christian philosopher of the modern day, who argues: “I am thoroughly convinced that God will let everyone into heaven who, in his considered opinion, can stand it,”89 a population that, for Willard, goes beyond “‘true disciples’ of Jesus”90 and does not preclude the possibilities of both first-and second-chance conversions.

Toward an Evidential Theory of Life after Death

“When Moody’s interviewees attempted to describe the experience of dying, they often mentioned a light of unceasing supernatural brilliance that exuded a feeling of pure, unconditional, absolute love One of my own respondents, when pressed to characterize it, could only say this: ‘If you took the one- thousand best things in your life and multiplied by a million, maybe you could get close to this feeling.’”91 Such an intriguing phenomenon cries out for serious study, and because it involves the supernatural, it also warrants substantive conversation with theology. This article has been a modest attempt to do just that, juxtaposing NDE research with traditional Christian doctrine toward an evidential theory of life after death.

What is to be gleaned from it all? Arguably this: Where they are authentic, NDEs may become a penetrating apologetic, offering a data-driven case for the supernatural. So too, they may become an illuminating hermeneutic, informing and potentially advancing Christian theology. Extrapolating to the logical conclusions, then, the mounting, global accounts of NDEs could, over time, culmi- nate in both a debilitating blow to atheism and a broadening of the Christian doctrine of salvation, inspiring fresh insight into just how far God’s salvific love may extend through the resurrection, perhaps even to all who “can stand it.”92

No doubt, controversial inferences like these are why NDE reports produce the aforementioned strange bedfellows. For both Christianity and atheism, something fundamental and non-negotiable appears to be at stake. Yet only atheism need fear NDEs. The more evidence that accumulates and the more it is corroborated, the stronger the case that human consciousness survives bodily death, palpably and permanently weakening the atheistic position.

For Christianity, by contrast, the more evidence that accumulates and the more it is corroborated, the stronger the case for several, though not all, pillars of the faith. As this evidence becomes more robust with each decade and with each life-saving advance, it may be increasingly difficult to escape the conclusion that some NDEs do indeed reflect reality. If so, thoughtful examination of near-death experiences will deepen, not destabilize, Christian theology.


  1. Jeffrey Long with Paul Perry, Evidence of the Afterlife: The Science of Near-Death Experiences (New York, NY: Harper One, 2010), 5.
  2. As detailed below, the seminal study in the western world is Raymond Moody, Life After Life: An Investigation of a Phenomenon—Survival of Bodily Death (Covington, GA: Mockingbird Books, 1975). Among the better studies of non-western NDEs are Allan Kelle-hear, “Census of Non-Western Near-Death Experiences to 2005: Observations and Critical reflections,” in The Handbook of Near-Death Experiences: Thirty Years of Investigation, J. M. Holden, B. Greyson, and D. James (Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2009), 135–158, and Gregory Shushan, Near-Death Experience in Indigenous Religions (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2018).
  3. Bruce Greyson, After: A Doctor Explores What Near-Death Experiences Reveal about Life and Beyond (New York, NY: St. Martin’s, 2021), 158.
  4. Gideon Lichfield, “Solving the riddle of Near-Death Experiences,” The Atlantic (April 2015): 78.
  5. Kevin Malarkey and Alex Malarkey, The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven: A True Story (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House, 2010).
  6. On naturalism, I agree with John DePoe’s definition, which he represents as an amalgam of definitions from C. S. Lewis and Alvin Plantinga: “the metaphysical position that reality’s fundamental constituent parts operate according to non-purposive, undesigned causes with no intended goal or direction, and that nothing exists independently of these basic parts,” or more simply stated, “the belief that nothing exists independently of purposeless natural laws, processes, and things” (John M. DePoe, “The Self-Defeat of Naturalism: A Critical Comparison of Alvin Plantinga and C. S. Lewis,” Christian Scholar’s Review 44, no.1 [2014]: 9–26, 10).
  7. According to Gary Habermas and J. P. Moreland, the two sides are equally-vehement in their rejoinders: “Challenges are just as likely to come from religious as non-religious viewpoints The former often objects to the extra-biblical nature of the data, as well as to the fact that many reported incidents conflict with the biblical perspective of the afterlife. The latter generally sport a naturalistic outlook and dislikes any seeming supernatural or otherworldly proclamations. Though usually disagreeing drastically with each other, they agree that NDEs are problematic.” Gary R. Habermas and J. P. Moreland, Beyond Death: Exploring the Evidence for Immortality (Eugene, Or: Wipf & Stock, 2004), 199.
  8. Alongside my intention to be a dispassionate detective, there is one implicit, epistemological assumption underlying this project that I should make explicit at the outset. An anonymous reviewer of this article helpfully asked: “Does experience challenge what we read in scripture? Or does experience invite us to reconsider our interpretation of scripture?” To be clear, I am firmly in the latter camp, believing that we discern truth through scripture, with tradition, reason, and experience as subordinate adjuncts (i.e., the traditional “Wesleyan Quadrilateral”). I recognize the potential slippery slope of experience degenerating into subjectivism, but hermeneutics ought to distinguish between the private experience of one or a few, which is not a source for theology, and public experience—or universal human experience—which can be a source for theology, as guided by the Holy Spirit. Consequently, as applied to near-death “experiences” collectively, the question becomes where they reside on the experiential continuum, from private to universal. As they grow in number and consistency, they also grow closer to legitimately informing theology.
  9. Moody, Life After Life, 94.
  10. Moody, Life After Life, 94.
  11. “Near-Death Experiences Illuminate Dying Itself,” New York Times, October 28, 1986, C8.
  12. Pim van Lommel, “Dutch Prospective research on Near-Death Experiences during Cardiac Arrest,” in The Science of Near Death Experiences, ed. John C. Hagan (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2017), 40, citing work from the Gallup organization and the University of Konstanz.
  13. Long and Perry, Evidence of the Afterlife, 44.
  14. Long and Perry, Evidence of the Afterlife, 6.
  15. Long and Perry, Evidence of the Afterlife, 6–17.
  16. One researcher, after reviewing hundreds of NDE reports by children, concludes: “In terms of NDE content, even though every experience is unique, the NDEs of children and teens follow a consistent pattern that appears to be little different from the pattern experienced by adults.” See Cherie Sutherland, “‘Trailing Clouds of Glory’: The Near-Death Experiences of Western Children and Teens,” in The Handbook of Near-Death Experiences, ed. Holden et al., 105. See also a similar conclusion in Pim van Lommel, Consciousness Beyond Life: The Science of Near-Death Experience (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2010), 74.
  17. Jeffrey Long with Paul Perry, God and the Afterlife: The Groundbreaking Evidence for God and Near-Death Experience (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2016), 3, 26.
  18. Kellehear, “Census of Non-Western Near-Death Experiences to 2005,” 135–158. Some NDE elements that generally were not present in this sample were passing through a tunnel or seeing a bright light. represented in his study are China, India, Thailand, Tibet, Western New Britain, Guam, Maori, New Zealand, and “hunter-gatherer” samples from North and South America, Australia, and Africa.
  19. Shushan, Near-Death Experience in Indigenous Religions, 1. There are many other studies of non-western subjects, typically with very small sample sizes, that infer both universal and culture-specific elements of representative are these three: J. McClenon, “Kongo Near-Death Experiences: Cross-Cultural Patterns,” Journal of Near-Death Studies 25, no.1 (Fall 2006): 21–34. In an analysis of eight NDEs in Kongo, “respondents described leaving their bodies and journeying to afterlife realms, encountering boundaries, and communicating with spiritual beings. Some accounts reveal culturally specific elements, implying that expectations shape perceptions” (21). Masayuki Ohkado and Bruce Greyson, “A Comparative Analysis of Japanese and Western NDEs,” Journal of Near-Death Studies 32, no. 4 (Summer 2014): 187–198. A Japanese sample of 22 found: “The main differences between Japanese and Western NDEs are the interpretation of the light and the concomitant lack of interaction with it, the image of heaven, and the absence of the life review. We suggest that these characteristics are accounted for in terms of cultural differences” (187). A. G. Jahromi and Jeffrey Long, “The Phenomenology of Iranian Near-Death Experiences,” Journal of Near-Death Studies 38, no.3 (Fall 2020): 180–200. A sample of 17 Iranian Shia Muslims found “themes typically reported in western NDEs, with some culturally-specific features among NDEs Based on these results, we conclude that NDEs may be culturally influenced or interpreted but may also incorporate elements independent of culture” (180).
  20. Moody, Life After Life, 21–80.
  21. For the statistic of one-third, see Greyson, After, 153, who bases his conclusion on 45 years of data collection, amassing more than 1,000 subjects in his primarily-western dataset (10). For the varying characteristics of Jesus, see Janice Miner Holden, “Apparently Non-Physical Veridical Perception in Near-Death Experiences,” in The Science of Near-Death Experiences, ed. John C. Hagan (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2017), 80.
  22. For example, see Holden, “Veridical Perception in Near-Death Experiences,” 203–210, where she reports on five unsuccessful experiments in hospitals. However, more promisingly, in a recent, widely-reported study out of New York University, Sam Parnia and his team measured continued brain function for up to one hour in patients whose heart stopped and were in the process of CPr. Specifically, of the 567 recipients of CPR whose brainwaves were tracked, 53 survived to hospital discharge, 28 of those were interviewed for the study, and six of those interviewees reported some sort of transcendental experience while they had been unconscious. In other words, one in five interviewees reported an NDE, or what Parnia labels “a recalled experience of death.” And curiously, those subjects who reported NDEs were not the subjects whose brain continued to generate signatures while in cardiac arrest. See Sam Parnia et al., “Awareness during Resuscitation – II: A Multi-Center Study of Consciousness and Awareness in Cardiac Arrest,” Resuscitation 191 (2023): 109903.
  23. Janice Miner Holden, “Veridical Perception in Near-Death Experiences,” in The Handbook of Near-Death Experiences, ed. Holden et al., 186.
  24. Holden, “Veridical Perception in Near-Death Experiences,” 186.
  25. Holden, “Veridical Perception in Near-Death Experiences,” 186. On this controversial point, naturalists have long argued that NDEs are not perceptions of reality. rather, they may be dreams or hallucinations of a dying brain or the result of drugs or insufficient anesthesia—that is, explanations that are internal to the individual. But in sweeping response to all such objections, Christian apologist Gary Habermas offers this cogent rejoinder: “No matter what subjective internal states the critics wish to discuss, by their very nature they cannot explain the existence of objective, externally corroborated NDEs. . . The available evidence for NDEs seems clearly to be more than enough to establish their evidential reality.” Gary r. Habermas, “Evidential Near-Death Experiences,” in The Blackwell Companion to Substance Dualism, ed. A. Menuge, J. L. Loose, and J. P. Moreland (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley & Sons, 2018), 227-246, 242.
  26. Pim van Lommel, r. van Wees, V. Meyers, and I. Elfferich, “Near-Death Experience in Survivors of Cardiac Arrest: A Prospective Study in the Netherlands,” The Lancet 358, no. 9298 (December 1, 2001): 2039-2045. For more details about this event, see rudolf H. Smit, “Corroboration of the Dentures Anecdote Involving Veridical Perception in a Near-Death Experience,” Journal of Near-Death Studies 27, no. 1 (Fall 2008): 47-61.
  27. van Lommel, van Wees, Meyers, and Elfferich, “Near-Death Experience in Survivors of Cardiac Arrest,” 2041.
  28. 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, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2014), 11-12.
  29. Holden, “Veridical Perception in Near-Death Experiences,” 193.
  30. The original publication of the Reynolds case is from cardiologist Michael Sabom, Light and Death: One Doctor’s Fascinating Account of Near-Death Experiences (Grand rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1998), 37-47, who interviewed the lead neurosurgeon, Dr. Robert Spetzler, and reviewed his operative report, finding that what Reynolds claimed to have seen through an out-of-body experience corresponded closely to what had actually occurred in the room. The account is retold in many places, including the BBC documentary The Day I Died, produced by K. Broome (Glasgow, Scotland: British Broadcasting Corporation, 2002), retrieved from, 17:40-32:00 minutes. In that documentary, Sabom summarizes the reynolds case as “a classic near- death experience occurring under extremely monitored medical conditions, where every known vital sign and basically every clinical sign of life and death was being monitored at the time” (31:00). It is the closest approximation on record to a laboratory experiment where someone was taken to the point of death and then reported their recollection of the experience. For further details, see also Holden, “Veridical Perception in Near-Death Experiences,” 198-199, and Titus Rivas, Anny Dirven, and Rudolf H. Smit, The Self Does Not Die (Durham, NC: IANDS Publications, 2016), 95-103.
  31. In 2009, Holden listed 107 such published cases that included corroboration of details, many of which involved specifics about the room, the people, and other surroundings during the NDE. See Holden “Veridical Perception in Near-Death Experiences,” 194-195. Also see Rivas et al., in The Self Does Not Die; it presents more than 100 veridical perception stories, some of which overlap Holden’s list.
  32. Moody, Life After Life, 94.
  33. For the details of these testimonies, see Rivas et al., The Self Does Not Die, 31-37.
  34. Kimberly Clark Sharp, “Clinical Interventions with Near-Death Experiences,” in The Near Death Experience: Problems, Prospects, and Perspectives, ed. Bruce Greyson and Charles Flynn (Springfield, IL: C. C. Thomas Publishers, 1984): 242-255.
  35. Sharp, “Clinical Interventions with Near-Death Experiences,” 243.
  36. Gary r. Habermas “Near-Death Experiences and the Evidence,” Christian Scholar’s Review 26, no. 1 (Fall 1996): 78-85.
  37. Gary Habermas is perhaps best known for developing the “minimal facts” method in defense of the resurrection. See Gary R. Habermas and Michael R. Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2004).
  38. Habermas, “Near-Death Experiences and the Evidence,” 83. For the red shoe report, Habermas cites Kenneth Ring and Madelaine Lawrence, “Further Evidence for Veridical Perception during Near-Death Experiences,” Journal of Near Death Studies 11, no.4 (Summer 1993): 226-227. The patient remains anonymous but the attending nurse at the time was Kathy Milne.
  39. Habermas, “Evidential Near-Death Experiences,” 236.
  40. Long with Perry, God and the Afterlife, 18.
  41. Long with Perry, God and the Afterlife, Long and Perry estimated the number at 57.8 percent, though that includes meeting any other being, not just those one recognized at the time of the NDE.
  42. For an extensive list of such stories, see Bruce Greyson, “Seeing Dead People Not Known to Have Died: ‘Peak in Darien’ Experiences,” Anthropology & Humanism 35, no. 2 (December 2010): 159-171.
  43. Greyson. After, 132-133.
  44. Eben Alexander, Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey in the Afterlife (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2012), 39-41, 132, 169.
  45. Along these lines, see van Lommel, Consciousness Beyond Life, 71: “When it comes to the veracity of NDE reports, some . . . believe that the NDERs are simply telling a story based on prior knowledge of the phenomenon or on religious expectations about the content of an NDE. But . . . it seems inconceivable that children without any prior knowledge could fabricate a story that is entirely consistent with the NDE reports of adults.”
  46. van Lommel, Consciousness Beyond Life, 71-72. The Netherlands case bears a striking resemblance to the American case of Colton Burpo, whose NDE was recounted in the bestseller and film, Heaven is for Real. Among four-year-old Burpo’s revelations following his brush with death was an off-hand comment to his parents about meeting his other “sister” in heaven—a girl who looked like his sister at home but had darker hair. The girl allegedly told Burpo that she had died in their “mommy’s tummy” and was excited for the family to join her someday. It was apparently a staggering moment for Burpo’s parents, who had of course never revealed the miscarriage to their young children. See Todd Burpo, Heaven is for Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2010). For another similar story, see Long and Perry, God and the Afterlife, 121-123. For earlier work in this field, examining the NDEs of 26 children, see Melvin Morse and Paul Perry, Closer to the Light: Learning from the Near-Death Experiences of Children (New York, NY: Ivy Books, 1991).
  47. Kenneth ring and Sharon Cooper, “Near-Death and Out-of-Body Experiences in the Blind: A Study of Apparent Eyeless Vision,” Journal of Near-Death Studies 16, no. 2 (Winter 1997): 101-147. For a deeper dive into this research, see Kenneth ring and Sharon Cooper, Mindsight: Near-Death and Out-of-Body Experiences in the Blind (Bloomington IN: iUniverse, 2008).
  48. Ring and Cooper, “Near-Death and Out-of-Body Experiences in the Blind,” 114.
  49. Ring and Cooper, “Near-Death and Out-of-Body Experiences in the Blind,” 124-125.
  50. Ring and Cooper, Mindsight, 45. Moreover, Ring and Cooper report that these events took place in 1968 and 1973, “before the advent of modern near-death studies,” so they are not an echo of what the interviewees may have heard about that research.
  51. Greyson, After, 217.
  52. Greyson, After, 131. See also Raymond Moody, “Near Death Experiences: An Essay in Medicine & Philosophy,” in The Science of Near-Death Experiences, ed. John C. Hagan (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2017), 14.
  53. Greyson, After, 171.
  54. Greyson, After, 171, 177. Also, according to Holden, “Most NDErs adamantly assert that ‘developing the capacity to love and acquiring knowledge are both the purposes and the most appropriate pursuits in human existence.’ ”Holden, “Veridical Perception in Near-Death Experiences,” 188.
  55. Greyson, After, 168. Greyson further concludes, based on his decades of counseling practice, that suicide-attempters who had an NDE “most often report that the experience made them feel they are part of something bigger than themselves . . . (and as a result), their problems seem less important.”
  56. John Burke, Imagine Heaven: Near-Death Experiences, God’s Promises, and the Exhilarating Future That Awaits You (Grand rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2015), 68, 192-195. For the extended version of McVea’s story, see Crystal McVea and Alex Tresniowski, Waking Up in Heaven: A True Story of Brokenness, Heaven, and Life Again (Brentwood, TN: Howard Books, 2013).
  57. Burke, Imagine Heaven, 224-22 The church is Austin Powerhouse Church,
  58. Burke, Imagine Heaven, 215-221. For a more complete version of the story, see Howard Storm, My Descent into Death: A Second Chance at Life (New York, NY: Harmony Publishing, 2005).
  59. Space limitations preclude a full discussion of this point, but NDE researchers would also cite corroborated “shared death experiences” (SDEs) as part of the case that consciousness survives physical death. In a sentence, SDEs are reports from people who are not “near-death,” but usually near the deathbed of a loved one, a patient, or a client and claim to have experienced any number of NDE-type phenomena at the point of death (light, music, apparitions, even a mist or transparent replica of the dying person leaving their body). Like NDEs, SDEs are now reported often and universally around the world. Academic study of SDEs is most prevalent in hospice literature, but for book-length treatments, see William J. Peters, At Heaven’s Door (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2022), which reports on more than 800 such experiences, and raymond Moody and Paul Perry, Glimpses of Eternity (Paradise Valley, AZ: Sakkara, 2010), based on what Moody says are thousands of reports others have conveyed to him throughout the decades. Harm Goris, “Near-Death Experiences. A Theological Interpretation,” International Journal of Philosophy and Theology 75, no.1 (2014): 74–85.
  60. Harm Goris, “Near-Death Experiences. A Theological Interpretation,” International Journal of Philosophy and Theology 75, no.1 (2014): 74–85.
  61. Benjamin DeVan, “Don’t Look Up? Four Views on Heaven: An Extended review,” Christian Scholar’s Review 52, no. 2 (Winter 2023): 109-115.
  62. Among those “exceptions” are Christian philosophers Gary Habermas and J. P. Moreland, whose ideas will be grafted in below. See also the work of theologians Scot McKnight and J. Todd Billings.
  63. Roger E. Olson, The Journey of Modern Theology: From Reconstruction to Deconstruction (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2013), 20–21. In more detail, Olson elaborates: “The vast majority of Christians of all major branches believed in a personal God who transcends nature as its creator and who providentially rules over history. They also believed this God is supremely revealed in Jesus Christ, who is God incarnate and who performed miracles and was raised bodily from death (such that the tomb was empty). They believed that the Bible, however exactly defined and understood, constitutes a written revelation of God. They believed that the triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, at least occasionally acts in special ways in human history to perform miracles that transcend anyone’s ability to predict or explain rationally. They believed that faith is necessary for knowing God in the way that God wants to be known by humans and that religion is essential to fulfilled human life. They believed that Jesus Christ is both human and divine and the Son of God from heaven whose death on the cross provided salvation for fallen humanity and who will return to this world with judgment and redemption.”
  64. Habermas, “Evidential Near-Death Experiences,” 244.
  65. The inaugural study of NDEs reported: “What is perhaps the most incredible common element in the accounts I have studied, and is certainly the element which has the most profound effect upon the individual, is the encounter with a very bright light. Typically, at its first appearance this light is dim, but it rapidly gets brighter until it reaches an unearthly brilliance. . . . Not one person has expressed any doubt whatsoever that it was a being, a being of light” (Moody, Life After Life, 55-56).
  66. Ever since academic study of NDEs began in the 1970s, this literature has described distressing NDEs, not just pleasant ones, ranging from falling into a dark abyss to terrifying events involving demonic beings. For a typology, see Nancy Evans Bush and Bruce Greyson, “Distressing Near-Death Experiences: The Basics,” in The Science of Near-Death Experiences, ed. John C. Hagan (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2017), 93-101. Percentage estimates are precarious because of individuals’ reluctance to reveal such traumatic experiences, but after an exhaustive search of this literature, and attempting to factor in the reporting bias, one researcher hazarded a best guess of “a percentage possibility in the mid- to high-teens” of all NDEs. See Nancy Evans Bush, “Distressing Western Near-Death Experiences,” in The Handbook of Near-Death Experiences, ed. Holden et al., 81. Whatever the actual number, it appears to be non-zero, in accord with Christian theology. Moreover, distressing NDEs unfold in a similar pattern to blissful NDEs: “a sense of movement, possibly an out-of-body experience, intense emotions, ineffability, light or darkness, encounter with non-material beings, life-changing messages. See Bush, “Distressing Western Near-Death Experiences,” 81.
  67. Jeffrey Long, “Near Death Experiences: Evidence for their reality,” in The Science of Near-Death Experiences, ed. John C. Hagan (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2017), 70. For a further description of the relational emphasis in NDE life reviews, see Burke, Imagine Heaven, 237-251.
  68. Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God (San Francisco, CA: HarperCollins, 1998), 211.
  69. See, for example, 1 Corinthians 15:42-57.
  70. Among the places to find this text is “Evangelicals and Catholics Together: The Christian Mission in the Third Millennium,” First Things 43 (May 1994): 15-Subsequent statements from this group are available at
  71. Though details are beyond the scope of this article, we should note this difference between the Orthodox and western understanding of “In the Eastern understanding. . . to assert that salvation is by grace means that people are deified as a result of God’s communicating to us his energies, his giving us those aspects of himself which he chooses to share with people When we (Protestants) use the word ‘grace,’ we normally have in mind an attitude of God toward people, on the basis of which he grants salvation as a gift to those who do not deserve it” (Donald Fairbairn, “Salvation as Theosis: The Teaching of Eastern Orthodoxy,” Themelios 23, no. 3 (June 1998): 42-54, 43).
  72. Long reports on two small-sample studies (n=8 and n=19) of Muslim NDEs in the Middle East, concluding that there were no content differences from those NDEs reported in western countries. See Long, “Near Death Experiences: Evidence for their reality,” 74-75.
  73. Greyson, After, 153.
  74. Greyson, After, 153-155.
  75. Greyson, After, 187-188. Incidentally, this event culminated in the man’s transformation as he abandoned his former job and “started helping delinquent children and victims of spousal abuse.”
  76. Greyson, After, 192.
  77. Janice Miner Holden, Jeffrey Long, and B. Jason MacLurg, “Characteristics of Western Near-Death Experiences,” in The Handbook of Near-Death Experiences, Holden et al., 118. See also other chapters in this volume, referenced earlier, that focus on non-western NDEs and reach a similar conclusion.
  78. Moody and Perry, Glimpses of Eternity, 128.
  79. See Matthew 7:13-14.
  80. Habermas and Moreland, Beyond Death, 181-182.
  81. See, for example, Scot McKnight, The Heaven Promise: Engaging the Bible’s Truths about Life to Come (Colorado Springs, CO: Waterbrook, 2016), 141, 142: “After studying these stories, I believe [NDEs] are glimpses of the afterlife. But I also believe that we need to be wary of making the claim that they reveal what Heaven will be like [T]he reports are interpretations, and the interpretations reflect the beliefs of the one undergoing the experience” (emphasis in original). See also J. Todd Billings, The End of the Christian Life: How Embracing Our Mortality Frees Us to Truly Live (Ada MI: Brazos, 2020), 168: “If we look to NDEs as sources of divine revelation or religious knowledge, we are faced with claims as different as those of the beliefs of the patients themselves. To combine them into a synthetic portrait of the afterlife would leave us drowning in incoherence.”
  82. For two further testimonies of pleading to God during a distressing NDE and seemingly being rescued from a hellish place, see Kat Dunkle, Falling into Darkness (Maitland, FL: Xulon Press, 2007) and Burke, Imagine Heaven, 137-141.
  83. Luke 16:26.
  84. James Beilby, Postmortem Opportunity: A Biblical and Theological Assessment of Salvation after Death (Downers Grove IL: InterVarsity Press, 2021), 109.
  85. Beilby, Postmortem Opportunity, 111. More specifically, Luke 16 contains multiple parables that warn about the dangers of money, including “The rich Man and Lazarus,” all of which bracket the verse: “The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus” (Luke 16:14). N. T. Wright seemingly concurs on this point: “The parable is not, as often supposed, a description of the afterlife” (N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, vol. 2 of Christian Origins and the Question of God [London, UK: SPCK, 1996], 255). Further support for this interpretation comes from the previous chapter, Luke 15, which is structured in the same way, with three parables teaching about one topic.
  86. Beilby also addresses Luke 13:25; 2 Corinthians 5:10, 6:2; Psalm 49; and even 2 Clement 8:3, in addition to philosophical and theological objections to his theory.
  87. Beilby, Postmortem Opportunity, 35. Beilby’s work is part of an ongoing question about the eternal destiny of the unevangelized, sometimes called “the soteriological problem of evil” or the problem of evil applied to the question of salvation (Beilby, Postmortem Opportunity, 20). Beliby defines his categories this way: “in addition to more traditional pictures of the unevangelized,” in which Beilby also includes those who did not have the cognitive capacity to understand or accept the gospel before dying, “there are a diverse group of people who might be called ‘pseudoevangeized,’” that is, those who never accepted the gospel because they heard a ‘bastardized’ version of the gospel, or they had life experiences that made them unable to trust and really hear the gospel, or they did indeed hear the gospel and were on a trajectory toward faith before suffering an untimely death” (Beilby, Postmortem Opportunity, 10-15). Among many other Christian theologians advancing the possibility of postmortem salvation are Clark Pinnock, Donald Bloesch, Gabriel Fackre, Hans Urs von Balthasar, and George Lindbeck.
  88. Beilby, Postmortem Opportunity, 218.
  89. Willard, The Divine Conspiracy, 302.
  90. Willard, The Divine Conspiracy, 301. In this regard, Willard seems generally aligned with the posture of Karl Barth. Without embracing universalism, Barth consistently emphasized God’s limitless compassion for all of humanity in Jesus Christ. According to theologian George Hunsinger, a former director of Princeton’s Center for Karl Barth Studies: “Perhaps no theologian of the church since Athanasius, in whom the same strong association of ‘in Christ’ with ‘for all’ is constantly present . . . has so consistently tried to do direct justice to the universalistic aspects of the New Testament witness to Jesus Christ as has Barth.” See George Hunsinger, How to Read Karl Barth (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1993), 108. Or, consider Barth’s disposition in his own words: “One thing is sure, that there is no theological justification for setting any limits on our side to the friendliness of God towards man which appeared in Jesus Christ.” See Karl Barth, “Humanity of God” in Karl Barth, God, Grace and Gospel (Edinburgh, UK: Oliver & Boyd, 1959), 49–50.
  91. Kenneth Ring, “Foreword,” in The Handbook of Near-Death Experiences, ed. Holden et al., vii. Emphasis in original.
  92. Willard, The Divine Conspiracy, 302.

Michael Zigarelli

Michael Zigarelli, Ph.D., is Professor of Leadership and Strategy at Messiah University and the author of several books, including Influencing Like Jesus (LifeWay), Cultivating Christian Character (ACSI), and Management by Proverbs (Moody). You can reach him at [email protected]

One Comment

  • Michael McKeever says:

    Thanks for this. Very thorough and evenhanded. I’ve always wanted to read something along these lines.
    I don’t mean this as a criticism because it’s already quite long and thorough. Still, one way it might be even more helpful for those who want to explore further theologically would be more pre-Augustinian Christian thinkers in substance if not how the questions are framed. Even the folks James Beilby leaned on could be helpful in a footnote.