I went to bed at 11:00 P.M. Suddenly, I was absolutely unable to move. However, I could pull my hands out of my physical hands, as if the latter were a pair of stiff gloves. I detached from my body and floated out in an upright position. I lay down in the air and floated across to the bed like a swimmer who had pushed himself from the edge of a swimming pool. But then I was seized by the ancient fear of losing my physical body. It sufficed to drive me back into my body.
This story, reported by Thomas Metzinger in his book Being No One, is an “out-of-body experience,” and it’s more common than many people realize. Estimates of the prevalence of this phenomenon range from some 10 percent of the general population to 25 percent.
Out-of-body experiences are typically brief episodes in which a person’s conscious self seems to take leave of his or her body. People who have had this experience report that they can look back on their body as though it belonged to someone else. Their “self” is temporarily released from the limits of their body. Their mind seems to take up a position above or to the side of their body, and they are able to see their body in its former position, whether standing, sitting, or lying down.
A subclass of out-of-body experiences is the near-death experience. These sometimes happen when patients are critically ill or when their hearts stop beating for a few moments. These people describe themselves floating over their bodies or feeling themselves drawn down a tunnel toward a bright light. According to some accounts, as they travel down this tunnel, they see and are comforted by deceased friends and relatives or by well-known spiritual figures.
Some people tend to think of out-of- body episodes as the product of a brain disorder, such as epilepsy or schizophrenia. They have, in fact, been reported to occur spontaneously in patients with epilepsy or migraine headaches, and the rate of incidence is higher in persons with schizophrenia and other neurological disorders.
Some hallucinatory drugs can also induce out-of-body experiences. A religious group in Oregon that blends Christian and Brazilian indigenous religious beliefs recently won the right to import and brew a hallucinogenic tea for its religious services. The tea, brewed from the ayahuasca plant, contains trace amounts of the chemical dimethyltryptamine, or DMT, which can cause psychedelic phenomenon, including the visual and audio sensations characteristic of a near-death experience.
Reports of out-of-body experiences are known from ancient times and may have led people long ago to think of themselves in dualistic terms.
By “dualism,” I refer to the idea that humans have bodies but are not actually bodies themselves. The real self is the soul, sometimes thought of as the mind.
We can easily understand why those who have had the fleeting experience of floating outside of their own bodies and seeing their bodies as though they were seeing someone else, might reach the conclusion that they were not a unified person but a soul that usually, though not always, inhabited a body.
Some form of body-soul dualism is in fact the default belief of many Christians today, and this view is shared by most other major religions as well. Francis Crick, who shared the 1962 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for discoveries concerning DNA, thought that dispensing with the idea of a disembodied soul would undermine the religious beliefs of billions of humans today.
So what are we to make of these out-of-body experiences? Do they prove that humans have souls—that the “real” me is a soul that can exist outside of my body?
What the Bible says
At first glance, we might think that the teaching of Scripture is in line with this dualistic portrait of the human person. Doesn’t the Creation story in Genesis 1 and 2 tell us that God put an immortal soul into a mortal body? Didn’t Paul divide human beings into three parts: body, soul, and spirit (1 Thessalonians 5:23)?
Let’s examine the first two chapters of Genesis, where the Creation account at the beginning of Scripture provides us with a critical point of departure for shaping a biblical portrait of humanity. Even though these chapters don’t tell us as much as we might want to know, they provide a helpful orientation on what it means to be human.
The key Hebrew word in these two chapters is nephesh, which is sometimes translated as “soul.” Accordingly, the King James Version of Genesis 2:7 says, “The Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul [nephesh]” (italics added). It’s significant, however, that nephesh is used only a few verses earlier in a reference to “every beast of the earth,” “every bird of the air,” and “everything that creeps on the earth”—that is, to everything “in which there is life [nephesh]” (Genesis 1:30).
Obviously, in Genesis the nephesh or “soul” is not a unique characteristic of human beings. Thus, humans are not distinctively human on account of their purported possession of a soul.
What Genesis means
We might better translate Genesis 2:7 as “the human being became fully alive.” It thus becomes a reference to the divine gift of life. Indeed, throughout the rest of the Old Testament, nephesh is used to refer to the whole person as the seat of desires and emotions, not to an inner soul that is separate from one’s physical being. In fact, in the Old Testament, nephesh can be translated in many places simply as “person” or “anyone” (see, for example, Leviticus 4:2; 7:20, NIV). Thus, nephesh is not a thing to have but a way to be. It refers to the life and vitality of both humans and animals.
Most important, the opening chapters of Genesis do not locate the uniqueness of humanity in our possession of a soul. Instead, they affirm our human capacity to relate to God as partners in His covenant with us and to join in companionship within the human family and in relation to the whole world in ways that reflect God’s loving-kindness.
To speak of loving God with “all of one’s soul,” as in Deuteronomy 6:5, is to love Him intensely with one’s entire being. Humans, as the second-century church father Irenaeus put it, were made to be “fully alive”!
Overall, the Scriptures support the portrait of the human we find in the opening pages of Genesis. The text to which I referred earlier, 1 Thessalonians 5:23, is no exception. Notice the parallelism in Paul’s prayer: “May the God of peace Himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be preserved complete, without blame at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (NASB, italics added).*
The word entirely in the first clause conveys the sense of “completely,” or “in your whole being.” Paul then elaborates on this idea in the second clause as he refers to different aspects of the human person. By the words, “Your spirit and soul and body,” Paul means the entire person, everything one is as a human being. We may emphasize different aspects of a person (her physical appearance, for example, or his thought processes), but the Bible as a whole does not speak of people as though they were made up of parts, such as a body and a soul.
What about Paul’s experience?
Some people conclude from 2 Corinthians 12:2–4 that Paul had an out-of-body experience and that this proves the body-soul dualism of human nature. Paul said, “I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows. And I know that such a person—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows—was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat” (NRSV).**
This is a puzzling text. For example, who is this person whose story Paul relates? Most scholars agree that it is Paul himself, and that he referred to himself in this way so as not to draw too much attention to himself as someone who had experiences of this sort.
But did Paul have an out-of-body experience? First, Paul himself recognized— indeed, he emphasized— that he didn’t know. He said that only God knew whether he was “in the body or out of the body.” Since out-of-body experiences include the sensation of looking back at one’s own body as though the mind and the body were separate entities, this alone speaks against our reading Paul’s account as the story of an out-of- body experience.
Second, and more important, Paul’s background on such matters was thoroughly Jewish, and similar reports in Jewish literature assume that these experiences were “in the body.” For example, Jewish literature from roughly around the time of Paul tells us that Enoch ascended into heaven bodily and that Abraham ascended into the clouds “in the body.” Thus, this text does not undermine the scriptural view that human beings are a single unit. Certainly, it provides no support for the view that humans are a soul that possesses a body.
Even though there are reports of out-of-body experiences from ancient times, they have been studied only in recent decades. To the uninformed person, these accounts may read like science fiction, but the experiences they describe are very much a part of contemporary brain science.
A part of our brains called the temporal-parietal junction is known to play a key role in the sense we have of our body’s orientation. A Swiss neuroscientist, Olaf Blanke, observed that, when he electrically stimulated this part of the brain, a patient with no prior history of out-of- body experiences had one. Blanke’s experiment was conducted with the patient fully awake and aware of her surroundings. Nevertheless, she informed the researchers that she could now see the world, including herself lying on the bed, as though she were above her body.
More recently, neuroscientists have induced out-of-body sensations through events of multisensory conflict. Our brain processes sensations from multiple sources—seeing, hearing, and touching—to determine the placement of our body in a particular space. What happens when those multiple sources disagree? Our in-body experience is interrupted, and we imagine ourselves occupying a space separate from our body.
This, I propose, is the correct explanation of out-of-body experiences. They are generated in our bodies, by our brains. Far from proving that there is an ethereal self that can separate itself from our material bodies, out-of-body experiences demonstrate the wonderful complexity of our brains as they situate us in time and space in ways that we mostly take for granted.
And this reminds us that we relate to God, to one another, to all of God’s creation, and even to ourselves, as fully embodied persons.