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Near-Death Experiences: Are They Real?

by Clifford Goldstein
From the April 2013 Signs  

Joe had been everywhere from Lapland to the Sea of Japan, but his strangest trip was down the block. Not that anything particularly exciting existed there. Nothing did. But then again, it was not where he went that was bizarre, but how.

A few weeks earlier, as he was lying on his bed, a strange tingling began in his toes. The sensation crawled up his body like a band of bugs until it centered in his head, encapsulating him in a loud, uncomfortable buzz. He felt himself falling through a gray, misty tunnel.

He sat up, mystified. The sensation occurred again and again, and each time he became less fearful and more curious. Finally, instead of fighting it, he decided to “go with the flow.”

One afternoon Joe stretched out, closed his eyes, and relaxed when the tingling began. When the buzzing reached his head, he told himself not to be afraid. Instantly, he rocketed through the ceiling and found himself floating in something like the crackling, mistlike static on an empty TV channel. Too scared to even scream, he suddenly snapped out of it and sat up in his room, bug-eyed.

Astral travel

When Joe told his friend Fred about the experience, Fred believed he could explain what had happened. “It’s astral travel,” he said. “I’ve been doing it for years. I’ve been to Jupiter. I’ve even talked with my dead grandfather in the astral plane.”

Fred’s explanation enthralled Joe. All his life he’d believed that if something couldn’t be put in a test tube, it didn’t exist. After those few seconds in the “astral plane,” however, he wasn’t so sure.

A short while later, however, Joe became a Christian. And, once he’d made that total commitment to Jesus, those experiences in the twilight zone never returned.

He soon learned why. As he studied the Bible, Joe discovered that his “astral travel” wasn’t travel at all. He’d never left his body. He’d simply been duped into thinking he had. And in addition to saving him from that deception, the Bible gave Joe a better understanding of what had happened and why so many people are deceived.

Near-death experiences

One of the most interesting facets of astral travel is how closely it replicates the so-called near-death experiences (NDEs) of people whose vital functions (heartbeat, breathing) stop, yet who, after being revived, are able to give fantastic accounts of what they saw while they were “dead.”

The phenomena they describe—a buzzing sound, the sensation of going through a tunnel, the apparent release from the body—are what Joe and others have experienced during astral travel.

“There is a buzz or a ring at death,” writes Dr. Raymond Moody Jr., who began documenting NDEs in the 1970s. These are “followed by a rapid progression through an enclosure or tunnel toward light. There is surprise at being outside the body.”

Joe knew the feeling, yet he had been nowhere near death!

Those experiencing astral travel and NDEs report identical phenomena. And no wonder, for both spring from the same lies: that we possess immortal souls and that the dead continue to live.

Immortal souls?

Despite popular theology, the Word of God never teaches that an immortal “soul” dwells within our bodies, which can be coughed up when a person is near death (NDEs) or in an altered state of consciousness (astral travel).

The Hebrew word sometimes translated “soul” in our English Bibles is nephesh. For example, the King James Version of Genesis 2:7 says that God breathed into Adam the breath of life, and he “became a living soul [nephesh].” The New International Version says that Adam “became a living being.” It takes both the “breath of life” and “the dust of the ground” (a body of flesh) to make a living human being.

The same Hebrew word is used of animals in Genesis 2:19, which says that God brought all the animals to Adam so that he could name them, and whatever he called “each living creature [nephesh], that was its name.”

The book of Revelation also uses the word soul (Greek: psuche) for animals that live in the sea. It says that the sea “became as the blood of a dead man, and every living soul [psuche] died in the sea” (Revelation 16:3, KJV).

Church historian LeRoy Froom states that “hundreds of outstanding Bible students of all faiths, spread over the centuries, attest that there is not a single passage in the Bible in which man, in his earthly life, is spoken of as immortal, either as a whole, or in any part of his being.”

Linked to the lie of the immortal soul is the lie of “life after life.” According to Scripture, the dead are not floating in some ethereal mist, but instead are resting in an unconscious sleep until the resurrection. Ecclesiastes 9:5 says that “the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing.” And Psalm 115:17 says, “The dead do not praise the Lord, nor any who go down into silence” (NKJV).*

When Lazarus died, Jesus said, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to wake him up” (John 11:11). A few verses later, He said clearly, “Lazarus is dead” (verse 14).

Peter placed King David, not in heaven, but in the grave. He said, “I can tell you confidently that the patriarch David died and was buried, and his tomb is here to this day. . . . For David did not ascend to heaven” (Acts 2:29, 34).

A demonic deception

However, even though the Bible never says anything about people having immortal souls, it does warn about demonic powers that can deceive us with all kinds of lies. Speaking of Satan’s fall from heaven, Revelation 12:9 says, “The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray.” And one of the ways he leads the whole world astray is with the lie that though our bodies die, we continue to live on as immortal souls. Genesis 3:4 informs us that this lie was first told to Eve in Eden—“You will not surely die.” And it has been promoted in one form or another ever since.

That lie is believed by many people to this day. A poll several years ago by the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research found that 42 percent of Americans say that they have contacted the dead. What’s more, belief in an immortal soul and its logical corollary, an immediate life after death, are the cornerstone of almost all Eastern religions and the New Age movement.

And while Christians scoff at New Age mysticism, those who believe in an immortal soul are open to similar deceptions. Talking about those who have experienced NDEs, Pat Robertson wrote in his book Answers to 200 of Life’s Most Probing Questions that “many of them have been allowed to see hell. . . . For all of them the experience has been a life-changing one, and this is a uniform testimony to the existence of life after death.”

A number of years ago, Christianity Today published an article which said that NDEs “fundamentally ‘prove’ nothing about life after death.” “At best they are partial, ambiguous, fragmented and distorted glimpses of [another world].”

Supernatural frauds

A fundamental teaching of Scripture is that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23) and that Jesus Christ is our only hope of eternal life (Acts 4:12). Yet few if any of those who have experienced astral projection or NDEs come back convicted of their need for Christ. “Instead,” says Christianity Today, “they tend to become suspicious of religious ‘sectarianism.’ . . . The modern visionary’s conversion is not to an austere spirituality, but to one that affirms joy and laughter.”

Christianity Today came closest to the truth when it said that “demonic (or New Age) elements cannot be ruled out.” They certainly can’t, for they are the only explanation in light of the Bible truth about our human nature, the state of the dead, and salvation.

Though certain psychological factors may be involved in astral travel or NDEs, others are fundamentally frauds—supernaturally inspired frauds. They could be hallucinations, or demonic powers could be involved as well, for the Bible says that “Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light” (2 Corinthians 11:14).

Clearly, when the Bible talks about evil supernatural forces, it isn’t using poetic figures. It’s warning us of literal powers whose deceptions are so vivid, so convincing and real that, without a proper understanding of the Bible, human beings are almost powerless against them.

After Joe’s first time in the astral plane, some Christians warned him that he was dabbling with the devil. He was so convinced that his experiences were what he thought they were that he laughed in their faces. “Do you believe in Santa Claus as well?”

After he became a Christian, though, and after he understood what had happened, he tried to convince Fred of Satan’s deception. “You can’t possibly be talking with your grandfather,” he said, “because he’s asleep.”

When Joe explained that supernatural powers were behind these experiences, however, Fred refused to listen. “No,” he replied. “I know my grandfather.”

He’s not the only one!

*Scriptures quoted from NKJV are from the New King James Version, copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

3 Facts About Near-Death Experiences

According to a Gallup Poll several years ago, 5 percent of all Americans have had a near-death experience (NDE). However, before you accept this as proof of life after death, remember these facts.

FACT 1: You aren’t dead when you’re having a near-death experience.

Ask a doctor and he or she will tell you that you aren’t dead when you stop breathing. You aren’t dead when your heart stops beating. You aren’t even dead when an EEG reveals no trace of brain activity. You are dead only when so many cells have died that there is no chance of reviving you, and this is a process that takes time.

Brain cells only begin to die, for instance, after four to six minutes without oxygen. Hearts can be resuscitated after fifteen minutes of “death.” Muscles and skin can hang on for several hours. And unusual circumstances, such as hypothermia, can prolong this process.

Medically speaking, in other words, the fact that someone can tell you about their NDE means that he or she wasn’t dead when it happened! Almost dead? Yes. Really dead? No. That’s why they call them near-death experiences, not after-death experiences.

FACT 2: You can be near death without having a near-death experience.

The same poll that said 5 percent of all adult Americans have had an NDE also said that two-thirds of those who’ve been near death have not had an NDE. Take three dying people, in other words. One will have a mystical experience and two won’t. But which one do you think will get written up in the tabloids?

Also, not all NDEs are alike. Roughly two out of three people who have had one do not “leave” their body— and roughly three out of every four report neither a tunnel nor a light at the end of a tunnel.

Approximately 1 percent of all NDEs are described as “acutely unpleasant” and even hellish.

These differences suggest that NDEs aren’t so much an objective description of death as they are a person’s subjective reaction to the dying process. The victim’s background can influence his or her NDE. Like dreams, in other words, NDEs are shaped by the people who have them.

FACT 3: You don’t need to be near death to have a near-death experience.

Everything that takes place during an NDE can happen in “real” life. Anesthesia, pituitary tumors, and too much carbon dioxide can trigger an apparent NDE. The “light at the end of a tunnel” featured in some NDEs can be duplicated by epilepsy, migraine headaches, meditation, and drugs such as LSD, psilocybin, and mescaline. Even falling asleep triggers this reaction in some people!

It seems safe to say, in other words, that under certain conditions, the brain reacts in seemingly bizarre but fairly predictable ways. Frightened, in shock, poisoned by some of the by-products of dying cells—under these conditions, is it any wonder dying people see things that are out of the ordinary?

Exactly why people see what they do while dying is a mystery, but no more so than why people see what they do while they’re dreaming. The ultimate answer to both questions probably lies within our skulls, not outside of them.