Near-Death Experiences as Secular Eschatology

Tillman Rodabough & Kyle Cole. Handbook of Death and Dying. Editor: Clifton D Bryant. Volume 1. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Reference, 2003.

Near-death experiences (NDEs) have invaded an area of concern long reserved for theologians—the study of last things. A majority of Americans believe that there is life after death. According to an August 2000 Harris Poll, 85.6% of Americans 18 years of age or older believe the soul survives after death, and 75.3% think they will go to heaven (Harris Interactive 2000). In a national survey on near-death experiences, Gallup and Proctor (1982) found that approximately 23 million Americans “have, by prevailing medical definition, died briefly or… come close to death” (p. 6) and about 8 million (or approximately 35%) of these have had some sort of NDEs. A recent search of the Internet for the phrase “afterlife belief” using the Google search engine garnered a list of more than 26,000 sites, and investigation of such sites quickly reveals the wide variety of opinions people have concerning what happens after death and during NDEs. Have people who claim to have had NDEs actually encountered the afterlife before death? How does this relate to the study of last things by religious scholars? Can we measure the phenomenon of near-death experience using scientific methods?

As Schwarz (2001) notes, “In its broadest sense the term ‘eschatology’ includes all concepts of life beyond death and everything connected with it such as heaven and hell, paradise and immortality, resurrection and transmigration of the soul, rebirth and reincarnation, and last judgment and doomsday” (p. 26). Different world religions teach that an individual’s journey does not merely come to an end at death; rather, death represents a beautiful beginning that no one truly comprehends (Preuss 1971).

The afterlife has long been claimed as the domain of theology, and thereby the existence of an afterlife has been deemed primarily a matter of faith. Although the experiences of people who have come close to death or who have purportedly crossed the line between life and death have been recorded for hundreds of years, only recently have researchers attempted more organized studies of this phenomenon. Because these studies have not been conducted under the auspices of any specific dogma, this approach might be termed secular eschatology—the secular study of last things. We divide our discussion in this chapter into three major sections: an examination of the near-death experience using Raymond Moody’s model and the findings of other researchers who have tested that model, a look at the NDE as sacred eschatology, and, finally, an examination of the NDE as secular eschatology.

Near-Death Experiences: An Overview

The major impetus for the current secular interest in what happens at the point of death was the publication in 1975 of the book Life After Life, by Raymond Moody, Jr.; in this book, Moody presents his model for what he terms “near-death experiences.” Three factors served to strengthen the book’s appeal when it first appeared. First, Moody had impressive credentials as a philosophy professor; he held both a Ph.D. and an M.D., and he taught ethics in a medical school. Second, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, a charismatic speaker and probably the best-known student of death and dying at the time, contributed a foreword to the book, in which she wrote, “This book . . . will confirm what we have been taught for two thousand years—that there is life after death” (p. xi). And finally, in the book Moody pieced case histories together to tell the story of a peaceful journey that helped to reduce readers’ anxiety about dying.

Moody’s Research

Life After Life is Moody’s report on a qualitative study in which he interviewed people who had undergone neardeath experiences; the book presents a composite account of what it is like to die. Moody’s narrative is based on accounts from (a) persons who were resuscitated after having been thought dead, (b) persons who came close to death through severe injury or illness, (c) persons who were actually dying, and (d) persons who had severe accidents but escaped unscathed. Despite similarities, no two of the accounts are precisely alike, and a few are not even close to being like the others. No one person whom Moody interviewed reported experiencing every element in the composite, no single element is reported by every person in the sample, and the order of the elements varies.

Using the most common experiences he found in all of his research, Moody produced a scenario comprising the following 11 elements, which he pieced together into this somewhat chronological order:

  • Ineffability: Because the events that people experience during NDEs are outside their normal frame of reference, they encounter vocabulary difficulties in expressing what has happened to them. As Moody (1975) notes, most individuals find that “there are just no words to express what I am trying to say” (p. 26).
  • Hearing the news: During their near-death experiences, many of those Moody interviewed heard the physician in the operating room or some spectator at the scene declare them dead. One woman told Moody that during attempts to resuscitate her after a cardiac arrest, she heard her surgeon remark, “Let’s try one more time, and then we’ll give up” (pp. 27-28).
  • Feelings of peace and quiet: One of the most common elements in NDEs is an overwhelming feeling of peace. A man who was wounded while he was a soldier in Vietnam said that he felt “a great attitude of relief. There was no pain, and I’ve never felt so relaxed. I was at ease and it was all good” (pp. 28-29).
  • The noise: Many report some sort of auditory sensation, either pleasant or unpleasant. The descriptions vary widely—”a really bad buzzing noise,” “a loud ringing,” “a loud click, a roaring, a banging,” “Japanese wind bells,” “a majestic, really beautiful sort of music” (p. 30).
  • The dark tunnel: Some describe a sensation of traveling rapidly through dark space, often concurrently with hearing the noise. Moody’s interviewees described the space as a cave, a well, a trough, an enclosure, a tunnel, a funnel, a vacuum, a void, a sewer, a valley, a passageway, and a cylinder (p. 30-33).
  • Out of body: Individuals often report viewing others and themselves from vantage points outside their own physical bodies. Invisible, weightless, and lacking solidness, they possess the ability to move almost instantaneously from one place to another, with physical objects presenting no barrier. Their abilities to think, see, and hear are considerably enhanced. In this state, their improved hearing is more the ability to pick up thoughts than to hear physical sounds. But because others are unable to hear or see them, persons in this state feel isolated and alone.
  • Meeting others: As individuals move deeper into their journeys, others come to aid them in the transition to death or to tell them it is not yet their time to die. The deaththreatened persons usually recognize these as relatives or friends who have died previously, or as “guardian spirits” or “spiritual helpers” (p. 55).
  • The being of light: Many describe encountering an indescribably brilliant light that does not hurt the eyes. Most perceive this light as a being of love and warmth. “Out-of-body” persons feel an irresistible attraction to this being, or feel completely at ease, as though they are engulfed in the presence of this being. Christians sometimes identify the being as Christ, whereas Jews may call it an angel, and persons with no prior religious beliefs may simply describe it as a “being of light.” Communication between the light and the person close to death takes place through direct transfer of thoughts in such a way that lying and misunderstanding cannot occur. The being of light asks, “Are you prepared to die?” or “What have you done with your life to show me?” (p. 64). The being does not ask these questions in the spirit of condemnation, but in total love and acceptance, no matter what the answers may be.
  • The life review: The being of light answers the question by presenting a panoramic review of the person’s life. These three-dimensional memories are extraordinarily rapid and in chronological order. The person close to death reexperiences the emotions and feelings associated with the life events. The being of light provokes reflection while stressing the importance of learning to love other people and acquiring knowledge. Individuals report feeling as if they are actually in these flashbacks rather than just seeing them (p. 68).
  • The border or limit: A few of Moody’s respondents described some kind of border or limit, variously interpreted as “a body of water, a gray mist, a door, a fence across a field, or simply a line” (p. 73). They wanted to cross the barrier but felt themselves drawn back to life.
  • Coming back: The most common feelings in the initial phase of the NDE are a desire to get back into the body and regret over dying. Some of Moody’s respondents reported that, at a certain point, they did not want to return, but others were glad to return to complete some unfinished, important tasks. Some felt they were allowed to return by the being of light in response to their own requests to live or because God had some mission for them to fulfill. Others felt that the prayers of loved ones pulled them back from death.

Moody notes his respondents’ hesitancy to report these experiences for fear others would think them mentally unstable. Many told him that after their experiences, life became more precious to them, and the acquisition of knowledge more important. There were “no feelings of instantaneous salvation or of moral infallibility” and no “holier-than-thou” attitudes (p. 93); however, for those who had these experiences, death was no longer threatening. None of Moody’s respondents described a heaven of pearly gates and winged angels or a hell of flames. Rather, they compared death to a “homecoming,” an “awakening,” a “graduation,” and an “escape.” For the most part, the reward-punishment model of the afterlife did not appear among Moody’s subjects.

In the sequel to Life After Life, titled Reflections on Life After Life (1977), Moody describes additional, less frequently discussed, elements of the NDE. Possibly as a result of the popularity of his first book, he found that people who had had NDEs where much more willing to talk openly about the topic, and he examined so many cases that he no longer kept count. These accounts included the more common elements discussed above, along with the following four additional elements:

  • Vision of knowledge: Many reported experiencing a flash of universal insight—a brief glimpse of a realm where all knowledge seems to exist. On returning, one forgets the knowledge but remembers the feeling of knowing. This vision encouraged many survivors to continue to learn in this life after their return.
  • City of light: Although Moody reported the lack of anything resembling the traditional concept of heaven in the first book, the phrase “a city of light” occurred in several of the new accounts. In this “city,” everything, buildings and countryside, appears to be bright with brilliant light from no apparent source (Moody 1977:17).
  • Realm of dulled spirits: Several people reported observing “dulled spirits” or “confused beings” who seemed trapped in a particular state of existence, trying to decide where to go and what to do. Some of these washed-out, dejected spirits appeared to be trying to contact people on earth who had been close to them in life, to warn them to do good to others, but the people on earth were unaware of them. There appeared to be a huge array of these spirits attached to things important to them on earth.
  • Supernatural rescues: Moody also found instances in which people reported being rescued either before or after death by some voices or persons telling them how to get out of precarious and threatening situations. Sometimes they heard voices telling them their time had not yet come or telling them to breathe so that they might resume life.

In his second book, Moody, reinterprets the absence of a spiritual judgment in his first book. When they had been asked to look back over their lives, Moody’s interviewees had felt repentant over selfish acts and satisfaction where they had shown love and kindness. One individual perceived his flashback this way: “When I would experience a past event, it was like I was seeing it through eyes with (I guess you would say) omnipotent knowledge, guiding me, because it showed me not only what I had done but even how what I had done had affected other people” (quoted in Moody 1977:45).

According to Moody, the internal judgment within the individual meshes with Scripture, “With what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged” (Matthew 7:1). Moody (1977) notes that “nothing I have encountered precludes the possibility of a hell” (p. 36). In his more recent work, Moody (1999) also suggests that his respondents’ personal adventures assured them that life continues beyond death, which need not be feared. They became certain that the most important thing they could do while alive was to learn how to love.

Other Early Research

Kenneth Ring, author of Life at Death (1980), wanted to collect data in a way that could be analyzed and evaluated scientifically. Ring (a psychologist with a Ph.D.) and his assistants interviewed 102 people who had “come close to death.” Of these, 26% were “deep experiencers,” as defined by Ring’s weighted index of components experienced, 22% were “moderate experiencers,” and 52% were “nonexperiencers” (pp. 33-34). This gives his total sample a 48% experiencing rate, but only 39% of those referred by medical personnel and hospitals were experiencers. Because that 39% represents a more random selection than does the total figure, which includes self-referrals, Ring notes that the 39% experiencing rate is more representative of the total population. He warns that this is only suggestive, however, given that his sample was rather haphazardly collected.

Ring examined several correlates of the NDE and found that how a person nearly dies appears to make a difference: The incidence of core experiences is greatest in connection with illnesses (56%), followed by accidents (42%) and suicide attempts (33%). However, there is a gender difference, with women having core experiences related to illness and men having core experiences related to accidents. Relative to the NDE itself, 71% of Ring’s subjects used the words “peaceful” and/or “calm” to describe their experiences, 37% had out-of-body experiences, 23% experienced the darkness, 29% heard some unusual noise, 33% saw the bright light, 21% entered the light, 27% felt that they approached some kind of boundary, 57% went through a decisional phase that frequently involved flashbacks over their previous lives, 61.5% found their experience difficult to put into words, 37% had an increased appreciation of life, 24% had a renewed sense of purpose, and 24% reported that they had become more loving as a result of their experiences.

Ring, followed by other researchers (Bates and Stanley 1985), reduced Moody’s 15 elements to five categories: The first stage included a strong feeling of peacefulness; the second, traveling outside of one’s body; the third, traveling through the tunnel or void; the fourth, the encounter with the being of brilliant light and love; and the last and rarest stage, arriving at the final destination or “heaven.” Ring uses these stages in labeling persons with various levels of experience; for example, “Stage 3” refers to a person who went through the tunnel but did not encounter the being of light. Ring and Franklin (1981-82) suggest two models regarding the stages. In the first, the five stages unfold in a predetermined sequence—an invariant model; in the second, the stages unfold in one of several distinct individually determined progressions. Of the two, their second model more closely resembles Moody’s presentation; their first model was an attempt to achieve more structure and predictability.

Basically, although Ring’s book is titled Life at Death: A Scientific Investigation of the Near-Death Experience, his work is the Moody model with frequencies. The same problems that plagued Moody—lack of a representative sampling procedure, interviewing problems, lack of ability to corroborate reports, and lack of a genuine check of alternative hypotheses—also weaken Ring’s work. His contributions to research into near-death experiences consist of additional accounts and better records. In his later book, Heading Toward Omega: In Search of the Meaning of the Near-Death Experience (1984), Ring concludes that near-death experiencers invariably believe that that they have glimpsed life after death and that they will survive death when it comes.

Michael Sabom (1982), a cardiologist, began his investigation of NDEs with a negative view of Moody’s work and became a supporter as a result of his own research. Sabom sought to determine whether variables such as social, educational, professional, and religious backgrounds made any differences in the kinds of NDEs individuals report. Also, Moody had not attempted to substantiate near-death experiencers’ reports of what they “saw” happening around them when they were presumed unconscious; Sabom wanted to try to corroborate such accounts be checking medical records and other available sources.

Over a 5-year period, Sabom located 116 persons who had survived near-death experiences. Of 78 persons chosen arbitrarily from this group, 43% reported NDEs. Sabom found no social or demographic differences between those who did and those who did not report NDEs. Neither prior knowledge of the Moody model nor the cause of the near-death encounter—whether coma, accident, or cardiac arrest—affected the probability of NDE occurrence. Unlike Ring, Sabom found no correlations between how individuals nearly died and what they experienced. Both researchers used nonrandom samples, and differential biases could result from the manner in which subjects were selected.

When Sabom tested the accuracy of the autoscopic, or self-visualizing, phenomenon, he found that 26 of the 32 descriptions contained accurate but only general impressions. However, when he asked control patients with heart trouble to reconstruct their in-hospital resuscitations, 80% made at least one major error in describing their resuscitations. Asking someone to tell you what he or she remembers is different from asking someone to reconstruct a total process; the fewer details likely in the first case allow less room for error. Among his subjects, Sabom recorded 32 autoscopic descriptions; 14 entered a dark void; 17 saw a bright light; 28 saw a region of great scenic beauty; 28 reported meeting some other person; and others reported a decision to go back, a border or limit, or a change in attitude toward death—either their own or that of others. Overall, Sabom’s work is as entertaining as Moody’s and provides more demographic information and statistical comparisons. Sabom concludes that medical personnel must be more respectful of “unconscious” patients, particularly where careless conversation about the grim details or the hopelessness of the situation is concerned.

Flynn (1985) examined the lives of near-death experiencers and found support for earlier findings that such persons often change their lives after their NDEs. This transformation to some degree resembles the kind of change associated with religious conversion. We now turn to the subject of the NDE as an example of the life after death promised in most religious traditions.

Near-Death Experiences as Sacred Eschatology

Although Moody did not interpret his findings in a sacred sense, but rather simply as descriptions of what people actually experienced, others moved quickly to make the religious connection. Maurice Rawlings (1978), a cardiologist, recorded many of the same elements that Moody found from his own interviews with patients whom he resuscitated—the out-of-body experience, the dark tunnel, the noise, the river, the dead relatives, and the being of light, along with music and the city of gold. However, additional elements piqued his curiosity. Rawlings had an experience in which he was frightened by the pleas of a man he was resuscitating, who each time he was brought back to consciousness begged, “Don’t stop!… Each time you quit I go back to hell! Don’t let me go back to hell!” A couple of days later, when Rawlings returned to ask the patient what this hell was like, all the patient could remember of his NDE was the usual pleasant, Moody-type scenario. This experience motivated Rawlings to conduct research on the negative aspects of near-death experiences.

Rawlings (1978, 1983) reports that among the one-fifth of those resuscitated with experiences to report, unpleasant experiences appear as frequently as pleasant ones. Usually, however, the unpleasant experiences related during resuscitation or immediately after are forgotten within a short period. Rawlings reasons that these experiences are so bad that the mind copes by repressing them. Also, people may be somewhat embarrassed to report any temporary sojourns in hell because of what that implies about their personal morality. Rawlings interprets the pleasant place described in Moody’s writings as a prejudgment “sorting” ground; he suggests that the tolerant being of light may even be the devil in disguise, lulling the visitor into complacency. Rawlings’s explanations demonstrate the ease with which these experiences can be given alternative, even opposite, interpretations.

Other writers who take a traditional Christian perspective have offered warnings about the Moody model. For example, Tal Brooke (1979) suggests that all is not as it appears. Biblical exegesis, according to Brooke, reveals that “the deceased, the dead, cannot be contacted. God has created an impassable barrier. What are, in fact, being contacted in place of the sought-after human souls are some type of deceiving spirits masquerading as the deceased” (p. 69). Brooke asserts that Moody has been seduced by the beliefs of Eastern religions. Norman Gulley (1982), a professor of systematic theology and a member of the Seventh-Day Adventist denomination, says that death is an enemy, and any other teaching is false. He asks, “If Christ did not ascend to his Father until the resurrection morning, and waited in the grave during the interim, why should we expect any other humans to rise heavenward immediately at death instead of waiting until their final resurrection?” (p. 7). Harold Kuhn (1981), another religion professor, says that the darker encounters that Rawlings has written about should not be left out of media coverage in favor of encounters that fit the more positive Moody model: “If the two types can be presented in balance, they may serve to undergird the clear teaching of our Lord concerning the final division of mankind” (p. 82). Atwater (1994) places all NDE components into four different categories: the initial experience, the unpleasant or hell-like experience, the pleasant or heaven-like experience, and the transcendent experience. He sees all of these experiences as enlightenment that comes from a higher being, whether the focus is spiritual or knowledge related.

Clearly, the writers cited above see the near-death experience as sacred eschatology to be reinterpreted according to their religious beliefs. Lorimer (1989) points out that over hundreds of years, Christianity has had a difficult time integrating the Platonic idea of the immortality of the soul with the Hebrew idea of the resurrection of the flesh. Therefore, many Christians quickly adopted the phenomenon of the NDE as proof of the existence of heaven, God, and other religious figures; the separation of body and soul; and the possibility of resurrection.

The Moody model is not inconsistent with religion; indeed, it parallels Christianity in a number of ways. Different religions, and even different people within a single religious denomination, construct different conceptions of the afterlife. Differences appear even in biblical accounts. On one hand, Jesus’ words on the occasion of the raising of the daughter of Jairus, “She is not dead, but sleeps” (Matthew 9:24; Mark 5:39; Luke 8:52), have been interpreted to refer to “soul sleep”—the idea that the soul becomes unconscious at death. Similarly, in John 11:11, Jesus speaks to his disciples: “Lazarus has fallen asleep and I go to awake him.” Paul refers in 1 Thessalonians 4:13 to those Christians who have already died as “those who have fallen asleep,” and in Acts 7:60 he concludes his description of the stoning death of Stephen with “he fell asleep.” On the other hand, the Scriptures support the idea that the dead go immediately to a place where they have a conscious existence. In Luke 23:43, for example, Jesus assures the penitent thief hanging on the cross, “Today you will be with me in paradise.”

Whatever happens immediately after death, at some point the dead face one or more judgments, according to the Bible. The “sheep and the goat judgment” in Matthew 25:31-46 refers to a parable that Jesus told, suggesting that the good and bad are to be separated by God’s judgment to their eternal destiny—one of bliss and honor for the servants of God and the other of terror and punishment for those who have opposed his will in the physical life.

For most religions, and particularly for Christianity, faith is important for understanding the afterlife. As this short discussion illustrates, one can paint different pictures using Scripture, depending on which verses or segments one emphasizes and how one interprets them, but the Moody model is not inconsistent with the “Today you will be with me in paradise” perspective.

Parallels in Other Literature

In this subsection, we review and examine past accounts of the experience of death and near death for elements similar to those recorded by Moody. Scrutiny of religious writings and folklore for parallels in NDE descriptions reveals the widespread appearance of these phenomena (Holck 1978). For example, the auditory sensation common to NDEs has a parallel in the Bardo Thodol (the Tibetan Book of the Dead), where the dying person is told that “the natural sound of reality reverberating like a thousand thunders simultaneously sounding, will come” (Evans-Wentz 1960:104). The sensation of being in a dark tunnel, and the accompanying or interchangeable sensations of voidness or vacuum, may relate to the voidness, Shunyata, described in Eastern tradition (Eliade 1967).

The out-of-body experience and the awareness of a “spiritual body” is perhaps the feature most widely shared. The Indian tribes of the Argentine and Bolivian Chaco believed that the soul “at first hovers about its old abode, the dead body and the house where the departed lived” (Karsten 1932:189). The Zoroastrian tradition holds that the soul stays near the body for 3 days, hoping to return to the body (Pavry 1965). The Bardo Thodol states that the soul stays in the place where it had lived, sees its relatives, and hears the wailings (Evans-Wentz 1960).

Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Mormons, are encouraged to keep diaries, and these documents provide many interesting records of the significant events of their lives. Lundahl (1979) gives several examples of out-of-body experiences from accounts in Mormon diaries. For instance, in a diary entry dated 1838, a Mormon woman relates that her spirit left her body and she was able to see it lying on the bed and her sisters weeping. Another Mormon’s diary from the early 1860s tells how a man who was badly injured in an accident was able to see his body and the men standing around it from a position in the air above; he also was able to hear their conversation. In 1898, a Mormon missionary near death reported that his spirit left his body, although he could not tell how; he said that he saw himself standing 4 or 5 feet in the air, and saw his body lying below him on the bed (Lundahl 1979).

The inaudibility and invisibility of the nonmaterial entity is illustrated by a Chippewa story about a slain chief who spoke to his wife; she could not hear him until he returned to his body. Lithuanian folklore also includes a story of a man who grieved with his family for someone who had died until he realized at his funeral 3 days later that it was his body they were grieving over and returned to life (Eliade 1967).

The common NDE element of meeting dead relatives and friends is similar to Jensen’s (1963) description of primitive peoples’ view of the journey into death as one in which they are reunited with departed tribal members and with the deity who receives the dead. The Siberian funeral ceremony suggests that the shaman searches through the crowd of spirits to find close relatives of the deceased to whom the soul can be entrusted (Eliade 1967). The Winnebago tribe believed that dead relatives would guide and take care of the new soul. A Chinese tradition holds that the new soul is led by a demon to ancestors, who then guide it to the happy land. In the Islamic tradition, the souls of the faithful welcome and guide the new soul to heaven. And in Lithuanian folklore, the deceased friends of the dying person come to visit and take him or her away (Eliade 1967). In Lundahl’s (1979) review of Mormon near-death experiences, he relates the case of one man who reported seeing his little daughter, who had died many years earlier. Another reported being introduced to five generations of his father’s people, and a 16-year-old Mormon girl reported that her departed mother had been her guide in the spirit world.

Encounters with a being of light are also found in many traditions. A passage from the Saddharma-Smrityri-pasthana Sutra (chap. 34) states that as death approaches, the dying person sees a perplexing bright light (Eliade 1967). The Bardo Thodol states, “The wisdom of the Dharma-Dhatu, blue in color, shining transparent, glorious, dazzling … will shoot forth and strike against thee with a light so radiant that thou wilt scarcely be able to look at it” (Evans-Wentz 1960:160). The Chaco Indians believed that upon their arrival in the afterlife, the souls of the dead encountered an ever-shining sun (Karsten 1932).

The life review, or playback of the individual’s actions, is roughly paralleled in the Bardo Thodol, where “the Lord of Death will say, ‘I will consult the Mirror of Karma.’…He will look in the mirror, wherein every good and evil is reflected. Lying will be of no avail” (EvansWentz 1960:166). Similar accounts of the barrier between life and death have been given by the Maori and by the Thompson River Indians of British Columbia (Eliade 1967); that is, those who have died approached some kind of barrier and returned to life. In his review of near-death experiences in Mormon writings, Lundahl (1979) found no flashbacks, but he did find the barrier and the request that the individual return to life. He relates the following typical Mormon experience. In 1891, a 15-year-old Mormon girl, sick with scarlet fever, reported that her spirit left her body but could still hear and see her family mourning her death; went to another world, where she could hear music and singing; visited with many of her deceased family and friends; saw children singing in age-segregated groups similar to Sunday school; and was told to return to earth to finish her mission, which she did, although it was not her wish. In more recent historical research, Lundahl (1993-94) quotes full Moody-type scenarios directly from pre-1900 Mormon publications, revealing the existence of written documentation of these phenomena more than a century and a half ago.

Based on his review of religion and folklore, Holck (1978) suggests that there are similarities between contemporary NDEs and those randomly gathered from literary sources. He concludes that these phenomena are universal—a part of the experience of the human race. However, Holck asserts that whether these phenomena are archetypal, in the Jungian sense, or factual events is open to interpretation. As the above review shows, some relatively similar phenomena have happened across time and ethnic groups. If people who have NDEs actually perceive the literal contact with the afterlife that they report, these studies provide reinforcement for the religious study of last things.

Near-Death Experiences as Secular Eschatology

Looking at NDEs from a secular perspective involves taking two approaches: (a) searching for nonmetaphysical explanations for these experiences and (b) examining the experiences objectively, with no religious dogma attached. In this section we do both.

Some researchers offer a physiological explanation for the NDE. They assert that the person near death does not actually travel out of body and meet deceased relatives and religious figures; rather, these perceptions are triggered in the mind by physiological changes occurring in the organism. NDEs, therefore, become a study of last things without the sacred explanation. We do not actually see with our eyes but with our brains. Pressure against the eye produces small flashes of light when certain receptors excited by the pressure are induced to send the brain messages of perceptions that have no real object in the environment. As the brain deteriorates, changes in the central nervous system alter perception of the environment. The unconscious could be stimulated by a number of deep organismic changes, which can be separated into at least five categories: starvation and sleep deprivation, toxic metabolic products, autointoxication, anoxia, and drug use. We discuss each of these briefly in turn below.

Starvation and sleep deprivation. Starvation and sleep deprivation can interfere with psychological functioning to the point of inducing hallucinations. Symptoms of many diseases interfere with sleep and nutrition, so hospital patients could find themselves, through their inability to assimilate food or to get anything but drugged sleep, short on both, despite the best efforts of medical staff.

Toxic metabolic products. Profound psychological changes can occur as the result of toxic metabolic products in the organism. In hepatic and renal disease, for example, the liver may fail to detoxify various noxious substances, and the kidneys may eliminate only some of the organism’s waste products. Extreme mental changes can occur when an individual suffers from a progressive disease of the kidneys with subsequent uremia.

Autointoxication. Disintegration of bodily tissues, as in cancer or wasting and degenerative diseases, can trigger a high degree of autointoxication. This is particularly so when psychological functioning is affected by the pathological process in diseases such as meningitis or encephalitis, or by brain tumors, head injuries, or other types of brain damage.

Anoxia. Anoxia, an insufficient supply of oxygen to the tissues of the body, occurs frequently in dying individuals. Insufficient oxygen, or excess carbon dioxide, produces an abnormal mental state. Lung diseases such as emphysema or pulmonary tumors, which reduce the body’s oxygen intake, can cause anoxia. It is also caused by inadequate oxygen distribution throughout the body, as in cardiac failure or anemia, or by interference with the enzymatic transfer of oxygen at a subcellular level (Grof and Halifax 1978). Depriving the brain of oxygen has long been associated with visions and religious experiences. Australian Aboriginals at one time used near-suffocation or inhalation of smoke in religious rituals. Many religious experiences in India are aided by hyperventilation, holding the breath, obstruction of the larynx, constriction of the carotid arteries, or prolonged suspension by the feet—all of which result in brain anoxia. In a study of deathbed observations by doctors and nurses, Osis (1965) found that anoxia was the most frequently used explanation for patients’ reported visions and perceptions of apparitions. Where death is caused by cardiac arrest, the tissues of the body can survive for a time by turning the oxygen present in the blood into carbon dioxide. Several minutes pass before the brain cells suffer irreversible damage. In this unusual state of consciousness, an individual can perceive that he or she is experiencing an entire lifetime in a few minutes on the clock (Grof and Halifax 1978).

Drug use. “I realized that I had died, that I, Timothy Leary, the Timothy Leary game, was gone. I could look back and see my body on the bed. I relived my life, and re-experienced many events I had forgotten” (quoted in Kohler 1963: 31-32). So Leary recounts a psychedelic experience he had in Mexico after ingesting mushrooms. Another drug user reports: “My ideas of space were strange beyond description. I could see myself from head to foot as well as the sofa on which I was lying. About me was nothingness, absolutely empty space” (quoted in Unger 1963:113). Jane Dunlap (1961) writes of her experience on LSD, “As I watched, love which I had felt overpoweringly throughout the day multiplied until I seemed to be experiencing the sum total of love in the soul of every person who lives” (p. 184). After this experience, Dunlap says, “I feel that I am less critical and considerably more tolerant, sympathetic, forgiving, and understanding” (p. 202). Meduna (1958) notes that carbon dioxide narcosis can produce almost all of the effects of hallucinogens, and carbon dioxide buildup is a major consequence of the impairment of circulation during the dying process. Jack Provonsha (1981), a professor of ethics and an M.D. whose recognized area of authority is hallucinogenic drugs, completes his summary of the parallel between the effects of hallucinogenic drugs and Moody’s model as follows: “Altered psycho-chemistry is often accompanied by heightened levels of suggestibility. The belief systems of persons taking hallucinogens thus may strongly condition the content of the experience through autoand hetero-suggestion” (p. 15).

Stanislav Grof, a psychiatrist, and Joan Halifax, a medical anthropologist, describe the use of drug therapy with terminally ill patients in their book The Human Encounter With Death (1978). They found the experiences of patients under the influence of lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) to be remarkably similar to those described in the Moody model. Grof and Halifax studied patients at Sinai Hospital in Baltimore who fit the following criteria: some degree of physical pain, depression, tension, anxiety, or psychological isolation; minimum life expectancy of 3 months; and no major cardiovascular problems, brain hemorrhage, gross psychopathology, or history of epileptic seizures. The psychedelic therapy consisted of three phases. During the preparatory period, the researchers explored the dying patient’s past history and present situation and established a trust relationship with the patient and his or her family. The second phase consisted of the drug session, which lasted from 8 to 12 hours. Lying down with eyes covered, listening to music over stereophonic headphones, the patient was periodically given opportunities to communicate any feelings or insights he or she wished. Then, as the patient returned to a normal state of consciousness, relatives or close friends were invited for a “reunion” that frequently facilitated honest communication and more rewarding interaction. The third phase consisted of several postsession interviews through with the researchers intended to facilitate integration of the psychedelic experiences into the life of the dying individual.

There are many direct parallels between the psychedelic experiences that Grof and Halifax (1978) report and Moody’s NDE model. For example, the patients in their study experienced the feeling of leaving the body and out-of-body travel (p. 59). Some experienced auditory sensations; for instance, one patient reported hearing “an intense humming sound of a comforting and soothing quality” (p. 97). Another described fighting her way through a “black mass” (p. 86), and one mentioned a void. Some patients had the sense of vivid and convincing encounters with the spiritual essences of various deceased relatives. Reassuring telepathic exchange introduced familiarity and joyful expectation into the previously terrifying concept of dying (p. 113). Patients reported encountering a comforting light. One man, for example, became convinced that he had died, and a brilliant source of light, whom he identified as God, appeared and told him not to fear and assured him that everything would be all right (p. 76). Patients frequently reported encountering deities and demons (p. 156). Past life review was also a frequent phenomenon; during a few minutes, persons influenced by LSD subjectively experienced entire lifetimes or even millennia (p. 186). Frequently, these psychedelic sessions included “a condensed replay and reevaluation of their entire past history from the moment of birth on” (p. 113). One patient related: “Everything that has been my life is being shown to me….Memories, thousands of memories … Periods of sadness and periods of nice happy feelings … With the beautiful memories, everything gets very sunny. There is lots of light everywhere; with the sad ones, all gets darker … It was such a beautiful life; no one would believe what a beautiful life I have had” (p. 44).

The patients experienced feelings of love, tranquility, and peace, which was one of the objectives of the LSD therapy. A 40-year-old woman commented, “I am not sad any longer that I am to die. I have more loving feelings than ever before” (p. 106). The changes in another man were dramatic. He became peaceful and serene, saying, “I feel like I might come to heaven if I die….I was there” (p. 76). One woman underwent a profound spiritual transformation as a result of her LSD session that improved her remaining days (p. 64). Another similarity between these experiences and NDEs was their ineffability—that is, the experiencers noted their lack of ability to describe the psychedelic state adequately (p. 130).

Finally, Grof and Halifax (1978) were able to conduct some subjective tests of these parallels. Several patients who had undergone psychedelic sessions later experienced coma or clinical death from which they were resuscitated, and they described definite parallels between the drug sessions and the experience of “dying.” They also indicated that the lessons they had learned in their LSD sessions, of letting go and leaving their bodies, proved invaluable and made the experiences more tolerable (p. 59).

If the similarities between the experiences of these patients and Moody’s model of NDEs seem remarkably close, we should point out the lack of chronology in the page numbers we reference above. We have taken these examples from various places throughout Grof and Halifax’s book and arranged them to coincide with the sequence constructed by Moody. This is not necessarily a naturally occurring sequence, but, as Moody (1975) notes, neither is his. The important thing to note is that most of the components of the Moody model were experienced by persons who were not at the point of immediate death. The parallels were so clear that those who experienced both the psychedelic sessions and “clinical death” noticed them. An individual does not have to be at the point of death to experience such phenomena. Something occurs within the human mind that is similar across cultures and different experiences, but Grof and Halifax’s drug therapy research demonstrates that it is not necessarily related to imminent death.

Tests of Metaphysical Versus Physiological Hypotheses

Rodabough’s (1985) analysis of near-death experiences offers contrasting explanations for NDE accounts. Concluding that what near-death experiencers reports are actual experiences, he divides the explanations for these into metaphysical, physiological, and social psychological categories. Metaphysical explanations correspond to the sacred eschatology, physiological explanations correspond to the secular eschatology, and social psychological explanations give reasons for various components of the experience without suggesting deception. Although Rodabough assumes that simplest explanations are best and advocates the social psychological model, additional research conducted since his review was published gives credence to the metaphysical model without excluding the physiological model.

Karlis Osis and Erlendur Haraldsson focus on deathbed visions in their book At the Hour of Death (1977). These researchers tried to test two hypotheses that may explain such visions. According to the “death as transition” or metaphysical (sacred eschatology) hypothesis, dying persons’ perceptions should be relatively coherent and should portray otherworldly messengers and environments for which there is no adequate preconception. Such afterlife visions should vary little by age, sex, religious orientation, or nationality—that is, if dying persons are seeing something that is actually there, their descriptions should cut across individual, national, and cultural differences. According to the “death as destructive” or physiological (secular eschatology) hypothesis, the content of deathbed visions should express memories and expectations stored in the brain of the individual and so should reflect cultural conditioning by family, society, and religious institutions.

To test these hypotheses, Osis and Haraldsson mailed questionnaires to physicians and nurses at hospitals in the United States northern India. They obtained 606 cases in which terminal patients reported hallucination of persons. The largest category, 47%, consisted of apparitions of the dead, and 91% of these were identified as deceased relatives of the patient. The patients’ predominant reaction to their dead relatives’ apparent take-away missions was one of serenity and peace. Most of these deathbed visions were of short duration. In 62% of the cases, the person died within 24 hours of the hallucination and lost consciousness in less time than that (Osis and Haraldsson 1977:62).

In their study, Osis and Haraldsson controlled for brain disease, injury, stroke or uremia, fever, and drugs. Although they do not mention the possibility of serendipitous effects of other medicines, they operated conservatively by including everything in their hallucinogenic index that might increase a patient’s probability of hallucination.

Osis and Haraldsson did find that patients’ degree of involvement in religion and belief in an afterlife appeared to shape the phenomena to some extent along cultural lines. For example, an Indian woman suffering a myocardial infarction saw high mountains covered with snow, but no Americans saw a snow-covered paradise. For Indians, but not for Americans, the lower echelon of heavenly personnel frequently behaved in an authoritarian manner. Americans saw figures in heavenly surroundings, whereas Indians saw them in their own sickrooms (p. 107). Some 32% of the Indian patients had negative reactions to apparitions of religious figures, but only 10% of the Americans experienced negative emotions (p. 110). Indians hallucinated fewer dead than religious figures (28% to 48%), whereas Americans hallucinated five times more dead than religious apparitions. Americans favored female apparitions, who often portrayed younger persons. As Osis and Haraldsson (1977) note, “On the whole, Christians tended to hallucinate angels, Jesus, or the Virgin Mary, whereas Hindus would most usually see Yama, the god of death, one of his messengers, Krishna, or some other deity” (p. 64). These visions were relatively independent of the individuals’ reported depth of belief. It is interesting to note also that no dead clergymen and only five gurus turned up in the visions to aid patients in the transition from one world to the next.

The death as destruction hypothesis suggests that individuals’ experiences should depend on hallucinogenic medical factors, psychological variables, and cultural forces, whereas the survival hypothesis suggests that otherworldly visions should be relatively independent of such factors because of their ostensibly external origin. Osis and Haraldsson (1977:171) report that the survival hypothesis (sacred eschatology) was supported to their satisfaction over the death as destruction (secular eschatology) hypothesis by the data described above. However, as this brief review demonstrates, these perceptions are culturally determined to some extent, which also gives some credibility to the secular hypothesis.

One limitation of Osis and Haraldsson’s study is its reliance on the recollections of physicians and nurses; such recall is notorious for its biased selectivity. So whereas Moody constructed a subjective model, Osis and Haraldsson relied on subjective recollections to test their hypotheses. The lack of a control group with which to make comparisons also presents a problem for their study. Osis and Haraldsson describe the characteristics of terminal and nonterminal patients who saw apparitions, but they do not describe the characteristics of patients in the two categories who did not hallucinate. If, for example, 50% of those hallucinating had fevers above 100 degrees and only 5% of those not hallucinating had fevers above 100 degrees, this contrast would implicate fever as an agent of hallucination. Without such data, some meaningful comparisons cannot be made.

As a result of Osis and Haraldsson’s research, we know that some people have visions that cannot be explained by drugs, fever, and brain disturbance. We can also conclude that expectations about the afterlife affect what individuals see when they are near death. Although we do not know what actually happens to people as they are dying, systematic research such as this brings us closer.

Recent Research: A Secular Collection and Examination of Data

In this subsection we look at the other point of secular eschatology, an objective examination of the NDE without the influence of any religious dogma. In recent research, Ring and Lawrence (1993) attempted to verify NDE accounts by checking medical records and interviewing external observers. Each of Ring’s research projects has moved the study of NDEs closer to more rigid scientific exploration.

In addition to surveys, interviews, and attempts to correlate certain aspects of the NDE to demographic or medical variables (Owens, Cook, and Stevenson 1990), scholars have recently used more individualist case studies. For example, Michael Sabom (1998) has employed in-depth case studies to test his earlier, more general interviews. He reports in comprehensive detail one patient’s surgical procedures and the environmental setting. His account includes the patient’s exact physical condition—induced cardiac arrest, deep hypothermia (a core body temperature of 60 degrees), barbiturate cerebral protection (no brain wave activity on the electroencephalogram), no brain stem response, and all blood drained from the brain in preparation for the removal of a giant basilar artery aneurysm. At this time, when she was as clinically dead as could be determined, the patient had an extended (Stage 5) NDE; she later described an unusual bone saw the surgeon was using, recounted comments made by those in the operating room during the surgery, and concluded by saying that during her NDE she was the most aware she had ever been in her life. The significance of this study is that Sabom presents detailed comparisons between what the patient reported and the surgery room notes and recall of the other participants during the time of clinical death. This research was not based on the more distant recall used in the earlier studies.

Kelly, Greyson, and Stevenson (1999-2000) require that an NDE have three features if it is to be understood to suggest the possibility of survival after the death of the body: enhanced mental processes at a time when physiological function is seriously impaired, being out of the body, and awareness of events not available by the usual senses. In a sample of people who would have died without medical attention, Owens et al. (1990) found that 62% had increased mental abilities—that is, increased speed, logic, thought, visual and auditory clarity, and control of cognition. In regard to the second feature, Kelly et al. found that 50% of those they studied who were close to death reported looking down on their bodies from positions outside themselves.

To examine the third feature, extrasensory perception, Kelly et al. focus on case studies, including Sabom’s, in which the experiences of sedated patients in surgery are later verified—specifically those elements of the experiences that the patients could not have seen. Cook, Greyson, and Stevenson (1998) report one such experience in detail: A patient describing an NDE during surgery said that one of the surgeons had held his hands to his chest and “flap[ped] his arms as if trying to fly.” The researchers were able to verify the patient’s observation through interviews with witnesses and by examining physicians’ notes. Cases in which research can verify near-death experiencers’ perceptions of events outside the normal range of the physical senses are not common; each such case is thus a significant contribution. Kelly et al. (1999-2000) conclude that such research demonstrates that individuals can be aware of remote events not accessible to the ordinary senses.

In a recent report on a 13-year longitudinal study conducted in the Netherlands, van Lommel et al. (2001) provide a matched comparison between NDE patients and non-NDE patients. All 344 patients tracked by the Dutch team had cardiac arrests and were for a brief time clinically dead, with unconsciousness resulting from insufficient blood supply to the brain. All were resuscitated during a fixed period of time and interviewed. By comparing these groups, the researchers gathered reliable data about possible causes and consequences of NDEs that allowed them to conclude that the NDEs could not have been caused by medical factors. This type of careful research, employing longitudinal experimental design, combined with research using individual case studies, as described earlier, continues to advance our knowledge of NDEs.


Several conclusions may be drawn from the material we have presented in this chapter. Early attempts to gather data about near-death experiences were often limited by poor samples and problems of recall, but data gathering methods have improved steadily over time. Given the current definition of death as whole-brain death, few of these experiences have occurred while persons were dead, so most are not after-death experiences. Because so many of these accounts have not resulted from clinical death, and because those occurring apart from clinical death appear to be little different from those related to clinical death, we may conclude that certain stimuli present in stressful situations may trigger similar perceptions in the brain. The data collection methods used by researchers investigating NDEs do not lead us to any conclusions about an afterlife. Although these NDE data may be analyzed statistically, they do not lend themselves to causal inference because they do not allow us to discard alternative explanations.

Typically, interpretations of NDEs have matched the expectations of the interpreters. Contrary to Kübler-Ross’s proclamation that research into NDEs confirms the fact of life after death, the afterlife still remains a subject for religious faith and beliefs. Most skeptics could be convinced that these accounts are actual after-death accounts only if they were presented with a well-documented case of a person who had no vital signs and a flat EEG for a prolonged period who then came back to life and gave a report. Even then, many skeptics would argue that the “experience” occurred in the person’s mind during the moments of death as the brain lost its oxygen supply and chemical changes took place, not during the period of the flat EEG (Goleman 1977). At present, we have no sure way of knowing.

In recent years, some researchers have organized to pursue accounts of NDEs actively and to seek explanations for them while providing support for experiencers. On its Web site, the International Association for Near-Death Studies (IANDS; at says that its mission is “to respond to people’s needs for information and support concerning near-death and similar experiences, and to encourage recognition of the experiences as genuine and significant events of rich meaning.” Some of IANDS’s stated goals are to provide “reliable information about near-death experiences to experiencers, researchers, and the public” as well as to respond to “people’s needs to integrate the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual aspects of the NDE into their daily living.” To help disseminate information about NDEs, IANDS publishes the Journal of Near-Death Studies as well as a quarterly newsletter, Vital Signs. The organization’s Web site had 1,466,137 hits or visits between November 18, 1998, and August 3, 2002. This ongoing emphasis should provide a wealth of data in the years to come.

Those who believe in a life after death and those who do not will find nothing in NDE studies to contradict either belief. This demonstrates that scholars need to examine research results with a critical eye, to avoid accepting any “evidence” not supported by data, no matter how desirable. No doubt, as near-death experiences continue to be recorded, as research techniques are refined, and as more accurate definitions of death are specified, our understanding of these near-death phenomena will grow. Currently, the studies we have reviewed above are the best examples available of research examining last things from a secular perspective.