In the last few years, quite a few books and movies about near-death experiences have been focused on heaven. From a neurosurgeon’s journey into the afterlife in “Proof of Heaven” to the movie production of “90 Minutes in Heaven” and “Heaven is For Real.”
Heaven is getting a lot of publicity. This should be a cause for celebration amongst followers of religion, who believe in this very promise and would like the rest of us follow. But, all this attention given to near-death experiences as experiences of heaven is also creating scepticism within the religious community.
In the article Heaven and near-death experiences: Separating fact from fiction, we are told that while most Americans believe in heaven, they need help separating fact from fiction. In the article, author and theologian Scot McKnight claims that near-death experiences are “unreliable guides” to what lies beyond death because as “near” death they are “pre” and not “post” death experiences.
This argument is often used, but its simple circular logic that shows ignorance about the scientific meaning of clinical death, which people come back from. McKnight also lays out four points of sceptical arguments against near-death experiences that touches on the diversity and universality of the experience. This argument goes along with the most common critique from Christians that the contents of near-death experiences differ from scripture and what the Bible tells them.
Scepticism is certainly healthy and reflection even better. But if we truly wanted to know if these experiences of heaven are real or not, and if near-death experiences are related to religion, there is a more objective way than opinion or interpretation of scripture by which we can answer the question.
In his paper Congruence between near-death and mystical experience containing the results of a comprehensive scientific study of 292 near-death experiences, Bruce Greyson found that two-thirds reported having a mystical experience. This conclusion means that there are strong parallels between the near-death and mystical experience found in religion.
Adding to this evidence, I have myself just completed a new study of 33 near-death experiences, where I also wanted to analyse the parallels between the near-death and religious experience. I based the study on generally accepted criteria of religious experiences found within religion itself, such as the experience of union with God, communication with God, and being in the presence of God.
My study has overwhelmingly found that 94 percent of the participants had a strong sense of experiencing God in their near-death experience. This result should be seen in the light of the first part of the study, which found that 87 percent had a strong sense of William James’ four criteria of a religious experience: ineffability, noetic quality, transiency and passivity.
It is true that along with universal elements, near-death experiences also contain subjective features that seem very foreign to religion and scripture. However, in the scientific study of near-death experiences the language of God or religion is also often left out. It is therefore no wonder that the near-death experience seem alien to some followers of religion, especially those who want their faith to be exclusive.
With my new study, I believe to have provided an objective analysis of the parallels to religion, one that clearly shows that experiences of God are very much part of the experience. Without having asked specifically about heaven, it is clear that God is part of the picture and that religion therefore should consider being more open to these living testimonies.
The complete study will soon be published and at that time I will make more information available here on my website.