Near-death experiences often tells of stories of light and heaven-like experiences and because of this many people draw parallels between near-death experiences (NDEs) and heaven. But what exactly is heaven and how is it experienced by people who come close to death and actually go there?
One near-death account explains my experience of returning home: “It was as if I were going home, so familiar was it to me. As if returning to where I had originally come from…The absolute peace, the oneness, the completeness was the most striking.”[i]
When looking at the near-death experience we find that most commonly heaven is described as “the light” rather than a physical place. However, at the same time I am well aware of that many near-death experiences involves meetings with deceased relatives, beings of light or religious figures. So, I have asked myself; why did I not meet a deceased relative, a being of light, or a religious figure?
Researcher Michael Grosso gives one theory where he says that deceased relatives are more likely to appear in experiences that involve literal near-death situations. In cases such as mine, involving a non-literal ego-death situation, he explains that the appearance of deceased relatives would have no purpose.[ii]
This could be an explanation and it could also be that as an atheist (before) it would seem understandable that I would not meet a religious figure. I would then opposite expect religious people to meet their religious figures in all cases. However, in this question I find it interesting that for example not all Christians meet God or Jesus.
Don Piper, who was a Christian minister before and after his near-death experience, testifies that he did not actually see God although he knew God was there. He says: “I never saw any kind of image or luminous glow to indicate his divine presence…I saw only a bright iridescence.”[iii]
Generally, the near-death experience does seem to take the experiencer into the understanding of the God beyond God that Paul Tillich talks about as the ground of being, which underlies our concepts and images. So, the understanding that we can only reach God or heaven through Jesus or someone else, is problematic because the ‘real’ God seems to be beyond this understanding.
Also Kenneth Ring is in search of the essence of the light or what he calls the “second light.” In Lessons From the Light he gives us this account from Mellen-Thomas Benedict,
The Light just reacted and revealed itself on another level, and the message was “Yes, [for] most people, depending on where you are coming from, it could be Jesus, it could be Buddha, it could be Krishna, whatever.” But I said, “But what is it really?” And the Light then changed into—the only thing I can tell you [is that] it turned into a matrix.[iv]
Benedict calls this matrix our higher self or “the void.” He then tells us that, “When I was in the Void, the feeling I had was that I was aware of [things] before I had been created.”[v] This matches with my understanding of our true self. And if we remember that the mind or consciousness was earlier explained as a matrix for the light, then this account fits very well with my own experience of the source of the light, as something beyond our images and concepts—as the light behind God.
This view is supported by Peter Fenwick, who concludes that,
Although the ‘being of light’ always has a spiritual significance, it is only seldom that people describe seeing a particular religious figure such as Christ. Even those people whose Christian faith is strong don’t always see Christ. Much more often there is a feeling of ‘coming before one’s maker’: the being is felt as ‘God’ in a very broad sense.[vi]
The light is usually the predominate feature at the core of the near-death experience. In his research, Fenwick found that the light was experienced by 72 percent, but he also found that something lay even deeper at the heart of the experience: 88 percent described the experience of the feeling state of calm, peace, or joy. This means that the positive feeling state is the most common feature of the near-death experience.[vii]
Fenwick tells us that,
Although many of these visions of Paradise include strong well-formed, visual images, sometimes the imagery is much less pictorial, at times almost losing its form completely. And yet it still remains intensely emotional, and still gives this very strong impression of heightened awareness.[viii]
This means that behind whatever visions or images that are experienced, still we find that expanded awareness seems to be the essence of the experience of heaven. It also means that behind whatever being or religious figure we meet, the feelings of peace, joy and love are at the heart of the experience.
My experience was almost without any form at all, and so, I was left with the intense feeling state that Fenwick talks about. Therefore, I also intuitively feel that this feeling state is at the center of the experience and that this could be the essence of the very broad understanding of God and heaven.
Michael Grosso takes this further by explaining that the light is a symbol of consciousness and that the meetings with deceased relatives, out-of-body states, and life-reviews are all manifestations of the light. These manifestations are “extensions of consciousness,” as the light is both pure and formless while at the same time it has forms within it.[ix]
Grosso compares this explanation to Jung’s concept of the self, in that the basic structure of the near-death experience does not seem to be conditioned by the personal, but at the same time there are conditioned variations in the detail of content. This, he says, is equal to Jung’s distinction between the archetype as a form without content (non-perceptible), and the archetype as mediated by personal experience (perceptible).[x]
Jung himself told us about the subjective experience that,
If we approach this task with psychological views that are too personalistic, we fail to do justice to the fact that we are dealing with an archetype which is anything but personal…As archetypes, these figures are semi-collective and impersonal quantities, so that when we identify ourselves with them and fondly imagine that we are most truly ourselves, we are in fact most estranged from ourselves…The personal protagonists in the royal game should constantly bear in mind that at the bottom it represents the “trans-subjective” union of archetypal figures, and it should never be forgotten that it is a symbolical relationship whose goal is complete individuation.[xi]
Dr. Carlos Alvarado of University of Virginia, who studies out-of-body experiences, has the same view. He tells us that people who have out-of-body experiences where they experience another dimension say that it is a real dimension on a different plane, but at the same time it interacts with the mentality of the individual.[xii]
This interaction with our mind becomes the symbolical relationship with the light, which means that we create the content of the experience within the light. Researcher Jeffrey Long calls the experience a “co-created experience” of both personal and impersonal events.[xiii]
In addition to this, P. M. H. Atwater also claims that the “other worlds” that are encountered in the near-death experience do not seem to have their own independent existence. She explains that the light seems to be non-physical; rather than the light originating from other worlds, it seems more like these other worlds have their origin from within the light.[xiv]
Melvin Morse agrees with this perspective, saying that emotional archetypes are incorporated into the experience by the beholder in order to help make sense of the experience.[xv] Also if the meetings or other worlds did have their own independent existence, it would seem odd that some studies find that the meetings are not only with relatives who are deceased but also with people who are still alive.[xvi]
Having said this, I wish to emphasize that the near-death experience is a subjective experience that is co-created with the personality of each person. We are all unique individuals. It is not my intention to change anyone’s idea of heaven or take anything away from anybody. We are all entitled to our beliefs and I fully accept people who choose Jesus or someone else as their guide into heaven.
It is only when people hold on to their choice of belief so hard that they become fundamentalists that I see a problem. Here I am talking about people who believe and preach that Jesus is the only way by saying that those who die without Christ will go to hell. This is a problem that we see expressed throughout the world through war and conflict. To avoid this, I prefer to see heaven and its gate from a more universal perspective. This is also why I choose to align my experience with a more open interpretation that has room for other people’s beliefs.
Fenwick says about the broad understanding of God that, “Perhaps ‘neutrally spiritual’ is the nearest one can get to the feeling the being evokes.”[xvii] I did not meet a being or figure, except one could say that the light itself was the nature of being, and therefore, I also prefer the term neutrally spiritual. For me, this term describes my experience correctly as the nature of the light being a neutral spiritual energy from a God beyond God.
Quantum physics uses the term duality to evoke the understanding that one and the same phenomenon can be viewed from different perspectives. So the experience of the near-death phenomenon can be both personal and impersonal, while still being the experience of the same ultimate reality.
At the ultimate level, everything is one because everything is interconnected. This is what Pim van Lommel explained earlier; at the fundamental level of the universe there is no objectivity, only subjective experience. From this he concludes that there are no real objective results whereby we will have to change our concepts of objectivity.[xviii]
Buddhism teaches the same, that relative and absolute truth are two sides of the same truth and thereby one and the same. In the same way, meeting relatives or religious figures and not meeting anyone are also two sides of the same truth. This type of logic represents the way out of fundamentalism where the two extremes fight each other.
Ultimately the exact nature of the near-death experience is unknown. This indescribable phenomenon is related to us through subjective means and we are thus in the dark about its full mystery. Bruce Greyson reminds us that the near-death experience is like the Indian story of the five blind men trying to describe an elephant. We are the blind people trying to understand and describe the ultimate nature of the universe, and while being unable to see we hold on to pieces of the absolute truth thinking that’s how the whole elephant—the whole truth—must be.
[i] Fenwick, Fenwick, The Truth in the Light, 135.
[ii] Greyson, Flynn, The Near-Death Experience: Problems, Prospects, Perspectives, 193.
[iii] Piper, 90 Minutes in Heaven, 33.
[iv] Ring, Valarino, Lessons From the Light, 287.
[v] Ring, Valarino, Lessons From the Light, 290.
[vi] Fenwick, Fenwick, The Truth in the Light, 62.
[vii] Fenwick, Fenwick, The Truth in the Light, 58, 69.
[viii] Ibid, 84-85.
[ix] Greyson, Flynn, The Near-Death Experience: Problems, Prospects, Perspectives, 191.
[x] Greyson, Flynn, The Near-Death Experience: Problems, Prospects, Perspectives, 179.
[xi] Yates; Jung on Death and Immortality, 74-75.
[xii] Alvarado, What Is Enlightenment? Vol. 32, March-May 2006, 82.
[xiii] Jong, Interview, IANDS Conference, October 27, 2006.
[xiv] Atwater, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Near-Death Experiences, 182.
[xv] Morse, Transformed by the Light, 119-120.
[xvi] Fenwick, Fenwick, The Truth in the Light, 79.
[xvii] Fenwick, Fenwick, The Truth in the Light, 62.
[xviii] Van Lommel, Interview, IANDS Conference, October 28, 2006.