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Books: Down the tunnel of light

Books | Christian physician is skeptical of near death experiences on the basis of medicine and the Bible

Issue: "Charity begins at home," May 16, 1998

I have this hazy memory from the age of about seven of floating near the ceiling of my bedroom. Looking down, I saw myself sprawled among the covers, dozing as the early morning summer sunshine streamed through my window. Then came a strong sensation of falling down into my body, and I woke up. I put little theological weight on this experience, but taken together with my Christian conviction that life continues after you die, I was inclined to give the benefit of the doubt to those who claim to have had "near death experiences" (known as NDEs). After reading If I Should Wake Before I Die: The Biblical and Medical Truth about Near Death Experiences by H. Leon Greene, a Christian cardiologist and professor of medicine at the University of Washington's Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, I am far more skeptical. He admits that he cannot prove that when a person is briefly, clinically dead his soul does not depart and return a few minutes later. But he builds a very convincing case that the visions are merely the delusions of a dying brain. The first of three sections outlines the history of the NDE movement and its major gurus, notably Raymond Moody, California pastor Ralph Wilkerson, and Betty Eadie. NDEs vary widely, and proponents cannot agree on a definition. Must it include a sensation of rushing down a dark tunnel, an encounter with a being of light, overwhelming feelings of peace, and a life review? Or are any three of the 15 most common components enough? Also, NDEs tend to validate previously held religious and cultural beliefs. North Americans see Jesus in the bright light while Hindus in India, for example, see holy men and dead relatives. If NDEs are genuine accounts of a spiritual journey, then everybody should have roughly the same experience-yet they don't. In the second section Dr. Greene explains that when your nervous and cardiovascular systems begin to die, your short-term memory shuts down. He also points out that the human brain can be induced (by raising carbon dioxide levels in blood, for example) to produce the same experiences reported by NDE proponents: bright lights, a sense of detachment, a feeling of spiritual ecstasy, even life reviews. But the major reason for skepticism of NDEs is theological. Dr. Greene's main point, in the third section on the theological implications of NDEs, is that "man is destined to die once and after that to face judgment" ( Hebrews 9:27). People cling to NDEs as proof of the New Age message that death is peaceful; that there is no judgment; that God doesn't care about sin; that all religions will get you to the same place in the end. Hardly anybody reports visiting hell, he observes dryly. While he concedes that God might give visions, Dr. Greene concludes that Christians must reject NDEs as deceptive. All this is no proof one way or the other of an afterlife. It just means that Christians must rely on the Bible as their authority on the topic-not New Age pop psychologists.

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Les Sillars
Les Sillars

Les directs the journalism program at Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, Va., and is the editor of WORLD's Mailbag section.

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