So it seems that science is getting interested afresh in life-after-death. In last night's doco (4/09/2011), Rod Vaughan did a story on life after death with testimonies, interviews with several scientists studying the phenomenon in NZ and the USA, and with a sceptic (see http://ondemand.tv3.co.nz/60-Minutes-Life-After-Death/tabid/59/articleID/4028/MCat/22/Default.aspx 'Death's Door.' Rod Vaughan reports on 'A Matter of Life and Death' – Producer Chris Wilks).
He interviewed three people who had experienced similar things. Trevor James, a 71 year old Manawatu man, described 'the experience of his life' in which he 'died', left his body, floated over the bed observing himself, and of seeing his deceased relatives. As he floated, he remembers saying 'there's two of me.' He described hurtling down a tunnel toward a vivid and welcoming light. He says, 'It was so bright. It was brighter than the sun, brighter than an arc welder, yet it didn't hurt my eyes. And I was captivated by it. I wanted to go into the light and I felt so cheated that I hadn't been allowed to go into the light.' He went on, 'It was no hallucination. This thing actually happens to people. It's been happening to people from the year one and beyond. It is a preview to the read death. It is a picture of what is going to happen when we finally go through the light.' Trevor James gave his theological perspective about what happens after death: 'you go to a spirit world, to another dimension, which is somewhere upstairs, somewhere up there, I don't know whereabouts, somewhere up there.'
Another Kiwi, Maiata Clark (not sure of spelling) has had five such experiences, having been resuscitated from asthma attacks. She describes one 1998 experience: 'It may have lasted a moment. It may have lasted for ever. Time ceases to have meaning when you are in that space... an incredibly beautiful space... myriad of signs and sights... stunning colours.' She tearfully and hesitantly spoke of encountering a 'god-like' figure – something she rarely talked about because so many make such claims. This figure was dimly visible, robbed against 'blazing white light.' She described it as the 'most singularly beautiful experience' she has had. Although it happened 13 years ago she said, 'it might as well have happened today.' Rod Vaughan asked, 'do you really think the encounter was God?' She replied, 'I have no doubt that it was.'
Massey University psychologist Dr Natasha Tassell, one of the Kiwi researchers, shared something of her own experience as a teenager. She too went through a tunnel at high speed to a bright light with a silhouette of a being in the light. She felt scared and uncertain. She remembers saying to herself 'I am not ready' and communicating this to the being, and being instantly propelled back. Interestingly, perhaps because of her scientific scepticism, she doesn't now believe in life after death, she hasn't made up her mind, but is now 'open to the possibility that there could be' and the possibility that consciousness existing outside the body. She noted reports of people able to accurately recall things that have gone on when unconscious such as surgery details. She admitted it was a big call.
Of course not all are convinced. Vaughan interviewed Vicky Hyde of the NZ Skeptics who naturally rejected this likening it to reports in the 1980's of people being abducted by aliens or in the 1500-1600's of being visited by demons – 'exactly the same kind of experience.' She believes that there is a rational explanation for this due to peculiar neurological activities under stress at the point of death e.g. oxygen deprivation. It is thus similar to phantom limbs of amputees etc. She claims such experiences can be simulated in the lab with stimulation of the temporal lobes etc. She demands 'extraordinary proof' and remains an unbeliever.
However, the researchers note that this can explain some of it, but not all of the experiences people have. For example, as noted above, some can describe events in detail when unconscious and such recall should be impossible. Dr Bradley Long in the US, author of Evidence of the Afterlife: The Science of Near Death Experiences, has become convinced by the evidence that there is life after death. For example, some who are totally blind can recall experiences of 'seeing light', yet never having experienced it. Dr Tassell notes that some have this experience after sudden experiences of near-death, removing the idea of a 'prepared-for-experience.' Long has studied 1600 people in coming to his conclusion. He says, 'I finally reached the point where I just simply had to admit to myself and then the world that near death experiences are for real along with their message of an afterlife, a wonderful afterlife for all of us. Vaughan then asked, 'you are convinced that there is life after death?' Long responds, 'I am absolutely convinced, based on the evidence, that there is life after death.'
What can we make of it all? First, we should not get too excited and jump to the conclusion that this proves that there is life-after death. However, when you have 1600 people sharing the same experience, and scientists moving from scepticism to openness or belief, it is more than suggestive of something. The commonality of experience is also suggestive, including: leaving the body and observing oneself, meeting loved ones, a tunnel, a vivid bright light, a 'god-like' figure, and an encounter with them, and being sent back. We need to be sober about such things, but surely when there is such a wide number of them with such commonality, we can share them as one small part of sharing Christ and challenging people with the idea that there is more to life that what is seen. It is not surprising to me that God would not leave us such signs as part of his self-revelation to his world, as he calls people to him. It is consistent with God revealing himself to us, but with ambiguity. He is never totally open to the point of coercion and domination. He leaves us with the choice as to how to respond – are we with the sceptic, or are we going to believe in the light?
Secondly, the experience does have some resonances with the biblical visions of God, Christ, and angels experienced by people in the bible (theophany, christophany, angelophany) such as that of Ezekiel (Ezekiel 1), Jesus at the Transfiguration (Mark 9), the angels at the resurrection (e.g. Mark 16), and John of the resurrected Jesus in Revelation 1. In each, God, Christ, and the angels are resplendent in glorious light. It thus aligns with the testimony of Scripture. This kind of research can be used as part of our gospel proclamation, but not at its centre. It is a piece of interesting data that can be used to provoke and challenge.
Thirdly, we should not assume, as does Trevor James, that such experiences guarantee us life after death in the light as if by some divine right. If this experience is a pointer to the real thing, then what happens as one meets the light is unclear. The Scriptures fill this in for us. Consistently they state that we will meet this glorious God of light and be called to give account of our lives and eternal life in the light is not guaranteed. Faith is the critical issue, and where faith is found, life in the light will be our eternal experience.
Fourthly, the doco was interesting in the way that Vicky Hyde the sceptic came across. She is profoundly modernist, rational to the core. As with all such people, Christian and otherwise, she sounds increasingly out of date, a throwback to the era I grew up in when proof was demanded. Such people are totally materialistic and naturalistic, unopen to the mystery of the universe – there is so much stuff unexplainable, yet they naively limit their minds, demanding evidence. One wonders what it would take to convince her. Dr Long has interviewed some 1600 people with the same story, that's quite a few I would think. At what point does it become 'evidence?' I am not saying it is conclusive, it is clearly ambiguous – something the Kiwi research Dr Tassell admitted. However, when does it become convincing? What will convince? I would say that it fits nicely with the Christian story.
Finally, our faith as Christians does not rest on such things anyway. It rests on the event of the resurrection and the relational encounter we have with God when we yield to his invitation to abide with him. However, the resurrection does make complete sense of this sort of testimony. Jesus has broken the barriers between the 'natural' and 'supernatural', and these are further signs of this. He has made a 'tunnel' by which we can be united with 'the Light.' He is 'the way, the truth, and the life.' The key is how do we respond? The answer is to explore his word, seek him and respond by accepting him and placing our trust in him. Then we can be completely confident that we will pass into that light as we die, and we will be with him forever. What do you think?