In early 1993 I received a call from an embarrassed radio announcer at a Christian radio station in Washington. He confessed that he had recently interviewed a local woman who he now thought may have been a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.” Her name was Betty Eadie, and she was the author of an allegedly Christian book, Embraced by the Light (Gold Leaf, 1992). In it she gives an elaborate account of her near-death experience (NDE). The dedication reads: “To the Light, my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, to whom I owe all that I have. He is the ‘staff’ that I lean on; without him I would fall.”

I consented to do a follow-up telephone interview on the subject of near-death experiences and so purchased and read Eadie’s book.

As I read the short but fantastic account of Eadie’s experience on “the other side,” I quickly discerned that the “Jesus Christ” to whom Eadie dedicated her book was not the same one the New Testament attests. Eadie’s Jesus, an amorphously benevolent being of Light, surrounded her in such a way that she could not tell where her “light” stopped and his began. Eadie concluded, based on her NDE, that Jesus was a being completely separate from the Father, that he would do nothing to offend her (so she should stop regretting past deeds), that humans are not sinful creatures by nature, that human “spirit beings” assisted the “Heavenly Father” at the Creation, and that, despite appearances, the world is bereft of tragedy. She concluded, “I knew that I was worthy to be with him, to embrace him.”

On a recent 20/20 television program, Eadie elaborated on her theology. She told Hugh Downs that her NDE informer her that those who had died in the Holocaust had chosen their fates before birth. This revelation was supposed to ease the anguish of the problem of evil. Yet one would have to question the intelligence of these preincarnate Jewish spirits in willfully choosing this ghastly demise. By attempting to eliminate tragedy, she impugns the victims and exonerates the perpetrators, none of who will suffer in hell.

No Baby Here

As I discussed and challenged these claims during the radio interview, several callers objected. How could I criticize this “nice lady”? One caller insisted that Eadie had experienced something of God but had simply confused some of the details. He told me "not to throw out the baby with the bath water."

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But there is no baby here. As I told the caller, "What Mrs. Eadie has right is that there is a God, and there is an afterlife." And one doesn't need to die to reach these conclusions.

My radio interview took place before Eadie's book began its meteoric rise to the top of the New York Times bestseller list (where it stayed for over a year-and-a half) and before she became an instant celebrity, appearing on the Oprah Winfrey Show and 20/20. Why would purported Christians want to believe Eadie's unbiblical account of the afterlife? And why are Christian bookstores frequently pestered to stock her book?

The Birth of a Trend

Although a large majority of Americans believe in God or some Higher Power, their religious beliefs are often self-styled, ill-conceived, and sloppily syncretistic. Because of secularization and religious pluralism, religious beliefs tend to be restricted to the private, subjective realm where they are isolated from public scrutiny. As a result, a plethora of religious expressions clamor for acceptance, many of which are falsely assumed to be "Christian." Few Americans need to be convinced that there is an afterlife (although, not surprisingly, more believe in heaven than in hell), but now a whole raft of near-death experiencers (NDEers) are eager to supply the metaphysical details. These accounts often conflict with each other and usually contradict biblical revelation.

Twenty years ago, most Americans believed in the afterlife, but most assumed that it applied to the dead only. Raymond Moody's little best-selling book Life After Life (Mockingbird, 1975) changed all that. Moody reported the experiences of 50 survivors of "clinical death" who claimed to have experienced another world. The individual experiences varied, but Moody identified several recurring features: leaving the body, observing the events surrounding one's "death," a rapid trip through a tunnel to a "Being" of Light, a review of one's life, the appearance of deceased relatives and/or angels, and the return to the body.

Moody also reported that while none experienced anything akin to the biblical picture of heaven or hell, almost all returned to physical life with new vigor and little or no fear of death.

Psychologist Kenneth Ring supplemented Moody's work with the rigorous Life at Death (Morrow, 1980), which was followed by cardiologist Michael Sabom's Recollections of Death (Harper & Row, 1982). Although differing from Moody's findings at certain points, Ring and Sabom corroborated the overall pattern of the NDE and helped put it squarely on the scientific map. Both acknowledged the explanations for the NDE that reduced it to merely a psychological, pharmacological, or physiological phenomenon devoid of anything spiritual. However, their investigations concluded that at least some NDEs involved actual out-of-body experiences beyond the realm of clinical death.

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More recently, Melvin Morse, a pediatrician in Seattle, has captured national attention with his research into children's experiences with NDEs. Morse's Closer to the Light (G. K. Hall, 1990) concludes that NDEs must be taken seriously and not dismissed as delusional because of the children's consistent testimony, their innocence, and the fact that their experiences could not be explained on the basis of medication.

Because of work by people like Moody, Ring, Sabom, and Morse, the NDE is now a readily available category of paranormal experience. The International Association for Near-Death Studies, founded in 1981, helps NDEers understand their experience while educating others, and it also publishes a quarterly newsletter and an interdisciplinary academic journal.

First-person NDE accounts like Embraced by the Light and, more recently, Saved by the Light (Random, 1994), by Dannion Brinkley, are selling briskly, the latter perhaps eclipsing Eadie in sensational appeal with his account of receiving mysterious counsel from l3 luminous beings.

NDEs are increasingly being taken as visionary and even prophetic, notwithstanding their unbiblical and illogical themes. Eadie's book, despite (or maybe because of) its artless matter-of-fact manner of describing cosmic visions, refuses to die. The paperback and the audio versions of Embraced by the Light have already been released.

Why this popularity?

Religion of the Resuscitated

Eadie makes no mention of the fact that she is a Mormon, either in the book or on her tours. Brinkley lays claim to no institutional church connections and makes no pretense at being a saintly fellow. Yet both claim to have met ultimate reality face-to-face without the assistance of any religious institution, human mediation, or historical connection. They were There; now they Know; and we should listen, especially since the news they bring is so consoling.In addition to the desire of creatures stranded "east of Eden" to discover what—if anything—lies beyond death's door, the interest in NDE accounts can be explained by another American religious tendency: immediate individual spirituality.

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These claims of blissful unmediated divine experience on "the other side" are producing what Christian NDE researcher Maurice Rawlings calls "the religion of the resuscitated." In his book To Hell and Back (Nelson, 1993), he describes this ersatz religion as embracing the belief in an enjoyable life after death with no fear of divine judgment. It dispenses with traditional dogmas of sin and the need for salvation, asserting instead that one must simply grow in knowledge and love, both vaguely defined. One NDEer in Moody's studies who had previously been a loyal Lutheran claimed that "the Lord isn't interested in doctrine." Hence, a kind of simplistic syncretism and universalism is affirmed.

As John Weldon and John Ankerberg point out in The Facts on Life After Death (Harvest House, 1992), this claim asserts that, on the one hand, we are exhorted to grow in knowledge while, on the other hand, we are barred from specific doctrinal affirmations about God, such as there being a narrow road that leads to life and a broad road leading to destruction (Matt. 7: 13).

The "religion of the resuscitated" also usually affirms the unlimited potential of humans. Eadie speaks of Jesus as her "Savior," but it is difficult to see how he functions as such given the role she claims for herself. She helped in the creation of the world as a preincarnate spirit; she briefly experienced omniscience (conveniently lost upon her returning); her thoughts have "tremendous power" to create reality; her soul and that of others progress eternally (a Mormon doctrine); and, as mentioned, she is worthy of Jesus' embrace. There is little room for "amazing grace" here.

Other NDEers make similar claims about unlimited capacities triggered through the experience. In Life at Death, Kenneth Ring avers that the NDE connects one with a "higher self," the pantheistic God within.

The "religion of the resuscitated" perpetuates the utopian hope that the prevalence of NDEs may be sparking a new evolutionary development in human consciousness. In this and other respects, the NDE phenomenon conforms to recurring New Age aspirations and predilections. Once freed from the fear of death and awakened to their latent power, humans may transcend their self-imposed crises and enter the New Age.

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What to Think?

How might discerning Christians sort out this material theologically and apologetically?

Some skeptics have dismissed the NDE as simply the hallucinations of a dying brain, manufacturing a bogus sense of transcendence in the face of destruction. Susan Blackmore's Dying to Live (Prometheus, 1993) rigorously attempts to explain (and explain away) the NDE on the basis of physiological factors alone. Despite her ardor, Blackmore's theories fail to capture every aspect of NDEs. A legitimate supernatural element does seem to exist with some NDEs, especially concerning reports of people accurately describing physical events that occurred after they have left their bodies at the point of clinical death.

Yet even if some NDEs produce spiritual experiences, that does not resolve the problem of conflicting testimonies. Some people come back believing in reincarnation, some don't; some near-death experiencers do not claim to experience God but only a light; some speak of bliss; some speak of a hellish NDE during which they experienced a sense of darkness and torment and the presence of evil beings intent upon drawing them into doom.

A Christian world-view can account for the negative NDEs as more than inexplicable aberrations or subjective projections. God may give a sinner a shocking taste of hell in order to awaken a healthy fear of God. Howard Storm, a recent guest on the John Ankerberg Show, reported that although he had been an atheist professor, a hellish NDE brought him to Christ for salvation.

But what do we make of the blissful NDEs, such as that of Betty Eadie, that contradict a biblical view of the after-life?

Although the evidence suggests that people sometimes experience some sort of spiritual reality apart from the body during their clinical deaths, this does not guarantee that all who claim NDEs have actually had one, that what people experience reflects ultimate reality, or that their testimonies are true. Despite her claims, there is no hard evidence that Betty Eadie actually died. She waited nearly 20 years before publishing her material, refuses to release her medical records, and claims that the physician in charge of her medical crisis has since died. The account of her death in her book lacks the ring of truth.

In addition, although some NDEs may be real experiences beyond the body, we should ask, "How reliable are these experiences?" Given what Jesus taught about demonic deception, it makes sense that the Evil One would delight in convincing souls that they need not fear the judgment of a holy God.

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An NDE reported by Ring in Heading Toward Omega (Morrow, 1985) involved a being who consoled a fretting women that "there are no sins." Many other NDEs agree. Yet if Jesus' words are true, we are, in fact, enslaved to sin and will die in our sins if we do not believe in the Son of Man who came to seek and to save the lost. As Blaise Pascal astutely warned in Pensées, "Between heaven and hell is only this life, which is the most fragile thing in the world."

Rawlings and others have given accounts of NDEs that seem to involve an encounter with the God of the Bible because their experiences concur with what we know about God's holiness and love. Bernard J. Klamecki, a medical doctor, reports in The Crisis of Homosexuality (Victor Books, 1990) that a young man told him that he clinically died after a massive dose of antibiotics to treat a venereal disease. The man left his body and encountered "the Omnipotent One," who lovingly told him that he had not used his gifts to glorify Christ. After the man's resuscitation, he abandoned his homosexual way of life, became a Christian, and joined a supportive Christian community. The combination of Christ's love and moral instruction in this NDE makes sense theologically.

However, NDEs by themselves cannot establish a reliable theology. Gary Habermas and J. P. Moreland rightly argue in Immortality (Nelson, 1992) that the NDE phenomenon helps establish that the soul can exist apart from the body for a short time, but that this is a "minimalist" claim because it says nothing of the final state of the soul. Those returning from near-death may have clinically died (indicated by a lack of heartbeat and/or brain waves), but they have not experienced biological or irreversible death. Nor have any been resurrected. Therefore, to take the word of the NDEer about the ultimate destiny of the soul is unwarranted, given the penultimate state of the NDE itself.

A genuine NDE cannot be compared to the final eschatological state wherein "every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord" (Phil. 2:10–ll). The disembodied soul is still subject to the deception wrought by the "ruler of the kingdom of the air" (Eph. 2:2) and his minions, who are not above appearing as angels of light (2 Cor. 11:14). One may encounter a deceptive light that lacks truth.

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Considering the conflicting testimonies of near-death experiences, their frequent disagreement with biblical revelation, the possibility of demonic deception, and their penultimate nature, we should dismiss the "religion of the resuscitated" and instead embrace the eternal certainties offered by the One who experienced death, burial, resurrection, and ascension to the place of unmatched authority. He alone has the last word on matters of life and death.

Douglas Groothuis is assistant professor of philosophy of religion and ethics at Denver Seminary and the author of Deceived by the Light (Harvest House).

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Deceived by the Light
Deceived by the Light
Harvest House Pub

203 pp., 2.55
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