Angel Studios’ new film After Death (2023, 102 minutes) is an engaging introduction to the extraordinary phenomenon of near-death experiences (NDEs). Written and directed by Stephen Gray and Chris Radtke, the docudrama explores medical and scientific evidence, common types of NDEs, and the impact on people who report having these experiences.
In an interview, the film’s producer Jason Pamer explained what motivated the film and the interest in NDEs among both people of faith and skeptics. We also discussed the personal views of some of the medical specialists who evaluated NDEs.
I see three positive features in this movie. First, the people with NDEs were allowed to describe the events for themselves and how it has impacted them personally. This feature adds a fresh personal appeal to the film. Having had a life-threatening illness myself in 2003, I can tell you that a brush with death gets your attention. It can change your life (though my illness did not include an NDE).
Second, the film includes interviews with longtime NDE researchers and authors like Raymond Moody, Kenneth Ring, and Michael Sabom. It also mentions the scholarly research performed by the International Association for Near-Death Studies (IANDS). Founded in 1981, the association publishes the peer-reviewed Journal of Near-Death Studies (JNDS).
Third, the doctors and scientists interviewed in the film reflect, to some degree, a spectrum of views about the truthful nature of these extraordinary experiences. However, I must note that the film tends to focus on and promote the authenticity of this phenomenon.
The film is lighter than one would expect of a documentary on the analysis of its subject matter. Also, some of the people interviewed about their experiences seem less than credible. But the film is also a movie intended to provoke people to consider the possible existential and religious nature of NDEs. Overall, I appreciated the movie and hope it gets people to think about their death and mortality.
Let’s now briefly explore the NDE phenomenon.
What Is an NDE?
Physician Raymond Moody coined the term “near-death experience” (NDE) in his best-selling book Life After Life (1975). Since this book’s publication, many researchers have investigated the conditions, content, and aftereffects of NDEs.
Near-death experiences (NDE) are a rare occurrence. They can happen when someone undergoes clinical death, is resuscitated, and later reports events or circumstances that took place while they were clinically dead. These reports can include the perception of floating above the body, the ability to relate information (such as doctors’ names and descriptions of medical equipment) that would be impossible for the person to know otherwise, and visions of dead loved ones or religious figures. People more likely to have an NDE include patients on the operating table, those with severe illness or injury, and victims of extreme trauma (such as car accidents). An article posted on the IANDS webpage (What Is a Near-Death Experience?) explains that people can have positive and negative NDEs:
“NDErs have reported two types of experiences. Most NDErs have reported pleasurable NDEs. These experiences involve mostly feelings of love, joy, peace, and/or bliss. A small number of NDErs have reported distressing NDEs. These experiences involve mostly feelings of terror, horror, anger, isolation, and/or guilt. Both types of NDErs usually report that the experience was hyper-real—even more real than earthly life. NDEs range from relatively simple, with few and/or less emotionally intense features, to relatively complex, with many and/or more emotionally intense features.”
Some years ago, I taught a college course entitled Perspectives on Death and Dying. Part of the course addressed NDEs and what people said they experienced. Here’s a list of characteristics commonly reported with NDEs (few people experience all of these phenomena).1
1. Encountering clinical (reversible) death as opposed to biological (irreversible) death usually by accident or illness. Some researchers call this the dying process (absence of consciousness, pulse, breathing)
2. Hearing the announcement of one’s death
3. Experiencing a dreamlike reality state
4. Experiencing a heightened sensory perception (seeing, hearing)
5. Having clarity of rational thought
6. Having an out-of-body experience (OBE)
7. Floating free and viewing one’s dead body
8. Feeling a sense of calm, peace, and serenity
9. Moving away from the body into a dark tunnel (called the transitional stage)
10. Perceiving a brilliant light
11. Seeing a light that beckons you to come forward
12. Experiencing a panoramic life review (flashbacks of life)
13. Entering the light while experiencing unspeakable love, joy, and brilliance
14. Being greeted by loved ones (family, Jesus, Moses, etc.)
15. Being told it’s not one’s time to die
16. Returning to the body
People who have positive NDEs often speak of a greater appreciation for life, a change in priorities (typically more relational and less materialistic), and little or no fear of death. Sometimes they have a religious conversion or increased spiritual conviction and devotion. People who have negative NDEs describe experiencing emptiness and aloneness in an eternal void. They sometimes mention torment by frightening and evil creatures and other human souls in great distress. In some cases people describe being judged by a higher power.2
The NDE of a Famous Atheist
Religious people are not the only ones to report having NDEs. For example, Sir Alfred Jules Ayer (1910–1989), a world-renowned philosopher and atheist, had an NDE in 1988. In a newspaper article entitled “What I Saw When I Was Dead,” Ayer described being in a British hospital suffering from pneumonia. He choked while eating salmon and his heart stopped beating for four minutes. Upon resuscitation, he described being “confronted by a red light, exceedingly bright, and also very painful even when I turned away from it. I was aware that this light was responsible for the government of the universe.” Ayer said that this experience could have been delusional, but he later concluded that if the experience was true, then it may provide “rather strong evidence that death does not put an end to consciousness.” Yet he still questioned the existence of life after death and the existence of God.3
How Common Are NDEs?
IANDS observes, “Near-death experiences are uncommon but not rare.” People from antiquity to the present have reported this phenomenon. In recent decades, millions of people have claimed NDEs. The IANDS website provides access to polls and research into the frequency and legitimacy of NDE claims.
Interpretation of NDEs
Generally speaking, there are three explanations of NDEs. Here is an outline I used when I taught my class:4
A. Neuropsychological Theories
1. Dysfunction of the brain or central nervous system
a. Cerebral anoxia (oxygen deprivation in the brain)
b. Endorphin release (endorphins can kill pain and cause a psychological sense of well-being)
c. Temporal lobe paroxysm (seizure-like discharges in the brain)
d. Drugs (side effects)
B. Psychological Theories
1. Psychological defense mechanism (shock, depersonalization)
2. Motivated fantasy (fantasy motivated by our desperate desire to survive death)
3. Archetypes (mythological archetypes associated with humanity’s collective unconscious mind)
C. Metaphysical Theories
1. Soul travel (transitional journey of the soul or spirit to another realm of reality, like heaven)
2. Psychic vision (glimpse into another realm of reality)
Some of the phenomena may be explained purely from a physiological and/or psychological perspective. However, some of the phenomena defy naturalistic explanations. The cases that provide independently corroborated data are the most difficult to account for via naturalism. These are the cases where the dying person views people, events, and circumstances with amazing accuracy even though the person is comatose at the time. For example, there are cases where information is provided by the patient though he or she had no EKG (after the heart stops), or no EEG (after the brain stops), and some patients even saw people they didn’t know had died.5
A Biblical and Christian Worldview Assessment
There are four general responses that Christians offer for understanding NDEs.
Bogus and Uncritical Accounts
The NDE phenomenon is extraordinary and attention-getting by nature. Therefore, some reports may be invented and motivated by a desire for wealth and notoriety. It’s also the case that a person may engage in an uncritical form of confirmation bias where they seek only the kinds of experiences that are in line with their particular worldview perspective. In evaluating this phenomenon, Christians and non-Christians need to be exactingly honest, careful, and fair-minded in their analysis.
Demonic Counterfeit Phenomena
Could demonic spirits orchestrate NDEs? This explanation should neither be accepted nor rejected quickly. Critical spiritual discernment is needed. Scripture reveals that dark forces (Satan) can masquerade as an angel of light (2 Corinthians 11:14–15). Moreover, those same forces can use counterfeit signs and wonders as a means of deception (2 Thessalonians 2:9–10).
Again this view is often too easily accepted (by conservative Christians) or rejected (by secular skeptics).
Eastern Mystical, New Age, Occult Interpretations
It’s possible that the phenomena may be real, but the interpretation and worldview analysis is faulty. Some major NDE authors tend to interpret the data from a pluralistic, New Age, and even occult perspective. Four of the major NDE researchers and authors—Raymond Moody, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, Kenneth Ring, and Melvin Morse—seem to interpret NDEs to greater or lesser degrees from an Eastern mystical or New Age viewpoint. New Age beliefs generally involve religious pluralism (all religions are equally valid), all is one (monism), all is God (pantheism), humanity is divine, a need to change human consciousness (enlightenment), and spiritism (communication with spirits).6
Authentic Afterlife Experiences
Some NDEs that seem veridical (truthful) don’t fit any of the other interpretations mentioned so far. Some NDEs seem consistent with the general biblical message. Human beings are a union of body and soul. At death, one’s soul is separated from the body and goes to be in the presence of Christ in the intermediate state7 (2 Corinthians 5:6–8; Philippians 1:21, 23–24). Also, some NDEs bear good fruit in leading people to embrace Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.
It should be noted that Christians affirm the truth of eternal life on the basis of Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection8 as revealed in Scripture. NDEs could be cited as possible support for belief in life after death but these subjective experiences don’t carry the same authority as God’s written Word.So, are NDEs evidence for life after death? Given that some NDEs involve corroborated data, that this data defies a purely naturalistic explanation, and that some of the data is consistent with Christianity, my answer is a cautious yes.
- For two Christian philosophers’ assessment of immortality, see Gary R. Habermas and J. P. Moreland, Beyond Death: Exploring the Evidence for Immortality.
- For a careful examination of NDEs by a Christian physician, see Michael B. Sabom, Light and Death: One Doctor’s Fascinating Account of Near-Death Experiences.
- For a Christian philosopher’s examination of NDEs in a New Age context, see Douglas R. Groothuis, Deceived by the Light.
- For an examination of the negative side of NDEs by a Christian physician, see Maurice S. Rawlings, To Hell and Back.
- For a Christian discussion of the relationship of body and soul in light of eternity, see John W. Cooper, Body, Soul, and Life Everlasting: Biblical Anthropology and the Monism-Dualism Debate.
- For a discussion of sin, death, and resurrection, see Kenneth Richard Samples, 7 Truths That Changed the World.
- For a discussion of heaven and hell in light of Christian eschatology, see Kenneth Richard Samples, Christian Endgame: Careful Thinking about the End Times.
- For a traditional discussion of heaven and hell, see Alan W. Gomes, 40 Questions about Heaven and Hell.
- See Lynne Ann DeSpelder and Albert Lee Strickland, The Last Dance: Encountering Death and Dying, 4th ed. (Mountain View, CA: Mayfield Publishing, 1996), 574–587; Gary R. Habermas and J. P. Moreland, Beyond Death: Exploring the Evidence for Immortality, 2nd ed. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1998); Michael B. Sabom, Recollections of Death: A Medical Investigation (New York, NY: Corgi Books, 1982); Michael B. Sabom, Light and Death: One Doctor’s Fascinating Account of Near-Death Experiences (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1998); Kenneth Ring, Life at Death: A Scientific Investigation of the Near-Death Experience (New York, NY: Coward Mc Cann, 1980).
- “What Is a Near-Death Experience?,” International Association for Near-Death Studies, last updated December 8, 2022, accessed November 2, 2023, iands.org/ndes/about-ndes/what-is-an-nde.html.
- See “Even Atheists Have Out Of Body Experiences . . . (A. J. Ayer’s essay),” recitation of A. J. Ayers, “What I Saw When I Was Dead,” Sunday Telegraph, August 1988, namesameasu, September 26, 2014, video, 19:37, youtube.com/watch?v=euFuZk8BRSQ, and “Atheist Philosopher A. J. Ayer’s Near Death Experience,” Wisdomphile, video, 00:58, May 28, 2022, youtube.com/watch?v=oiVkneXAWWQ.
- DeSpelder and Strickland, Last Dance, 579.
- Habermas and Moreland, Beyond Death, 155–172.
- See Douglas R. Groothuis, Deceived by the Light (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 1995).
- For a Christian discussion of the relationship of body and soul in light of eternity, see John W. Cooper, Body, Soul, and Life Everlasting: Biblical Anthropology and the Monism-Dualism Debate (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000).
- For twenty evidences for the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ, see Kenneth Richard Samples, Christianity Cross-Examined: Is It Rational, Relevant, and Good? (Covina, CA: RTB Press, 2021), 115–133.