Near Death Experiences (NDE) have grabbed a lot of attention lately, and a lot of people seem absolutely enamored by them. Folks feel inclined to see in NDE all kinds of affirmation of popular “spiritual sounding” ideas like syncretism, universalism, reincarnation and so forth. There are a number of problems with reading too much into NDE that I don’t want to elaborate on here, rather I want to grant that they hold some validity, for the sake of argument.
Let us suppose that NDE gives us a glimpse into the world beyond that we can all expect to enter one day; a glimpse that we really cannot access in our normal daily routines of life. If this is so, then we should be interested to hear what those who have been on the “other side” have to say. In fact, I would suggest that the longer a person has been beyond the veil the more weight their testimony ought to carry. After all, if I got a ten second glimpse of the inside of the Sistine Chapel and somebody else got a 10 minute look around who would you be more inclined to trust with respect to what the Sistine Chapel looks like?
So what’s the record? Who has spent the most time on the “other side?” It turns out Jesus has spent more time there than just about anybody else in history (a couple of people have exceeded his record!). He died late one Friday afternoon and his tomb was found empty first thing in the morning on Sunday so he came back to life some time between those two events. We don’t know precisely when, but as a minimum they had enough time to see him dead on the cross, stab him in the side, remove him from the cross, wrap his body, transport him to the tomb (they didn’t have cars, I should remind the reader; they walked), place him in the tomb and roll the stone across the entrance. In theory he could have come back at precisely the time when the watchful eyes of the onlookers were no longer on him, but if the Bible is to be trusted at all then the suggestion seems to be that he returned to life early Sunday morning (Matthew 28:1-5). So it would seem he was on the “other side” somewhere between maybe a few hours and up to, perhaps, 30-36 hours!
Now I know the more astute theologians in our midst are probably crying foul at this point because what happened to Jesus is not, technically, an NDE as traditionally understood. It was a resurrection. He was unequivocally dead, and his return to life was not to the typical human life but to the resurrected human life which is fundamentally different from an NDE; a return to the same-old-same-old. I realize all that, but for the sake of argument I want to play along with this thought experiment. Humor me, please.
Regardless of the theological interpretations of Jesus return from the dead (NDE or resurrection) the fact remains that he spent more time among the dead than almost anybody else with an NDE.
Furthermore, unlike many people with an NDE, he spent a great deal of time in the business of expounding upon the ultimate issues of life. God, Heaven, Hell, meaning, ethics and so on, were all significant parts of his ministry on earth. Most people with an NDE are just average folks who happen to die and come back. In Jesus we find the happy coincidence of somebody specifically dedicated to addressing the major issues of life, and who spent a great deal of time beyond death (hours or days), and returned to us. Those three factors, combined, put him in a unique position to be something of a leading authority on the matter.
The question begs asking, if Jesus was in the historically unique position to give us the most reliable answers to questions about these issues, what did he say after his NDE?
Interestingly, Jesus is not recorded as saying very much after he returned from the dead. He rekindled a few relationships, shared a few theological insights with specific groups, and that’s about it. The majority of his teachings that we have on record came from prior to his death, not after his death. But this fact should clue us in to something; whatever happened beyond the grave did not inspire him to go back and correct his earlier teachings! In other words, whatever he had already taught us about all these major life issues during his life was not radically overturned by his experience of the afterlife during his NDE. What he taught before his death, it would seem, was consistent with what he learned during his NDE.
So what did he teach us? Well, a whole lot of stuff about God, Heaven, Hell, judgment and the importance of getting reconciled to God in order to avoid said judgment. How is reconciliation possible? Through Jesus (per his own teaching). So it would seem that Jesus’ NDE is confirmation that there is a God, there is Heaven, there is Hell, there will one day be a judgment and the only people who are going to Heaven will be those who have been reconciled to God through Jesus.
In a sense, the New Testament record of Jesus’ teachings is precisely what Jesus would have us know about life, its meaning, and what happens after we die. He taught it prior to his death and did not adjust his teachings after his NDE. So if you really want the best picture we can possibly get of the afterlife, turn to the guy who made it his livelihood to address these issues, and who spent a considerable amount of time exploring the very world he professed to know so much about, and then came back from the dead without feeling the need to correct anything he had said previously!
If you really think NDE hold the key to understanding the biggest issues in life then you really need to dive into the New Testament to properly understand them.