Near Death Experience

A week ago (late August 2000) I had one courtesy of British Airways and a fire on an airplane. It got me thinking about what I would cry out to God in the last few seconds of my life, what a beautiful world we all live in (well at least that particular part of the Scottish countryside) and why a group of British people only dare to talk to each other after a major crisis.

We sat together afterwards in the special segregated lounge at Edinburgh airport. (It really doesn't do to mix people who have just faced this kind of thing with others waiting to take off.) After a bit, I picked up that morning's Daily Telegraph and read about another near death experience. The article was about Kerry Packer losing $20M in one night's gambling in Las Vegas. He's said to be worth around $4.5 billion. Apparently some time ago his heart gave in and he physically "died" for a couple of minutes in hospital. His comment: "I've been to the other side and let me tell you: there's nothing there".

I laughed. I thought about the experience I'd just been through and my reaction to it, and about Packer's experience and his account of it. The words of Jesus immediately came to mind: "do not lay up treasure for yourselves on earth ... but lay up treasure in heaven ... for where your treasure is your heart will be also." For Packer, there was indeed nothing there, just a very temporary $4.5bn on this side.

That, genuinely, was my immediate thought. The very next thought was to break my Wiki fast and write this little episode up on Wiki. Maybe it could shed some light on TheVisitation. Notice how my presuppositions, based on a worldview where the words of Jesus in the gospels are to be totally trusted in such matters, drastically change my interpretation of Packer's experience. Just as Packer would no doubt say that I was wasting my time preparing a final prayer in that plane. One person's experience can never be conclusive evidence for someone else, as RonJeffries rightly says of his experiences with the tooth fairy. Otherwise that thing called conscience would have only needed a global and not an instance variable for each human being.

I was always happiest with CategorySpiritualExperience? that someone suggested very early on for TheVisitation. I think it's a pity that Wiki hasn't had the self-discipline simply to leave it at that on Bill's experience.

The QuestForTheHistoricalJesus, as theologians and historians have called it for over a century, is something else entirely though. Wiki could be very useful indeed for that. If the community doesn't object.

(It did. At least for a while. Should this old page now go across to WhyClublet too?)

-- RichardDrake

Hey, Richard, glad you made it back in a functioning state. -- KeithBraithwaite and thus he became co-host

I'd like to come back to this subject with a story I once heard on video from DrJamesDobson, an American evangelical with a particular concern for the family. (This was triggered by a discussion I had last night with our babysitter about another close friend who has been in a coma for some months after being knocked down by a car.)

Dobson was winding up a series of talks on how best to bring up children and wanted to give an illustration of the kind of parenting he aspired to. He described how as a hospital paedeatrician he had come across a small black boy (maybe 5, I don't exactly remember) who was suffering from an incurable form of pneumonia that was going to lead to his lungs slowly filling up with fluid and drowning him. As Dobson said, as hands that life can deal you go, they don't come much worse than that.

The boy's mother was told the details of his condition so that she could perhaps try to prepare her son for what he was going to go through. Some days later some concerned nurses contacted her again. "We think your son is hallucinating. He keeps on repeating 'I can hear the bells. I can hear the bells.'". The mother replied, "Oh that's fine. I told my son that when he began to have difficulty breathing he would start to hear the bells of heaven ringing out to welcome him." The boy died with remarkable faith and serenity.

Dobson concluded: "And if I can pass on to my own children something approaching that heritage of faith I will consider that I have done something worthwhile with my life".

There are three observations that I'd like to add to this:

Why would you assume, of anyone, that because they scoff at ignorance they are unable to admire courage (on the boy's part) or wisdom (on the mother's)? They are different qualities; you can be ignorant and brave, educated and foolish, wise and timid. -- LaurentBossavit

Well I'm not sure I like scoffers in these areas LB. But I'm very happy to stand with you or any other human being in admiring courage and wisdom. And to refactor each other mercilessly in our pursuit of the truth!

I can live with that. ;)

In other words, from over thirty years of observation now, God does not seem so interested in the old, old arguments, in proving himself to people with a fleeting desire for some intellectual amusement but no intention of acting on anything they learn. Even if the "real evidence" may not be as weak as many with a strict "scientific approach" seem convinced it is, they of course not feeling any pressing need to look at the evidence, because it's known to be unscientific.

Strangely, what God seems to be more interested in is "new stuff". Real people facing up to real life situations which are new to them, often completely beyond them. Talking it through with him even in their desperation and coming up with something new, something living, something that kind of propels God himself into action to come up with the goods.

The rules stated above still apply. One person's experience, including this one, cannot logically convince another. But I have to say that mockery doesn't do it for me either. -- RichardDrake

Well put, Richard. -- MattBehrens

May I ask what Dr Dobson thought being "black" had to do with being more intuitive about natural (and divine) processes? -- PCP

He didn't say any of those things, Philip; he simply said that the boy was black. Meantime, I feel that I have gained a lot from the insights and example of black people into the Jesus that I follow. Do you think that I have sought to generalize this here in a wrong way? Let me give one more example of a NearDeathExperience of a black friend below, which may or may not shed light. -- RichardDrake

People all 'get it' or not, in their own way.

Yes. I'm simply trying to ground some of our discussion a little. This stuff really isn't just a game or a plaything for casual bystanders.

WikiAboutPersonalThings? is like a dinner party discussion. Part of the fun is to score little points (intellectual, personal, whatever) off the other guests. Mostly this is fun and harmless then suddenly you realize, like the frog in the cooking pot, that it has changed to a real argument and people are angry and hurt.

Lovely analogy.


Which reminds me an old church leader who used to say: "in this job, you need the heart of a lamb and the hide of a rhinoceros". It was I guess the condescension in some of the mockery that I wanted to highlight. Not so much for myself (a Wiki frog that many will surely feel has been begging for it) but others. Many suffering peoples, for one example many plantation slaves, have put their trust in the compassion and justice of Jesus. Such people deserve not further elitist contempt but respect for that choice. Maybe they saw clearer than we do through to the heart of things, through to who can really be trusted, than defeatest "opiate of the masses" theories implying that the rich and powerful will ever be able to manipulate without limit. We should be angry about injustice and hypocrisy, including in church history, yes. But condescending to true believers, never.

Given the axioms of the two groups:

It comes as absolutely no surprise that there is little actual debate about the existence or not of (a) god(s). In order to have a discussion, the two parties must share a set of core beliefs. In this area, theists and atheists have (by definition) no common ground.

Yet we also share so much, not least the experience of life and death and the deep desire to communicate about them.

Let me illustrate one more time how I feel we should go carefully in extrapolating from our experience of "bad Christians", and what may indeed be their inept logic at times, through to denigrating all those who choose to put their trust in Jesus.

I have a close friend from Somalia whom I will call Ibrahim. He was brought up a Muslim and had a successful small business there until civil war broke out between three rival tribal groups. This meant death to some of his close family, including his wife, the end of his business so that he was penniless, detention and, of course, torture. What made Ibrahim's torture, during three separate periods of detention, particularly horrible was that it was carried out very ruthlessly by the man who had been his next door neighbour, a man from another tribe whom he had considered a friend.

Eventually, he fled the country with his new wife and children. They ended up with nothing but the clothes they were wearing in a refugee camp in Kenya. Ibrahim could not help but notice that the people who cared for them there, who provided for their physical needs and showed through their actions that they thought of them as if they were brothers and sisters (his words) were ...

[Oh, now I have come to the difficult bit. I am not about to imply that Ibrahim's experience can be generalized across all the world and that all members of the faith and country concerned are always good and that all others are always bad. One of the greatest privileges of my life is having got to know HelenBamber, founder of the world renowned MedicalFoundation for the Care of Victims of Torture in London, originally started as part of AmnestyInternational. Helen has done extraordinary wonders for such terribly damaged people and she comes from a very secular left-wing Jewish background. I want to tell Ibrahim's story because I want to ask at the end if he deserves exactly the same level of contempt or at least patronizing smiles for what he has decided to believe as other peddlers of "deluded western claptrap".]

Well, these people were Americans and they called themselves Christians. Ibrahim was a sincere Muslim who had believed the Q'uran when it said that all Muslims were brothers. His faith had been dealt a severe blow by seeing the terrible barbarities inflicted by three different groups of Muslims on each other in his homeland. When he and his family arrived in England, he again noticed that although most of the natives were far from welcoming (in fact they endured some very nasty racist abuse, which is pretty much par for the course) those that took trouble to befriend and help them were active members of churches. When the local authority told them it was time for them to move elsewhere, the same thing happened in their new location.

So Ibrahim took the opportunity to learn much more about the Bible, considered a "holy book" by all Muslims but not one that had been particularly available to him during his time in Mogadishu. He also became our dear friend. And slowly and without fanfare he decided that "Issa" was indeed Son of God and Savior, as well as the prophet he had always revered.

Always ready with a broad smile and words of encouragement for others, despite his very humble financial and social state compared to years past, Ibrahim, his wife and children have become firm favorites in a humble little Christian community (half black, half white) in one part of our beautiful (!) multi-cultural inner city in London. Those who get to know him well know that he means what he says about returning to his homeland one day to tell them the wonderful news he has learnt, even though by human reckoning he seems to be referring to a certain, violent death.

His humility towards other believers (who often wonder if we are really worthy to be in the same room) is awesome. And so, in one gathering a while ago he learns from one of us about the command of Jesus to "forgive and bless your enemies". He thinks about his neighbour in Somalia and, as a man of integrity, he knows that he has a problem. He doesn't want to bless and forgive that person. He struggles with it in his heart for some months. Then in a weekend away with others from the church some leaders pray for him and in his own words "the Holy Spirit filled me with such joy and I knew that I had forgiven and love this man."

And when he humbly shared this experience a week later with the whole church, without mentioning why he had had such difficulty forgiving, or what the person had done, I knew that God was again teaching me, humbling me through someone many would no doubt consider a "no hoper". In my experience the Christian God likes to do that. It says "he resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble".

I dearly wish that those on Wiki or indeed anywhere that have experienced something so much worse than all this at the hands of Christians would have the opportunity to witness some of these things. Couldn't the forgiveness that Jesus taught be a pointer towards true peace in the world? Isn't a first step to admit that there may just be a very, very small proportion of those that claim to follow him that deserve true respect and honor for the love that they are allowing to overcome the hatred in their lives? -- RichardDrake

Thought Experiment: Ibrahim suffers same tragedy, but instead of meeting American Christians in Kenya, he meets American atheists who teach him that harboring hatred towards those who caused him suffering does no good; that forgiving them will allow him to close that chapter of his life and move on. He finds this difficult, but after talking with his atheist friends, he finds the strength to forgive. Question: What does this say about atheism?

It would say that atheism produces great results. At least once.

Ibrahim should be respected not because he is a Christian -- anyone can slap that label on themselves. Ibrahim should be respected because he found within himself the ability to forgive. No matter what faith Ibrahim had -- or even if he chose no faith -- it is his intrinsic character that should be respected. That he happened to be Christian is irrelevant -- except of course to Christians. Christians are depressing in their ability to take intrinsic qualities that already exist inside each of us, and instead say they come from the application of their faith or from God himself.

I find it sad, but it is consistent with a worldview that we are all "sinners" who need to be "saved" and without Jesus we're all just hapless and directionless in living our lives; filled with fear and hate and anger and every other negative attribute they can imagine. Some of us don't agree. Some of us are more optimistic.

-- JohnPassaniti

I respect your view John. We agree on what's right. It would be great for you to meet Ibrahim some time and to hear his view on how he found the strength to do what was right.

The one thing many Christians don't seem to get -- no matter how many times we non-Christians remind them -- is that we really have heard it all before. Yes, really. We've all heard endless testimonials and "witnessing" of faith. We've heard passionate expressions of how people's lives were changed by Jesus. We've heard infinite variations of how people have expressed miracles in their lives. Meeting Ibrahim would just add yet another story on the pile.

The funny thing about that is that, even though I'm a Christian, as his story unfolded I didn't find it "just another story on the pile". It moved me and it humbled me. Knowing Ibrahim has made it easier for me to face "unfair" people and situations, puny though those are in comparison to his. I have also worked with others who have undergone torture, from Iraq and other places. Some of them don't make as much progress as Ibrahim and are still really suffering. I am inspired by his example and of course I relate it to our faith. I believe as I say earlier that God delights to teach us through the most "unlikely" people. This gives me an insight into God's character. It is certainly possible that this is not the picture that others on Wiki have of God. I offer it as "food for thought", something to think about, just as PairProgramming was new to me when I came to Wiki. Nobody forced it on me but I read about it, we tried it and we liked it. There's no difference to me here.

Christians seem to think that if only non-Christians heard the right person -- maybe Ibrahim in this case -- then that would be the event that triggered an understanding and acceptance of their faith. Nope. If I met Ibrahim, I'm sure he would offer a passionate expression of his faith. "There I was, filled with hate and anger and fear and rage when suddenly I felt the Holy Spirit pass through my heart, giving me the strength to forgive..."

And after his testimonial, I would shake his hand for being the kind of person I admire -- the kind that can forgive others. And then I would talk to him, asking about his background and family. And somewhere in there, I guarantee we would come across points in his life -- prior to being a Christian -- where he forgave others, or where he idealized such forgiveness. And then, I would point out his forgiveness was an essential element of his character all along. Christianity may have made it easier for him, but he wasn't fundamentally changed because of his faith.

I've been in this situation numerous times, and it's always the same. A woman who was brutally raped learned to forgive her attacker. A man who lost a son due to a drunk driver learned to forgive the killer of his son. Endless variations on this theme; talk to them and you'll see the essential elements that led to their forgiveness was there all along.

-- JohnPassaniti

We agree then that one person's experience can never logically convince someone else. But that we should respect some of those that trust Jesus; that condescension and mockery are inappropriate for anyone whose loving acts and attitudes further the good of mankind as a whole.

I like your point, Richard. Condescension and mockery are tools used to hurt others and interfere with the pursuit of truth and knowledge. An honest investigation into the facts will never include such attitudes. When they are present, you can conclude that the person using them is not interested in the facts. -- BrucePennington

John, you have observed some truths. There are certain behaviors, that when followed, create healthy minds and relationships. These behaviors work whether one believes that God is their source or not. Human Secularists have a "manifesto" that summarizes many of these. The fact that they work, regardless of one's beleif/disbilief in God, however does not disprove the claim that these social codes come from God. If the universe was created by God, He laid down the laws of physics. When we follow them, things work well. When we try to defy them, we get hurt (like saying, "I don't care if the law of gravity is true, I'm going to step off this cliff and stand in mid-air!"). If this same God made the universe, He made laws of human nature as well. When we follow them, things work. When we defy them, we get hurt or society starts decaying. The fact that non-believing people do "healthy" things, like forgiving others, and lead mentally healthy lives simply adds evidence to support the truths claimed by Biblical writers thousands of years ago. Does it prove the Bible? No, but it adds cumulative support. -- BrucePennington

It does nothing of the sort, since it equally well supports the alternate notion that human nature simply turned out a particular way, and religions like Christianity and Islam ended up encouraging people to do things that match what is "healthy". Kudos to them for that, except in the cases where they do the opposite. Either way, John has a good point - people don't become forgiving or vengeful simply by their choice of religion, and if anything, they choose or interpret their religion based on their innate character. That goes for atheists, too.

I agree that each of us has a genetically deteremined "nature". I forgive like a dog - as soon as the hand is done whacking me - whereas my wife never forgives. However, I know people who started out like my wife, and after turning their hearts over to Jesus, and learning that He expects us to forgive, turned into forgiving people. Now regarding our discussion about laws of nature, it is a "chicken or the egg" debate, which to fully answer would take us off the purpose of this page (i.e. into evolution vs creation) and I don't want to distract from the page's intent. -- BrucePennington

I wonder if Ibrahim's former neighbour is still violent.

Why do you guys need to believe in god? Jesus is people's opium. You don't need Jesus or any god, unless you have a weak mind.

Why does opium get such a bad rap?

Remember, the whole "life and sentience" thing is a happy accident where a bunch of molecules tripped over one another and bumped into some random electricity at a temperature and pressure that just happened to be ideal for "life" and, in the biggest chain of coincidences and luck ever -- presto! -- we have life and evolution and intelligence.

Now that's what I call faith!

Oh please, it only looks that way in hindsight. It's more like, evolution has tried just about every possible approach, and 99.99999% of them failed and what we see as life today, was the only way it could have worked, it's not luck, it's sheer brute force over billions of years. Given that much time, and that many attempts, it'd be a miracle if life didn't develop! Evolution is about the most inefficient process you could imagine.

Somewhere, in the infinitely near future, an infinity of monkeys knocks on the publisher's door with a manuscript for Hamlet ...

For the record, the canonical Near Death Experience, characterized by visions of a tunnel of light, are identical to the experiences of pilots who pass out while going through G-force training. That's what it's like when your brain is getting an insufficient supply of blood. Aside from conclusions that reflect various belief systems, there is no evidence to suggest that what people experience in near-death provides any information about the afterlife. It's like going swimming on the beach in California, and mistaking the ocean for Japan. -- NickBensema

Not to mention that they're dying... their brain is malfunctioning, it's not surprising that you see all kinds of things as your brain shuts down. How much can you trust what it sees when you know it was malfunctioning, because you almost died?

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