How seriously should we take so-called “near-death” experiences?
Very seriously indeed, says Fr. John Price, an Episcopal priest who has talked to more than 200 “returnees” over the past forty years, and has researched the stories of many more. Fr. Price, whom I am privileged to know personally, has distilled his findings into a startling new book called, Revealing Heaven: The Christian Case for Near-Death Experiences.
Fr. Price was himself initially skeptical about near-death experiences, and even the possibility of life after death. As he admits in his book, during the early years of his ministry he rarely preached about heaven, and was “never fully comfortable with the subject.”
He began to change his mind in 1976, when he read Life After Life by Raymond A. Moody. It was Moody who coined the term “near-death experience” after interviewing 150 people who claimed that something had happened to them after they had been declared clinically dead.
A month after reading Moody, Fr. Price began serving as an Army chaplain. In that capacity, he heard a young Mexican-American private named Alberto recount his own near-death experience, the details of which jibed with the episodes recorded by Moody. Fr. Price was intrigued.
Then he heard a story from a young mother named Frances, whose daughter, Fran, had suddenly stopped breathing when she was eight weeks old. Frances and her husband rushed Fran to the hospital where a team of doctors finally managed to resuscitate her. Nothing more was said about this harrowing experience until three years later, when Frances drove past the same hospital with Fran in the car. “Look, Mommy,” said Fran, pointing out the car window to the hospital, “that’s where Jesus brought me back to you.”
Frances nearly ran the car off the road. “What did you say?” She had never told Fran about the trip to the emergency room. Nor had she talked to her daughter about death, or heaven, or God or Jesus. And yet there was three-year-old Fran, prattling on as if what she was saying was perfectly obvious: “You know, Mommy. Jesus came and got me, but he brought me back to you there.”
Frances was convinced that the episode Fran described actually happened. And, adds Fr. Price with a twinkle, “She never missed church after that.”
According to a 1981 Gallup poll, 15 percent of American adults claim to have had a “verge-of-death” experience. Despite the number of these experiences, and the growing number of studies documenting them, there is great reluctance on the part of many people to credit them.
For those who reject the very idea of life after death, it is easy to discount the stories told by some returnees of floating through a tunnel toward a “great light” while experiencing a deep sense of love and peace. It is true that these early stages of a near-death experience can be explained as hallucinations caused by a loss of oxygen to the brain. Fr. Price admits that about 40 percent of the accounts told to him were limited to these early stages. But the remaining accounts were more compelling. Frequently, they included details that can be explained only if the returnee had actually undergone an out-of-body experience.
For example, Fr. Price cites the case of a woman named Marie who was taken to a hospital with a case of cardiac arrest. The next day, Marie told a visiting social worker that she had left her body and floated above the hospital. When the social worker expressed doubt, Marie described a worn dark blue tennis shoe resting on the ledge outside of a window on the other side of the hospital. Upon investigation, the social worker found the shoe—exactly as Marie had described it.
More distressing to Fr. Price is the number of Christians who reject near-death experiences because these experiences contradict so much of what they have been taught to believe about heaven and hell. To put the matter more plainly, many Christians want to believe in a God of wrath, and they are disappointed—even indignant—when someone returns from the other side with the message that God is love.
Fr. Price tells the sad story of a highly successful hellfire-and-damnation preacher who was resuscitated after what should have been a fatal heart attack. As soon as he was discharged from the hospital, he rushed back to his pulpit and declared to his astonished parishioners, “Everything I’ve told you was wrong. God loves us and wants to forgive us. He loves, forgives, redeems.”
That preacher lost his career. His congregation drifted away, his income dried up and even his family deserted him—all except for his wife, who found her husband’s new personality to be a great improvement over the old.
For those who believe in a vengeful, scorekeeping God, there are even greater disappointments awaiting them in Fr. Price’s book. Based on his conversations with those who claim to have undergone a lovingly-conducted “review” of their lives on earth, Fr. Price has compiled a rather long list of “sins” that will not keep people out of heaven. These include dancing, drinking alcohol (in moderation), swearing, masturbation, birth control, skipping church, not being baptized and homosexual sex. (I’m afraid that last item will make some Christian fundamentalists very irate indeed.)
So do these assurances that God is in fact loving, generous and forgiving mean that we’re home free? If skipping church won’t keep us out of heaven can we spend our Sundays on the golf links or our favorite fishing holes?
Not so fast.
Fr. Price also interviewed a number of cruel, nasty and mean-spirited people who had hellish near-death experiences. Happily, most of them took advantage of their narrow escape from perdition to turn their lives around and become much better and more loving persons. Still, the terrors they experienced on the other side have given Fr. Price the material for what he hopes will be his next book. Working title: Revealing Hell.
Hal Gordon, who wrote speeches for the Reagan White House and Gen. Colin Powell, is currently a freelance speechwriter in Houston. Web site: www.ringingwords.com.