This morning I had a radio interview on near-death experiences. News radio is a quick medium. I enjoy doing it, but you have to talk in soundbites. It’s hard to get very deep into a conversation when it’s over with in a few minutes. So here are some lingering thoughts.

There is more to life than meets the eye.

Death does not have the final word.

Faith and Science

Most Lutherans do not see faith and science as enemies. Both are approaching the same mysteries of life, just with different questions. Science asks “How?” Faith asks the question, “Why?”

The scientific method has brought us electricity, antibiotics, anesthesia and other wonderful things without which 21st-century life would be a lot more miserable. I had a kidney stone this summer. I’ve never been so deeply grateful for a morphine drip, created by God, but harnessed by science. Don’t trash science. It’s been a wonderful thing. People of faith get it wrong when they conflate long-held cosmological assumptions with religious faith. We get it wrong when we try to import first century medical knowledge into the 21st-century along with spiritual and moral principles. The church got it wrong by declaring Galileo a heretic. Even Luther thought Copernicus was a crazy man trying to turn the world upside down.

When science helpfully reveals new realities about the universe, like a round earth or heliocentric solar system, it is an opportunity for people of faith to distinguish their religious beliefs from their cosmological beliefs. Today, lots of scientists are people of faith. Lots of people of faith are scientists.

On the other hand, science can sometimes have a low ceiling. No transcendence. The scientific method requires you to assume nothing but what you can prove empirically. Like all worldviews, this one has it’s limits. There are more things in the universe than what we can see at this moment in time, from this point of view. If the only thing I can believe is that which I can see and touch, that will be a pretty limited worldview. In 1492 Europeans didn’t know there was a whole other continent. Just because they couldn’t see it, doesn’t mean it didn’t exist.

If science becomes our religion, there is a danger that we see ourselves simply as biological entities. Life, love and consciousness are nothing more than chemical reactions of the brain. Self-sacrifice and generosity become absurd.

Perhaps we can learn to see faith and science as complementary.

Near Death

A recent study showed that 40% of people whose heart stopped on the table had some kind of near death experience. Heaven, hell, a light, a tunnel, surrounded by loved ones, darkness, despair. These experiences have some striking similarities and also some striking differences.

I was asked if I saw near death experiences as proof of life after death. Of course the Christian tradition professes a belief in life after death. The cross and resurrection point to this. We believe that death does not have he final word.

But proof? That’s a science question. I have to admit, I don’t see near-death experiences as a litmus test for life after death. They are interesting. They raise interesting questions. Like all mystical experiences, they point to something deeper. But just as I’ve heard some people use them to describe life after death experiences, I have also heard neurologists describe near death experiences as simply the experience of a brain shutting off. I’m not a scientist. I have neither the interest nor the expertise to explore the neurological implications of near-death experiences. But as a pastor I think they have profound spiritual implications. That’s what I’d rather talk about.

Mystical experiences

Lots of people have mystical experiences. Pastors hear them all the time. They point to something. There’s more to life than meets the eye.

• Near death experiences
• Out of body experiences
• Hearing from dead loved ones
• Vivid dreams

The apostle Paul had a mystical experience. He was traveling down a road when he saw a flash of light and was then struck blind. A scientist would say “retinal detachment.” Could have been. That’s a science question. Faith asks “Why?” Why this? Why now? What does it mean? What should I do?

Paul was systematically executing Christians. He claims to have heard a voice. Jesus. “Why are you persecuting me?” After his conversion and baptism, he changed his course in life. That’s the religious question.

If you have a mystical experience, who do you tell? Friends, family, doctor? Who will listen without judgment? I’m not talking about psychotic episodes. If you’re anxious, scattered and having delusions, go see a doctor. In those cases, trained pastors will refer. But when someone calmly describes a profoundly religious or mystical experience, pay attention. Something is going on. A tipping point. A turning point. A break through.

A woman had been mournfully grieving the death of her husband for over a year. This is perfectly normal, but she felt stuck. Then one night he appeared to her. “In a dream,” I suggested. “No, he was there,” she said. “But it was at night,” I said, skeptically. “Yes, but it was real.” “Okay. Tell me about it,” I retreated. Her “real” apparition told her to move on. Then an amazing thing happened. She did. She moved on. She traveled, re-engaged, rediscovered joy.

Now was that real? Does it prove anything? Could she have touched him? Those are science questions. Faith questions look more like this to me: “What did this mean for you?” It was real to her, and it resulted in real change for her.

The Bible is filled with mystical stories. Story is the language of faith, which seeks to find images to describe the indescribable. We seek to convey mysteries beyond our scope of vision.

In my tradition we would view near death and other mystical experiences not as proof of some scientific hypothesis, but rather as signposts to a deeper, more profound spiritual experience of life. They move us past the mundane to a deeper, fuller experience of life.  

There is more to life than meets the eye.

Pastors aren’t into the why. We are more interested in what that experience means to the individual spiritually. I want to know, 
  • how does this affect the way you feel about life,
  • your hope, 
  • your joy, 
  • your capacity to love…

Life is more than a test tube. If you approach life as a spiritual adventure, you get something different than life as a series of chemical reactions in the brain.

If one has a near death experience, or a mystical experience of any kind, and afterwards,
  • they’re more aware of the profound death and mystery of life
  • they become more generous, giving
  • they’re able to move past grief
  • they start going out and staring at the stars

That’s real. Not test tube stuff. We seek to see life spiritually. Jesus pointed to the spiritual. He pointed to the invisible, intangible things: love, forgiveness, sacrifice, humility, hope, joy, peace and the like. The most important things in life cannot be boiled in a test tube.

The last word

But back to near-death experiences. Let’s not use them to prove we’re right and someone else is wrong. They may not prove anything, but they are interesting.

Why is it that some people experience light and joy, and are embraced by loved ones long gone, while others experience darkness, despair and horror? That’s got to make you think. Some have come back from near-death experiences and made significant changes in their life. Most have an altered perspective on life. How could you not?

The Christian faith teaches that there is some form of life beyond the grave. We believe death does not have the last word. 

We don’t understand how. We couldn’t describe life after death. Jesus doesn’t say much about it in the gospels. He just encourages us to trust in a loving God. He says enigmatic things like, “In my father’s house there are many rooms…”

There is more to life than meets the eye.

Maybe near-death experiences are the neurological phenomena of the brain turning off. We know brains turn off. We know they eventually turn to dust. This proves nothing. Our hope is beyond this space-time continuum. Faith is not about proof. “Who hopes for what he already sees?” Paul says.

Christianity is a religion of hope. We believe death is not the final word. We understand less than 1% of what there is to know about life, the brain, the cosmos. We live in a magnificently mysterious universe, or universes. Multiverse? We’re only seeing the veil in this life. “Through a mirror dimly,” Paul says. There’s much, much more behind the curtain. 

Bask in it. Embrace the mystery. Know that you’ll never know, fully, in this life.