Including My Proposed Evangelical Christian Theology of Near-Death/After-Death Consciousness Experiences
A s we enter the year of our Lord of 2007, the philosophy of mind is certainly a most intriguing area for study.
But, firstly, let us just briefly 'recap' how we got here.
Ideas and explanations for the inter-reaction between brain and mind, or mind on brain, are very old indeed. From an early time some insisted that only Dualism could properly explain this relationship; What is Dualism? Well Dualism stated that while brain is a physical component, the mind itself appears to belong to the metaphysical/spiritual realm. While Indian philosophy had a strong early school of dualism, in the western world it was Plato and Aristotle who insisted (though for somewhat different reasons), that people's "intelligence" (a faculty of the mind or soul) could not be wholly identified with, or explained, in terms of their physical body.
The Influence of Descartes
But the best-known and most influential form of dualism was that which became clearly outlined by René Descartes (1596-1650). Descartes held that the mind is a nonphysical substance. Descartes was the first to clearly 'wade in' with quite positive propositions concerning the mind, consciousness and self-awareness. He distinguished these components from the brain, which, according to his theory, was merely the seat of intelligence. Descartes would have a great influence on enlightenment thinking on the human mind and on human consciousness - even though much of this thinking and many of the later theories sought to overturn Descartes' mind/brain dualism.
The mind, according to Descartes, was a "thinking thing", and an immaterial substance. This "thing" was the essence of himself, that which doubts, believes, hopes, and thinks. He argues this distinction between mind and body in his Meditation VI in the following manner,
"I have a clear and distinct idea of myself as a thinking, non-extended thing, and a clear and distinct idea of body as an extended and non-thinking thing. Whatever I can conceive clearly and distinctly, God can so create."
Philosopher René Descartes, for whom the mind was an immaterial substance and not physical.
So, Descartes argues, the mind, as a thinking thing, can certainly exist apart from its extended body. And therefore, the mind is a substance distinct from the body.
It is well beyond the scope of this article to outline the various forms of dualism which have since come along or, indeed, the many objections to them. (Here is some information which goes very deeply into Dualism for those who want more information). Truthfully, many of the objections to Dualism may be easily overturned, but a few remain a serious problem for those who insist that mind and consciousness are not physical properties. Perhaps foremost of these is the following quite simple argument:
The Brain Damage Argument
Paul Churchland, among several others, has advanced this objection. The point being that when the brain undergoes some sort of physical damage (whether caused by an accident, the abuse of drugs or a pathological disease), it always seems to be the case that the mental substance and properties of the person are significantly compromised. If the mind were a completely separate substance from the brain, how could it be possible that every single time the brain is injured, the mind is also injured? Moreover, frequently physicians can even predict and explain the kind of mental or psychological deterioration or change that human beings will undergo when specific parts of their brains are damaged. So the question for the dualist to try to confront here is how can all of this be explained if the mind is a separate and immaterial substance from, or if its properties are ontologically independent of, the brain.
However, if the brain and mind are indeed separate, it holds that the mind is not damaged when the brain itself suffers damage, and there is an alternative way of explaining this seeming difficulty (put forward by Thomas E. Cobb): The brain is the mind's gateway to the world, and the mind makes use of the brain's several functions to accomplish its tasks. When the brain is damaged, the mind is unscathed because it is a noncorporeal entity. However, the mind's 'tool' has been damaged to the extent that the mind can make use of only certain functions, often in a limited way, and in some cases not at all, depending upon how extensive the damage to the brain is in any particular area. As an analogy, what you have is a workman with a damaged tool; the workman is fine, but he has to contend with damaged equipment simply because he can obtain none other. (I am here grateful to Thomas E. Cobb for some extra insight). The explanation is intriguing and interesting although probably not answering all the difficulties (for example, we will soon consider vivid experiences suffered by those who were technically brain-dead for short periods).
It has always been thought that this argument could only ever be decisively proven one way or the other with the emergence of hard evidence that the mind survives the death of the brain. But since the dead are unable to discuss their experiences, it has therefore been concluded, nobody will ever be able to finally resolve this controversy....Until, that is, the last 12-18 years.
New Amazing Evidence Which Science Cannot Refute
Cardiologist Dr Michael Sabom has described a near-death experience that occurred while its experiencer - a woman who was having an unusual surgical procedure for the safe excision and repair of a large basilar artery aneurysm - met all of the accepted criteria for brain death. Neither is this is an isolated instance for there are now a growing number of people who have testified that they experienced consciousness - indeed, frequently consciousness on a very high and vivid plane, while they were - for a short period - technically "brain-dead." The University of Southampton, England, has also conducted some research which is quite compelling,
"...University of Southampton researchers have just published a paper detailing their pioneering study into near death experiences (or near-death experiences) that suggests consciousness and the mind may continue to exist after the brain has ceased to function and the body is clinically dead.
Independent EEG studies have confirmed that the brain's electrical activity, and hence brain function, ceases at that time. But seven out of 63 (11 per cent) of the Southampton patients who survived their cardiac arrest recalled emotions and visions during unconsciousness." (more information here: http://www.mikepettigrew.com/afterlife/html/u_k__study.html).
Interestingly, the old challenge from sceptical scientists that after-death experiences were simply the result of near-death hallucinations caused by medication or oxygen-starvation are now just about completely refuted. The quoted report of the University of Southampton research briefly also raises this same point:
"...There are currently three explanations for these accounts. The first is physiological; that the hallucinations patients experience is due to disturbed brain chemistry caused by drug treatment, a lack of oxygen or changes in carbon dioxide levels.
In the Southampton study none of the four patients who had near-death experiences had low levels of oxygen or received any unusual combination of drugs during their resuscitation."
It might also be added that 'technically after death' consciousness experiences right across many countries and cultures show a remarkable similarity - this tends to rule out the idea that particular western medical practises tend to cause the dying to hallucinate.
Dr Bruce Greyson has given some attention to near-death and after-death experiences. Addressing the frequent rejoinder that such events can be accounted for as hallucinations, Dr. Greyson notes that if NDEs are hallucinations, then how is it that such incredibly accurate and verifiable information is resulting from the NDEs? People on drugs who have NDEs see fewer deceased relatives when they travel out of body. This suggests that people who do see relatives are clear-minded, not hallucinating. In some cases of children, they see dead relatives whom they had never met or seen pictures of. This begs the following question: How could they hallucinate accurately the visual images of someone they have never met? When assessing the surmounting data as a whole, Greyson said that the survival hypothesis is the most parsimonious explanation for the growing database of NDEs (source: http://www.near-death.com/evidence.html#a2. Please note: as always, we do not necessarily agree with everything on that or any other websites which we might quote).
Some might be shocked here at the reference to "deceased relatives" but we must accept that it seems well-established from many cultures that those on the point of death do indeed often appear to see their deceased relatives who come to them to escort them away from this physical life to 'beyond the river.'
The Blind Appear Able to See During After-Death Consciousness Experiences
Dr Kenneth Ring Ph.D, who is Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of Connecticut, and Sharon Cooper completed a two-year study into the NDEs of the blind. They published their findings in a 1999 book entitled "Mindsight" in which they documented the solid evidence of 31 cases in which blind people report visually accurate information obtained during an NDE. Perhaps the best example in his study is that of a forty-five year old blind woman by the name of Vicki Umipeg. Vicki was born blind, her optic nerve having been completely destroyed at birth because of an excess of oxygen she received in the incubator. Yet, she appears to have been able to see during her NDE. Her story is a particularly clear instance of how NDEs of the congenitally blind can unfold in precisely the same way as do those of sighted persons.
After-Death Consciousness and Children
Some of the most interesting information on verifiable after-death consciousness experiences has been gathered by Dr Melvin Morse who is Associate Professor of Pediatrics at The University of Washington. Dr Morse has studied near-death experiences in children for 15 years and is the author of several books on the subject. In 1982, while a Fellow for the National Cancer Institute, Dr. Morse was working in a clinic in Pocatello, Idaho. He was called to revive a young girl who nearly died in a community swimming pool. She had had no heart beat for 19 minutes, yet completely recovered. She was able to recount many details of her own resuscitation, and then said that she was taken down a brick lined tunnel to a heavenly place. When Dr. Morse showed his obvious skepticism, she patted him shyly on the hand and said: "Don't worry, Dr. Morse, heaven is fun!." She told the doctor that she had met Jesus and that, "He is nice!" (More information on the work of Dr Morse can be found here: http://www.near-death.com/experiences/experts06.html. Again, we do not necessarily support everything on any other website).
A Slow and Sad Christian Response
Truth is, that many of the psychology researchers who are involved in these studies into near-death and after-death consciousness claims have a strong Christian background but they have been finding that when they want to discuss their increasingly amazing findings with Christian ministers and writers they are having the door slammed in their faces! Is that not incredible? Many times some of the results of this research is only being carefully documented on psychic-type, New Age and even occultic-type websites because Christians will still not discuss or openly acknowledge some of these things! Of course, the fact that much of the available research data is now posted on psychic-type websites just continues to perpetuate the belief of many Christians, especially evangelical Christians, that this whole area is somehow associated with the activity of demons! Moreover, once perfectly honest claims get in the hands of supporters of things like the occult and reincarnation there is always a serious danger of such claims being "embroidered" - and I have no doubt that this has occasionally happened.
What we can say is that it is surely time that evangelical Christianity opened its eyes on this subject and started to consider the real possibility that a phenomenon which is so world-wide and which so many people have experienced (yes, and which so many have strongly associated with heaven and with Jesus, even if they had not previously been religious-types - they do not usually associate the experience with demons!), may have real validity?
Is not the continued existence of consciousness and frequent talk of a journey into a heavenly realm exactly what Christianity should expect?
We should not discount Ecclesiastes 12:7 here which tells us what happens at human death:
'And the dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.' (Ecclesiastes 12:7, NIV).
Whether we prefer the term 'soul' or 'spirit essence' should we reject the possibility that some of these souls started out on a return trip to the very God that gave them to us? To clarify the biblical teaching on this, it is essential to also read What is The Human Spirit? Again, heaven - in its fullest sense - is assumed to be the place where some of these souls go (and some of the descriptions are vivid with talk of amazing peace and joy and of colours unknown upon the earth), but maybe many go to a sort of heavenly 'clearing house' to be comforted and reassured before being allowed to slumber until the Day of Judgment - and yet true believers undoubtedly do go on to heaven itself to enjoy the presence of Jesus and the angels until the time of resurrection. See 2 Corinthians 5: 1-8; Philippians 1:20-24 and Revelation 6:9-11. (For any who insist that 2 Corinthians 5:1-8 and Philippians 1:20-24 refer to the resurrection, in fact, there seems little doubt that Paul is talking here about entering heaven at death and he actually makes this quite clear when, in verse 24, he tells the Philippians that it is more needful for them that he, '...remain in the flesh...' - only in heaven are we ever 'absent from the flesh' - in the resurrection we arise with bodies!)
If plainly religious types talk about their "journeys to heaven" I am inclined to be sceptical, but when people who have actually briefly 'died' on the operating table talk about brief visits to heaven (maybe it is to a heavenly 'clearing house') before being sent back (even though they had never previously been religious-types). I am very inclined to listen. Actually I did know such a man, he died in 2006. But ten years earlier he briefly experienced a 'heavenly experience' when his heart stopped beating following a heart attack. The experience made a deep impression upon him. I knew this man quite well and he was a quiet, sincere, friendly but undemonstrative sort of man. His experience served to confirm his religious beliefs and he became a regular church-goer during the last few years of his life. I am especially inclined to listen now that such claims amount to many many hundreds of people. Some such claims commence with 'out of body' experiences as the soul leaves the body, yet many Christians will immediately reject any talk of 'out of body' experiences as being demonic/occultic. Yet - we should recall - that the apostle Paul himself did not reject the possibility of 'out of body' experiences and in the particular example which he cites, he has no doubt that the experiencer was 'In Christ.'
'I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know - God knows. And I know that this man - whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows - was caught up to paradise. He heard inexpressible things, things that man is not permitted to tell.' (2 Corinthians 12:2-4, NIV).
Now please notice that Paul is quite sure that he referred to a man who was "in Christ" - Paul did not say that this individual was affected by demons, or by the occult - and yet today many evangelical/fundamentalist Christians would probably say something like, 'To have had an experience like that he must have been involved with New Age or the occult!!'
Do we know better than Paul?
Adventists and Conditional Immortalists Have a Particular Problem in This Area
I use the term 'Adventism' to describe that broad area of theology which is found in many of the cults and sects including the Seventh Day Adventists in which (among their favourite doctrines) they believe in 'soul sleep' and believe that there is no consciousness between death and resurrection (established Christian theology has always rejected this concept). This line of thought has now crept into certain areas of evangelicalism as well. These undoubtedly sincere people do not believe in Hell but only in annihilation. I respect such people who hold this view quite honourably in most cases but - putting the whole balance of Holy Scripture together - I think they are incorrect. The point being that, if any believes that consciousness immediately ceases at death, then they are probably more likely to see this whole new area of research as being entirely wrong, misguided, if not demonic!
But some eminent scientists are now starting to believe that the huge amount of evidence cannot be ignored for much longer! Yet no 'grand paradigm' or theory is yet available to give support! (science always prefers to move forward through 'grand theories'). Right here and right now established Christianity could step forward with a Biblical explanation and push this forward at every opportunity, but don't hold your breath, it is lamentably not going to happen since large swathes of established "Christianity" is now in the hands of liberal modernists who are not even sure what sort of 'God' (if any) they believe in!
The sad result of all this is that some God-believing researchers who are finding real evidence of consciousness after death and are seeing it as evidence of infinity are co-operating with 'psychic-types' as the only religiously-interested people to give them a hearing. This is tragic! The internet actually has many examples of Christians - yes, Christians who underwent such after-death consciousness experiences and these experiences served to confirm their Christian beliefs - yet many of these testimonies too appear on psychic-type and New Age websites - not on Christian websites! Is that not amazing?
My Proposed Evangelical Christian Theology of Near-Death/After-Death Consciousness Experiences
Those who are close to death do indeed often see former close relatives (or, the souls of close relatives), who have previously died and have come to escort them 'home.' There is no biblical/theological reason why a merciful God would not allow this, and the claims from all cultures going back even hundreds of years seem to show this often does happen, especially in the case of true believers and in the case of children. Frequently, nurses who serve in hospital wards which are the last physical resting place of the dying can recount some astonishing experiences of the comments made by these people when just minutes or seconds from death!
Just as Ecclesiastes 12:7 states, when people die their flesh returns to dust but their spirit essence/soul returns to God who originally gave it. This adequately explains the journey through a long tunnel with a brilliant light awaiting at the end. During this 'soul journey' our merciful God allows newly deceased people to feel great warmth, peace and reassurance. They travel to what one might term 'the heavenlies' - but not necessarily to the Third Heaven where God's throne is surrounded by angels. True believers upon the earth alone appear to travel on to there - Revelation 6:9-11.
Many people (no longer a few) who have technically "died" for short periods describe a rapid trip to a heavenly place through a tube surrounded by incredible colours and feelings of great love and security.
Quite possibly, those who were not true believers upon earth yet not actively opposed to God are allowed comfort from earlier deceased family members but then told to slumber a while until the time of the General Resurrection and the Great Judgment. Augustinian-rooted theology would insist that these people will finally go to gehenna hell but I follow both the 'church fathers' and Eastern Orthodox theology here and would insist that most of these people can still be eventually saved. Yes, they can only finally be saved through Christ but not necessarily a Christ they knew much about (the Old Testament demonstrates to us that people can be saved through the sacrifice of a Christ they had not personally heard of, nor appropriated. Also see Matthew 25:31-46 and Romans 2:6-16).
Others (the few - not the many) will be condemned and it is not sure whether such incorrigibly evil people would ever be allowed to experience entry into even 'the lower heavens.'
Some people do indeed go to 'the heavenlies' after their heart stops beating and they become technically 'brain-dead' because our Lord has simply built this process into His human creation for when these vital signs no longer function. So the Thomas Cobb explanation (offered earlier), may still be correct in that the brain remains the 'tool' which is used by the mind; however, when brain-death occurs, the mind/soul is able to fully take over in carrying out it's God-ordained 'return to heaven' task. But, if it is not God's will that such individuals should die at that point in their lives, they are then returned to their physical bodies; in the case of 'brain-death,' returned, probably, as brain activity re-starts (however, we should always understand that although a person may be clinically "brain dead", the body still has life in it for a while, and until corruption begins. It is doubtful that 'brain death' is the utter and final indicator of death in the body that some medical authorities now insist). Numerous instances have been described where people undergoing these amazing experiences of travel to heaven, truly dread re-entering their bodies and plead to be allowed to remain in heaven.
I hope that this article will start to clarify some of these really difficult issues and help us all to understand that not every spiritual matter which we do not immediately understand is necessarily "occultic." Moreover, I hope that this article will help evangelical Bible-believers to see that God may be revealing quite a lot of the way that He works with the newly-deceased which we may have refused to recognise because of seeing God in a more uncompromising and harsher light than has been necessary. We must never underestimate the abundant mercy of God!
Robin A. Brace, 2007.
This article contains several links which are intended to furnish the reader with some additional information, but UK Apologetics do not necessarily support any claims which may appear on those links especially where any such claims touch on Christian theology. Lamentably, some research psychologists, upon finding powerful evidence that the mind survives death, have become involved in New Age-type Christianity. To what degree this has happened because orthodox Christianity has refused to give them a hearing I am unable to ascertain.
(This article is copyright Robin A. Brace, 2007).
It is essential to also read
Argument From Consciousness