Near-death experiences, outside the Bible
Records of dreams and visions on the sickbed, near death, go back to ancient times. An example is the story told by the Greek writer Plato who recalls the visions seen by a Pamphylian soldier, Er son of Armenious, after he had revived from near death after being left for dead several days among the corpses of the battlefield. That is what today is often called a near-death experience (NDE). This example recorded by Plato is also similar to modern near-death experiences, in that what is “seen” by the Pamphylian soldier is broadly what existed in the popular expectations of the afterlife that people of the time held. Which is exactly what modern studies of near-death experiences record.
Medically, when the mind is still active on the very physical fringe of life, there are some similarities with dreams – both in the science of brain activity and in the way dreams are shaped by the person’s own culture and expectations. This includes the expectations of death.
Bible examples of near-death experiences
There are examples of psalms and prayers which include reference to sickbed experiences. The most famous relates to King Hezekiah (2 Kings 20:1-11,Isaiah 38:1-8) whose prayer describes a man facing total blackness, darkness and silence – in line with the Bible understanding of Sheol, along the lines of Psalm 6:5 “For there is no mention of You in death; In Sheol who will give You thanks?”, and other verses such as “The dead do not praise the LORD, nor do any who go down into silence”. (Psalm 115:17).
16 O Lord, by these things men live,
and in all these is the life of my spirit.
Oh restore me to health and make me live!
17 Behold, it was for my welfare
that I had great bitterness;
but in love you have delivered my life
from the pit of destruction,
for you have cast all my sins
behind your back.
18 For Sheol does not thank you;
death does not praise you;
those who go down to the pit do not hope
for your faithfulness.
19 The living, the living, he thanks you,
as I do this day;
the father makes known to the children
your faithfulness. (Isaiah 38:16-19)
Hezekiah’s near-death experience doesn’t get much airplay on TV. The National Geographic Channel’s The Story of God: Morgan Freeman Explores Heaven and Hell (2017) makes no mention of Hezekiah, nor similar passages in the Bible.
Those seeking evidence of near-death experiences similar to modern popular experience are more likely to refer to Paul’s obscure passage (2 Corinthians 12:4) about a man, clearly Paul himself, who 14 years earlier had been “caught away to Paradise”. This is taken out of context, since there is no indication that this has anything to do with a near-death experience, and also the material Paul is citing in 2 Corinthians 12 is part of an extended polemic against a group rival self-appointed ‘super apostles’ whom Paul warned were subverting the Gospel he taught. (The mention of “Paradise”, is one of several references to a spurious Jewish text, Testament of Adam, occurring in this section of Paul’s argument, and needs to be read in that context).
Bible teaching on dreams and visions
The Bible does not single out dreams and visions before death as a special category. But the Bible does warn that dreams that are deceptive (Jeremiah 23:25-27), and unreal (Psalms 126:1; Isaiah 29:8). The Bible also says what modern science also says, that nightly dreams are in part the recycling of waking experience; Ecclesiastes 5:3 says, “A dream comes through much activity”. In the modern world that activity includes what ever we have watched on TV before going to bed. At the medical fringes of life the brain has opportunity to range widely.
An actual death experience
Among the accounts of death not mentioned by Morgan Freeman, and other popular TV documentaries on the subject, is one testimony by the only person, other than Lazarus and few others in the Old and New Testament, who would really know. That account is that of Jesus himself. The risen Lord Jesus says “I was dead” (Revelation 1:18), with no mention of any activity to contradict famous Old Testament passages such as “the dead know nothing” (Ecclesiastes 9:5). Jesus also says:
17 Jesus said to her, “Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” (John 20:17)
You would think that Jesus would know.