The image of a dark tunnel with a bright light at the end has been received by many Americans as the standard description of what a person experiences when he dies. This picture has entered the American consciousness through movies and personal stories of near death experiences. Other accounts have included the spirits of family and friends encouraging (or in some cases, warning) the person. Some who suffered heart attacks during medical procedures have described floating above the operating table, watching the doctor operate on their body and listening to the conversation of the nurses. Those who have experienced near death experiences know the memories are real and vivid. Does the Bible say anything about how a Christian should evaluate these near death experiences?
Before getting to he Biblical answer, a couple practical points should be mentioned as an aid to rightly thinking through this issue. Any injury that brings a person close to the point of death, and especially one that stops blood flow to the brain, traumatizes the entire body. As death approaches, the body suffers so many things that the senses are often overwhelmed or confused. Caution must be exercised that reports from those suffering great trauma do not become the final authority on how we understand major issues like life and death.
Some results of extreme or life threatening trauma have been tested and their effects duplicated in controlled settings. For example, astronauts in training are subjected increasing g-forces until they pass out. The astronauts commonly report seeing just before unconciouscness a dark tunnel with a bright light at the end. This vision seems to be nothing more than the common experience of a brain suffering the effects of oxygen deprivation.
The Bible speaks of some who died and were restored to life, but never records a near death experience or tells of someone who experienced one. Aside from Jesus, the Bible describes 8 specific instances of a person dying and being raised back to life. No record is passed on of what they experienced in the moments just before or during their death. The Apostle Paul wrote a signficant portion of the New Testament. In all his writings Paul made no mention of what he experienced in death. This implies, at the very least, the experiences of the person transitioning from death to life are not that important.
The only Biblical reference to a journey from life to the afterlife is that of the beggar Lazarus in Luke 16. When he died he was “carried by the angels into Abraham’s bosom.” (Luke 16:22) On the other hand, the rich man who died was buried and woke up in hell. Lazarus’ angelic transport could have been a Jewish idiom. But if angels literally guide the soul from earth to heaven, then that should be the standard by which all claims of near death experiences are evaluated. However, when the Bible mentions the movement of the soul from earth to heaven the typical description is of immediate translation. Scriptures describes death in such a way that we expect there to be no delay between death and the afterlife. Paul’s statement that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord agrees with David’s words, “I shall be satisfied when I awake with thy likeness.” (Psalm 17:15) The soul has no conscious experience between the body falling asleep in death and the spirit awakening in the afterlife.
The Bible says nothing about near death experiences, but what it says about life and death makes it much more likely that the events experienced near death are not necessarily supernatural or spiritual in nature. They are probably the result of senses disturbed by the terrible trauma being endured. Hallucinations, vivid memories, partial awareness or oxygen defficient brain cells are ample explanations for near death experiences. Even if the near death episodes are actual experiences of real events, they must take a second place in importance and authority to the Bible. Exta-Biblical glimpses into the afterlife, if possible, are never necessary for the Christian life. God has revealed in His Word all that men need to know about what happens at death.