Monday, May 20, 2013

NDEs: Convincing or Ridiculous? What Do You Think?

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Who are we?  Where did we come from?  What happens after we die?  These are some of the greatest, most important questions human beings have ever asked.  And, yet, they remain the largest mysteries we'll ever encounter.  Because all of us wonder why we're on Earth, how we came to be here and what happens when our lives end, it makes sense that so many people find Near Death Experiences (NDEs) so very fascinating.  Many books, television shows, magazine articles, movies, etc. have been created in order to examine what people claim to have experienced when they "died."  Even to a skeptic like me, these glimpses into the world beyond can be utterly fascinating.  
Considering the religious fervor that existed at the time The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints was founded, it is, perhaps, not too surprising that many early Saints had NDEs.  These were carefully recorded in letters, journals and oral histories passed down from generation to generation.  Marlene Bateman Sullivan has collected 50 of these stories in her new book, Gaze Into Heaven: Near Death Experiences in Early Church History.  She presents the accounts in the recipients' own words, using scriptures and quotes by LDS Church leaders to give additional insight into the topics under discussion.  What emerges is an interesting picture of NDEs from a uniquely Mormon perspective.  

Even though I firmly believe in life after death, I have trouble taking NDEs very seriously.  After all, any kind of dream or vision is open to interpretation.  And who knows what outside factors may have been in play during the person's "experience"—after all, during a low blood sugar episode several years ago, I became totally and completely convinced my husband was trying to kidnap me and smuggle me aboard his alien spaceship.  So, why should I believe a stranger's account of his alleged visit to Heaven, especially if the details feel "off" to me?

Given how I feel about NDEs, I really tried to approach Gaze Into Heaven with an open mind.  And, I have to say that, overall, I did find the book interesting.  Not convincing, necessarily, but thought-provoking.  The biggest problem with the book, for me, was Sullivan's subjective presentation of the material—she spoke about all the NDEs as if they were the iron-clad truth.  A more objective approach, one that trusted the reader to come to his own conclusions, would have made the book a much more palatable read for me.  Also, Sullivan never answered the biggest question I have about NDEs among members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, both in the early days of the church and now—how do they differ from those experienced by non-members?  I'm still really curious about that ...

So, while I didn't always agree with the conclusions Sullivan drew about NDEs, I did agree with this one, which neatly sums up my feelings on the subject:  "...[NDEs] are not meant to 'prove' that the Church is true.  Rather, they are meant to open our eyes to the fact that life will continue, that our sojourn on earth is momentary, and that we ought to refocus our priorities and spend our time productively, with an eye toward the next life" (220).

My husband, who enjoys reading about and learning from NDEs, thinks I'm a terrible cynic on this point.  How about you?  Do you find them inspiring or ridiculous?  Do you think there's anything to be learned from them?  What's your opinion?  I'd truly love to know.

(Readalikes:  I don't normally read books about NDEs, but my husband recommends What's on the Other Side? by Brent L. Top [an LDS professor's perspective on death]; Proof of Heaven by Eben Alexander, M.D. [an atheist neurosurgeon's NDE]; and Embraced By the Light by Betty J. Eadie [one non-LDS woman's NDE])

Grade:  C

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG for subject matter most suitable for older middle graders, teens and adults

To the FTC, with love:  I received a finished copy of Gaze Into Heaven from the generous Marlene Bateman Sullivan via her publisher, Cedar Fort.  

7 comments:

  1. I don't put much stock in NDEs either, but this book does intrigue me given that it is from an LDS perspective. I have friends that really want me to read Proof of Heaven but I have never read these types of books and I'm not sure I feel the need to start. I am comfortable with my LDS view of the afterlife without "proof." :)

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    1. Very well said, Tricia! My thoughts exactly ...

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  2. I think they are real, but I think they are pretty much for the person that it happens to. Sharing and reading about them, as you and Tricia said, won't change the way I think about the afterlife. Probably I won't ever read a whole collection of them.

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    1. Good point. I think NDEs are real and meaningful to the people who have them. I also think there are things to be learned from them, although like you, my feelings about death/dying/the afterlife are based on my own experiences/study/witness and won't change based on someone else's experience.

      My husband's been urging me to read all kinds of books on death/NDEs/the after life for years and I never have. Too morbid for me. I accepted this one for review thinking I should at least TRY to be more open-minded. And it was an interesting read. Will I read another book like this? Doubtful.

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  3. Glen's mother died when he was just 36 and I feel that spurred his interest in NDEs which he shared with his children. NDEs weren't much talked about or shared until Raymond Moody published his book, Life after Life, in 1975. What interests me most about NDEs is not the proof about an afterlife but the change that comes in the lives of those who have experienced NDEs. Forgiveness, love, and service seem to become their true compass in this life after a NDE.

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    1. Agreed. I think people experience NDEs (or think they do) because they need the comfort/instruction/witness that comes from them. In that way, they're very powerful and inspiring.

      And, yes, like many things, I'm sure Eric's interest in this subject comes from his dad :) He said he first read books about NDEs when he was a teenager.

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  4. Hello all! I'm throwing in my 2 cents worth. On October 23, 2008 I had a near-death experience; not in the traditional sense but it lead to dramatic changes in my life never-the-less. At the time I had an incurable lung disease, and Sjorgren's Auto Immune Disorder as well as chronic depression, and Bi-Polar disorder. I was bed-ridden, and dependent on supplemental oxygen 24 hours a day. I felt like my life was over. On October 23rd I overdosed on Valium. When I came to in the intensive care I knew it was a miracle I was alive. I also knew I would be healed! One year later the lung disease, Sjorgren's, depression and Bi-Polar Disorder were GONE; totally and completely GONE. I had a supernatural encounter with the creator of the universe, and it changed me physically, emotionally and spiritually. I've dedicated my life to serving Jesus. My personality changed as well. At 56 I could count on two hands the books I'd read. I'm now an avid reader, and I collect books on NDE's. So I have a word of caution. You can find many who have had what I call "counterfit" NDE's. Satan is an angel of light who can give people fake encounter's with the afterlife. An excellent book on this subject is, "To Hell and Back" by Maurice Rawlings, MD. He is a doctor who has encountered many who have had negative NDE's. Too often researchers choose to ignore the NDE's about hell. Whenever an NDE experiencer proclaims on their return that everyone goes to Heaven so no one need be afraid of dying they have been deceived by the angel of light! I want to mention one more excellent book, "23 Minutes In Hell" by Bill Wiese. Well, that's my 2 cents worth. Thanks for bringing up the subject of Near Death Experiences! I write about some of the amazing things God has done in my life in my blog aprilwithachanceofmay.blogspot.com

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