What We Can Learn About Near Death Experiences

By Catherine Mendenhall-Baugh

Her name was Dorothy and she was my mother.  She left us 21 years ago. Two years before she died she was hospitalized for a serious illness. At one point she suffered a cardiac arrest and nearly died. She survived her experience and was able to go home after recovering from her near death scare. I made it a point to visit her the summer after she came home. She couldn’t wait to tell me about her experience.  Several months had passed since she came home and she was still in awe of what had happened to her during those moments so close to death.

Let me start by asking the question, what is a Near Death Experience (NDE)? Answer: It is a profound psychological and spiritual experience that normally occurs during intense situations such as clinical death or trauma causing sensations, including detachment from the body, feelings of levitation, total serenity, security, warmth and the presence of a light (Wikipedia). There are thousands of reports of Near Death Experiences from all over the world happening every day. In 1997, a US News & World Report stated it was estimated that as many as 15 million Americans have experienced a NDE.

Many survivors of NDEs will give an account similar to other survivors. In essence, the person whose life is ending will tell about slipping down a dark space or a long tunnel heading towards a bright light and ultimately experiencing a feeling of profound peace and great love; some may even receive a message, “It’s not yet your time.” Some will recall seeing deceased relatives or even talking with God while they are technically brain dead and being kept alive in a coma like state. They don’t see a person that is God, but feel an overpowering sense of love which they are certain is God. Some will even see Jesus or his mother, Mary. These survivors’ stories share consistencies after their experience. The primary one is they come back changed. They are not the same person they were before they experienced being in what they perceived as heaven. For the most part, they all report no longer having a fear of death. They also have a strong desire to become a better person. They become more spiritual and they are more willing to help others in whatever capacity they can. Oftentimes, their loved ones don’t recognize the person they have become and it will cause issues in their relationships.

A huge percentage, as much as 80-90% who have experienced a near death occurrence claim they are certain that life continues after death.

A book by Dr. Eben Alexander entitled Proof of Heaven, has received a huge reaction across the world on the subject of NDEs. Largely this is because Dr. Alexander is a Harvard trained neurosurgeon, a man expected to know what is possible and not possible about human consciousness. He fell into a deep coma where the entire cortex, the part of the brain that registers thought and emotion, was eaten away by E. coli bacteria. In spite of his state or because of it, he recalls an encounter with God and an angelic figure allowing him a view of heaven from a flying butterfly. Primarily, he remembers the feeling of unconditional love that surrounded him.  Yet another story told by Crystal McVea in a book called Waking up in Heaven, she shares the story of the nine minutes that followed after she stopped breathing while being treated for pancreatitis. In her words, “I didn’t see the human form of God. I didn’t see hands and feet and a face. I just saw the most incredibly beautiful light.” She says she could see, smell, taste, touch and hear God with more than the five senses she had on earth.

How do we as Catholics feel about the numerous stories of near death experiences?

One of history’s most memorable pontiffs, Pope Gregory the Great, recorded NDEs in a book called Dialogues written in the sixth century.  There are striking similarities in this book to what is reported by thousands of survivors today.  Many celebrities such as Jane Seymour and Sharon Stone also reported they had NDEs after suffering a serious illness.

I think many of us are fascinated and want to hear more about research being done on these accounts of NDEs. Why do these accounts of near death experiences cause both skepticism and excitement all at the same time?

I think the answer to this lies in the fact that there are so many reported NDEs that for many people the concept of life after death has now been validated. A great many feel since we are all sinners and sometimes have an image of God being upset or frustrated and angry at us because of spending our lives sinning. As a result, the fear related to dying comes from feeling the likelihood of making it to heaven for sinners is slim to none. It’s as if these stories of NDEs experiences suggest otherwise. They talk about encounters with a very loving and forgiving being. They validate what we as Catholics always knew; life after death is not only possible, but real. God is all knowing and loving and He offers forgiveness for our sins. He sent His son Jesus to insure that forgiveness was possible.

On one hand we should realize each incident has to be looked at with certain scrutiny because many things can cause such experiences, based on some scientific research studies. These scientists have said that these NDEs are explained because these individuals are having a reaction to various chemicals introduced into their bodies to help keep them alive while their brains, although clinically dead, may still be active. Cardiologist, Pin Van Lommel said “Our results show that medical factors cannot account for occurrences of NDEs since they push the limits of medical ideas about the rage of brain consciousness and the mind and brain relations.”

One thing that is certain, the more that science and medicine advance in saving people’s lives so close to death and continue to improve ways to save them, the more we will continue to hear about NDEs. There is some scientific evidence that would seem to point in the direction that these are real, if in fact, these NDEs occur during clinical death.

Father Steven Scheier, a priest at Holy Trinity Church in Little River, Kansas, suffered a head-on collision in an auto accident with a broken neck. He doesn’t remember a tunnel, but does recall being on the verge of dying.  He was aware of the Blessed Virgin Mary praying on his behalf. “We as Catholics take life after death for granted. The experience I had has made me realize that we are all accountable to God and that this life is just a shadow world.”   

The medical profession has taught there are scientific reasons for these occurrences. Consequently, some scientists and medical professionals still find this type of thing nonsense. Once you are dead, you are dead, plain and simple. These scientists say NDEs are the result of high carbon dioxide levels, oxygen deprivation, and surges of steroids epinephrine or adrenaline. This is what causes the images of a tunnel, pearly white gates and angels. They say the brain goes on fighting even when the heart stops. What they can’t explain, however, is how so many people share the same kind of experience. How can people have clear consciousness in a state of cardiac arrest with no brain activity and a flat EEG? Clearly these cases should be called “after death experiences, not near death experiences?”

I can only offer what was told to me by my mother. She saw her parents who died when she was in her teens. She was in the presence of Jesus. She described feeling such immense peace and love at the same time that she knew heaven was a reality. She knew her love of God all those years was a gift. “Think of the most amazing moment in your life Cathy, and multiply that by a billion, and you still have not come close to what it feels like to be in the presence of perfect love with God.”

The apostle John gives a firsthand account in the Book of Revelations of the glory and immensity and power of the beauty of heaven. There are times when he has trouble putting into words but clearly it seems his vision of heaven is overwhelming to him (Revelation 2:21).

I respect all of this information. But, as a Catholic I refer to the Apostle’s Creed:

“I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth; and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord: Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary; suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried.  He descended into hell; the third day He rose again from the dead; He ascended into heaven, is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty, He shall come to judge the living and the dead.  I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Holy Catholic Church, the communion of Saints, the forgiveness of sins, and the resurrection of the body and life everlasting Amen.

rsz_1cathyCatherine Mendenhall-Baugh (Cathy) completed her education at the University of Nebraska majoring in Special Education and minoring in English Literature and now works in the insurance industry. A mother and a grandmother, Cathy grew up in a large Catholic family and has spent the last 30 years as a caregiver for her husband, Jack. A writer for Tuscany Press, she is also working on several longer writing projects.
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