Hell is for Real?

It’s been almost ten years since the movie Heaven is for Real was made.  The movie, based on the book with the same title, is about the true story of a four-year-old boy who was declared clinically dead before he could be brought back to life again.  During this Near-Death Experience, “NDE” for short, he went to heaven.  Or at least that’s what he kept telling his parents.  His father, who happened to be a pastor, was completely skeptical.  He was sure that his son’s experience was nothing more than a child’s vivid imagination having been triggered by such a traumatic experience.

But when his son started relating details of the experience that he could not have known any other way, the father’s skepticism began to melt.  One of the most striking details the son recounted was that he had seen his grandfather in Heaven.  The son had never met his grandfather.  He died before he was born.  The only pictures he had ever seen of his grandfather were when he was older, as an elderly man.  Yet, he described his grandfather to a tee—as a thirty-year-old man.  Apparently, this was his “age” in heaven.  Along with a few other impressive details, this recounting convinced his parents that their son had really gone to Heaven and that Heaven is for real.  That’s when his father decided to write a book about it.

When it comes to NDE’s, I’m on the fence.  I would never base my faith on these kinds of reports.  Unlike the evidence for Christianity, and Jesus’ Resurrection in particular, NDE’s are terribly subjective by nature—the evidence for Christianity, by contrast, is in a completely different category, even a category by itself.  So, while I admit that there is substantial veridical evidence for some NDE’s and am thus inclined to think that at least in these limited cases they are real experiences of the afterlife, I don’t think NDE’s provide solid enough proof to stake your belief system upon.  Here’s why.      

For me, the most impressive evidence in favor of NDE’s being real is the fact that there are a significant number of cases where people who have been blind from birth are able to “see” during their experience.  Not only are they able to report, in vivid detail, seeing colorful scenery and a variety of individuals during the “otherworldly” component of their NDE.  As part of their out-of-body experience, they are also often able to report visual details from the “worldly” component of their NDE—the environment in which they were clinically dead—that can later be verified as perfectly accurate, for example, visual details of the operating room they were in, details they would ordinarily be completely blind to in a conscious state!  How someone who has been blind from birth, who has never experienced sight, can report seeing things in such vivid and accurate detail boggles the imagination. 

Still, as I’ve explained in other places, including a previous blog on this subject, because of the terribly subjective nature of these experiences, they remain totally vulnerable to being explained, in one way or another, as merely the product of the individual’s internal mental processes, as something that takes place completely in their mind, not objective reality.  They remain private, individual experiences, not “public” events involving multiple witnesses and/or leaving measurable effects.   

For example, as I learned many years ago in philosophy class, many epistemologists believe that language is a “given”.  In other words, the cognitive structure, the “mental apparatus” if you will, that enables language comprehension and communication is already “in place” in the human mind.  We don’t learn language as something from the outside so much as we tap into a linguistic acuity that is already developed and intact within our brains.  

If this is true of linguistic acuity, there’s a good chance it might also be the case with visual acuity: I can imagine a way in which the mental structure that enables visual acuity—accurately recognizing, identifying, and processing visual images, is already developed and intact, a “given” in our minds.  Since sight involves more than the biomechanical ability to perceive physical objects but also the cognitive ability to recognize, differentiate, and process the information our eyes physically perceive, it is entirely possible that, when we first begin to use the biomechanical function of vision, our minds don’t have to laboriously learn how to process what we see as something totally new and foreign.  Rather, we already have the cognitive capacity to do so, as a “given”.     

So perhaps for someone who has had a biomechanical impediment or defect that prevents physical vision from birth, who can’t “see”, the mental apparatus that enables visual acuity might still be fully functional, albeit dormant.  Thus, it would seem entirely possible for such an intensely traumatic experience as an NDE to activate this acuity in a way that yields vivid, accurate perception of visual phenomena. 

Of course, how those blind from birth are not only able to perceive an “otherworldly” experience in vivid visual detail, i.e., to simply experience sight, but are also able to accurately describe veridical details of their worldly environment, like the operating room, while being clinically dead where, medically, they are supposed to lack consciousness, is beyond me.  One way this might be possible is for them to have accurately perceived objects and/or occurrences in their environment through their other senses, senses which, because all their lives they couldn’t rely on their sight, have been trained and developed far more fully and, as a result, are significantly heightened.  Then, having their visual acuity awakened by an NDE, they are able to describe these objects and occurrences in vivid and accurate detail.  But that’s a stretch.  Which is why I am inclined to think that people who are blind from birth must be conscious, i.e., alive, in an actual out-of-body state during their NDE. 

Still, the terribly subjective nature of NDE’s leaves me uneasy and ultimately unconvinced.  Even with those reports I find most credible, it is impossible to have a high degree of certainty.    

However, there is one thing about NDE’s that I am certain about.  And you can be too.  If you think NDE’s are real, if you believe Heaven is for real, then you are obliged to accept that Hell is for real too.  The more I’ve studied NDE’s, the more clear this has become. 

When looking into NDE’s you have to be careful.  You can easily find many anecdotal, and fantastical, stories, and there are quite a few questionable “scholarly” claims made about the nature of NDE’s.  But there is a lot of solid data.  There have been a significant number of legitimate, scientific, large-scale, in-depth, peer-reviewed studies.  These scholarly studies have yielded reliable and consistent data from thousands of cases and include several longitudinal studies that compiled and analyzed the data from a wide range of the largest and most credible studies done to date. 

One of the clearest things this data reveals is that, while it is rarely emphasized, or even reported, there are numerous cases of people who’ve had distressing experiences during an NDE, often describing it as hellish, and in some instances claiming to have encountered, not God, nor a loving being of light, but the devil himself. 

Depending up which study you consult, the number of people reporting a distressing NDE varies widely: Anywhere from one percent to fifteen percent of respondents.  Because of the wide variance, commentators often simplify these stats by using the “mean” figure of eight percent.  While it is not technically precise, it does make it easier for discussion purposes.  Regardless of which figure is used, virtually everyone who studies NDE’s agrees that the number of distressing or hellish experiences is vastly underreported.  And it’s easy to see why. 

If you had a heavenly experience, it is obviously something you would want to shout from the rooftops.  Not only because of how wonderful and amazing it is, the hope it affords, the great news it constitutes.  But moreover, because of the way it reflects on you as a person and the life you’ve been living.  After all, you were worthy of a heavenly experience.  You must be a really good person!  A positive NDE also happens to cast a very positive reflection on the person who experienced it. 

In stark contrast, a hellish NDE has the exact opposite effect.  Whether there is any truth to it—and many researchers are at pains to point out that they find nothing obvious in the way people who have NDE’s are living their lives that would predict someone having a positive one and someone else a distressing one—a hellish NDE is tremendously embarrassing, leading to the perception that there is something wrong with you, that you must be a “bad person”.    

Researchers also point to another obvious fact: Those who have had a vividly disturbing NDE probably don’t want to relive it.  Reporting it dredges it all up again.  Much like combat veterans who are understandably reluctant to dredge up their hellish experiences of war, those who had a hellish NDE very likely don’t want to talk about it.  They want to forget about it and move on.  Because the distressing NDE’s that are reported are often quite traumatic, there may even be some PTSD related to them, making many reluctant to ever share what they’ve gone through.  Thus, for these and several other reasons, virtually everyone who studies NDE’s believes the distressing ones are significantly underreported and underrepresented in the statistics.   

But a good number, at least, have been reported.  And, if NDE’s are veridical, if they coincide with reality, if they actually tell us something true about the afterlife, if heaven is for real, then, it only follows, that hell is for real too.

In some of the less scholarly, less scientific, more sensational “research” out there, I’ve come across some ingenious attempts to explain these distressing NDE’s as something other than hell.  One intriguing web article attempted to put them into a Tibetan Buddhist Cosmology, explaining hellish NDE’s as nothing more than one stage in a succession of after-world stages on the path to Nirvana, i.e., Enlightenment.  This article also claimed that they were more frequent among those who bring a more “fundamentalistic” worldview to them. 

I’ve also read books by New Age authors that propose similar kinds of explanations.  While the New Age contains a variety of views about the afterlife, everyone I’ve encountered has denied, in one way or another, that these hellish NDE’s could be a final, permanent state.  Offering different proposals for how it all works, they each insisted that it can only be a stage people have to work though, or alternatively, an illusion they have see through, in order to move on to their final destination, which, these writers all agree, contains the more positive elements found in NDE’s. 

But, of course, this is all pure speculation, complete and utter guess work.  If you confine yourself to the hard data, if you interpret what it might tell us about life after life with integrity, the contours are clear.  Again, I wouldn’t stake my worldview on NDE’s.  But if you do, if you find them credible, or even if you are like me, and don’t put too much stock in them but are inclined to think that some are veridical, then know that the data about NDE’s is quite consistent.  While researchers admit that there is much more research that needs to be done; while they long to know more, the numerous, large studies done to date do give us a very reliable picture of the common elements involved in NDE’s.  And while those who undergo an NDE won’t necessarily experience all these elements in each case—most often they only experience several of them—these common elements are reported frequently enough that there is broad agreement that we can consider them the essential, or routine if you will, components of an NDE. 

These are the common elements found in NDE’s: An awareness of being dead; an out-of-body experience; visual and auditory perception; a sense of self-identity, i.e.,  individuality—though lacking their physical body, sensing an “ethereal” one, which retains a sense of individual “embodiment”; passing through a dark tunnel; seeing a bright light that often communicates telepathically; often perceiving the light as a “Being of light”, which makes the experience a profoundly personal encounter; usually in association with the presence of this “Being of light”, describing an intense feeling of peace, bliss, and above all, unconditional love; sometimes seeing other beings of light as well as recognizing other people, some of whom are known—relatives, friends, and so forth—and some who aren’t, i.e., complete strangers; often experiencing a life review—seeing all that one has done, for better or worse, flash before them, at times with associated feelings of satisfaction and regret; and, at times, seeing a religious figure, usually interpreted according to religious expectation, and frequently, only recognized as such later on after one has had time to process the experience, e.g., if raised Hindu, seeing Shiva; if Christian, Jesus; if Muslim, Allah, and so forth—or, alternatively, later interpreting the “Being of light” according to religious expectation. 

Distressing NDE’s sometimes involve some of these elements, such as an out of body experience, traveling down a dark tunnel, recognizing people, but often involve others, for example, instead of seeing a religious figure, claiming to have seen the devil.  One report I heard many years ago described many of these common elements, but as the individual emerged from the dark tunnel into the presence of the bright, “Being of light”, they experienced not joy and love, but rather, intense distress and agony.  The closer they got to the light, the more miserable and distressed they became.  Being in the presence of the light was the very thing that made the experience so hellish and horrific for them.    

Note that nothing in these common elements derived from the hard data supports the speculation about further stages, additional elements, or added features of perception, evolution and/or enlightenment.  It may be that there are.  But, to date, there is no evidence in the hard data to suggest so.  If anything, what the hard data does point to is that, if NDE’s are veridical, if they coincide with reality, then heaven is for real.  And hell is for real too.  The data clearly suggests two types of experience in the afterlife: One distressing, hellish; the other, heavenly—specifically, retaining a sense of “embodied”, individual identity wherein we are able to recognize others as distinct individuals, including loved ones, and experiencing intense peace, bliss, and, above all, unconditional love, especially in the presence of this “Being of light”, which we can communicate with, albeit telepathically, and encounter in a profoundly personal way.  

If NDE’s are veridical—and that remains a big “if”—it is tempting to ask which, if any, worldview do they confirm?  Which do they most align with?  Well, clearly not Tibetan Buddhism.  Nor any of the many variations of New Age belief.  And while some of the elements found in NDE’s do indeed coincide with some of the core beliefs of various world religions, the closest parallel seems to be with Christianity.  I say this very tenuously: In no way do I want to suggest that NDE’s are vital or determinative evidence for the Truth of Christianity—it doesn’t need them to prove true.  But, if NDE’s are real, they bear an uncanny affinity with what is most unique in Christian revelation, and thus, additional verification for the Christian worldview.  Let me explain.

Among the firmest data we have about NDE’s is that people often experience a life review.  They report seeing their whole life flash before their eyes, in particular, the good and bad they’ve done, which is often met with a corresponding satisfaction and/or regret.  And this closely coincides with ours being a moral universe, which is a fundamental tenet of Christianity, as well as many other religions. 

Furthermore, the hard data provides evidence of a final separation or judgment, of a real heaven and a real hell.  There are only two basic types of experience, heavenly and hellish, both of which manifest as final realities.  Only the Western cosmologies of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam contain strict parallels.  The presence of other beings of light—heavenly beings?—and other recognizable persons, known and unknown, also parallels these cosmologies uniquely.  Alternative cosmologies don’t teach that individual self-identity remains intact in such recognizably “embodied” way.

But the one thing that distinguishes NDE’s as most uniquely coinciding with the Christian worldview is their profoundly personal encounter with a “Being of light” who radiates a distinctly unconditional love.  Not only is love central to Christianity in a way it is to no other religion.  But Christian love is distinguished by its radically unconditional character, what is often referred to as grace.  This is the way the God of Jesus Christ is most different from every other concept of the divine: Transcendent.  Personal.  And unconditionally loving.  This is precisely the nature of the “Being of light” people describe encountering.  They don’t describe something resembling Nirvana.  Or something more akin to Allah.  But something which has its closest parallel in the prodigally loving God revealed by and embodied in the life of Jesus.

Many years ago, through a church I was working in, I met someone who had an NDE.  He was overjoyed to tell me all about it.  One evening, while eating shellfish at a restaurant, he went into anaphylactic shock—until that moment, he wasn’t aware until that he had developed a deadly allergy to shellfish.  In the ambulance, his heart stopped on the way to the hospital.  It took several minutes before the Emergency Responders were able to revive him.  During that time, he described experiencing many of those common elements of NDE’s.  As he described the tunnel, the light, the euphoria he felt, I was struck by how often and emphatically he kept emphasizing that he didn’t want to come back.  He knew he had to.  In the experience, he felt God telling him so.  That God had a purpose for his return.  But he longed to stay.  And even though he was living with greater purpose than ever before, he kept insisting that he can’t wait to go back.  He can’t wait to die!  Not only does he have no fear of death.  He longs to die so he can be back in the presence of the “Being of light”, who he clearly understood to be Christ, and who filled him with such indescribable peace, bliss, and love that he never wanted to leave His presence.   

Whether NDE’s turn out to be real or not, there is one thing we can ultimately be certain of: In Christ, we don’t need to fear death either.  His perfect, unconditional love casts out all fear.  And when we do come into His eternal presence, it will fill us with the same indescribable peace, bliss, and love.   

What do you make of NDE’s?  Do you know anyone who has had one?  I’d love to hear your thoughts.  You can go to the “Contact E. J.” page of the Raising Jesus website and leave your comments there.  I look forward to hearing from you!


About Me

E.J. Sweeney is a true skeptic. He needs to see to believe. Hard Evidence. Compelling Proof. Solid Logic. This is what he believes in. In college, he encountered questions that the superficial faith he was raised on couldn’t handle. So he began a quest for Truth, a quest for the answers to life’s ultimate questions.

EJ Sweeney

Read More