Reconciling NDEs and Religious Tradition
I tell you, on the day of judgement you will have to give an account for every careless word you utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned. Matthew 12:36
Can we reconcile the reports of Near-Death Experiences (NDEs) with scripture and religious traditions? I believe so. In many of my writings I have commented on the interpretation challenges of translating scripture from its original languages into English. In addition, there are cultural differences and shifts in societal norms and mores to be considered, not to mention the decades that passed between the life of Jesus, for example, and the written accounts of his life. All of this should be considered as a part of any attempted reconciliation of past and present realities.
An example of an interpretative challenge is the Greek (the original language of the New Testament) word Anion, which is translated in today’s Bibles as eternal. The word actually means an age or a time. The cultural norm in Jesus’ time commonly referred to a time or an age as an eternity. It certainly did not refer to what we consider eternity, as in all of time, forever and ever. One particularly frightening aspect of the current understanding of hell is its supposed eternal nature, meaning there is no hope of release or salvation ever. It is as if there is an invisible threshold on earth, one side of which is for those who will be loved and cherished forever, but once crossed results in condemnation and punishment forever. A more culturally-correct reading of the text would be to say we may have hellish experiences for a time, both in this life and the next.
As we compare one of the common NDEs, that of a life review, with the biblical concept of judgement, once we reconcile our definition of eternity with the Greek meaning and the understanding at the time, we can see a clear relationship between the two. In the reported life reviews, everything one did or said on earth was reviewed with another being – God, Jesus, an angel or guide – not only in great detail, but it included learning the impact that our words and actions had on others. In one of the common biblical passages about the judgement, the author of Matthew writes, “…you will have to give an account for every careless word you utter…” The area where the NDE reports help clarify this judgement that creates such fear in so many is that the life review, or judgement, in NDEs is not threatening or condemning; rather, it is a learning experience. It helps people understand how to become better participants in their relationships with others, both here and in the hereafter. In the belief systems taught by many religious leaders today, the judgement of God is terrifying because that judgement determines whether we spend eternity in heaven or in hell. I believe the reality is not nearly so dire, and that there is no place we will ever find ourselves with no hope of salvation, no matter how sinful we have been. Rather, our lives take us through both heavenly and hellish experiences. Where we have sown seeds of discontent, we will reap discontent for a time. This reaping of what we have sown is how we learn and grow, and both positive and negative experiences are necessary and are completely within God’s reach. NDEs help us understand the true nature of judgement as a learning process, not as a punishment.
Many NDE reports recall being in a sort of holding area, not fully in the afterlife, but certainly out of earthly life. From this area they catch glimpses of both places. It is not described as frightening or unpleasant, just as a place of being held. This is consistent with the concept of purgatory and the biblical accounts of the places of the dead (Sheol and Hades). The areas are neither pleasant nor unpleasant; they are only what they are – places where people go when they die.
Finally, the rearranging of one’s priorities that often occurs following an NDE is consistent with the concept of a purging area, where we learn to release our earthly attachments to free ourselves to fully enter the life beyond earth. This experience often results in activities and possessions that were once a focus of one’s life losing their importance.
The similarities between NDEs and biblical accounts are not surprising because NDEs are not new. The Bible is full of accounts of dreams, visions, and other communications from beyond this life. It is little wonder that many NDEs often read like something out of and consistent with experiences recorded in the Bible.
This is the 26th in the series of Life Notes titled, If I Should Die Before I Wake. I invite your thoughts, insights, and feedback via email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or through my website, www.ContemplatingGrace.com. At the website, you can also sign up to have these reflections delivered to your Inbox every Thursday morning, if you are not receiving them in another manner.
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