Saturday, September 21, 2013

Book Review: Near-Death Experiences as Evidence for the Existence of God and Heaven by J. Steve Miller

Last year a relative encouraged me to read a book entitled Heaven is for Real by Todd Burpo and Lynn Vincent. The book tells the account of 4 year old Colton’s experience after a medical crisis. Upon his resuscitation, little Colton was able to tell his family amazing things that they claimed he could not have known. For example, Colton claimed to have met a sister that was miscarried that he didn’t know about. After reading the book, I remember thinking that Colton’s alleged experience, while fascinating, wasn’t concrete enough for me to say, “Okay, I believe it.” I simply needed more evidence and background knowledge about Colton and his family. I had heard scholars such as Gary Habermas [1] and J.P. Moreland discuss near-death experiences and while I always found these accounts intriguing, I never imagined I would reach a concrete conclusion on how reliable they were. For me, near-death experiences [NDEs] were possible evidence for the existence of God and the afterlife, but how could one really know for sure? Therefore, I never imagined them finding a home in my personal apologetic.

Well, as often happens when one reads a solid work on a given topic, my pre-suppositions have been challenged by author J. Steve Miller (interview here) in his book Near-Death Experiencesas Evidence for the Existence of God and Heaven.

When Miller was 16 he became obsessed with the importance of seeking God. He reasoned that life was but a brief moment compared to eternity so his first priority should be to determine if God existed and, if He did, to figure out what He wanted out of his life. [xi] However, the author was faced with a problem- he was a skeptic. He explains:

“Not in the narrow sense of someone who puts down religion, but in the general sense of one who always questions everything. My dictionary defines skeptic as ‘one who by nature doubts or questions what he hears, reads, etc.’ That’s me. My picture should be in the dictionary beside that definition.” [ix]

I suspect a result of his skepticism is Miller’s tendency to exhaustively document and research each claim that he makes and in many cases offer resources for the reader to explore a given topic more in-depth. The author is also sure to note that he not only sought God academically, but also through “prayer and trying to maintain a teachable, open heart.” [xii]

This is a great lesson for those seeking God.

Strengths of the Book

This book has many strengths, three of which I’ll highlight here. The first strength of this piece, as hinted at above, is Miller’s ability to write about something as technical as NDEs in laymen’s terms. Throughout the book I don’t recall once being bogged down by medical jargon or abstract argument. An as the author explains, this was by design:

“I try to write as simply as possible. Sloppy argumentation often dresses up in technical vocabulary and literacy profundity. Thus, while some NDE literature speaks of myocardial infarctions, I’ll simply call them heart attacks.” [xiii]

This reviewer was impressed with the results. Miller’s efforts certainly paid off as this book, while simple to read, doesn’t sacrifice any precision in its explanations.

Second, Miller does an outstanding job documenting his claims, as if daring the reader to check him out! The author further calls upon the best of the best in the relevant fields. As he explains:

“…I looked for serious books on the subject-books by objective authors (not pastors or new age gurus who might be out to evangelize) who had the academic credentials to do solid research on multiple cases.” [p. 19]

As a result, the reader is treated to overviews of works such as Dr. Raymond Moody’s seminal 1975 study Life After Life and Dr. Pim van Lommel’s Consciousness Beyond Life: The Science of the Near-Death Experience. Both Moody and van Lommel’s backgrounds are fascinating. Neither grew up believing in God or life after death, but through their exhaustive research on NDEs changed their minds!

The author briefly explains van Lommel’s conclusion:

“Near-death experiences don’t fit into a naturalistic worldview. There is life after death. His patients experienced, not vivid dreams, but very real journeys to the other side, the most significant part of which was an encounter with a personal being of light.” [p. 22]

Finally, Miller provides the reader with a wealth of information and resources should they want to explore NDEs more in-depth. If one desires to begin researching NDEs, I can’t imagine a better work to start with than this one.

Arguments Dealt with in the Book

In the Preface, Miller spends his time explaining why the book was written, his personal background and how his background informs his study of NDEs.

In Chapter 1, Miller recounts how after reading the account of Colton Burpo, he began asking questions about NDEs to “satisfy” his skeptical mind. [p. 18]

In Chapter 2, the author surveys many of the works he studied (some I’ve already mentioned above) on NDEs and reports that NDEs are not only written about in books, but in scholarly, peer-reviewed literature.

He notes:

“In the 30 year period after Moody published Life after Life, 55 researchers or teams published at least 65 studies of over 3500 NDEs.” [p. 23]

He further explains the impact NDEs had on many of the researchers:

“It’s important to the note that most of these researchers don’t come across as heralding their pet theological or philosophical positions. Most that I read began their research doubting that NDEs involved anything spiritual but become convinced by the weight of the evidence.” [p.23]

Miller begins Chapter 3 by explaining that NDEs, contrary to what this reviewer initially thought, are not rare:

“Studies found four percent of the populations of Germany and the USA reporting that they had experienced one. That’s over one out of 25 people, or over nine million Americans.” [p. 25]

Upon reading such data, the thought occurred to me, “Then why don’t we hear about them more often?”

Miller was quick to answer:

“People tend to keep these experiences to themselves, fearing that people will think they’re crazy.” [p. 25]

The chapter continues with the author sharing numerous statements from the many NDE reports he personally read. I was surprised to see the commonalities in these reports. Details such as the presence of a being of light, an overwhelming feeling of peace and the awareness of the absence of time were just some of the things those who claimed to have experienced an NDE reported. Further, follow up studies have shown that those who've experienced NDEs are most often times changed permanently by the experience.

In Chapter 4, Miller examines 13 different naturalistic explanations for NDEs. The explanations are sub-categorized as follows:
  • Explanations from a Materialist Worldview
  • Theoretical Objections
  • Methodological Objections
  • Psychological Explanations
  • Physiological Objections
Most interesting to this reviewer was the author’s response to Objection #1: “The mind doesn’t exist separate from the brain. Thus, the mind can’t survive the death of the brain. NDEs must therefore be produced solely by the brain.”

In response to this, Miller first points out that the materialist will often offer as proof to sustain this objection that as we age, our minds tend to work less efficiently.

However, as Miller points out, researchers such as “van Lommel…and many others surmise that the brain functions as a receiver for the mind. The mind connects with the brain while we are in our body, but isn’t dependent upon the brain for its existence. Damage to the brain impacts our ability to access our minds, much as damage to a radio impacts our ability to access radio signals.” [p. 33]

Miller ends the chapter concluding that “the present state of research finds naturalistic explanations inadequate.” [p. 48] However, as we’ll see in the next chapter, he does not then simply conclude, “Therefore, God…”

The thrust of Chapter 5 is to address the question, “Do NDEs provide compelling evidence that God and heaven exist?” Miller argues that they do by “weighing the evidence to decide which hypothesis best fits the data…” [p. 49]

According to the author, we have only two possible [broad] explanations:

Explanation #1- The spiritual explanation

Explanation #2- The naturalistic explanation

Miller then spends the rest of the chapter examining 12 known facts [“exhibits”] about NDEs and argues persuasively that the spiritual explanation is the more robust one.

One of the key claims dealt with in this chapter is, “An NDE is no more than a vivid dream caused by people’s expectations of the hereafter.” [p. 59]

Miller reports:

“Several studies have found that the beliefs prior to the NDE didn’t impact whether people had an NDE or not- neither prior knowledge of NDEs, their religious beliefs, nor their standard of education. Many who had NDEs didn’t have a prior belief in life after death at all.” [p. 59]

Finally, in Chapter 6, the author assesses what exactly we can learn from NDEs about other worldviews and about God.

According to Miller, and this reviewer agrees, if NDEs are a reality, they are incompatible with naturalism. Further, I would also argue, along with the author, that philosophical materialists, determinists, deists and pantheists are going to find their worldview inadequate to explain the data observed from NDEs.

This chapter ends with the author explaining what the evidence from NDEs tell us about God.

Conclusion

Before reading Near-Death Experiences as Evidence for the Existence of God and Heaven, I would not have imagined using the reality of NDEs in my personal apologetic. However, Stephen Miller has removed many of the false assumptions this reviewer had before reading his book. The evidence for NDEs is persuasive and surely should cause the naturalist pause.

Miller’s self-confessed skepticism I believe proved to be an asset throughout this work. His writing is well-documented, persuasive and well-argued. Further, in many parts of the book he seemed to anticipate a possible objection to his arguments and dealt with the objection thoroughly and convincingly.

If you desire to learn more about the reality of NDEs and what they tell us about God and Heaven, in a way that is easy to understand, this is surely the book for you. Miller takes what is many times a very technical discussion and puts it on the bottom shelf where all can enjoy.

Note: As stated in the review, Miller thoroughly documents his claims and provides numerous opportunities for the reader to study NDEs more in-depth.

Evidence of this can be found in the 9 Appendixes included in the book. They are as follows:

Appendix 1- Do NDEs Differ Across Cultures?
Appendix 2- Two Recent Articles Proclaim that Science Has Explained NDEs’ Paranormal Features
Appendix 3- Interviewing Circles of Trust- My Original Research and Tips
Appendix 4- But is the Evidence Scientific?
Appendix 5- Blackmore’s Dying Brain Hypothesis
Appendix 6- Nelson’s Spiritual Doorway in the Brain
Appendix 7- Reflections on NDEs and Christian Teachings
Appendix 8- NDEs with Corroboration
Appendix 9- Guide to Further Research


Apologetics 315 Book Reviewer Chad Gross is a graduate of Frostburg State University (BS) and has a Master's Equivalency in education. He currently is working toward an Apologetics Certificate through Biola University. He is the founder and director of Truthbomb Apologetics. Chad teaches elementary school while leading Christian Apologetics classes at Faith Christian Fellowship in Williamsport, MD. Chad and his wife, Danielle, live in Hagerstown, MD with their two daughters, Emma and Lily Opal.

Footnote: 1. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hx_TvFCIRX4

12 comments :

Phil Ensor said...

How would the apologist use such evidence (of NDE demonstrating a likely afterlife) in his/her works? If anything, it completely undermines a Christian viewpoint (the original post above says a similar experience was had across a broad demographic, including differing religious beliefs). If a Hindu experiences the same as a Christian, or likewise an atheist the same as a Jew, the evidence actually contradicts the Christian standpoint. I needn't expand on that, as the reasons are quite obvious.

As an atheist, I have no beef with there being an afterlife. After all, I can't say for sure that there is or isn't one, though I expect not. However, if there is an afterlife with a being of light, etc., that can be briefly experienced via NDE, I would bet my last tenner it it in no way correlates to the biblical heaven.

If, for instance, such NDE are indicative of the Christian faith's afterlife, why isn't the being of light taking the numerous opportunities to put the heathens straight about entry requirements? Just a thought, but a simple means of demonstrating how easy it is to shoot down the original premise.

Peter Schaefer said...

JSM does a fine job of distilling the core concepts for laymen, and this reviewer did a fine job of distilling JSM's distillation!

MaryLou said...

Phil wrote: "why isn't the being of light taking the numerous opportunities to put the heathens straight about entry requirements?"

He has -- through the Bible and through Christians by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Having said that, I must add that the Lord needs neither his written word or his followers to make himself or his truth known. In Muslim countries, where Christians are not allowed to even discuss Jesus with Muslims, he introduces himself to them in dreams. This gives them a hunger to know more about him -- through the Bible and through Christians by the power of the Holy Spirit. There are many ex-Muslims who will attest to this.

I agree with you when you say that just giving evidence of an afterlife does not necessarily make the God of the Bible true. As J. Warner Wallace of pleaseconvinceme.com puts it, just using arguments to prove the existence of God doesn't prove that the Christian perspective is the right one.

However, it provides the platform on which the seeker can build. Once he accepts that God is real, his next job is to figure out which of the many religions is the true one by studying and comparing them.

Eric I. Gatera. said...

This is an interesting review. I personally do believe in the possibility of the NDE but i am still a bit skeptic of people verbalization of what they saw. I definitively need to read this book. Maybe it will do to me what it did to Mr. Chad. Hopefully!

8violets said...

Can you clarify for me if Steve Miller interviewed people who did not consider themselves as believers in Christ, yet they experienced heaven during their near death experience?

Phil Ensor said...

I'm sorry MaryLou, but do you expect me to just believe Jesus appears to Muslims in dreams without any citation of facts? And I say facts, not 'testimonies'. I'm pretty sure the whole world would be interested in that sort of detail, especially the scientific community. It'd be something to test for sure.

And I don't see why your response highlighting the bible and holy spirit as our opportunities to be told entry requirements would see the being of light missing a golden opportunity of a bit of gospel-telling.

MaryLou said...

Let me try to clarify what I said, Phil.

You stated that you didn't understand why God didn't take every opportunity to let "heathens" know the requirements for salvation. I said that he does -- with the bible, through Christian witness and with his revelation of himself through such things as dreams. I could have added that he is evident in nature and in our own conscience as well.

God makes sure that anybody who wants to know him will get that chance. For those who are hard-hearted and don't want to know him, it doesn't matter whether he makes a point of revealing himself personally or not. After all, the Pharisees saw Jesus raise people from the dead and they still refused to acknowledge him as the Messiah. His miracles only prompted them to hurry up and dispose of Jesus because they were fearful of losing their following to him. In other words, they felt they had too much to lose in accepting him. I think that is true of some atheists as well.

As for testimonies, I don't see them as necessarily "non-facts" the way that you seem to. If they were, then they were never be used in a court of law.

If you are coming at the whole thing with the presupposition of naturalism and deny the possibility of the supernatural, then I can certainly understand why you reject testimonies of the supernatural. That doesn't mean that the supernatural isn't real or that the testimonies aren't based in fact. It simply means that you don't accept it and that is, of course, your privilege -- a God-given privilege, I might add.

As for your suggestion that everything must be tested by science, I think you are asking more of science than it is capable of. After all, science can't tell us anything about non-physical things such as love, beauty and the meaning of life. Yet those things exist. Secondly, science can be as unreliable as the people conducting it and is, therefore, not infallible even in the things it can test.

Christianity and science are not incompatible at all -- only naturalism and Christianity are. Not all scientists are naturalists. There are those who have no problem with accepting the existence of the supernatural.

Joshua Sijuwade said...

Hi Phil you are completely right with your comment that it doesn't prove Christianity to be true so i believe that this tool of Near death experiences would be used in the first part of a Classical apoligists analysis of theism. Where he proves that theism is true. So there is use for the argument to prove theism is correct over naturalism however there would need to be further arguements to show that Christian theism is true such as the historical reliability of the Bible, the historical person of Jesus and his resurrection etc.

janitorialmusings said...

This book appears to be FREE on Kindle right now.

Chad said...

Hello Everyone,

Thank you for your feedback. I greatly appreciate your thoughts and encouragements.

I will do my best to briefly answer some of the issues brought up here; however, if you want more in-depth answers, I recommend reading Mr. Miller's book.

8violets,

van Lommel's research is significant here due to the fact that he interviewed patients in Holland, where most people don't believe in life after death. So, to answer your question directly, yes, Miller shares research of those who had no believe in the afterlife or in Jesus Christ as their Lord, but yet claimed to have experienced an NDE and in almost every case the person's life was significantly changed.

Godspeed

Chad said...

Hello Mr. Ensor,

Thank you for the inquiry. I would caution you to not be so hasty in your conclusion before you have even given the book a fair reading. I can tell you that Mr. Miller directly deals with the issues you’ve brought forth in your comments.

Joshua is correct here. The manner in which Steve argues in the book is inference to the best explanation, as I explained in the review. He reasons that there is either a spiritual explanation for the NDE experience or a naturalistic explanation. He devotes an entire Chapter (4) to demonstrating why the naturalistic explanations fall short of explaining all the evidence. Therefore, the spiritual explanation (that is, in a NDE, the person is truly alive, with a fully functioning mind, in a nonmaterial, spiritual world outside the body.) is the best one (this is argued in Chapter 5).

Finally, you wrote:

If, for instance, such NDE are indicative of the Christian faith's afterlife, why isn't the being of light taking the numerous opportunities to put the heathens straight about entry requirements?

Steve makes in the book is that the lives of those who experience NDEs are significantly changed after the experience. For example, those that experienced NDEs see love as very important, show greater empathy, tend to be less materialistic and have enhanced spiritual values. So, it seems that an argument could be made that God does use the NDE experience for His purposes.

Also, Steve does identify commonalities in NDErs from various cultures and beliefs and then examines which worldview and/or religion the commonalities best fit with.

Each of us must be convinced in his own mind; however, I’ll leave you would a point Steve makes in the book:

“Imagine you’ve been chosen for jury duty, deciding a case where a doctor has ordered his patient to enter a psychiatric ward because, after her cardiac arrest, she claimed to have visited heaven and spoken to angels. The defense argues that she if perfectly sane and actually visited heaven. The prosecution argues that such events are impossible and all who claim them are delusional. During eight hours of testimony, the defense lines up 100 NDErs to testify that they too made the trip to the other side. Accompanying each NDEr are doctors, nurses, and family members who verify things seen and heard while outside their bodies. Would this evidence be compelling to an unbiased jury?” [p. 53]

If you are genuinely seeking answers to your questions, I strongly encourage you to read the book. After all, it’s FREE on Kindle!

Respectfully


DeDona1 said...

Chad, no one has really answered Mr. Ensor's question. He says that an NDE would be a perfect opportunity for God to set the heathen straight about Jesus and accepting Him to enter heaven. I have studied many NDEs and have never found one in which God clarifies the sinner's prayer. The being of light usually has the same message of love.

Post a Comment

Thanks for taking the time to comment. By posting your comment you are agreeing to the comment policy.

Blog Archive

Amz