By Gillian Bethel
One pleasant September evening, Xavier Melo was driving home from work when his car was hit by a speeding vehicle in an intersection. Melo suffered head trauma, lost consciousness, and fell into a coma. Here’s what happened next:
He left his body and hovered above it, observing a nurse in the ambulance who held his hand and called out, “We’re losing him, we’re losing him.” Then he began to rise, the ambulance receding in the distance, until he came to a tunnel, where scenes from his childhood began to play out.
Melo felt an overwhelming sense of belonging, of kinship with the trees, the wind, and the water. He saw an indescribable light that drew him—a light he began to believe was a being: “It was like the magnetism of love, something that attracts the deepest part of you,” he says. “I have never been more alive; I have never felt more lucid in my life.” Regaining awareness and sense of his physical body after that was traumatic.
Melo said the experience transformed him. When he related it, “he repeatedly became so overwhelmed with emotion that he had to stop to regain his composure.” He is now funding research into near-death experiences (NDEs) in his native Spain.1
Melo’s experience contains many common features of NDEs. In addition, some people meet dead relatives and speak with shining beings. But not all NDEs are pleasant. At times, people report finding themselves alone in eerie voids or even going to hell, where grotesque beings threaten them.
Because these experiences are so vivid and emotional, it’s possible to conclude that they’re a glimpse of life after death. But are they? Let’s consider some interesting facts to give us a broader picture before we decide.
First, we’ll investigate what can bring NDEs about. NDEs, or NDE-like experiences, have occurred during a broad range of conditions: cardiac arrest, shock from loss of blood after giving birth or through complications from surgery, septic or anaphylactic shock, electrocution, coma from traumatic brain damage, bleeding in the brain, and near-drowning or suffocation. All these conditions can deprive the brain of a full oxygen supply.2
Pilots and astronauts sometimes have NDE-like experiences. Their training may include being spun in a machine that simulates extreme gravity. At around five times the force of gravity, the cardiovascular system stops delivering blood to the brain, and people faint. Afterwards, “some report tunnel vision and bright lights; a feeling of awakening from sleep; a sense of peaceful floating; out-of-body experiences; sensations of pleasure and even euphoria; and short but intense dreams, often involving conversations with family members, that remain vivid to them many years afterward.”3
Experiences similar to those in NDEs can also be induced by stimulating the brain in various ways. Neurosurgeons sometimes search for the origin of epileptic seizures in the brain by electrically stimulating part of the cortex called the insula. Patients report bliss, enhanced well-being, and heightened self-awareness or perception of the external world.4
Exciting the gray matter elsewhere can trigger out-of-body experiences. When Swiss neurologist Olaf Blanke stimulated his patients’ brain in an area called the right angular gyrus, they reported that they left their physical body and could look down on it from above—the classic out-of-body experience.5
So the brain itself can produce experiences like those in NDEs under certain circumstances. Reduced oxygen, in particular, can trigger an NDE. Now let’s ask another question: When is a person actually dead?
For years, it was assumed that a person was clinically dead when their heart stopped and breathing ceased. But clinicians have revised their thinking. Studies of cardiac-arrest patients’ brain waves during resuscitation (CPR) have shown brain activity for up to an hour after the heart stops. Now, a patient is considered dead only when there is irreversible loss of brain activity. Without CPR, this would be within 10 minutes after the heart ceases beating.
With the new “death is a process” definition, if a person survives cardiac arrest to tell of an experience, they are not considered to have died. This means their experience cannot shed light on what happens after death.
Where does this scientific research lead us as we consider whether NDEs reveal what follows death? Logically, all we can say is that it reveals what can happen with an impaired brain right before death.
Science has shown us one thing clearly. If we want to know what happens after death, scientific investigation cannot help us, neither can people’s experiences surrounding death—no matter how vivid and life-changing. We need to turn to another kind of study.
The religions of the world offer explanations of what happens after death, but unfortunately, they contradict one another. It’s tempting just to pick the one we prefer or try to blend them in a personal mix. But that’s not helpful for information about reality.
There is an objective reality outside of us. Science wouldn’t work practically if there wasn’t. Just as we function most successfully in everyday life when we have a good grasp on external reality, so we need to know where that reality extends to after death in order to live optimally now. In other words, we need to keep on searching for the truth.
The Bible prioritizes truth. It says, “Buy the truth, and sell it not; also wisdom, and instruction, and understanding.” Prov. 23:23, NKJV. It teaches that the supremely good God of truth, love, and justice is being challenged and undermined by an enemy who is jealous, cruel, and deceptive. The human race is caught in the middle, hence the puzzling mixture of good and evil in the world and ourselves.
God has given us the Bible, containing His messages to humanity, as a yardstick to help us distinguish truth from error. There’s so much deception on the topic of death. According to the Bible, the first lie told to humans was “You will not die” (Gen. 3:4, RSV)—a lie perpetuated in the widespread belief that we all naturally have an immortal soul. Safety from deception requires us to judge our experiences by the truths found in the Bible. If we judge the Bible by our experiences, we’re in danger because the enemy knows how to mislead our senses.
The Bible says there’s either eternal life or annihilation for us after death, but neither is immediate. It states repeatedly that death is a sleep until a future resurrection by God.6 He’s the only one who has innate immortality and can give life. See 1 Tim. 6:15, 16. So whether a given NDE is a preview of what’s to come after the resurrection or a vivid dream in an oxygen-starved brain, we can’t know unless we compare it with the Bible. If it doesn’t reflect the Bible’s teachings, it’s definitely the latter. Either way, what we really need to know is more about the life-and-death struggle between good and evil, and how not to miss eternal life. The Bible is the only reliable source for that knowledge too.
Kristen French, “The Afterlife Is in Our Heads,” Nautilus, nautil.us, Sept. 28, 2022.
Christof Koch, “What Near-Death Experiences Reveal about the Brain,” Scientific American, scientificamerican.com, June 1, 2020.
Karl S. Kruszelnicki, “Near-death myth alive and kicking,” ABC Science, abc.net.au, Mar. 8, 2007.
See 1 Cor. 15:51, 52 for example.
Gillian Bethel is the associate editor for Last Generation magazine.