There is something about the Advent season which makes me especially sensitive to the spiritual dimension of existence. Advent is the season of expectancy, of waiting for some kind of revelation which we don’t know too much about. Like the passengers in C. S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce (1945) who sit on a bus in expectation of a destination, I sit at home or in a church and reflect on those dimensions of creation which are invisible.
Perhaps it’s because Advent also points to Christ’s Second Coming, which will put an end to death, that I think of death more than in other seasons of the year. Several of my family members and older friends have also died in the winter, so this adds to the impetus.
In his TEDx talk, Dr Thomas Fleischmann talks of the various phases of near death experience (NDE) he has encountered in his patients, working in an emergency ward for over three decades. The first stage involves the spirit being severed from the body and at such moments the spirit can observe what’s going on in the operating theatre. The second phase removes the person to a sort of holding place, which is most often pleasant to the person’s spirit, but can occasionally be unpleasant, reminiscent of the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516).
After some time, a warm and very bright light starts to emerge, coming closer to the spirit at the same time as the spirit processes towards the light. Finally, the spirit usually encounters family members who are deceased, sometimes family members the spirit didn’t know while they were alive, who had died years before they were born. Often, there is also an overwhelming sense of unconditional love radiating from a presence. At this stage, the spirit either proceeds further into death (a choice is usually given), or is told to return to life because they have important work to do.
Flesichmann’s findings are corroborated by numerous accounts all over the world about similar experiences. What is remarkable about all this is that the heart has stopped and the brain ceases to work. There is no scientific explanation for why NDEs occur.
NDEs are deeply interesting because they awaken the person to the spiritual dimension of existence. Reports of changed orientations to life abound among people who have had NDEs. Fear of death is almost always diminished if not eradicated.
I cannot see any reason why a Christian needs to reject the validity of NDEs in order to maintain an orthodox faith. The Bible says very little indeed about what happens between death and resurrection. Jesus’s words to the thief on the cross, that he will be with Christ in paradise that same day, seem to chime with those who have had NDEs, who experience being in a state akin to paradise. As a Christian who is strongly universalist in his faith, I look to the Cross and Resurrection as keys to the salvation of the world, to the transfiguration of creation.
Those who have had NDEs have an important role in opening the rest of us to the invisible dimension of existence – to the spiritual world. We are all spiritual people, of course, because our source in God, who is Spirit, guarantees that this be so. Yet our perception of the spiritual can be very dim, muted, occluded by a thousand other things, not least our own unbelief (or non-belief).
Moreover, the highly personal nature of NDEs – the sense of personal enlightenment, reliving of one’s life from birth to death – indicates a special relationship between the spiritual and personality. One can say, as did the philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev, that there is a correlation between spirituality and personality. Personality is a spiritual quality, one which awakens the person to the whole range of experience, visible and invisible.
To the extent that NDEs foster the growth of personality in people who have lived through them, so to speak, they ought to be understood and appreciated. NDEs permit a tantalising glimpse beyond the curtain that currently divides the seen from the unseen; they reinforce what Christianity and other faiths affirm: that we are spiritual as well as material, and that our personality matters; it is the outgrowth of the spirit in us.