As God Is My Judge

Nowadays when people die, they don't necessarily stay dead.  Thanks to modern medicine, untold numbers of the departed have been issued roundtrip tickets, and they are coming back with tales to tell.  Dr. Raymond Moody collected 150 of such accounts and published his findings in a groundbreaking book entitled Life After Life in 1975.   A physician with doctorates in psychology and philosophy, he coined the term "near-death experience" to describe these episodes.   Moody's subjects all told pretty much the same story.  They remembered floating above their bodies and then traveling upward through a dark tunnel to a celestial realm where they encountered a being of light.  This was followed by "life review" that gave subjects a panoramic look at their lives, including how their actions affected others.  With rare exceptions, the subjects reported overwhelming feelings of love and peace -- so much so that many were reluctant to return to the living.

Although the nomenclature may be new, accounts of near-death experiences go back at least to Plato, who wrote about a soldier's return from the dead in The Republic.  A sixth-century pope, Gregory the Great, also included a soldier's account of a return trip from the netherworld in a compilation of deathbed visions and near-death experiences offered as evidence of the soul's immortality.  These were cautionary tales dramatizing the hellish torments that awaited unrepentant sinners in the afterlife.  In a similar vein, the eighth-century monk and scholar Bede incorporated the Vision of Drythelm in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People.  St. Drythelm was a pious soul who briefly died and got the full tour of heaven, hell and an in-between realm resembling purgatory, which was not yet part of Roman Catholic cosmology.  By the twelfth and thirteen centuries, purgatory figured prominently in otherworldly narratives.  To what extent such visionary experiences were shaped by prevailing religious beliefs is anyone's guess.  Following his own near-fatal mountain-climbing accident, a 19th-century Swiss geologist named Albert Heim began collecting accounts from fellow accident survivors and found that many had undergone instantaneous "life reviews" similar to those reported in more recent cases.

Neither science nor religion has wholly embraced the phenomenon of near-death experiences -- at least not when they are presented as evidence of a benign afterlife.  The scientific community tends to regard them as hallucinations produced by a dying brain, while religious types balk at the idea of death without a final judgment.  The "life review" reported by many survivors doesn't count, because it appears to be all reward and no punishment.  Traditionalists point to numerous passages in Scripture clearly stating that sinners will be condemned.  But there are other passages that seem to point in a different direction.  In the Gospel of John, Pharisees bring forward a woman who has been caught in adultery and demand that Jesus condemn her.  He refuses to do so.  "You judge according to the flesh," Jesus explains, "I judge no one."

John 8:15

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