Understanding Near Death Experiences

While going into the light became a catchphrase from the 1982 movie Poltergeist, the reality is that the light, the tunnel, and the concept of moving forward isn’t about horror, but love. From individuals who have had near death experiences, we have learned quite a bit about the feelings associated with what appears to be even a small glimpse into the spiritual realm beyond physical existence.

Near death experiences have the potential to teach us a lot about the spiritual realm but also about how we experience life in the physical world and the essential connection between the two.

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What is a Near Death Experience?

Chances are you’ve heard of near death experiences (NDEs), or maybe even know someone who’s had one. Near death experiences appear to offer a glimpse into the realm between life and death, attracting the attention and interest of theologians, scientists, and spiritual seekers alike.

At its core, and by definition, a near death experience is a subjective phenomenon reported by individuals who have been on the brink of death, typically characterized by vivid perceptions such as out-of-body experiences, encounters with deceased loved ones, and traveling through a tunnel towards a radiant light.


And, perhaps a bit Jungian, they’re not a new or culturally isolated experience. In fact, the history of NDEs traces back centuries. Ancient accounts from cultures worldwide, including Egyptian, Greek, and Tibetan traditions, contain descriptions reminiscent of modern-day near death experiences.

However, the contemporary understanding of NDEs gained significant attention in the 20th century, with the publication of Raymond Moody's groundbreaking book, Life After Life, in 1975. Moody's work popularized the term "near-death experience" and sparked widespread interest in the phenomenon.


While interpretations of NDEs vary widely across religious and scientific paradigms, these experiences often evoke a sense of transcendence and transformation. Whether understood as glimpses of an afterlife, manifestations of the mind's inner workings, or a combination of both, near death experiences continue to inspire awe and curiosity, inviting us to explore the mysteries of existence, the role and existence of the spiritual realm, and the nature of consciousness itself.


Common Elements of Near Death Experiences

Perhaps part of what makes near death experiences so compelling is that they often share common elements. These common elements tie what could be, under other circumstances, isolated or unconnected events, together and compel us to explore these experiences, which occur across all demographics. In other words, regardless of the people, the places, the circumstances, the elements are consistent and that in itself is intriguing.

To start, tunnels are a recurring motif, often described as passageways of light or darkness that individuals either see in the distance or find themselves moving along. Similarly, most people report feeling the existence of a transcendent realm at the end of the passage. This tunnel journey seems to symbolize the transition from physical existence to a state beyond the material world, serving as a conduit for the soul.


Out-of-body experiences are also frequently reported during near death experiences, where individuals feel detached from their physical bodies and perceive themselves from outside their bodies. Sometimes, they’ll go as far as reporting seeing themselves on operating tables, in hospital beds, at the scene of accidents, and more as they, seem to, float above it all.

Contrary to what we may believe about this being confusing and scary, many people report this detachment provides a sense of freedom and exploration beyond the physical form, reaffirming, for them, the existence of consciousness beyond the body and a world beyond the physical.


Another aspect of NDEs is the life review, where individuals undergo a comprehensive reflection of their past actions and experiences (a bit like Albert Brooks’ Defending Your Life). This review often involves reliving significant moments from their lives, accompanied by a greater understanding of the interconnectedness of all beings and the consequences of their actions.

For many, the life review serves as a transformative experience, leading them to conduct a spiritual spring cleaning, refocusing their life on personal growth, forgiveness, and a deeper appreciation for the essence of existence. 


Another important experience that creates connections between physical and spiritual realms is that individuals report meeting angels or deceased relatives who provide comfort and guidance to individuals during their journey. These encounters transcend the boundaries of time and space, offering reassurance of an afterlife and the presence of benevolent beings beyond the physical realm. The presence of angels or loved ones imparts a sense of love, acceptance, and belonging, reaffirming the interconnectedness of all souls.


As scary as one might expect this experience to be, most people say they feel peaceful and serene throughout their near death experiences, transcending earthly worries and fears. Many individuals describe a profound sense of calm, love, and acceptance during their experience, often accompanied by a radiant light or presence.

This overwhelming sense of peace reassures individuals of the inherent goodness and beauty of existence, inspiring them to live with greater compassion, purpose, and gratitude upon their return to life.


Swedenborgian Theology and Near Death Experiences

Even if you’re just learning about Swedenborgian theology, you’ve likely already recognized a lot of Swedenborgian elements in these experiences. Central to Swedenborgian beliefs is the idea that the spiritual world is intricately connected to the physical world, and that there is continuous interaction between the two realms. Near death experiences offer us all a unique lens through which we can explore this intersection.

Perhaps the most profound similarities is the reported overwhelming sense of peace and feeling of being surrounded by love which mirror Swedenborg’s teachings on God, angels, and the afterlife.

Swedenborg described his encounters with angels, spirits, and various celestial beings, providing insights into the nature of existence beyond earthly life. It’s not hard to see how near death experiences are seen as glimpses into this spiritual realm, providing insights into the nature of the soul's journey after death.

And, in many ways, these experiences echo Swedenborg’s experiences and beliefs regarding the afterlife. According to Swedenborg, death is merely a transition from one state of being to another, rather than an end to existence. Near death experiences provide experiential evidence of the existence of a spiritual realm, where individuals may encounter departed loved ones, angelic beings, or even a review of their own life experiences.

In essence, Swedenborgian theology offers a comforting and hopeful framework for understanding near-death experiences, viewing them as opportunities for a spiritual awakening and spiritual connection to God. Through the lens of Swedenborg's teachings, NDEs become not only glimpses into the afterlife but also reminders of the eternal presence of God's love and guidance in our lives.


What We Can Learn From Near Death Experiences 

As many people who have had near death experiences say the opportunity changed them, the way they view life, and how they feel about our connections, it seems that these experiences are not only an opportunity to learn but also one to let us practice gratitude. Near-death experiences offer profound insights into spirituality and the nature of consciousness.

So, what can we take from these experiences, whether we have them or learn about them from others:

  1. Existence beyond the physical body: Many near death experiences involve individuals reporting sensations of leaving their physical bodies, out-of-body experiences and experiencing an expanded sense of awareness of not just themselves but the ways we’re all connected. This suggests that consciousness may exist independently of the body. And, if that’s true, then this seems to be confirmation of the potential for us to grow and learn even once we’ve left the physical world, as Swedenborg suggests.


  1. Life review and reflection: As mentioned, these experiences often involve a life review, where individuals re-experience significant events in their lives and reflect on their actions and their impact on others. This can lead to insights into the importance of love, compassion, and forgiveness. While we cannot go back and relive things, we can reflect on them and make different choices moving forward, ones that are more reflective of those values.


  1. Encounters with deceased loved ones: Some near death experiences involve encounters with deceased relatives or friends. While this offers reassurance about an afterlife or continuity of existence beyond death, Swedenborg suggests these loved ones help provide comfort during the transition as well as guidance and support as we move forward.

  2. Encounters with spiritual beings or entities: Many NDE reports include encounters with beings of light or other spiritual entities. Swedenborg’s teachings on angels tell us that the connections between the spiritual and physical world are real. The afterlife, or glimpses of it, can lead to a deeper understanding of spirituality and the interconnectedness of all things.

  3. Transformation and personal or spiritual growth: NDEs often result in profound psychological and spiritual changes in individuals, leading to increased compassion, a greater appreciation for life, and a sense of purpose or mission. Swedenborg stresses the importance of engaging, actively, in spiritual growth and the insights gleaned from these experiences can help propel that growth.


  1. Reduction of fear of death: One thing we all seek, especially as we reflect on our spiritual existence, is the reassurance that we exist beyond this physical world. Experiencing an NDE can significantly reduce the fear of death in individuals, especially as those individuals are shown the possibility of a spiritual realm where they can experience love, support, peace, and ongoing growth. 

  2. Validation of religious and spiritual beliefs: For individuals who have near death experiences that align with their religious or spiritual beliefs, the experience can serve as validation of those beliefs and provide a deeper sense of connection to their faith tradition. And, for those who are not currently on a spiritual path, it can be a strong catalyst to begin exploring a spiritual path.


Overall, near-death experiences offer insights into the mysteries of consciousness, the connections between spiritual and physical worlds, the nature of the human experience, and the nature of interconnectedness of all things.

Whether a personal experience or one that is shared, it undoubtedly raises questions and questions are often where spiritual journeys begin and we begin to understand our purpose in life.

If you’re just starting to explore your spirituality or you’re well on the path in your spiritual journey, we have a space for you to keep asking questions. Whether you join us for a Q & A session with Pastor Chuck, during a volunteer event or for a book group, we’re ready to walk with you.

And, if you just want to dip your toe in the waters, we’ve got a video library for you to explore at your own pace, and you can even meet us daily for 10 Minutes of Calm. Your spiritual journey is yours. On your time. At your pace. We’re here to help facilitate that. Reach out if you’d like to get connected and we can connect you with resources and community. 

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