I have been teaching down at the Chelsea Parish on the topic of “The Last Things” (last session next Wednesday at 7:30pm). So I was very interested recently when, at my family’s Lutheran “Small Group” meeting, we viewed a video of a talk given by an old seminary colleague of mine, Pastor Dirk Willner.
Some of the story related in that talk has been posted here on the internet. There’s more to it, but if you read that, you will get the gist of it.
The story concerns a “near death experience” that Dirk had in 2004. Dirk himself prefers to see it as a real experience of death, on the basis that he was “clinically dead” for a period of 2 minutes.
I have thought long and hard about Dirk’s story and his experience. Here are some conclusions. Please note that in posting these comments, I am not for a moment doubting Dirk’s own account of what he experienced. I am just trying to work out what it means!
1) You’re not dead until you’re dead.
What Dirk had was a “near death experience”, not “an experience of death”. You could say he had an experience of dying, but without that process reaching it’s conclusion. If you look at the three miracles of Jesus that involved raising the dead, one was soon after death (Jairus’ daughter), one was within 24 hours of death (the widow of Nain’s son – who was about to be buried), and one was four days after death (Lazarus – “There will be a stink”, as Martha said). Doctors can revive people who are “clinically dead” only because they are not yet, strictly speaking, dead. When you’re dead there is no coming back without a supernatural intervention. Medicine alone can’t do it. So whatever happened to Dirk, he didn’t actually die. That day is still to come.
2) Continuation of Consciousness
One thing that his experience does make clear is that the state known as “clinical death” does not result in a cessation of consciousness. That should make us stop and think about organ transplants. At least a little bit.
3) A Dream-like experience
The story Dirk tells is curiously “dream-like”. It sounds like someone telling you about their dream. Like dreams, they include a lot of images that are tucked away in our brains. So we see a mansion, a big door, a man with a cup of wine etc. We don’t see the Virgin Mary. Why not? Dirk is a Protestant. If he had described seeing Mary, I would have sat up and paid attention. This is in line with a question another Lutheran pastor friend of mine likes to ask Catholics “Why don’t Lutherans ever get visions of the Virgin?”
4) A trauma experience?
If it was a “dream” rather than a real experience, to what extent can we rule out the possibility that this experience (and other reported NDE’s) was brought about by the extreme trauma his body and brain were experiencing? In other words, is there a completely naturalistic explanation to his experience rather than a spiritual explanation?
5) A private revelation?
If you don’t like the naturalistic explanation – and you have to understand that I am both a sceptic and a cynic at heart – there is a supernatural explanation which stops short of saying that what Dirk experienced is informative and normative for the rest of us: it was a private revelation. This goes for some of the experiences he had after his NDE (not related in the online version of the story) in which he had visions of angels and auditions of God speaking to him. Of course, the latter might also admit of a naturalistic explanation (post-trauma, medication etc). But if you want to be charitable, we can accept that all these experiences were given to Dirk by God for his own strengthening and edification and his alone, with no relevance or authority for the rest of us.
6) No experience of Judgement
I always find it strange that accounts of NDE’s almost never seem to include any element of experience of “judgement”. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (1021-22) says that “the New Testament speaks of judgment primarily in its aspect of the final encounter with Christ in his second coming, but also repeatedly affirms that each will be rewarded immediately after death in accordance with his works and faith.” Known as the “particular judgement”, both Protestants and Catholics accept this doctrine. That “immediately after death” part of the Church’s teaching seems to me to prove that NDE’s are not experiences of “death” as such, for if they were, then there would have been the “immediate” experience of judgement. Of course, the formulators of the Catechism etc. have never “died”. They make this statement purely on the basis of the teaching of the Scriptures. So, what conclusion do you draw?
7) No encounter with Christ
And this brings me to my strongest reason for doubting that Dirk’s experience (or any NDE for that matter) is either a real experience of true death or an experience that is in any way informative or normative for the rest of us: the complete absence of any encounter with Christ in his account of his experience. The “particular judgement” is, in fact, nothing else than the immediate post-death encounter with Christ, in whom all our life is “judged”. As Ratzinger reflects in his book “Eschatology”:
“One is in heaven when, and to the degree, that one is in Christ. It is by being with Christ that we find the true location of our existence as human beings in God. Heaven is thus primarily a personal reality, and one that remains forever shaped by its historical origin in the paschal mystery of death and resurrection.”
Some who have heard Dirk’s account have speculated that maybe the man with the cup of wine was Christ, but that seems far to metaphorical and ambiguous for what we have been taught (at least according to the teaching of Scripture and the Church) to expect.
I am, as I said, a complete sceptic and cynic when it comes to things like this. I wouldn’t even accept the private revelations of Lourdes or Fatima were it not for the Church’s approval of these as authentic visions. All that aside, I remain convinced that our experience in death will be fundamentally related to Christ, that is both Christological and Christocentric. The only reason I believe in the resurrection of the dead at all is because I believe the apostolic testimony that Jesus himself rose bodily from the grave. Therefore, I have deep questions about an account of “death” in which Christ does not figure at all in an obvious way.
Of course, as I said before, i don’t doubt Dirk’s experience or the experience of other NDEs. But I do have questions about exactly what these were experiences of, and about what these experiences mean for the rest of us, if anything at all.