You’re not dead till you’re dead (Reflections on a NDE account)

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.

About Schütz

I am Catholic, married to Cathy, father of Maddy & Mia. Since 2002, I have been the Executive Officer of the Ecumenical & Interfaith Commission of the Archdiocese of Melbourne. I was once a Lutheran pastor, but a "year of grace" and soul-searching led me into the Catholic Church. It was a bumpy ride, but with the support of my (still Lutheran) wife, I was finally confirmed on June 16, 2003.
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10 Responses to You’re not dead till you’re dead (Reflections on a NDE account)

  1. Well put, David.

    You wrote: “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.”
    Quite a bit actually, I should think. It’s one reason why I am not a registered donor.

    Anyway, I know the video of Dirk’s story has been going around for quite a few years now. Like you, I reserve judgment on what it actually means for anyone other than Dirk, without questioning that he did experience what is reported. But the video’s popularity does suggest to me that Lutherans have got a bit lost on the meaning and nature of revelation lately, despite our strongly objective doctrinal tradition in that area.

  2. matthias says:

    Death use to be considered when there was an absence of aheart beat. Which was probably the case for this Lutheran pastor. However it gets more complicated as brain death -the absence of any brain function when a physical examinaiton is undertaken . Thus there are no responses to external and or painful stimuli ,and the cranial nerves also do not function

  3. Hannah says:

    David I reserve judgement with your comments. I have experienced absence from my body three times in last several months and I dont kow how to speak about it.
    these petit mal “seisures” have been occuring for long time without my knowledge but now under control through medication. All i can sa is this during the absence which I am not aware of I visit “someone” they can smell my perfume strong and those around them also its very strong a whole floor in a city building smelled of my perfume no ladies present. other time I “visited” a girlfriend in NSW she could smell my perfume strongly and felt comforted by the presence. and I visit my son and family, interstate same way. I am not aware. I do not know. and it occurred to me, is this what it means to die? The “I” goes somewhere but the consciousness is no longer aware of anaything. My body, me, consciousness does not know but my spirit, essence is totally aware. I dont know, but until I think about im not afraid and when the others tell me I am not afraid but if I stop long enough to ponder then I am afraid.
    these experiences have set me to thinking deeply about escatology.
    Keep posting

  4. mike cliffson says:

    Dear David:
    can’t help but feel that your instincts are right: one can get carried away from God and salvation by overdwelling on this sort of thing.
    This is not to deny the phenomenon.
    A standard exegesis abt the magi Ive heard is apt:
    God chose to speak to THEM, ONCE ,pagan stargazers, through a star, abt which the gospels have avoided elucidating and detailing further, lest the faithful be led astray into astrology which leaves one right open for the devil. Would you learn pyrenean french mountain dailect, or patois, before a Pilgrimage to lourdes, just so as to hear Our Lady as she spoke to St Bernadette? Or to run thru evrything ever written down in said dialect .?You AREN’T Bernadette. Ditto angels in dreams to St Joseph: DO NOT even dream of starting dream interpretation yourself every night, it’ll be the worse for you.
    We should be aware that God is talking to us 24 hrs a day, and MAY communicate something important at any moment, perhaps by the fall of a leaf. So Hurry to study tealeaves? Suppose someone was converted and called to Christ via something pornographic as a trigger – these things happen. If we heard his testimony, would we praise God , or would we rush to porn or porn-users as a cellphone to heaven?
    Another thing is the obvious: Shaks: more in heaven and earth than is dealt with in your philosophy. We proudly think we know everything. humility before our Creator a good thing. That the soul hangs, or can hang, around the body for hours after bodily death is a trad. Christian belief. Not Dogma, but it fits these cases.
    A very good treatment of Esp etc is found in the Russian Pilgrim: Human abilities awakened alongside prayer , because beyond common experience and rational explanation , all too easily automatically considered supernatural graces, they may be no more than above : uncommon, inexplicable, yet natural.
    Saits a re canonized because of heroic sanctity and miracles. Lunatics can get stigmata, typical though stigmata are of saints.

  5. Gareth says:

    David: Why don’t Lutherans ever get visions of the Virgin?”

    Gareth: That is a pretty good question on behalf of your Lutheran friend and the answer may be that I was once told by a reliable source that God can only work MIRACLES* (and transubstansation is one that occurs daily) through the Catholic Church.

    There is nothing discriminatory about this, in fact it makes perfect sense.

    Also, for our own personal information, miracles such as visitations of Our Lady are often before uneducated (Lourdes), children (Fatima) or disabled (Akita).

    *I put this in capitals because naturally miracles would have to be further and properly defined here to clarify things a bit and miracles may not be misinterpreted as other ‘signs’ of Divine Providence. e.g. God can speak or relay messages to members of other traditions or faiths or work through created nature, but He cant work an actual miracle such as a Heavenly Body appearing before Earth.

    • Schütz says:

      “Can’t”, Gareth?

      • Gareth says:

        the sentence was meant to be, according to God’s will, miracles can’t (or dont) occur outside the Catholic Church. (e.g this makes sense – only a Catholic ordained priest can offer the Eucharistic sacrifice, only a Catholic saint would be able to rise people from the dead and Our Lady can only appear before people in a state of grace etc).

        This does not disqualify that God can transmit messages through nature or through his Providence to others.

        • jules says:

          What about Alphonse Ratisbonne? He hated Catholics and was a Jew but Our Lady appeared to him . It is a beautiful story.

          • Gareth says:

            Hi Jules,

            Thanks for the response. In answer to your query, I think this case (I have actually been in the Church in Rome where the alleged apparition took place) is slightly different as Marie-Alphonse either converted slightly before or after this occured.

            St Thomas Aquinas once wrote a thesis on miracles, which included an interesting debate on whether miracles can occur to sinners or those from other traditions.

            From what I remember, God can’t give witness to falsehood. Kind of makes sense.

            Someone once debated me that they should as non-Catholic be able to recieve Eucharist insie a Catholic Church. I asked them whether they believed in the real presence and said ‘no’. I rested my case.

            The same sort of logic follows for all miracles.

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