The "Near-Death Experience"

by David Ritchie

Almost any bookstore sells works on the "near-death experience" (NDE). Actually a collection of experiences reported by individuals who have approached death, or undergone death and then returned to life, the NDE is widely interpreted as a genuine, representative experience of the afterlife. Elements of the NDE include a "life review" in which all the events of one's life on Earth are recapitulated; visions of the future; and a meeting with a mysterious, luminous being (commonly called the "being of light") that is said to express great love for the individual, without passing judgment on his or her life and deeds, no matter how sinful they may have been.

The NDE has been interpreted as evidence that judgment of individuals after death does not occur, and that there is no reckoning for one's works, good and evil, performed on Earth. According to this view, one may expect a joyous afterlife, almost regardless of what one believes and does before death.

Comforting though it appears, the NDE phenomenon is founded on faulty assumptions, selectively chosen evidence, and lies. On numerous points it contradicts the teachings of Scripture, the Patristic writings, and Holy Tradition concerning death and the afterlife, and appears to be one element of the emerging religion of Antichrist.

As the NDE becomes an increasingly important element of popular faith and culture, Orthodox Christians should be familiar with the true character of the NDE phenomenon, both to avoid its dangers and to alert others to its sinister nature.

Part of the New Age movement, a fashionable collection of occult and quasioccult beliefs and practices, the NDE phenomenon is becoming a highly influential belief system. Writings about the NDE receive widespread attention in the mainstream media and have done much to influence public opinion concerning death and the afterlife. Books on the NDE become bestsellers. The media give the subject "even-handed" treatment, if not open endorsement of its claims. The NDE phenomenon often is associated with a more "enlightened" and "humane" attitude toward death and dying. The NDE has even been promoted as a way to prepare the dying individual for the transition from this life to the next.

The NDE phenomenon aims to remove the fear of dying and replace it with a calm acceptance—or even eager anticipation—of death and an afterlife on the New Age model. The best defense against this dangerous belief system is the truth contained in Scripture and the words of the Holy Fathers, and in the writings of their faithful interpreters in our own time.

Anatomy of the NDE

The NDE commonly includes reports of meetings with "heavenly" beings. A person who previously paid little attention to religion may describe having met and conversed with angels or even with Christ Himself. Such encounters may include a meeting with the aforementioned "being of light," which allegedly expresses great love for the person and communicates a non-judgmental attitude toward him. The NDE also may involve a visit to "heaven" or some other non-Earthly realm, as well as meetings with deceased relatives. In many instances, the individual reports having been told that he or she was not yet scheduled to die and therefore would have to return to the body.

The NDE is not merely the interest of a few occultists and medical researchers. A large portion of the American population is thought to have had, or at least reported, such an experience. A poll in 1982 indicated that perhaps eight million Americans claimed to have undergone the NDE.

Apparently, no two NDEs are exactly alike. A wide range of perceptions is reported. Some NDEs are simple and straightforward; others are complex, mysterious events and difficult to interpret. The hypothetical NDE described in the following paragraphs is a composite of many different NDE elements and is intended to represent the kind of NDE in which one encounters the aforementioned "being of light."

A man is seriously injured in an automobile accident. As he lies near death, he perceives his consciousness leaving his body somehow. Then he finds his soul (which he may call his "spiritual body") hovering several feet above the ground, looking down at his injured body and the paramedics who have come to take him to the hospital. This "out-of-body" condition puzzles him. It also frustrates him, because he is unable to call attention to himself. Even though he can see and hear everything that is going on around him, he cannot make himself heard or seen. When he tries to touch a paramedic on the shoulder, his non-corporeal "hand" passes through the person's body unimpeded. This new body of his has remarkable properties; besides being able to pass through solid objects without resistance, it can travel great distances very rapidly, with little or no effort. As soon as he thinks of a destination—his family's home, for example—he arrives there.

Soon, he finds himself moving upward, away from the Earth. He enters what he describes later as a "tunnel." This is a long, dark corridor with an intense light visible at the end. The light turns out to be a brilliantly luminous entity that greets him in a friendly manner and expresses great love for him. In NDE reports, this being is commonly called the "being of light." The man presumes the being is God, or Christ, or an angel, although the entity does not identify itself. The man feels tremendous joy in this being's presence.

The meeting with the "being of light" includes a "life review," in which the man witnesses a high-speed replay of his entire life. He sees all his interactions—happy and unhappy, generous and selfish—with other people, and experiences again the emotions he felt during each event. He also perceives the feelings that other people had in response to his words and deeds. The "being of light" expresses no disapproval of any of the man's actions on Earth, no matter how malicious and selfish they may have been. Instead, the luminous entity describes them merely as learning experiences.

The man also sees what appear to be visions of the future. He witnesses incidents to come in his own life, such as marriage and the birth of children, as well as future events in world history, including wars, election results, and international conferences.

At one point, the being of light asks the man what he has done with his life. The man tries to justify his life but finds his defense inadequate. Far from being angry or judgmental, the being of light responds with understanding and even amusement to the man's records of sins. Then the man is told to return to his body and to show more love toward others. Although reluctant to leave, he returns rapidly to his body and awakens in the flesh soon afterward, in a hospital.

The NDE changes his life profoundly. He is not certain what the "being of light" meant by showing more love toward others, but he tries to be more affectionate and caring toward other people. This change of heart, however, does not make him significantly more aware of his own flaws and sinfulness. On the contrary, his sense of sin, as sin traditionally is defined, may depart completely after the NDE. He simply tries to be a "good person," avoids doing deliberate harm to others, and looks forward to the day when he dies and supposedly will meet the being of light again.

He may become an evangelist of sorts for the NDE and spend large sums of his own money publicizing his meeting with the "non-judgmental" being of light. In books and lectures, he may identify that entity explicitly as "God" or "Christ," despite the fact that the mysterious being never identified itself. His conviction that he met "God" is reinforced when some of his visions of the future, received during the NDE, come true.

Also, he may mount sharp attacks on Biblical and Patristic teaching, charging (for example) that the Patristic writings are untrustworthy because the Holy Fathers had no knowledge of modern psychology and "spirituality." When quoting Scripture, he is likely to cite verses out of context, or even rewrite them, to support his personal interpretation of his NDE.

Hallucinations, hoaxes and oxygen

What exactly occurs in the NDE is a matter of debate. The NDE has been dismissed as hallucination. NDEs do exhibit a close similarity to various kinds of hallucinations, including those induced by drugs. Because few NDEs involve drug use in individuals, however, this explanation cannot account for the NDE phenomenon in its entirety. According to another explanation, cerebral anoxia (in which the brain is deprived of a steady flow of oxygenated blood) may generate NDEs. There is also the possibility that certain NDE accounts are pure fiction, invented to impress listeners. Because a widely publicized NDE report can make the teller a social lion, the temptation to make up such a story is considerable. Moreover, even when an NDE account is told in all sincerity, it may have been assembled somehow in the subject's mind from memories of fictional descriptions of the afterlife, such as Dante's famous Inferno. In many cases, however, demonic activity—specifically, a deceptive "vision" intended to lead the witness into spiritual deception—is the explanation that fits the evidence best.

A confusing picture

Many NDE reports are so bizarre that they leave the reader confused. One needs a comprehensive, trustworthy set of guidelines to evaluate the NDE. Holy Orthodoxy provides such guidelines.

For centuries, the Orthodox Church has preserved the correct teaching about death, judgment, and the afterlife. That teaching is complex but may be summarized in a few points:

1. All souls will stand before Christ at a final judgment.

2. Souls not saved by the Orthodox Christian Faith, repentance, Holy Baptism, a life in the Church, and good works will be condemned, together with the devil and his angels, to the lake of fire (Revelation 20:14) and to everlasting separation from God.

3. Souls characterized by the Orthodox Christian Faith, repentance, Holy Baptism, a life in the Church, and good works will be saved but also will be judged according to their deeds.

The Orthodox teaching on death, judgment and the afterlife differs greatly from the New Age model as expressed in currently popular interpretations of the NDE. The New Age view of NDEs is based on the presumption that NDEs represent a genuine foretaste of the afterlife, in which all souls, whether repentant or not, will be united with a tremendously loving, accepting, and non-judgmental superbeing—the so-called being of light—whose exact identity is left unspecified. No matter what one may do and believe in this life, New Agers suggest, this mysterious superbeing will forgive even hideous acts as merely part of the individual's learning process. No mention is made of repentance or spiritual struggle.

The New Age interpretation of the NDE does coincide with Orthodox teaching on one point. Orthodoxy and New Age doctrine agree that these comforting modern NDEs represent genuine contacts with a spiritual being more powerful and intelligent than humans. In other words, a mighty, luminous entity of some kind really is waiting "over there" to meet souls that come his way, and is responsible for many NDE accounts of pleasant meetings with him.

The identity of this being, however, is where Orthodoxy and the New Age movement differ. New Agers presume that the "being of light" is God, or Christ, or perhaps a holy angel. The Orthodox Christian, for reasons we will explore in a moment, must reach just the opposite conclusion. Enlightened by both Scripture and the Patristic writings, Orthodox Christians can attribute many commonly reported NDE elements only to the deceits of the devil, who is perfectly capable of appearing as an angel of light when it suits his purpose to do so (II Corinthians 11:14; Galatians 1:8).

Beliefs and consequences

Although at odds with Scriptural and Patristic teaching about death, judgment, and the world to come, the NDE-based New Age image of the afterlife is compatible with the popular philosophy of the late 20th century. Two basic premises of modern culture are that:

1. One's beliefs and actions have (or should have) no lasting consequences, and

2. "Love" justifies virtually any deed or misdeed.

The New Age model of life after death is consistent with these premises. It frees the believer from concern about the ultimate outcome of his or her actions, and persuades the individual that a joyous eternity is guaranteed, provided only that one "loves" others in some undefined manner.

There is a sharp contrast between the enjoyable NDEs of our "post-Christian" era and those of earlier centuries, when the traditional belief structure of Christianity had more influence on human thinking. For centuries, Orthodox authors have recorded accounts of NDEs that differed profoundly from the "non-judgmental" narratives of our time and the optimistic New Age interpretation of them.

A vision in Northumbria

[St.] Bede (673-735), in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, tells of a man from Northumbria who became ill and died, then came back to life several hours later. The man said he saw a great valley where human souls were blown about by powerful winds and exposed alternately to fierce heat and bitter cold. The next stop was a place of darkness, where souls rose up and fell like sparks in flames arising from a huge pit. He next saw a vast meadow saturated with light and filled with the fragrance of flowers. In the meadow were countless people dressed in white robes. Soon, he approached a place where the light was still more beautiful, and the fragrance was even more pleasant than in the meadow. He was not allowed, however, to enter here.

The valley of fire and ice, he understood, was a place for those who died penitent and confessed, but had postponed repentance until the hour of death. These souls would be admitted to heaven on the day of judgment. Meanwhile, they could be helped by almsgiving, prayer, and fasting on the part of the living. The pit of fire was the opening of hell, from which no one who entered would ever be rescued. The people in the meadow were those who had done good on Earth but had not attained the perfection needed to enter heaven. Their admittance to heaven would be delayed until the day of judgment. Heaven was located near the place of surpassingly beautiful light and was the destination of all who were perfect in thought, word and deed before they left the body.

Thecla's Vision

Another vivid Orthodox vision of the afterlife was granted to a novice named Thecla. She reported seeing three great furnaces in a dream.

Demons pulled people out of the furnaces, then beat the people with hammers. This place, Thecla understood, was assigned to Christians who did not act according to their faith. Their sins included indecent language and failure to honor holy days. She also saw a blazing river filled with souls. In her vision, Thecla visited the Promised Land, where she saw a great, indescribably beautiful temple filled with brilliant light. This temple, she learned, was intended for the last monks, who would be few in number. Thecla's vision was considered genuine, because she reportedly had only a vague idea of doctrine on the fate of sinners and the righteous. The date of her experience is uncertain.

Thecla's vision illustrates Orthodox belief that sins committed in this life, unless cleansed away by repentance, Holy Baptism, and confession, will go unforgiven and will entail much suffering in the afterlife. The Orthodox faith also teaches that those who are spared suffering in this life may have to endure it hereafter, as in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). By contrast, New Age thinking about NDEs and the afterlife tends to emphasize delightful, "heavenly" visions but avoid any mention of post-mortem suffering.

The amazing Ueksuell case

Another famous brush with the afterlife is the Uekskuell incident, which reportedly occurred in the late 19th century. The case involved a man identified as K. Uekskuell, who was raised in a devout Orthodox Christian home but did not take his faith seriously as an adult. When he became ill with pneumonia, he was hospitalized.

According to his account, he died while in the hospital, and his soul left his body for a brief time. He saw two angels at his side. They took him by the arms and escorted him upward rapidly. Then he heard the cries and ugly laughter of evil spirits approaching. He was horrified, and described the encounter as follows: "Evil spirits! O, how much irony, how much of the most sincere kind of laughter this would have aroused in me but a few days ago....Having surrounded us on all sides, with shrieks and rowdy sounds the evil spirits demanded that I be given over to them; they tried somehow to seize and tear me away from the angels, but evidently did not dare to do this."

Uekskuell began calling on the saints for help, and especially for the aid of the Theotokos. "A sad, ignorant Christian only in name, I now, it seems, almost for the first time in my life remembered Her Who is called the Intercessor for Christians. And evidently my appeal to Her was [so] intense... that hardly had I remembered and pronounced Her name when about us there suddenly appeared a kind of white mist which soon began

to enfold within itself the ugly throng of evil spirits. It concealed them from my eyes before they could withdraw from us. Their bellowing and cackling was still heard for a long while, but according to how it gradually weakened in intensity... I was able to judge the terrible pursuit was gradually being left behind."

Uekskuell perceived a bright light above him. The angels carried him toward and into the light. He said the light "blinded" him. Terrified, he heard a majestic voice say, "Not ready!" Uekskuell then was carried back toward earth.

Before leaving him, one of the angels said to Uekskuell, "Have you heard the decision of God?" The angel then pointed to the man's body and said, "Enter, and prepare yourself." Both angels then disappeared, and Uekskuell re-entered his body and returned to life, to the surprise of his physicians. (The Uekskuell case is described at length in the article "Unbelievable for Many but Actually a True Occurrence," Orthodox Life, July-August 1976.)

The toll-houses

The Orthodox faith also includes belief in something else missing from modern NDE reports. According to Orthodox belief, the soul after leaving the body must pass through the aerial "toll-houses," a series of 20 testing stations where the soul confronts accusations from evil spirits bearing records of the individual's sins. The evil spirits here are described in Orthodox literature as the "tax collectors," and are depicted as receiving payment from the holy angels that accompany the soul on its journey through the toll-houses. This set of trials is known as the "particular judgment" and is believed to occur in the air above the earth, in the first few days after death. The outcome of the journey through the toll-houses determines whether the individual's soul will be assigned to hell or to paradise, to await the final judgment.

A famous vision of the toll-houses occurred to one Gregory, a disciple of Saint Basil the New, who lived in the 10th century. Gregory's vision involved the passage through the toll-houses of a woman known as the blessed Theodora. Here is part of her story, as reported by Archimandrite Panteleimon of Holy Trinity Monastery in his book Eternal Mysteries Beyond the Grave:

"When the hour of my death came, I saw faces such as I had never seen before, and heard words such as I had never heard. What shall I say? Cruel and hard-to-endure evils, of which I formerly had no idea, I encountered... then because of my evil deeds. However, through the prayers and the assistance of our common spiritual father Basil I was saved from these hardships. But how shall I tell you about that physical pain, that stress and close feeling which the dying experience? Like a man who, entirely naked, falls into a great fire, burns, melts, and turns into ashes; so the dying are destroyed by their deathly illness in the bitter hour when the soul parts from the body.

"When ... the time of my departure had come, I saw a great multitude of [evil spirits] who had surrounded my couch. Their faces were dark like soot and pitch, their eyes were like glowing coals, their entire appearance was as frightening ... as the fiery hell itself. They began to grow indignant and to make noise like dogs; others howled like wolves. As they looked at me, they were full of anger; they threatened me, kept rushing at me and gnashing their teeth, and appeared ready to devour me, Yet they seemed to wait for a judge who had not yet come but would do so: they were making ready charts and unrolling scrolls on which were written all my evil deeds. My miserable soul was taken by great fear and trembling...

"When I was at the end of my strength I saw two radiant angels of God, who were like youths of inexpressible beauty. They were coming toward me. Their faces were shining, their gaze was full of love; their hair was like snow, white with a golden tinge; their garments glistened like lightning and were girded with gold. When they came near me, they stopped on the right side of my couch and entered into a quiet conversation between themselves. As I saw them I was filled with joy and looked at them with pleasure."

Angels to the rescue

The demons retreated from the holy angels, who rebuked the evil spirits. "One of the radiant youths ... said, 'O shameless, cursed, dark, and evil enemies of the human race! Why do you always come first to the dying and frighten and confuse every parting soul by your words? You have no reason to rejoice, for here you will find nothing. God is merciful to this soul, and you have no part and no allotment in her.' When the angel ceased speaking, the [evil spirits] ... began to cry out, and mutter, and point to all my evil deeds, committed from my youth on. They exclaimed: 'We have no part in her, you say! Whose sins then are these? Did she not do such and such?' With such exclamations they kept their positions and were waiting for death."

The arrival of death was terrifying for Theodora. "When death came, it was roaring like a lion and was very frightening in appearance. It looked like a human being but had no body; instead it consisted of human bones. Death brought various instruments of torture, such as swords, arrows, javelins, sickles, saws, and others unknown to me. When I saw these, my humble soul trembled with fear. The holy angels said to death: 'Do not tarry; free this soul from its bodily ties, and do it fast and quietly, for she has but a small burden of sins.' Death stepped up to me, took a small axe and separated my legs, then my arms; then with its other instruments it weakened all the rest of my limbs, separating them joint by joint. I lost the use of my arms and legs, my whole body grew numb, and I was no longer able to move. Finally death cut off my head, and I could no longer move it, for it felt as if it belonged to someone else. Lastly, death dissolved in a cup some kind of mixture, and putting the cup to my lips, made me drink. The notion was so bitter that my soul was unable to endure it. It shuddered and went out of my body."

The holy angels took Theodora's soul in their arms. She could see her lifeless body. The demons cried that Theodora must answer for her sins, but the holy angels pointed out her good deeds, such as almsgiving and hospitality.

A bag of gold

During this confrontation between the demons and holy angels, Saint Basil himself appeared unexpectedly, bringing help. "Holy angels!" he cried. "This soul did great service to ease my old age, and therefore I have prayed to God for her, and God has given her to me."

He produced what looked like a bag of gold and gave it to the angels. "Here is the treasure of prayers before the Lord for this soul!" Saint Basil told the holy angels. "As you pass through the torments of the air and the evil spirits begin to torment her, pay her debts with this."

The angels began to conduct Theodora upward through the air. The first toll-house that Theodora encountered dealt with sins of idle speech: thoughtless, evil, needless words. "There," she said, "I saw recorded all my angry words, foul words, worldly shameless songs, wild cries and laughter....Now I kept silent, as if I had lost my voice. I was unable to reply because the evil spirits accused me rightly. But while I was silent in my shame and trembled with fear, the holy angels offered some of my good deeds and, since these were not enough, they added something from the treasure given me by the holy man Basil; and thus they paid my debts at this station."

The second toll-house dealt with sins of lying; the third, speaking evil of others and spreading rumors; the fourth, gluttony and drunkenness; and so on. The angels used the bag of gold to pay her way, so to speak, through the testing stations.

Theodora entered heaven after passing through the toll-houses. She did not describe heaven in detail. Instead she said, "There are things that cannot be either understood or explained." She bowed before the throne of God and then was shown the dwellings of the saints, where all "was full of glory and spiritual joy," as well as the horrors of hell, where Theodora said she saw torments so dreadful "that it is excruciating even to tell about them."

Theodora asked the holy angels who accompanied her how the evil spirits could know all the sins a person has ever committed, either openly or in secret. The angels replied that every Christian, at baptism, receives from God a guardian angel who records all the person's good deeds in preparation for the eventual judgment; but the devil also assigns a demon to accompany that individual and record all of his or her evil deeds. Thus the evil spirits (Theodora was told) become aware of all the person's sins. "When the soul parts from its body and desires to go to its Creator in heaven," the angels explained, "the evil spirits ... show to it its sins. If the soul has done more good deeds than evil, they cannot keep it; but if the sins outweigh the good deeds, they can keep the soul for some time, shut it up in the prison where it cannot know God, and torment it as much as God's power allows them, until that soul, by means of prayers of the Church and good deeds done for its sake by those who are still on earth, should be granted forgiveness."

The direct way to heaven

Theodora also was told there was a means of direct ascent to heaven: "Those who believe in the Holy Trinity and take as frequently as possible the Holy Communion of the Holy Mysteries of Christ, our Savior's Body and Blood—such people can rise to heaven directly, with no hindrances, and the holy angels defend them, and the holy saints of God pray for their salvation, since they have lived righteously. No one, however, takes care of wicked and depraved heretics, who do nothing useful during their lives, and live in disbelief and heresy. The angels can say nothing in their defense."

Some souls, the angels explained, would go straight to hell, without even passing through the aerial toll-houses: "When a soul proves to be so sinful and impure before God that it has no hope of salvation, the evil spirits immediately bring it down into the abyss, where their own place of eternal torment is also. There the lost souls are kept until the time of the Lord's Second Coming. Then they will unite with their bodies and will incur torment in the fiery hell together with the devils." The angels added that only those who were "enlightened by the faith and holy baptism can rise and be tested in the stations of torment [that is, the toll-houses]. The unbelievers do not come here. Their souls belong to hell even before they part from their bodies. When they die, the devils take their souls with no need to test them. Such souls are their proper prey, and they take them down to the abyss."

'There is no other way'

Theodora asked if all Christians passed through the trials of the aerial toll-houses. "There is no other way for the souls that rise toward heaven," the angels replied. "Every one goes this way, but not everyone is tormented like you; only sinners like you incur the torments, for they have not confessed their sins fully, and moved by a false sense of shame, have kept their really shameful deeds secret from their spiritual fathers. When a man wholeheartedly confesses his evil deeds and repents and regrets them, his sins are invisibly wiped out by God's mercy. When a repentant soul comes here, the tormentors of the air open their books but find nothing written there; the soul, however, joyfully ascends to the throne of God. The angels emphasized the importance of confession and of telling all to one spiritual father rather than to several, as some people do if they feel too ashamed to tell one spiritual father everything.

All this and more was revealed in Gregory's vision of Theodora's experiences. After awakening, he went to visit Saint Basil, who—before Gregory could describe his experience—gave him an accurate summary of what Gregory had seen. Thus Gregory was convinced that he had not merely been dreaming but actually had received a vision from God.

Here we are dealing with authentic reports of the afterlife, consistent with Scripture, Church tradition and the Patristic writings. Could anything be less like the cheery, "non-judgmental" NDE reports of today?

There has been considerable controversy in 20th-century America over the doctrine of the toll-houses. Some elements of the Orthodox community have questioned the doctrine, but it has been upheld by authors such as Father Seraphim Rose, whose 1980 book The Soul After Death supports belief in the aerial toll-houses with citations from the writings of the Church fathers, including Saint John Chrysostom, Saint Athanasius the Great, Saint Macarius the Great, Saint Gregory the Dialogist, Saint Isaiah the Recluse, and Saint Hesychius, Presbyter of Jerusalem.

Father Seraphim Rose mentioned experiences of the toll-houses in the lives of numerous saints, including Saint Eustratius the Great Martyr, Saint Symeon the Fool for Christ of Emesa, and Saint John the Merciful, Patriarch of Alexandria. Father Seraphim cautioned readers, however, that it is a mistake to interpret visions of the heavenly toll-houses too literally, because the language used to describe them is necessarily figurative, as in the case of the "bag of gold" from which the holy angels paid Theodora's "debts." No matter what the interpretation, literal or symbolic, no Orthodox believer will reject the particular judgement immediately after death.

Father Seraphim explains the NDE

Father Seraphim also analyzed modern treatments of the NDE. He saw in them messages reflective of non-Orthodox, occultist thinking about the afterlife. For example:

1. One need not fear death. Perceptions of modern NDEs indicate that death is not something to fear. Father Seraphim argued that there is no reason to presume these happy visions truly indicate what the soul will experience, on a permanent basis, after the death of the body.

2. Judgment and hell are nonexistent. Anecdotal evidence from NDEs depicts the "being of light" as a non-judgmental entity that views one's deeds, even evil actions, with equanimity and humor. Father Seraphim responded that this presumption of avoiding judgment was not supportable. He pointed out that certain NDE investigators appeared to overlook completely the possibility that the evident absence of judgment in the initial moments after death might be an erroneous impression; or that judgment might indeed occur, but later.

3. NDEs are themselves preparations for the afterlife. Father Seraphim described as "tragic" and "ill-founded" the naive view that faith, repentance, spiritual struggle and participation in the Sacraments were less important than the so-called understanding and love supposedly engendered by NDEs and other such experiences. Father Seraphim traced these doctrines back to the teachings of 19th-century spiritualists. The spiritualist movement arose in Europe in the 1850s and was based partly on the notion that souls can progress to higher levels of existence. Spiritualists also taught that "advanced" souls should welcome death joyously, because death held the promise of greater "enlightenment."

Such teachings, Father Seraphim explained, were invented by demons and delivered through mediums to the spiritualists. These doctrines were intended specifically to counteract and supplant the traditional Christian view of the afterlife. Father Seraphim described today's occultist view of life after death, exemplified in the New Age model of NDEs and the afterlife, as merely a popularized version of spiritualist doctrines from the previous century. Such beliefs are precisely what the demons wish to encourage, through accounts of a "non-judgmental" superbeing waiting for souls on "the other side.

Father Seraphim contrasted the effects of modern NDEs with the impact that genuine visions of the afterlife have had on believers. A true vision of the afterlife leaves the subject in awe and deeply aware of his own sinfulness. The modern NDE, on the other hand, tends instead to diminish or even eliminate the sense of sin in an individual.

Vainglory and visions

The overall pattern of NDEs matches what is known of diabolical efforts to lead humans into error. For example, the NDE, especially in its New Age interpretation, appeals to human pride. What could be more vainglorious than to say that one is bound for an afterlife of bliss, regardless of the life one has led on Earth? Yet, that is the message of New Age NDE interpreters. Moreover, the NDE may encourage those who undergo it to set themselves up as would-be prophets and to flatter themselves by thinking they are chosen to deliver some special communication from God to a waiting world. Thus the NDE deludes and puffs up the believer still further. No one but the devil can profit from such a situation.

Here, it is instructive to compare the modern NDE experience with that of Valens, a monk whose encounter with evil spirits led him into deception. Valens became proud and started taking seriously the dreams and visions he received from demons. The evil spirits appeared to him in the form of holy angels. Eventually, Valens encountered a being that he presumed to be Christ Himself. Valens was told that Christ was pleased with the monk's achievements, and that thereafter Valens need do nothing but contemplate this "Christ." The entity was actually a demon, but Valens was so proud and deluded that he worshipped the false Christ and accepted the demons' message as revealed truth. He said he had no need to receive Communion, because he believed he had met Christ face to face. Valens's brethren saw that he had gone mad. Over a period of months, they cured him of his delusion.

Valens's case is essentially identical to many modern NDEs. A vulnerable individual receives a spectacular but deceitful vision that incites him to pride, lures him away from the sacraments and leaves him with an unwarranted optimism about his spiritual condition. Valens was corrected and saved by the prayers of his fellow monks. What may befall believers in the NDE message of today, who have no spiritual support system like the one that delivered Valens, is unpleasant to consider.

Visions of the future such as those received in NDEs are also within the capabilities of evil spirits. Demons have an overall knowledge of the future from Divine revelation, and are able to extrapolate current trends into the future. The evil spirits also have their own designs for human history and are able to present these in the form of visions which the demons can turn into realities a few years later. In this context, it is worth noting that Scripture indicates some demons specialize in predicting the future. Saint Paul, for example, cast out a spirit of divination from a slave girl whose fortune-telling ability, supplied by the demon, had brought great profit to her employers (Acts 16:16-8).

The surpassing happiness reported in meetings with the "being of light" has a parallel in mediumistic experiences which have no connection with genuine visions of the afterlife. In his book Orthodoxy and the Religion of the Future, for example, Father Seraphim cited the case of an Eskimo shaman who experienced ecstasy when he perceived spirits of land, sea, and air coming to his aid. In language almost identical to that of modern NDE reports, he described a bliss so intense that he began singing the word "joy" at the top of his voice. This was clearly a pagan experience; and its resemblance to the exalted feelings in NDEs is so close as to require no further comment.

Another similarity between NDEs and demonic visions is the dreamlike condition in which both sets of phenomena occur. Saint John of the Ladder points out that human dreams are a favorite conduit for demonic deceits. He adds that evil spirits take on the appearance of luminous beings, and warns that only the inexperienced will trust such dreams. The Saint compares a person who puts faith in dreams to someone who runs after and tries to catch his own shadow.

The best defense

Defenses against the NDE delusion include prayer, a knowledge of Scripture and the Patristic writings on the afterlife, and a critical attitude toward alleged visions. For example, when a demon appeared to Saint Pachomius the Great in the form of Christ and said that Pachomius had pleased him greatly, the wise Saint was skeptical. Why would Christ, Pachomius reasoned, appear to such a poor sinner as he? This clearly could not be Christ, he decided. Pachomius made the sign of the cross and told the demon to depart. Such humility is notably absent from modern NDE accounts.

Also missing from today's NDE stories is the hard-headedness of Saint Niphon, whose skeptical attitude once sent an evil spirit packing. The demon appeared to the Saint in the form of a holy angel and said that Niphon would be granted the power of working miracles, as a reward from God. Niphon was not fooled. He recognized this vision as a deception and an appeal to his pride. "Wait a minute," he told the demon, "and I will perform a miracle for you." He addressed a nearby boulder and told it to move to another location. The rock stayed put. "So much for your gift," Saint Niphon said, and spat at the evil spirit. Then the Saint prayed to God, and the demon vanished.

Remember the wisdom of these two saints in connection with the NDE phenomenon. They are models for dealing with deceptive, non-Orthodox "visions" of the afterlife. Only the enlightened, wary, and well-informed soul is in a position to see clearly the demonic illusion involved in NDEs; and as each year passes, the need increases for clear thinking about the NDE and what it represents—the emerging religion of Antichrist. just as a demon in an NDE (or comparable vision) may masquerade as Christ, Antichrist one day will pose as the Messiah. Thus, the NDE provides a preview of the false faith with which Antichrist will ensnare the world.

Apparently, the modern NDE phenomenon is part of what Saint Paul described in II Timothy 4: 3-4: "For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears; and they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables."

Will believers in New Age NDE doctrines renounce them when told the truth about those phony visions? In most cases, probably not. But because a few may listen and respond, we Orthodox Christians must provide a clear and unmistakable witness to the falsehood and danger of the NDE phenomenon. Indeed, we may be judged in part on how clearly we deliver that warning.

From Orthodox Life, Vol. 45, No. 4 (July-Aug., 1995), pp. 16-31.