Near Death Experience in Ancient Jewish Sources
Is the Near Death Experience a purely modern phenomenon or are there credible sources that support it in ancient texts?
A number of months ago, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Jeffrey Long - a radiation oncologist and a leading researcher of the phenomenon known as the “Near Death Experience” (NDE). NDEs are an established fact though there is some controversy regarding their ultimate cause. Some maintain that NDEs result from chemicals released in the dying or distressed brain, hallucinations due to lack of oxygen, or several other theories.
The issue is that these hypotheses become more and more strained in situations where there cannot be any brain activity, such as under general anesthesia or where the person has suffered cardiac arrest, which quickly leads to the total cessation of brain activity (and is compounded when the person has been gone for an extended period of time - sometimes up to two hours or more).
Those who have had such experiences often describe an indescribably blissful sensation, a profound recognition of love and the oneness of all of reality, and an absence of fear and pain.
There are 12 hallmarks of the Near Death Experience, including passing through a tunnel, meeting deceased friends or relatives, encounters with spiritual beings, a life review, and more. Additionally, those who have had such experiences often describe an indescribably blissful sensation, a profound recognition of love and the oneness of all of reality, and a total absence of fear and pain.
During my conversation with Dr. Long, it occurred to me that much of what he was describing is consistent with my understanding (from the Jewish tradition) of the nature of spiritual reality. I mentioned this to him, and he expressed surprise that an ancient tradition could have any insight into this phenomenon. This stands to reason given that there has been a sharp increase in the number of reports of NDEs due to the remarkable advances in resuscitation science - more and more people are pulling through to be able to deliver these reports.
NDE in Jewish Sources
The following are a few examples in Jewish sources that seem to support modern findings of NDEs:
- Many near-death experiencers report their consciousness hovering above their recently deceased bodies. They seem to be aware (and often able to report later) the life-saving activities of the doctors and emergency services who are engaged in trying to save them. The Babylonian Talmud circa 400 CE wrote, “For three days the soul hovers over the body and observes.”
- Often, those who have been temporarily dead report an unexpected peacefulness in the dying process (though this is not the case universally). Counterintuitively, even those who have died in violent circumstances often describe their actual death as calm and lacking in terror or fear of any kind. Again, the Talmud reports that “death is like removing a strand of hair from a cup of milk” (meaning very simple and easy). Admittedly, it also says that very actualized people only experience this death.
- There is a popular notion that people in particularly intense situations will see “their lives flash before their eyes.” There seems to be something to this as many near-death experiencers report a full life review as part of their experience. The review is often depicted as occurring in the blink of an eye yet conveying in minute detail every aspect of every event in the person’s life (and the effect that these events had on others). Once again, the Talmud records that “at the hour of a person’s departure to his eternal home, all his deeds are enumerated before him and are rendered visible to him once again, and the deeds themselves say to him: You did such and such, in such and such a place, on such and such a day, and he says: Yes, that is exactly what happened.”
In addition to these categories, Jewish sources also seem to describe: the existence of a spiritual “body,” meeting friends and loved ones, meeting angelic beings, seeing the Divine Presence, and more.
The scientific and medical communities appear to be taking the claims of those who experience NDEs more and more seriously. Their findings have even been published in some of the world’s leading, peer-reviewed medical journals. All of which may lend credence to a series of ideas presented hundreds of years ago in the works of Judaic sages long before there was any such thing as a medical journal.
Perhaps these concepts are just a coincidence or some carefully cherry-picked examples. Or maybe it’s a reason to take these works seriously and research them more intently for other layers of knowledge and insight they may possess.
These ideas are all extensively treated in the book “Life After Life” by Rabbi DovBer Pinson.
For more inspiring conversation that continues to dig deep with Dr. Jeffrey Long, check out the live panel replay featuring Dr. Long, another medical expert and NDE survivors.