Near-Death Experiences and the Doctors

Ever since the awareness of near-death experiences burst upon the popular consciousness with the publication of Raymond Moody’s 1975 bestseller Life After Life, there has been a steady stream of books, articles, and movies on the subject. These have come from people in all professions and all walks of life.

More recently, several medical doctors have weighed in on the subject.

Doctors are in an interesting position. On the one hand, since near-death experiences commonly take place during medical emergencies, doctors are often present when people have them. On the other hand, because of their extensive scientific training doctors are often skeptical that near-death experiences are anything other than the desperate hallucinations of a dying, oxygen-deprived brain.

But when the doctors themselves have a near-death experience, they come out with a very different perspective.

Dr. Oz interviews Dr. Mary Neal

Here is the famous Dr. Mehmet Oz (a reader of Emanuel Swedenborg) interviewing another physician, Dr. Mary Neal, about Dr. Neal’s near-death experience, which took place during a white-water kayaking accident:

To Heaven and Back, by Mary C. Neal, M.D.

Before she nearly died by drowning, Dr. Neal more-or-less believed in God and heaven . . . but she really didn’t have time to pay them much heed. That all changed due to her other-world experience while she was trapped underwater, not breathing, for a quarter of an hour.

Here is the book she wrote about her near-death experience and how it radically changed her perspective on life:

To Heaven and Back
A Doctor’s Extraordinary Account of Her Death, Heaven, Angels, and Life Again
A True Story

Erasing Death, by Sam Parnia, M.D.

Though Dr. Sam Parnia has not himself had a near-death experience, he is becoming known as one of the few scientists interested in studying death itself, including near-death experiences, from a scientific perspective. In 2007 he published the book, What Happens When We Die? A Groundbreaking Study into the Nature of Life and Death.

This year he has published a follow-up book. Its most startling assertion: death is nowhere near as cut-and-dried, nor as final, as we have generally believed up to now. Here is a recent interview with Dr. Parnia in which he summarizes some of his findings:

And here is the first part of a talk given by Dr. Parnia about near-death experiences:

Dr. Parnia’s new book is:

Erasing Death
The Science That Is Rewriting the Boundaries Between Life and Death

Proof of Heaven, by Eben Alexander, M.D.

Neurosurgion Eben Alexander did not believe in any afterlife . . . until he experienced it for himself. A rare and deadly form of meningitis shut down his brain and put him in a coma for a week. The doctors were giving up on him and considering ending his treatment when he suddenly opened his eyes, much to everyone’s astonishment.

After making a near-miraculous full recovery he set about telling his amazing story, which was published last year. This brief but powerful interview summarizes what he experienced:

And here is the book he published about it:

Proof of Heaven:
A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife

Is there really “proof” of heaven? Of course, the skeptics will say no. Yet for those whose minds are open and willing to hear the testimony of these highly rational, intelligent, and scientifically trained physicians, there is enough evidence to come to a more positive conclusion about the afterlife.

Dr. Lee Woofenden

Okay, I’m not a doctor, medical or otherwise . . . and I haven’t had a near-death experience either. But since this is my blog, here’s a book I wrote and published about near-death experiences, the afterlife, and our process of spiritual rebirth right here on earth:

Death and Rebirth
From Near-Death Experiences to Eternal Life

For more on what happens after we die, and after we move beyond the brief introduction to heaven experienced by people who have close brushes with death, I invite you to read my previous article: What Happens To Us When We Die?

See also: Where is the Proof of the Afterlife?


Lee Woofenden is an ordained minister, writer, editor, translator, and teacher. He enjoys taking spiritual insights from the Bible and the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg and putting them into plain English as guides for everyday life.

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Posted in The Afterlife
21 comments on “Near-Death Experiences and the Doctors
  1. I have never had a near death experience, but a close friend shared her NDE with me in 1969, before NDEs were first written about. When I heard about others having these NDEs many years later, the uncanny similarity of these stories to my friend’s story changed my life. I knew my friend did not receive any input from anyone else. Through these stories, I absolutely knew, beyond any doubt, that there is more to life than the physical particles and physical forces that make up our universe.

    Even if Dr. Parnia’s research project does not confirm his hypothesis (I think it will), I know his thesis is correct. The ultimate conclusion I draw for all this is that consciousness does not depend on the body — it continues after the death of the body. Our individual consciousness is eternal.

    This is a very nice article, Lee. Nice work!

    Chuck Gebhardt, MD

    • Lee says:

      Hi Chuck,

      Thanks for your thoughts. I vividly remember the excitement among my fellow Swedenborg readers back in 1975 when Life After Life came out. Suddenly we no longer felt like a lone voice proclaiming in the wilderness that the afterlife is very real, and that it is very different from what the churches had been teaching. I attended one of Dr. Moody’s early talks at our former Boston congregation, which was packed to the gills. The atmosphere in the crowd was electric!


    • Fiona says:

      I had a heart attack a few years ago & was declared dead for 2 & a half minutes. I went to heaven & it was amazing I didn’t want to come back! I saw my dog & cat that had died 1 year earlier, I no longer had a physical disability/I could walk & my body was normal! & I saw my best friends brother who had killed himself when he was 17 – the pastor of our church told us he would rot in hell because he had killed himself, when I told my mom she said: no! He will be in heaven because God never misjudged! I wanted to believe mom but wasn’t sure who to believe. I was SO glad to know he was ok! After we had briefly chatted I got told “it wasn’t my time yet” & came back to earth. It has changed my life so much!

      • Lee says:

        Hi Fiona,

        Thanks for stopping by and telling your story. I am very glad that your brief experience in the spiritual world cleared up so many wrong teachings and the fears that go with them.

        It’s simply not true that committing suicide causes people to go to hell. God looks beyond the action to the reasons behind the action. Those who kill themselves out of depression, desperation, or due to mental illness are not evil people at heart. They are simply hurting very badly, and have taken a desperate action to make the pain go away. Though they may still have some hard experiences to go through on the other side as they sort out the struggles that led them to commit suicide, they can find their place in heaven just like anyone else.

        Thanks again for telling your story here. Godspeed on your spiritual journey!

        • Fiona says:

          He killed himself because he’d asked a girl 2 marry him & she said no (he has abusive family/wanted 2 get away)he was very worried I’d hate him up there, I said what’s wrong?! He said God told me you & me were supposed to be together! I said oh wow/stunned. I’m so glad he told me but at same time very hard knowing & that we can’t be together yet…I can’t stop thinking about it I being stupid?

        • Lee says:

          Hi Fiona,

          I don’t think you’re being stupid. But I also don’t think you necessarily have to take it as Gospel truth that you and he are meant to be together, and that you will be together in the afterlife. That depends just as much on how you feel about him as it does on how he feels about you. Even people living in the spiritual world can have mistaken ideas, and can believe that God told them something when it really came from their own mind or from other spirits influencing them.

          If it gives you hope that he’s waiting for you on the other side, that’s fine and good. But if it starts to feel like you are bound by his words, and that you must avoid forming any relationship with someone you might be attracted to here on earth, then that’s not so good. You may have many years left on this earth. Living those years alone in hopes of a relationship in the afterlife can be a two-edged sword.

          In short, I would encourage you not to bind yourself strictly by something he said to you during your NDE, but to listen to your own thoughts and feelings about him and about other potential relationships.

  2. Dawn says:

    Thanks for the links!! I have never had a NDE but I want to learn EVERYTHING about them!

  3. Chris Beach says:

    I heard a talk on this subject recently and found it fascinating! In the talk the speaker mentioned one of the newest books out on the subject which was compiled by two or more doctors who had had the experiences themselves. They were keen to mention that when the soul left the body and looked down upon the rest of the individuals in the room, they could identify items being lost by physicians and nurses such as pens rolling under a table etc. Do you know the name of the book? Thank you very much!

    • Lee says:

      Hi Chris,

      Thanks for stopping by, and for your comment. I don’t know which particular book that would be. Was it any of the ones mentioned in this article? Who was the speaker of the talk you heard? The experiences you mention from the talk are very common. The thing about pens rolling under the table is just the sort of vivid little detail that makes it unlikely that the experiencers are making this up.

      • Chris Beach says:

        I agree about the vivid little detail. The person giving the talk was Fr. Spitzer of Gonzaga University. He is a world renowned speaker,and theologian.

        Sent from my iPhone

  4. Ben Williams says:

    Great article, with interesting and relevant links. My father had a Near death experience, and so too did a girl I once knew. The consistency of themes is very strong evidence supporting the reality of this experience.

    • Lee says:

      Hi Ben,

      Thanks! Glad you enjoyed it.

      I’ve listened to a number of people tell the stories of their near-death experiences. Really, the simplest explanation is that there actually is another, spiritual plane of existence to which our conscious mind goes after death.

      Only a resistance to the idea of a spiritual realm causes people to attempt to come up with other explanations. But none of the alternate explanations I’ve encountered so far does a reasonable job of accounting for the phenomenon of NDEs as reported by thousands, if not millions of people.

  5. Griffin says:

    What I’m wondering is why a person in a coma would have an NDE, seeing as they haven’t died. Is there a reason for this?

    • Lee says:

      Hi Griffin,

      We humans have two sets of senses: our physical senses and our spiritual senses. Usually as long as we are living on this earth we are consciously aware only of what comes to us via our physical senses, which are experiences of things and events in this material world. However, when our physical senses are shut off, sometimes we become consciously aware of what’s coming to us via our spiritual senses. That’s what happens during an NDE. And it can just as well happen during a coma when the coma involves being shut off from sensory input from our physical senses. Dreams are also an example of experiencing things with our spiritual senses, though dreams are more like being in a spiritual movie theater than like walking out in the streets of the spiritual world.

      • Griffin says:

        If dreams are glimpses of the spiritual realm, then are the people in them independent spirits, or just a reflection of or component of our own consciousness?

        • Lee says:

          Hi Griffin,

          Great question!

          First, just to be crystal clear at the risk of being repetitive, what we experience in dreams is not the same as what we experience when we are visiting or living in the spiritual world. As I said, dreams are more like going to a spiritual movie theater. They are dramas created for us rather than actual experiences of the waking spiritual world. And the genres presented in the spiritual movie theater of our dreams can be anything from very realistic human dramas that feel an awful lot like our actual waking life to strange surrealist and abstract pastiches that confuse the heck out of us.

          But to actually answer your question:

          In the spiritual world, which includes the world of our conscious and subconscious mind, there is no meaningful distinction between “independent spirits” and components of our own consciousness. Spirits are not, in fact, independent of one another or of the world of our consciousness. The two are so intertwined that it is not possible to separate one from the other. If our contact and (usually unconscious) communication with the spirits around us were to be cut off, we would have no consciousness at all. Our mind would go blank. That’s because our consciousness exists in the spiritual realm, and our thoughts and feelings flow from there—which means that they flow from and through the angels and spirits who live in the spiritual world.

          This does not mean we have no character of our own. We are the ones who invite various angels and spirits to be with us by the choices, thoughts, feelings, and actions that we make, accept into ourselves, and do as a regular or permanent part of our life and character. Our various experiences in life, not all of which we have chosen, also have a big effect upon what angels and spirits are with us. The angels and spirits who are with us correspond to the various thoughts and feelings, both good and bad, that inhabit our own mind and spirit—especially the ones that we think of as being “our own” and “our self.”

          What we experience in dreams, then, is both the presence of actual angels and spirits (depending upon the type of dream) and components of our own consciousness. The human (or inhuman) figures we see in dreams may not themselves be particular individual angels or spirits. But they are reflections of the presence and character of the angels or spirits who are with us, as well as reflecting the various and varied contents of our own psyche.

        • Griffin says:

          Okay, thanks for clarifying!

  6. Foster says:

    How do you know what these people are experiencing aren’t just vivid dreams?

    • Lee says:

      Hi Foster,

      How do you know people’s vivid dreams aren’t just personalized experiences of the spiritual world? 🙂

      But to answer your question, NDEers themselves report that the experience is very different from a dream or a hallucination. They commonly report their experience there as feeling far more real even than our waking reality here on earth, and not at all vague and dreamlike.

      Also, the amount of congruity in what all different NDEers experience across religions and cultures makes it unlikely that these are just vivid dreams. There is a general pattern to the experiences, and though there are many variations on that pattern, and people from different religions and different cultures experience some elements of that pattern differently, the overall picture is clear and in amazing agreement cross-culturally. This strongly suggests that they are experiencing a common reality—most likely, the spiritual world—rather than having individual dreams.

      Carl Sagan has suggested that the commonality is due to the NDE replicating the experience of physical birth: the dark tunnel, the bright light, godlike beings (the nurses and doctors) on the other side, and so on. And though it’s an intriguing idea, it doesn’t account for all of the elements that are common to NDEs. For example, there is no life review in the process of physical birth, and there is no border or boundary from which newborns return to the womb, as there commonly is for NDEers who return to their physical body.

      Beyond that, though, as I point out in “Death and Rebirth, Chapter 1: The Experience of Dying,” the parallel with physical birth is not at all coincidental. Our physical death is, in fact, our birth into the spiritual world.

      But back to your question, I’ve talked to a number of people who have had near-death experiences. They will tell you that for those who have actually experienced it, the idea that this is all just a dream is completely unrealistic and not at all believable.

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