Jesus & Near-Death Experiences

Jesus & Near-Death Experiences

Dec 18

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INTRODCUCTION
By David Sunfellow

The article that follows was written by Robert Perry and posted yesterday on NHNE’s Near-Death Experience Network.

But before I share Robert’s article with you, I need to set the stage.

First of all, Robert is a closet Jesus scholar. While not credentialed, he has read more books on Jesus — especially books that pertain to modern Jesus scholarship — than anyone else I know. Robert has also developed personal relationships with many of today’s most well-known Jesus scholars and has been instrumental in bringing some of these scholars to Sedona so they could share their research, discoveries, and ideas with our local community.

While Robert is interested in many different aspects of modern Jesus research, one of his primary interests is the Sayings Gospel Q.

The Sayings Gospel Q, for those of you who may not know, is a hypothetical gospel that has not yet been discovered. Previous to 1838, Jesus scholars believed that Mark was the first Gospel that was written and that Matthew and Luke got most of their material from Mark. In 1838, after all the text from Mark had been extracted from Matthew and Luke, it was discovered that Matthew and Luke drew material from another source, separate from Mark. Matthew and Luke not only use many of the same exact words and sentences, but these words and sentences appear in sequential order. Where did these words and phrases come from? And how did Matthew and Luke manage to put them together in the same sequence? Most scholars now believe that there was an as yet undiscovered source that pre-dates Mark. This other source is called “Q”, which comes from the German Quelle, which means “source”.

But here’s the important point: Scholars who are familiar with the origins of the New Testament know that it has been massively doctored. Who Jesus really was and what he really said and did is literally buried amid layers of mud. The mud that obscures Jesus includes fragmentary understandings of his words and life, misinterpretations, and personal and political agendas on the part of the scribes who recorded the gospels as well as those who chose which gospels to include in the New Testament and which ones to leave out.

Q, therefore, is of great interest because it not only washes much of the mud away, but it reveals a Jesus strikingly different from the one the New Testament presents. Instead of a virgin-born, miracle-working son of God who rails against Jews and threatens non-believers with hell and damnation, the Jesus of Q is primarily interested in the Kingdom of God — and love. He is a champion of the poor and disenfranchised who apparently believed that the royal path to experiencing the Kingdom of God lay in loving one’s enemies. The Jesus of Q also championed a personal, loving God who was not only aware of every minute detail of ours lives, but was actively involved in meeting our day-to-day needs.

Robert has written a dazzling paper that makes the case for the Q version of Jesus. This paper is called “Loving Our Enemies: The Core of Jesus’ Vision in the Sayings Gospel Q.” It is the best, most carefully researched and masterfully presented anything I have ever read about the historical Jesus. I will share this paper with you in a future update.

That’s a little background information about Jesus and the Sayings Gospel Q.

In order to make sense of the article I am about to share with you, you also need to know that Robert has spent a lot of time investigating near-death experiences. And if you are someone who is familiar with Jesus (especially the Q version of Jesus) it is only a matter of time before you start to notice something quite remarkable: “Hey, there sure are a lot of parallels between what Jesus said and did and what a growing number of NDErs are reporting today.” There are, in fact, so many common threads that I personally believe there is no other spiritual leader, teacher, master that embodies the core elements of NDEs more fully than Jesus.

How is this possible? And what does it mean for humankind?

Did Jesus have a near-death experience? Is this why he reportedly spoke “with authority” when the scribes and Pharisees fell flat? Is this the source of the healing power Jesus was apparently tapped into? Is this why Jesus, and his message, as abused and obscured as it has been through the ages, has survived so long, inspired so many people, and been the rock upon which so much of western civilization has been built?

Curious minds want to know.

One last thing.

No doubt all of you have experienced synchronistic events in your life. If so, you know that there is a Force in life that occasionally conspires to make things happen in such a way that we stop, take notice, and wonder: Is God speaking to us? Is the universe trying to tell us something?

Reading signs happens to be another one of Robert’s passions. He has even written a book about this phenomena called “Signs: A New Approach to Coincidence, Synchronicity, Guidance, Life Purpose, and God’s Plan.”

So signs also figure prominently in the article that follows: Jesus, as presented by Q; near-death experiences, and signs. These are the three main tools that Robert uses to take a fresh look at Christianity, including how Christianity was born. It’s kind of a Christmas present for those of us who want to understand, more deeply, how Jesus (and Christianity) may have managed to generate so many tidal waves.

While I don’t know how clearly I have set the stage for Robert, or how much sense Robert’s paper is going to make to you, I can tell you that I personally think this line of investigation is immensely important. Titanic forces, in the form of the historical legacy of Jesus, coupled with the emerging global phenomenon of near-death experiences, appear to be on the verge of joining forces. I will do my best to follow this and keep all of you posted…

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NHNE has investigated, and reported on, a wide variety of issues pertaining to Jesus. To learn more about Q and some of the other Jesus-related topics we have covered, go here:

Pulse on Jesus

And to find out more about why I think near-death experiences are such a big deal, go here:

NHNE Setting Sail On Bold New Adventure

Pulse on Near-Death Experiences

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DID NEAR-DEATH EXPERIENCES PLAY A ROLE IN THE BIRTH OF CHRISTIANITY
By Robert Perry
NHNE NDE
December 17, 2010

Original Link

On my Sign Posts blog I recount the story of what I felt was an extremely interesting sign about the possibility of NDEs playing a role in the birth of Christianity. For those of you who don’t know about my signs (my more technical term is CMPEs, Conjunctions of Meaningfully Parallel Events), they are a phenomenon I’ve studied for over thirty years, and involve the “happenstance” conjunction of at least two events that share a long list of similarities (or parallels). I see these conjunctions as imparting meaningful messages to us. I’ll paste in what I wrote here:

I’ve had a really odd run recently of CMPEs making clear historical claims, specifically about the Sayings Gospel Q and Christian origins (see here and here). After the last one, Judy Robb responded and said, “Can’t wait to find out the next installment.” Sure enough, I had one the other night. It wasn’t about Q, but it was about Christian origins. And the claim it makes is very interesting indeed.

Nicola and I were watching a new documentary on the Biography channel called I Survived…Beyond and Back. It is a series that interviews and documents the near-death experiences of various people. The episode we saw, Episode 6 (the only currently available online), tracked three individuals whose hearts stopped beating during life-threatening circumstances (two were vehicle accidents and one was a heart attack), and who then reported leaving their bodies and entering another dimension in which they interacted with deceased relatives and friends. One entered ”the light” (usually equated with God) with the friend who had just died beside her in the car, saying, ”There really are no words to completely describe where I was.”

We found the stories riveting, so much so that when the episode was done, and previews of other episodes automatically started playing, we watched them, too. One in particular grabbed my attention, from a man named Matthew. The trigger for his NDE was being shot in the head:

“I felt an excruciating pain. It was as if somebody took a poker, or a very long needle, heated it in fire, and just jabbed it straight through my skull.”

He then said, “I was dead instantly. I was transferred from one dimension to another dimension in a split second.”

The reason that got my attention was that I had read the same exact image in a book earlier that day. I am reading The First Paul by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan. Its premise is that we have seriously misunderstood how socially progressive Paul was and how close his thought was to that of Jesus, largely because many of the New Testament letters attributed to him were in fact not written by him. Whereas the authentic letters of Paul show us the “radical Paul,” these pseudonymous letters present the “conservative Paul” and even the “reactionary Paul.” Unlike our image of Paul, the real Paul (the radical Paul) advocated that slaves be set free and that women hold authority equal to men in church.

At one point, the authors treat Paul’s famous “thorn in the flesh,” a chronic physical condition that he never names. They speculate (based on the work of William Mitchell Ramsay) that it was “chronic malaria fever.” Whenever the sufferer of this overtaxed himself, he would undergo “absolutely incapacitating” (p. 64) paroxysms, able only to lie there, shaking and helpless. The headaches that accompanied these violent attacks were so painful that sufferers have described them as “like a red-hot bar thrust through the forehead” (p. 64). Borg and Crossan speculated that this stabbing pain was the source of Paul’s term “thorn in the flesh,” which can also be translated as “stake in the flesh.”

This was an incredibly specific parallel — both events have a red-hot metal rod thrust through the skull, causing excruciating pain. In my experience, you rarely get a parallel this good without it being surrounded by other parallels. So I took out the book and read the material right around that reference, looking for those  parallels.

That’s where it got really interesting, for those other parallels were quite obviously there. On the preceding page, Borg and Crossan say that “Paul makes a connection between his ecstatic (literally, ‘standing out of the body’) experiences and that ‘thorn/stake in the flesh.’ He begins by describing ‘visions and revelations of the Lord’ when he was ‘caught up to the third heaven — whether in the body or out of the body’ and was permitted to hear ‘things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat’” (p. 63). Earlier, the authors had said they believe this referred to things that in principle are “impossible to put into words…beyond words” (p. 25).

Then came this claim: “We think, therefore, that Paul had some recurrent illness that may have precipitated or accompanied ecstatic experience” (p. 63).

Suddenly, the parallels between the show we watched and the authors’ claims about Paul looked very good.

1. A man has a physical condition that feels like a red-hot metal rod thrust through his skull, causing excruciating pain.

2. This condition is incapacitating.

3. It precipitates a spiritual experience.

4. The experience involves “standing out of the body.”

5. It involves traveling to a heavenly dimension.

6. It is in some way of God (Paul used the phrase “revelations of the Lord”).

7. It cannot be described in words.

8. This experience is profoundly transformative. (The TV show had emphasized the changes in the lives of the NDErs brought on by their experience. The book emphasized that Paul’s mystical experiences were decisive for him, imparting to him “a transformed way of seeing” that remained after the experience.)

The interpretation is so obvious that I will spare you a description of its mechanics. This CMPE is claiming that Paul had a near-death experience (or near-death experiences). Many people, in fact, have speculated about this. I think even Raymond Moody did in his seminal Life After Life (can’t find my copy right now). It’s not hard to find such speculations all over the Internet. There is even an article written by Edward Hunter for The Christian Parapsychologist, called “The Apostle Paul and the Near-Death Experience.”

What I find so interesting about this CMPE is that a) it provides a physical trigger for Paul’s experiences (chronic malarial fever), and b), being the claim of a CMPE, it carries an authority for me personally that mere historical speculations do not.

What is also of interest to me is that I have recently written a paper in which I trace Jesus’ own radical vision to him very likely having spiritual experiences that were at least NDE-like, given that his vision (as I interpret it) so closely mirrors that coming out of NDEs.

As I said with the previous two CMPEs about Christian origins, I find this fascinating. It claims that there at the beginning of Christianity, Paul was having near-death experiences, which imparted to him a transformed way of seeing, and which possibly account for whatever strong harmony there was between his own thought and that of Jesus. In an indirect way, it strengthens my suspicions that NDEs were at the very font of what became Christianity.

Yet there is another side to this for me. As with the previous sign, this one is stretching me. I have never really liked Paul, as I have seen him as too disconnected from the actual historical Jesus in his overwhelming focus on the risen Christ. It goes without saying that I will read the rest of the book with my mind wide open.

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5 comments

  1. Dear David and Robert,
    I am reading your remarks and come away feeling a little confused. I feel like I am missing the point because I am getting a big, “So what?” Here’s why: My Jesus has always been one who had mystical experiences that included NDE markers. Maybe it’s because I grew up in a house where there were parents and grandparents and others meeting once a week to pray and get transcriptions from a Ouija board that said such things. Maybe it’s because my earliest encounters with the Jesus of Presbyterianism was one of a loving parent and teacher who taught and practiced the golden rule and non-violence. Then, when I got into spiritualistic and mediumistic literature in my teens, along with the Edgar Cayce material, I had this validated by descriptions of a Jesus that had mystical experiences. Then, when I read James, Underhill and others and studied comparative religion in college I found that such mystical experiences were universal and could be induced in many different ways – fevers, NDEs, OBEs, drugs, and meditation. Since my early adolescence, when I started experimenting with meditation, I have had personal experiences with a number of Long’s elements of NDEs. When I was young I too heard Ritchie give a lecture on his NDE. I found it to be a striking example of how the mind, even when out of a clinically dead body, has to make sense of its experience in terms of what it knows. What I found him doing was what religious teachers and mystics throughout history have tended to do: use their transcendent experiences to justify and validate their world view – in this case, Ritchie’s belief in Jesus. We tend to shoehorn spirit into our perceptual context. To some extent I understand that this is inevitable. To another extent, I find it embarrassing, especially when spirit is hijacked to make exclusivistic claims about this or that path or spiritual teacher. In other words, I found it to be an understandable but non-credible approach to both NDEs and spirit. Then in my early thirties I came across Ken Wilber’s specific delineations of different types of mystical experiences with different levels of development. I found these clearer and more inclusive than Underhill’s. It all followed a pattern and made sense to me. Some aspects of NDEs fit with early transpersonal, some with mid-transpersonal, and some fewer with late transpersonal mystical experiences. All of these are state experiences, which can be cultivated, but are rarely turned into stabilized evolutionary stages. Even if a person has their life changed by an NDE, when you look at their life for changes across an AQAL model it is unusual to see massive developmental jumps, just jumps in one or another line of development. This is, of course, as it should be, as development is rarely radical; it is generally gradual and progressive in a way that is difficult to subjectively notice, like learning to walk or talk.
    Are you saying that Jesus probably had mystical experiences and that these experiences had a lot in common with NDEs, in fact so much that he may have been largely influenced by NDEs he had himself? Is the point then that yes, we too can do and be what Jesus did because we have access to such experiences commonly as humans? OK…so yeah…Isn’t this one of the basic reasons why I’ve been meditating all these years? Do NDEs point toward the evolutionary development of humanity? Well, yes. But beyond this is there a claim that NDEs are the foundational or core mystical experience? Is the claim that NDEs are the lowest common denominator to all mystical experience? I am not hearing such claims, but I am wondering if they are implied. If they are, I would disagree. Since my early 20’s I have known that meditation was “thanatomimetic,” – imitative of death. I have known since my teens that mystical experiences were basically experiences of dying and being dead. I have also known, mostly through the transcripts of my parents’ ouija board “readings” and from the view of God and Jesus in the Cayce material, that I could have a personal devotional relationship with God and that I needed to work on being as loving as I can.
    So are all mystical experiences “really” NDEs? Or are all NDEs “really” mystical experiences? Well, yeah…OK…So is the point that mystical experiences are available to everyone everywhere? Well yeah. OK…We didn’t know that already? Looking back over Long’s list of commonalities among NDEs we see a big correlation with various sorts of mystical experiences available to any level of development, from forest shaman in Africa on up: OBEs – check – early transpersonal state. Heighted senses – check – early transpersonal state; intense and generally positive emotions or feelings: yup. many shamanic experiences described in scholarly classical works like Mircea Eliade’s Yoga: Immortality and Freedom have these. Or look at accounts in Evelyn Underhill’s classic “Mysticism,” written in 1911. Passing into or through a tunnel. Early transpersonal. Encountering a mystical or brilliant light: early to mid-transpersonal states. Encountering other beings…pretty much universal within shamanism. A sense of alteration of time and space – check. Life review. This is one that is pretty unique to NDEs, as far as I know, but if someone can educate me otherwise on this, I’m open. I would put it up as an early transpersonal experience. Encountering unworldly “heavenly” realms: mystical literature is chock full of this. Mostly early transpersonal. Encountering or learning special knowledge. Yup. Encountering a boundary or barrier. Yup. The common complaint of mystics. I’m thinking St. John of the Cross’ “Dark Night of the Soul.” So with all these commonalities to well-known literature on mysticism that’s been out there for some time, is the point that Jesus was a mystic? Is the point that we can be mystics too? Is it that there really is a reality that is non-physical and that there is tons of evidence for it today, that we don’t have to look to the life of Milarepa or Don Juan but can find it right here, today, in the lives of ordinary people and in our own spiritual tradition? We don’t have go into any of that life-denying Eastern religion stuff, we can get it all from our own tradition, that does a lot better job of loving our enemies and teaching the golden rule? Of course it doesn’t do anything of the sort, but the underlying problem with synchronicities is that everything is best seen as a wake-up call. Once you understand that, and you start looking for them, you start to see connections that others don’t or where they didn’t exist before, like between Jesus and NDEs. This is a very good thing and I am so glad these connections are being made for those people who for whatever reason, haven’t already seen the obvious signs of the universal non-physical side of life. What amazes me is how so many people look right past it. I did an interview for a sixty-year old depressed guy on recurring nightmares from the age of 6-8 and it was all already there that early. He didn’t have anyone to help him see it then and he couldn’t hear what he was telling himself, from his own experience now. From what I observed, he was having a causal level, formless, late transpersonal mystical opening and he didn’t even hear it or see it. Maybe the stuff on NDEs will work better to reach people like him. I hope so.
    I am looking forward to reading Robert’s paper. As having once been a student of the Bible, the Gospel of Thomas, the Essene scriptures, and various mainline and metaphysical reinterpretations of the life of Jesus, as well as a believer in the resurrection of Jesus based on the evidence of the Shroud of Turin, I am always interested in a new perspective on the life, work, and teachings of one of the world’s great mystics, religious teachers, and probable NDEer.
    Thank you both for your continuing explorations and contributions into matters that we will all be personally confronting later, if we haven’t had the good fortune to do so sooner. J

  2. Joseph, thanks for continuing to scratch your head and wonder what the heck Robert and I are so worked up about. In a nutshell, here’s what it is for me: whereas there have always been people, from all over the world, reporting various mystical experiences, and whereas you can find elements in these experiences that are also found in NDEs, there is actually something new and different going on here.

    Here’s what it is:

    For the first time we have a spiritual path, arising from a spiritual experience, that not only presents a comprehensive world view, but which is also arising, spontaneously, in people all over the world, regardless of their religious, cultural, and spiritual beliefs.

    The point is not whether you can find elements of the near-death experience in other mystical experiences and religious traditions. You can.

    The point is that for the first time a set of unique components are gathering together in one place arising out of an experience that a growing number of people are reporting all over the world.

    This is not one mystic’s vision of what life is about, complete with that particular mystic’s blind spots, personal agendas, and conditioning embedded in the experience. It is a vision arising from the collective that offers us the ability to filter out personal and cultural conditioning because of the sheer number of diverse people reporting the experience.

    That’s news, I think.

    Also significant is that the world view that NDEs champion directly challenges many of the spiritual and religious traditions that vast numbers of human being fervently believe in.

    It’s also important to note that while NDE experiences are heavily influenced by personality and cultural conditioning, they also operate outside these constraints. That’s one reason these experiences often cause radical changes in the lives and beliefs of those who experience them. The growing number of staunch, sometimes radicalized atheists who have been transformed by this experience is evidence of this.

    What makes this even more fascinating is that when you make a list of the core characteristics of NDEs and then look around to see if there is any person or spiritual path on the planet that taught a spiritual path and/or lived a life that was an accurate reflection of these core elements, Jesus emerges as the main guy (as far as I can see anyway).

    Again, not that there weren’t/aren’t other spiritual figures who taught and lived many of the core truths presented in NDEs. There were and are.

    But when you add them all up, Jesus, as far as can can tell, taught and lived the whole package in a more fully integrated manner.

    That’s also news, I think.

    Bottom line: I think something really significant is happening here. It’s a new development. And while it has many things in common with previous spiritual experiences, it breaks new ground by providing a comprehensive vision of life, fueled in part by the shear numbers of reports we have coming in now (800 a day, by some estimates).

    Pause.

    Now let me beam back down to earth and acknowledge that things are not as clear cut as I have outlined above. As you know, NDE and NDE-like experiences are all over the map. People see, hear, feel, experience all kinds of different things. 22 percent have life reviews, the other 78 percent don’t. 64 percent encounter a mystical or brilliant light, the other 34 percent don’t. And on and on. This is a new field of research that is in the early stages of gathering information — and figuring out what that information means.

    But even now, while this newly emerging wild west has not yet been fully explored, some very striking patterns are emerging. And I think these patterns are the beginning outline of a universal path that all humans beings share. I’ve been working a creating a list of these patterns and will publish them once I feel I have a better handle on them.

    Finally, a quick comment about synchronistic events and our outer reality reinforcing our own worldviews. I agree with you that this happens all the time. We have a certain idea, look for things to back it up, and what do you know, there is evidence everywhere. On the other hand, life is obviously designed to challenge dysfunctional world views — and it occasionally does so with great force. The atheist example I gave above is a classic example of Reality (with a capital “R”) colliding with the bogus little realities we create for ourselves. Like it or not, believe it or not, we can’t simply create whatever reality we want without crashing into universal laws. And when we are in the presence of these deeper realities, our delusions become breathtakingly clear. On this level, there is no debate. No argument. No trying to defend bogus belief systems or justify misguided actions. No philosophizing or arguing about who’s right about this or that. Truth is truth. It is apparently so plain that all the usual mental gyrations humans go through to confuse, excuse, and justify all kinds of wild beliefs and behaviors, vanish. We simply see and understand things as they are.

    In time, I think I am going to be able to articulate all this a lot better than I am now. At the moment, I’m still flapping on the beach trying to figure out what, exactly, I am seeing — and how to share it. And, of course, I’m seeing things through my rose colored glasses, which really bugs me (and probably bugs you, too)…

  3. Robert

    Joseph, you certainly can be counted on to write thought-provoking posts! You ask what the significance of this is for David and I. I guess David just answered (though I haven’t read his yet). So I’ll answer for me.

    I’m actually not that interested in Paul. My real interest is in Jesus. I have a sense that he is my teacher, that he had a rare handle on the truth, and so I want to know what he was really about. And despite the beliefs of all of us spiritual folks, it is not at all clear from the historical record that he had mystical experiences or NDEs (which I think are related but not the same).

    I’m also interested in NDEs. They seem analogous to Jesus in my mind, as they seem to me to be an unusually clear window onto truth.

    I’m also interested in my “signs” or what I call CMPEs, since, well, I see them the same way. Whatever they actually are, they have behaved in my life in ways that have earned me considering them as voices from above.

    So I just want to see what these things have to say. My goal is to approach them as freshly as I can, and see what larger truths they really point to, to the best of my ability. I know that is exceptionally difficult to do, given that we all tend to see what we want to see, but I know from experience that we can get better and better at that process. At the very least, I know that I am better than the typical three-year-old at separating out the evidence from what I want to be so.

    For those reasons, it doesn’t feel right to me to lay the Wilber grid onto these phenomena from the start. I don’t actually know what Wilber thinks about Jesus or NDEs. I know he thinks synchronicities are completely in the eye of the beholder—meaning that there are no actual beyond-chance events governed by some unknown law or intelligence. We just have chance events that we superimpose significance on. My opinion about that is that he generated that perspective by just sticking his grid onto the subject without actually knowing the data. My impression is that he asked “What does my model say about this subject?” rather than what does the data say.

    I think the problem with those kinds of grids, even ones as smart and encompassing as Wilber’s, is that they tend to stamp their own image on data that may actually have power to modify or overturn them. But you never find that out, because the data is instantly stamped with the image of the grid, which means the voice of the data gets lost. So I’d rather hold the grids I believe in to one side and first listen to the data, as best as I can, and then decide whether to file the data in the grid or to overrule the grid.

    Anyway, I don’t think everyone should be intensely interested in what Jesus was really about, or necessarily interested in NDEs or my CMPEs. But over time I have viewed them more and more as priceless windows onto truth, so I’m extremely interested in what they have to say, even if that isn’t always easy to identify.

    That’s all in the way of saying that I don’t think you need to have the same kind of interest in these things as I do, which is good because I think your interests lie elsewhere. But I hope this helps you understand where I am coming from.

  4. Wayne

    I find it interesting that people select a few reported characteristics of nde’s to justify virtually anything from “how an experiencer should behave” to their specified deity. My nde specifically debunked the Christian version of Jesus (as well as the one presented here).

  5. Wayne, it sounds like you don’t think there is enough evidence to discern any cohesive spiritual path from the thousands of NDEs that have been reported now. Is this what you believe? And how did your NDE debunk the Christian version of Jesus, including the one presented here?

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