Arguably one of the most convincing pieces of evidence that religious believers - and especially fundamentalist Christians - often use in suport of their beliefs is the testimony of people who claim to have died, seen the afterlife, then returned to live again on Earth. The list of people who have died and returned is extensive, their testimonies are consistent, and often their resurrection has taken place in circumstances that appear to be the miraculous result of divine intervention.
A few years ago, I was made aware of the testimony of Ian McCormack. McCormack was scuba-diving off Mauritius when he was stung by box jellyfish. (As an aside, part of the story told about McCormack when I heard it stressed how venemous box jellyfish are; as I recall it, it was claimed that even given his excellent physical health at the time, he would not have been expected to survive. Their Wikipedia entry, however, describes them as 'extremely painful and sometimes fatal' (my emphasis). I may, of course, have mis-remembered.) Although rushed to hospital and treated, he was declared dead. Fifteen minutes later, he returned to life with a story of having been in a black void which he somehow knew to be Hell. He then followed a tunnel of light to a paradise where he met Jesus and his own dead mother, before being offered the chance to return to Earth.
Clearly, there are some aspects of McCormack's story that could be investigated further (Was he really an atheist, as he claims? How strong was the influence of his mother's Christian faith on his upbringing? Can anyone at the hospital verify his claims?),
More recently, the subject has come back to my attention due to the media attention to footballer Fabrice Muamba's survival after his heart stopped for 78 minutes. Although there was nothing mysterious about his survival, and he did not return with stories of post-mortem divine encounters, his family very publically attriubted his survival to their own Christian faith. This fits in with what appears to be a growth cottage industry in 'afterlife tourism' books as a form of evangelical Christian (for want of a better word) propaganda with titles such as Heaven is for Real or The Boy who Came Back from Heaven.
There are two aspects of this that I would like to look at. The first is whether these visions give us a good reason to believe in the literal truth of a Christian afterlife. The second is whether there is good evidence that people can miraculously return from the dead as a result of prayer.
The first of those points can then be split into two challenges to sceptics to be explored. Most obviously, for those who do not believe in Christianity, there is the direct challenge of how this evidence can be explained away, given that deliberate fraud seems implausible (though of course cannot be absolutely ruled out). But there is also the question of why we would feel the need to 'explain away' this evidence. Where we see multiple eyewitness evidence in other cases, we are happy to accept this at face value, so why should we not also accept these claims about the afterlife? If the answer is simply that the conclusion we would draw goes against our pre-existing assumptions, we would seem to be on sketchy ground indeed.
Why Not Just Believe The Testimony?
'Hey, Dad, did you know Jesus has a horse? [...] a rainbow horse. I got to pet him. There’s lots of colors.'- Colton Burpo
Firstly, let us address the question of whether this subject actually needs attention at all.
The problem here is that there are so many theories of life after death, each of them apparently supported by eyewitness testimony. Much of the testimony from Christians is indeed remarkably consistent, even where young children are involved. Colton Burpo and Paul Eicke, for instance, were just 3 years old when they has their (separate) experiences, and Alex Malarkey was 6.
All of these told remarkably consistent stories - winged angels, God, pearly gates (no, really) and encounters with deceased relatives who instruct them to return to their lives. (Ted Harrison, writing in Fortean Times #291, August 2012, cites blogger James Morrow as pointing out that Burpo doesn't seem to understand the orthodox Christian concept of the Trinity, instead viewing Jesus and 'his Dad' as two separate people.)
Yet if we move outside of the cases promoted by specifically Christian media, this consistency breaks down entirely. This link is fairly typical - a young boy who seems to know more about WW2 fighter planes than we would expect, and who also seems to know details about the life of one particular pilot. Were we presented with that case (and there are many other similar examples) rather than the Heaven and Hell visions, we would by the same logic be justified in believing them. Yet surely both cannot be true (though both could be false). If we are prepared to accept two contradictory things based on the evidence, surely we have set our standards of proof too low, and we need to raise them. Yet if we raise them, it is hard to see why we would accept either of the options, since neither seems to have markedly more evidence in favour of it than the other. (This is a slightly simplistic approach; in fact we should be looking for a third theory that can explain both sets of experiences. I will suggest one such theory below, but I should also note that it may be possible to integrate the two beliefs - Christianity and reincarnation - in some way. Perhaps some people are reincarnated and others go to Heaven? Of course, even if we allow this possibility, it is not Christianity as understood by proponents of the 'afterlife tourism' school.)
Although we might come to various conclusions here, the idea that we should just accept the testimony at face value is, it seems to me, fatally undermined by the fact that the available testimony is contradictory. To select only certain testimonies to believe would be unconscionable (although that is, of course, precisely what most religious groups do).
So How Can These Experiences Be Explained?
'Directly behind Jesus was a circular shaped opening like the tunnel I had just traveled down. Gazing out through it, I could see a whole new world opening up before me. I felt like I was standing on the edge of paradise, having a glimpse into eternity.
'It was completely untouched. In front of me were green fields and meadows. The grass itself was giving off the same light and life that I had seen in the presence of God. There was no disease on the plants. It seemed as though the grass that it would just spring back to life if you stepped on it. Through the center of the meadows I could see a crystal clear stream winding its way across the landscape with trees on either bank. To my right were mountains in the distance and the sky above was blue and clear. To my left were rolling green hills and flowers, which were radiating beautiful colours. Paradise! I knew I belonged here. I had traveled the world looking for paradise, and here it was. I felt as though I had just been born for the first time. Every part of me knew I was home. Before me stood eternity - just one step away.'
So I am satisfied that we need not take these reported experiences as literal guides to the reality of life after death. There remains the question of how these people have come to report the experiences they have done.
The simplest explanation, of course, is that they are simply lying; they are motivated by profit, the need for celebrity, or a simple desire to promote their own faith. And of course, this can never be disproved, and would certainly fit all the available evidence. It is very likely that in at least some cases, this is what has happened.
But do we really need to jump directly to this conclusion about all - or even most - such testimonies? My experience is that very few people actively lie about things. If at all possible, we should seek to understand how the McCormacks, Burpos, Eickes and so on can genuinely believe they are telling the truth, even if their visions do not conform to the actual facts as we understand them.
The 'party line' among rationalists and skeptics seems to be that many of the features commonly observed can be explained by a lack of oxygen to the brain - anoxic euphoria causes the feelings of calm and peace, the better resistance to oxygen starvation of the cones (near the centre of the retina) than the rods (which give peripheral vision) leads to the perception of a 'tunnel of light', and the remainder is filled in by the experiencers' cultural expectations of what an afterlife should look like. Indeed, so well-rehearsed is this argument that I am slightly wary about advancing it unchallenged, and have put some effort into researching it, starting with the frequently bandied around 'fact' that people from non-Christian cultures have non-Christian experiences of the afterlife.
A quick search of the internet (not, I realise, necessarily the best way to come to conclusions on the relative statistical frequency of such things) brings up an awful lot of very similar Christian images of the afterlife, alongside a lot of reports of reincarnation (which is arguably not an 'experience of the afterlife' at all). It is noticeable that accounts by Muslims, for instance, are almost totally lacking. Could this then be evidence that there is something unique about the Christian experience (the slightly forced reason for dropping reincarnation notwithstanding)?
Well, interestingly, although I have been unable to locate any Islamic testimonies, I have found a group of Hindu examples - though I had to search hard to find them. This suggests that Christians are rather better at promoting their stories than Hindus are (at least via the Internet and 'western' media), which in turn suggests that the apparent uniformity of Christian experience is due to a form of 'anthropic effect' rather than the nature of the experience itself - in other words, although we think we are looking at a random sample of afterlife reports when we look at the Internet, the fact that we are using the Internet actually means that the sample is heavily biased in favour of 'western' religions such as Christianity and 'new-ageism'.
So although Hindu testimonies are rare, I think those that exist are extremely informative. (Why accounts of afterlife experienced - like reports of miracles - seem to be entirely absent from Muslim thought requires an explanation which I do not have.)
On the whole, then, it does seem that the formula of oxygen starvation plus cultural indoctrination is the best available explanation, and does seem to cover all the evidence. But within that 'cultural' label, there are many confusing aspects that I would like to see explained.
Can Prayer Raise The Dead?
'Affected by these extraordinary events, everyone waiting outside including my mother entered the mortuary and saw that I was alive! My parents praised the Lord for his love, greatness and faithfulness through this momentous event. And I give all the praise to the Lord, for he is the only one who deserves it.'-Tim Yattara
My final remaining query is based on the testimony of those who did not themselves 'die'. In some of the more remarkable cases, the recovery of the victim seems to coincide very closely with (usually Christian) prayer. At least on the face of it, this seems to be more than we would expect from coincidence alone. So is there any non-religious explanation for this?
The only recognised medical explanation for 'Spontaneous Restoration of Circulation' (aka 'Lazarus Syndrome') is that although heartbeat may have been undetectably weak or slow, 'true death' has not actually occurred.
It is of course virtually impossible to actually check whether the patient was 'truly dead' when the events occurred. So let us first consider what we would expect to see if miraculous recoveries from 'true death' did not in fact occur.
There would, of course, still be very occasional mis-diagnoses. We should expect that these (and therefore reports of post-mortem recovery) should be more common in certain circumstances: when no obvious or uncontroversial cause of death is present (for instance, poisoning rather than decapitation); when medical examination has been cursory or non-existent, for whatever reason; when the latest medical equipment is not available. This is not to say, of course, that modern medical practice can completely eliminate mis-diagnoses of death, but it should significantly reduce them; we might also expect that those cases that do arise in 'modern' countries might be better documented and more widely circulated. We might also expect that cases will arise based on urban myth, chinese whispers and so on; again, such cases should be more common when they are hard to pin down in terms of verifiable names, dates, etc. Finally, there are cases - such as that of Muamba - where heartbeat and respiration may have ceased for an extended period, but exceptional circumstances allow survival and resusciation. This might be due to immediate access to advanced medical support, or simply extreme cold slowing the metabolism.
As a final note, we might also expect that if a resurrection is truly miraculous - the result of supernatural intervention by an intelligent, all-powerful agency - there will be no lasting side-effects or handicap. Although this is difficult to argue from first principles, it seems intuitively obvious that a divine being capable of miraculously granting renewed life can do so perfectly, without the niggling side-effects that plague conventional medicine.
A genuine statistical analysis is beyond me, and I suspect that no-one has collected such data. Flicking through the Fortean Times article mentioned above, we see the following:
- The Biblical story of Lazarus. Clearly, this ticks virtually every box listed above, being long before any medical examination was usual or modern medicine available, and so poorly documented that we cannot be certain it was a real incident at all. (For some reason, no other Biblical resuscitations - that of Jesus, for instance - are mentioned.)
- Fabrice Muamba, who although technically 'dead' for 78 minutes, received immediate and comprehensive medical attention meaning that his blood never stopped circulating. There is no particular reason to look for any literal supernatural cause here (despite the comments from his family in the newspapers).
- Arun Bhasin (London, 2010), who was revived after 3 1/2 hours. In this instance, both low temperatures (-10 C) and possibly advanced medicine ('a revolutionary new cardiac support machine', according to FT) apply. Again, this would seem not to be a miraculous raising, particularly given the lasting brain damage and personality change that Bhasin seems to have suffered.
- Ng Swee Hock (Malaysia, 2011). Collapsed after an argument (so no obvious cause of death), was declared dead in hospital and then revived 2 hours later.
- Michael Wilkinson (UK, 2009). Found 'collapsed in bed', rushed to hospital, pronounced dead but pulse returned 30 minutes later. Unfortunately, Wilkinson died 2 days later (it is not specified whether he regained consciousness); a post mortem found an undiagnosed (and unspecified in the article) cardiac condition. The A&E consultant at the hospital attributed the recovery to the drugs that Wilkinson had been given.
- Dr Sean Thomas George (Brisbane, 2008). Heart attack, dead for 85 minutes, attributes his recovery to 'a simple prayer' said by his wife. George was in a modern hospital and was treated by well-qualified doctors during this period, without result.
- Tim Yattara (Mali, 1985), three years old. Died from yellow fever, came back to life in a morgue five minutes after his mother prayed over him.
- Annonymous (Columbia, 2010). Apparently died from 'a nerological condition' and later recovered.
- Judith Johnson (USA, 2007). Heart attack - she was taken to the morgue before breathing was noticed, but a timescale is not given.
- Oran (Scotland, 6th century). Exhumed alive a day after being buried - then burned for heresy after saying he had seen visions of Heaven and Hell.
'Several explanations for the phenomenon of Lazarus Syndrome were explored in [the journal Anesthesia & Analgesia]. One suggestion was that the heart might start following a delay in a previously administered dose of adrenaline reaching it. Another explanation involved a gradual intracellular shift of potassium after previously administered bicarbonate. [...] Outside the hospital, a misdiagnosis of death might be a more likely explanation, probably due to a pulse being too faint for an untrained person to detect.' It goes on to note that the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine has suggested that 'Rapid manual ventilation without adequate time for exhalation can lead to dynamic hyperinflation of the lungs [...] leading to delayed venous return, low cardiac output and even cardiac arrest.' In other words, normal circulation might return after artificial respiration is ceased.
We can add to the above other cases, such as that of Daniel Ekechukwu, who was apparently killed in a car crash in Nigeria, certified dead, and injected with embalming fluid (!) before being resurrected by the prayers of a German missionary called Reinhardt Bonnke. We are told that the timescale leaves little room for doubt: 'On the third day after the accident, Ekechukwu's body was taken in its coffin to a church in Ontisha, where Bonnke was preaching at a service. The body was taken out of its coffin and put on a table in the church's conference center, where several pastors began to pray [...] pastors lifted Ekechukwu from the coffin in which he had been laid, and were amazed when the man started to breathe again as they prayed for him' (again, my emphasis.)
Some of these are more suspect than others. The Ekechukwu case, for instance, seems to have numerous inconsistencies (not leastly that Ekechukwe was apparently alive and conscious for around 3 hours or more before being declared dead from a physical trauma that has left no external marks; and that he appears to be a church minister associated with Bonnke, who has been accused of fraud in the past). Some, like Muamba, do not seem to require any supernatural explanation at all. Others are harder to argue with, such as the cases of George and Yattara. (Though I note that the Yattara case relies on the testimony of Yattara himself, now a pastor - who appears to have reported a story of persucution of Christians in Mali that turns out not to be true. Whether this inaccuracy casts doubt on the 'resurrection' case I can only leave to the reader's judgement.)
So on this final point, perhaps the decision is too close to call. Without a proper statistical analysis (and it is hard to see how such a thing could be done, crossing multiple cultures worldwide equally), it is impossible to tell whether the 'difficult to explain away' cases are more common than we would expect from chance, or more common in the circumstances cited. All we are left with is our more general objection to (or, for some people, acceptance of) the idea of medical miracles and a mind/body distinction.