An ‘illusion’ that may be life-changing

08 February 2011

Robin Gill considers a thorough look at near-death experiences


Out-of-Body and Near-Death Experiences: Brain-state phenomena or glimpses of immortality?
Michael N. Marsh
Oxford University Press £63
Church Times Bookshop £56.70

DR MICHAEL MARSH is a former Consultant Gastroenterologist and Reader in the School of Medicine at the University of Manchester. Nearing retirement, he decided to read theology at Oxford instead, finish­ing with a D.Phil., from which this book derives. It is an impressive achievement, using his generic skills in medical research (formerly relating to coeliac disease) with new-found theological learning. The result is a fascinating combination of scientific scepticism and theo­logical traditionalism.

The scientific scepticism is dominant for much of the book. He is not at all impressed with the “scientific” claims that some have made for out-of-body and/or near-death experiences (including, ap­parently, A. J. Ayer at one point late in his life). He regards both as thoroughly human, corporeal ex­periences with no transcendent features whatsoever. Early in the book, he states that, in his view, such experiences “are not extra-corporeal events dependent on a dead or dying brain, or the escape of soul, mind or consciousness into a newly discovered paradisean other-world, but illusory phenomena likely to be brought about during restitution of cerebral function as full conscious-awareness is being regained by the subject”.

In order to establish this position, he has two effective strategies. The first is to demonstrate at length that the sampling techniques and key case-studies of some of the most respected defenders of the objective nature of these experiences are seriously at fault. The other is to show that scientific studies — for example, of pilots subjected to strong G-force acceleration, or of students hyperventilating — are able to produce similar experiences.

Far from near-death experiences’ being evidence for an after-life, he argues (convincingly, in my view) that, in the light of scientific studies of sleep-dreams, they can be seen better not as the product of a “dying” brain, but rather as dream-like experiences of a brain returning to consciousness. Drawing from his own traditionalist theological position, he argues that biblical concepts of resurrection have little in common with the after-life sup­posedly glimpsed (varying radically from one culture to another) in near-death experiences.

Yet he still has a problem. Despite his scientific scepticism, he acknow­ledges that many lives have been transformed by near-death ex­periences (including those few people who have jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge and survived). Perhaps it is the brush with death rather than the experience which is trans­formative (but interview data sug­gest otherwise). All that he can offer is that, even though near-death experience is illusory, divine grace “might be experienced in the most unexpected places — in war, dis­asters, or at the death of a loved one”. Perhaps more thought is needed at this point, but whoever attempts this will need to read his very thorough critique first.

Canon Gill is Professor of Applied Theology at the University of Kent.

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