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That light at the end of the tunnel

16 December 2016

David Atkinson looks at a philosophical discussion of NDEs



Near-Death experiences: Understanding visions of the afterlife
John Martin Fischer and Benjamin Mitchell-Yellin
OUP £16.99
Church Times Bookshop £15.30



THERE is a growing literature about near-death experience, the name given to experiences of people in cardiac arrest, or under anaesthesia or in a coma, which include special elements such as out-of-body experience, a tunnel, a light, deceased relatives. People sometimes say that they have had an experience of God, or of heaven, and then returned to their body. The experiences are often transformative, and move the person to live differently.

John Martin Fischer and Benjamin Mitchell-Yellin are philosophers whose particular interest in this book is not to question the reality of these experiences but seriously to question the meanings sometimes attributed to them by patients (some of whom are medically trained) or by commentators.

To those who say: “This proves the existence of God, or of heaven, or of the afterlife,” the authors reply: “We are trying to understand why you interpret your experience in that way; we are not denying the existence of the ‘supernatural’; however, we reject the view that such experiences prove anything about God or heaven or the after-life.”

They describe several stories from different people and then, with rigour and clarity and in considerable detail, but with the slow and steady plod of a philosophical tortoise that not only needs to look round every corner, but go back several times to check where it has come from, they demonstrate that explanations in wholly physical terms are not only possible but plausible.

Their approach could be described, using Nancey Murphy’s phrase, as “non-reductive physicalism”, and, as an essay in philosophical analysis it is persuasive. But if you want, rather, a Christian perspective on heaven, Paula Gooder’s Heaven (SPCK, 2011) is very exciting; and, if you want a clear, if demanding, exploration of from a Christian philosopher non-reductive physicalism, and what this implies for our experience of God, and how God acts in the world, try Nancey Murphy’s Bodies and Souls, or Spirited Bodies? (Cambridge University Press, 2006).


Dr David Atkinson is an honorary assistant bishop in the diocese of Southwark.

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