by Steven B. Cowan –

As far back as human history has been recorded, people have expressed a hope in life after death. Every religion has some concept of human survival beyond the demise of the physical body. Christians, of course, have a confident faith in an afterlife due to our belief in the resurrection of Jesus. His return from the grave takes the human hope for immortality beyond pure speculation into the realm of historical fact.

In recent years, there has been another real-life phenomenon to which Christians have pointed in order to prove the reality of life after death. I speak of near-death experiences (NDEs). Many people who are on the verge of death, who are clinically “dead” for a brief time but are resuscitated by doctors, report having strange experiences that seem to indicate that human beings can survive the death of their bodies. Commonly, they report seeing a bright light at the end of a tunnel, accompanied by a blissful feeling. Sometimes they report meeting departed loved ones, or speaking to Jesus (or Buddha, etc.).

However, in a recent article entitled “Darkness, Tunnels, and Light” (Skeptical Inquirer Skeptical Inquirer 32), physician G.M. Woerlee attempts to provide a purely natural explanation for NDEs. He argues that the phenomena associated with NDEs are related to the functioning of the brain and the eyes under the extreme conditions accompanying close encounters with death.

NDEs and Oxygen Starvation
The main culprit in NDE cases, according to Woerlee, is oxygen starvation. A paradigm case that Woerlee uses in his article involves a woman dying of heart failure. After a brief period of seeing only total darkness, the woman saw a “lovely brightness” as well as some “bright forms” in her visual field. As Woerlee explains it,

[H]er medical condition caused her pupils to widen. The woman was dying of heart failure, and lethal heart failure causes oxygen starvation; severe oxygen starvation causes the pupils to widen. Furthermore, sympathetic nervous system activity is maximal during lethal heart failure, and this also causes the pupils to widen. (p. 29)

The widening of the pupils would allow many times more light to enter the woman’s eyes. This would give her the sensation that there was a very bright light in front of her, a light that no one else in the room would see because their pupils would be much narrower under the lighting conditions of the room.

The “bright forms” that the woman saw can be explained similarly. Apparently, a person with widely dilated pupils “only clearly sees people upon whom the eyes are focused, while all other people are seen as bright and blurry forms” (p. 30).

Someone might object to Woerlee’s analysis so far by pointing out that many who report such NDEs also report sensations of “moving, flying, or being drawn through a tunnel toward a light.” Woerlee responds by showing how oxygen starvation can also account for these further phenomena. He explains that oxygen starvation is also a cause of brain malfunction, particularly of the brain’s ability to interpret sensory input from “muscle spindles”:

Muscle spindles are special muscle structures sandwiched between the fibers of every muscle. There is about one muscle spindle per 1,000 ordinary muscle fibers. Muscle spindles are both sense organs and muscle fibers, sensing and transmitting to the brain sensations of weight, of movement, of falling, of floating, and of flying.

Severe oxygen starvation causes convulsions. Muscle spindles sense these movements and transmit the sensations to the brain. . . .The brain malfunctions during oxygen starvation, causing muscle spindle tension to differ from the tension of the surrounding muscle fibers. Body parts where muscle spindles are relaxed relative to surrounding muscle fibers feel heavier than normal, while body parts where muscle spindles are tenser than the surrounding muscle fibers feel lighter than normal.

These facts, according to Woerlee, can adequately explain these additional phenomena associated with NDEs.

The Inadequacy of Woerlee’s Account
The explanation that Woerlee provides, however, does not do justice to the full range of phenomena associated with NDEs. First of all, it is not clear that his appeal to oxygen starvation can even explain all of the cases like those he addresses—the so-called “bright light cases.” In the paradigm case cited above, the woman dying from heart failure was conscious and her eyes were open. Oxygen starvation is very likely the cause of her experience. But, what about the numerous cases of tunnels and bright lights in which the victim was unconscious and had closed eyes? The appeal to oxygen-starved, dilated pupils has little explanatory power to account for these kinds of cases.

Moreover, Woerlee’s explanation does not explain why people undergoing NDEs see departed loved ones and/or important religious figures. I think there may very well be good natural explanations for these phenomena, but oxygen starvation is not it. It is no surprise that people near death might hallucinate visions of dead loved ones. And it is especially noteworthy that the religious figures that people see in their NDEs are derived from their particular religious backgrounds. Christians tend to see Jesus, Muslims see Muhammad, Buddhists see the Buddha, etc.1 The best explanation for these facts would seem to be that the person was hallucinating. However, Woerlee’s appeal to oxygen starvation could be, at best, only a partial explanation for such phenomena.

Nevertheless, there is a particular range of NDEs for which Woerlee’s account is wholly inadequate. Indeed, as we will see, any natural explanation is sorely vexed to account for these kinds of NDEs. Gary Habermas and J.P. Moreland describe one such case:

In one case, a young girl, Katie, had almost drowned in a pool. After her emergency room resuscitation, a CAT scan showed massive brain swelling, and her doctor had an artificial lung machine attached to her to keep her breathing. He gave her a 10 percent chance of living. But three days later she totally recovered and relayed an amazing story. She accurately described the physical characteristics of the doctors involved in her resuscitation, details of the hospital rooms she was taken into, and reported particulars of the specific medical procedures used on her, even though she was “profoundly comatose,” with her eyes closed, during the entire time.

As if all of this were not enough, Katie claimed to have met “Jesus and the heavenly Father” and an angel named Elizabeth. She also “followed” her family home during the time her body was comatose in the hospital and remembered seeing specific minutiae such as the selections for the evening meal prepared by her mother, how her father was reacting to her accident, and which toys her brother and sister were playing with at the time.2

There are also amazing cases of blind persons who report seeing things going on around their bodies during neardeath episodes, even being able to describe the clothes and jewelry worn by those close-by.3 These types of NDEs are not susceptible to a natural explanation. Rather, they provide direct, empirical evidence for the existence of an immaterial soul that is able to survive the death of the body.

In his article, Woerlee does admit that his is not the only possible explanation for NDEs. Yet, he is not open to a supernatural explanation. He dismisses that possibility in one short sentence: “The immaterial is unseen, unheard, and unable to be sensed or measured empirically; it is unprovable” (p. 29). Such a dismissal of the supernatural suffers from a two-fold defect. First, it is not clear why the existence of a supernatural realm must be empirically verifiable in order to be known. Woerlee, like all the contributors to Skeptical Inquirer, assumes the truth of scientism, the view that science is the only legitimate source of knowledge. Scientism, however, is an unjustified and self-defeating theory of knowledge. The position that science is the only source of knowledge is not itself a scientific position but a philosophical one—which means that scientism, by its own criterion, cannot be known!4

Second, Woerlee is simply mistaken. The kinds of NDE’s that he ignores, the one’s cited earlier in this section, do provide us with empirical—seeable, hearable, “provable”—evidence for a non-physical, supernatural realm.

Steven B. Cowan is the Associate Director of the Apologetics Resource Center and the editor of Areopagus Journal.


1 See Gary R. Habermas and J.P. Moreland, Beyond Death: Exploring the Evidence for Immortality (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1998), 178-180.
2 Ibid., 157-158.
3 Ibid., 158.
4 For a more detailed critique of scientism, see, J.P. Moreland, “Three Obstacles to Theological Knowldege” Areopagus Journal 2:2 (April 2002): 6-12.