Dr. Raymond Moody’s recent autobiography recounts in fascinating detail the noteworthy career of the pioneer in what happens to some people when they die. Dr. Moody has coined these episodes “Near Death Experience”, or NDE for short. People who experience NDEs are called – what else? – NDEers.
What is an NDE? According to Dr. Moody it is an experience of the afterlife that occurs when people are either physically near death, have actually died, or at least meet some of the criteria for a dead person. At that nether point of human existence some souls rise out of their bodies and exist independently, witnessing what seems to be their physical death; they are later able to recount events of their death to their surprised doctors and families. Many of the NDEers describe entering a tunnel, meeting a being of light who reviews their lives with them, and feeling totally peaceful and filled with joy. Not everyone has identical experiences except in one regard: they all return to their bodies and continue living their human lives.
One of the many interesting things about Ray Moody is that for most of his life he was not a religious man. He was raised by secular parents and never had a religious experience even though he talked with thousands of people who did. He remained first and foremost a scientist, a doctor of death. That was true to his training as a professor of psychology, a doctor of medicine, and a forensic psychiatrist. A Bible thumper he decidedly is not.
People were shocked to discover that Moody did not believe near death experiences to be proof of an afterlife. This stance angered many, including Dr. Elizabeth Kubler Ross. At times Moody has given contradictory opinions about the afterlife. In his autobiography he waits until the final chapter to tell us what he thinks:
“What do I think happens when we die? I think we enter into another state of existence or another state of consciousness that is so extraordinarily different from the reality we have here in the physical world that the language we have is not yet adequate to describe this other state of existence or consciousness. Based on what I have heard from thousands of people we enter into a realm of joy, light, peace, and love in which we discover that the process of knowledge does not stop when we die. Instead the process of learning and development goes on for eternity.”(p. 245)
Moody was in medical school when he began interviewing people who had near death experiences. Most of them had kept silent for fear of being misunderstood or thought of as crazy. The more Moody listened, the more people came to talk to him. He wrote his first book, Life After Life, in 1975. In it Moody established nine commonalities experienced by NDEers:
- hearing sounds such as buzzing
- a feeling of peace and painlessness
- having an out-of-body experience
- a feeling of traveling through a tunnel
- a feeling of rising into the heavens
- seeing people, often dead relatives
- meeting a spiritual being such as God
- seeing a review of one’s life
- feeling a reluctance to return to life
Experiencing several of these commonalities qualifies one as an NDEer. Each commonality has its own subset of features, such as the “life review.” Here the person’s life literally flashes before his eyes: the good, the bad, and the ugly is viewed in the presence of a being of light. This is consistent with the Christian belief that we are judged by God at our death. The NDEers experience of this judgment is unanimously positive. They do not feel condemned or criticized for their failings by the being of light – even when their lives are seen in unflattering light. Instead they feel accepted for who they are, and are shown in a gentle way those times in their lives when they have failed to love. Many NDEers report being asked, “Have you learned how to love?”
Such sensational material was presented modestly by Moody, who kept things simple and low key. He did not have strong beliefs about an afterlife himself – at least initially. So his impartial treatment of such an emotionally charged topic was a welcome counterpoint. Life After Life was a runaway bestseller, and Dr. Moody never looked back. He continued to research the issue that so intrigued him, and kept writing books about it. In his wake others followed with their own research and their own books. It was recently estimated that one American in twenty has had a near death experience.
The NDEers are a diverse group. Some are religious, others are not. They do not have mental health issues, or drug issues. In fact, Moody states that using medications actually inhibits NDEs. Despite their diversity the NDEers unanimously claim that the NDE experience changed their lives significantly for the better. Some still have a longing to experience the NDE again, but they are also convinced they returned to their bodies for a reason and they are back in their lives for the long haul.
In 2010 Moody wrote Glimpses of Eternity about “shared death experiences” in which those gathered at a dying loved one’s bed experience a “communal NDE” where all leave their bodies, return, and describe the same episode to each other. Moody has developed seven criteria with which to evaluate these experiences.
Over the years Moody has been modest in explaining his research, and restrained in his conclusions about NDEs. He has resisted the influence of Christians and new agers who interpret his work according to their own lights. Moody’s work has been criticized by some Christians who thought it doctrinally incorrect that non Christian and non-religious people could glimpse what sounded a lot like the beatific vision. Furthermore, since Christianity preaches heaven and hell, not just heaven, Moody’s research was considered suspect by some Christians because no one he interviewed experienced hell as described in Scripture. Some Christians have therefore concluded that Moody is (indirectly) aiding Satan with his research. New agers reaction to Moody’s work is more varied, and in general more favorable.
Moody is unswayed by either camp. He describes himself as “a skeptic in the ancient sense of the word (“one who goes on inquiring”)…a seeker who had decided not to reach a conclusion. A skeptical frame of mind is the best one to have in the world of research. If everyone else is rushing to draw a conclusion but you are not rushing in the same direction, you are likely to see side paths of inquiry that nobody else is seeing because they are busy running with the herd. Indeed, skepticism in the ancient Greek sense of the word is mind expanding because a skeptic in that sense is trying not to reach a conclusion.”
“As the popular definition of a skeptic has changed over the years to refer to a naysayer, a skeptic has become someone who denies the existence of anything that he hasn’t personally experienced. A real skeptic is also someone who believes that the only rational means of proving truth is through the scientific method…My focus has never been on finding what is true. Rather, my focus is one of constant inquiry…most people prefer living in the hard and fast world of what they consider to be true or false.”
Moody concludes his autobiography with these words:
“I have a relationship with God and talk to him all the time. But what I really don’t know, from a rational point of view, is whether life after death is in his plan or not. And it may well be that God has something in mind for us that is even more remarkable than a life after death, which means the terminology we use in this frame of reference may not be adequate. There may even be a subsequent state of existence in which the notion of an afterlife as we know it is invalid. I love God. I have a trusting relationship with him, but he hasn’t told me anything yet about an afterlife. Until he does I’m going to keep searching for answers. The spiritual universe is a very big place and the joy of exploration I find in it is boundless.” (p. 246)
Paranormal (My life in Pursuit of the Afterlife), by Raymond Moody, MD, copyright 2012, Harper-Collins Publishers.