Near-Death Experiences and A Course in Miracles

by Greg Mackie

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Long before I had ever heard of A Course in Miracles, I read Life After Life, Raymond Moody's seminal book on near-death experiences (NDEs). When I later read the Course, I remember noticing things in it that reminded me of things in Moody's book. Now, after reading a recent article summarizing the latest research on near-death experiences, I'm struck once again by just how much in those experiences echoes things said in the Course.

What happens in a near-death experience? While individual accounts differ in some of the details (and a small minority of people report negative experiences), the basic NDE is very consistent from person to person:

A classic example would begin with a person in an accident or medical emergency having a sense of physical death accompanied by an out-of-body experience—feeling like he is floating, possibly seeing his own body and surroundings. The sensation is not alarming and generally is peaceful. Some senses, such as hearing, become heightened.

A period of transition, many times described as moving swiftly through a tunnel, follows. The individual enters a realm of indescribable radiance, where he is met by deceased relatives and friends. A central being of light, often interpreted as a deity, emanates profound joy and unconditional love. The individual then undergoes a life review, where the actions of a lifetime unfold in a vision. He is told or decides that it is not time to die and returns to his body, not always willingly.

The power of the experience often is life-altering. Fear of death vanishes. Love of life blossoms. Spirituality strengthens. Compassion and connectedness become central principles.

Based on passages from the Course combined with a bit of speculation on my part, here are a few things that NDEs and the Course seem to have in common:

"I am not a body" (W-pI.199.Heading). The fact that people leave their bodies in NDEs naturally brings to mind the Course's teaching that we are not bodies. Moreover, during the experience, people's minds continue to function without the body's brain, which suggests that the mind exists apart from the brain. The Course actually goes much further with these ideas: It tells us that not only can the body be set aside, but we never really entered a body in the first place—we are nonphyical minds in Heaven right now, merely dreaming that we have bodily existence.

"A feeling that you are approaching, if not actually entering into light" (W-pI.44.10:1). The "realm of indescribable radiance" characteristic of NDEs echoes a major Course image for holiness and the vision that reveals holiness: the image of light. There are even Course practices for entering the light, such as the Lesson 44 practice from which I drew this paragraph's opening quotation. Now, I have no idea exactly what light-filled realm people who have NDEs are entering (though I don't think it is the Course's Heaven, because Heaven is formless and there seem to be forms involved in NDEs). At any rate, the similarity of the imagery is striking.

"All who meet will someday meet again" (M-3.4:6). The encounters with relatives and friends in NDEs recall the Course's teaching that all relationships are arranged by the Holy Spirit, and relationships that apparently come to an end do so only temporarily. As the full version of this paragraph's Course quote puts it: "Yet all who meet will someday meet again, for it is the destiny of all relationships to become holy."

"Behold the Guide your Father gave you" (T-12.IV.6:1). The "being of light" in NDEs, of course, sounds a lot like the spiritual guides the Course talks about: Jesus and the Holy Spirit. Interestingly, people from different cultural backgrounds all report encountering such a being, but give the being a different label depending on their beliefs: Christians may call it God or Christ, Muslims may call it Allah, and atheists (who do indeed have these experiences) may simply describe it as a being of light. I have no idea whether it's one being going by different names or different beings fulfilling the same function for different people. But by whatever name, people experience an unconditionally loving being who is there to teach and guide, just as the Course describes.

"A process of right evaluation" (T-2.VIII.3:5). The life review in NDEs has always reminded me of the Course's description of the Last Judgment. In the life review, a person reviews all the thoughts, words, and actions of her life with the being of light guiding her through the process; in the Last Judgment, we go through a "process of right evaluation" of our thoughts with Jesus guiding us through the process (see T-2.VIII.3). In the life review, the person sees the entirely of her life (including its impact on other people) in an instant, which echoes the Course's idea that all events in the timeline of the world occurred in an instant. One difference is that the Course's Last Judgment is something we do collectively at the end of time rather than individually at the end of an earthly life. Yet the Course constantly counsels us to evaluate our thoughts with the Holy Spirit's help. This moment-by-moment evaluation is a preparation for the Last Judgment; it brings the Last Judgment nearer in time. Perhaps these end-of-life reviews serve a similar purpose.

"I have a function God would have me fill" (W-pI.192.Heading). In NDEs, people invariably report that they returned to earthly life because they had more to do—their task in this life was not yet complete. This suggests, in line with the Course, that each of us has what the Course calls a special function, our particular role in God's plan for salvation. And the plan is not complete "until [each] finds his special function, and fulfills the part assigned to him" (T-25.VI.4:3).

"There is no death" (W-pI.163.Heading). People who have NDEs usually report that they have lost the fear of death; after all, why fear death if you know that you will go on to encounter a light-filled realm and a being of unconditional love? This experience deepens their conviction in an idea the Course repeats no less than nineteen times in these exact words: "There is no death."

"Teach only love, for that is what you are" (T-6.I.13:2). To me, this is the most striking similarity of all. Again and again, people who have NDEs report that what the being of light is trying to teach them through the life review is the lesson of unconditional love: both the fact that they are loved, and the importance of extending love in selfless service to others. Learning this lesson is the purpose of earthly life, just as the Course says it is.

Anyone can learn this lesson, no matter how apparently lost he or she is. Even a Mafia thug named Rocky said that after getting shot and having an NDE, "He felt that cooperation and love were the important things, and that competition and material goods were irrelevant." He gave up his Mafia life and turned to a life of service, helping delinquent children and victims of spousal abuse. Ironically, this transformation caused difficulties with his girlfriend, who "was just disgusted with him because, as she put it, he no longer cared for things of substance, meaning money and jewelry and fast cars. She couldn't believe what happened to this guy."

Just how similar is the lesson of near-death experiences to that of the Course? To give you an idea, I'll conclude with some summaries of that lesson, written by researchers in the field. I can easily imagine the author of the Course smiling with approval:

Before I started in this field, I saw things like the Golden Rule as things we were supposed to try to live up to. People come back from near-death experiences and say, "It's not a guideline for you. This is the way the universe works. We're all in this together. If I hurt you, I'm hurting myself. There's no distinction between you and me."

I have never interviewed anyone who had a near-death experience who told me that they came back to make more money or to spend more time at their jobs away from their families….Instead, they become convinced that they need to be more loving and kind. They react to their experience by living life to its fullest. They believe their lives have a purpose, even if that purpose is obscure to them. Invariably it involves concepts such as love of family or service to others. They seem to know that the love they create while living will be reflected and radiated back to them when they die.

In this state, people go through a life review, re-living every action, word and deed to see what they made of God's greatest gift: free will. They are asked, "What service have you rendered?" The goal is not to winnow the just from the unjust but to help souls understand the purpose of the lives they led.…They found out whether or not they learned the lessons they were supposed to learn, the ultimate being unconditional love.