After Death (Angel Studios 2023), a look at the many recent accounts of near-death experiences, will premiere October 27. Angel is the studio that produced the recent smash hit Sound of Freedom (2023). There’s a story in that: While SoF was trashed by fashionable media, it outgrossed some of the biggest films at the box office. Will After Death, directed by Stephen Gray and Chris Radtke, meet the same fate? Its basic message is that NDEs are becoming an intersection of science/medicine and faith. It will be interesting to see how the same fashionable media react.
The principle reason for exploding interest in near-death experiences in recent decades is that high-tech medicine has been bringing back thousands of people from states of clinical death. Sometimes these states are induced for medical purposes. While we don’t know what happens to people who are not recoverable, a number of people who did come back have reported complex experiences when their brains are registering nothing. In some cases, they report information that they could not otherwise have known (veridical experiences).
The film features researchers into near-death experiences like cardiologist Michael Sabom, author of Light and Death (Zondervan 1998). It also offers a number of interviews and re-enactments with survivors of harrowing death scenes. Some of them have written books about their experiences. One is fine arts professor Howard Storm, whose heart attack in 1985 resulted in a near-death experience recounted in My Descent into Death (Doubleday 2005). Storm had been an atheist but the experience brought about a 360-degree turn in his point of view and he became a pastor.
Following a common pattern in this research discipline, Sabom at first thought that the whole thing was “hogwash” — until a third patient reported an NDE. He began, reluctantly at first, to look into the matter. That was 45 years ago, when NDEs were not well known. Patients with stories to tell assumed they were the only ones that it had ever happened to and may have suspected the researchers’ motives in asking.
Things have changed. Today, the field features a fairly respectable research environment for researchers like pulmonologist Sam Parnia and psychiatrist Bruce Greyson. Of course, there are also people out there marketing woo but the film makes a point of steering clear of that. The stories people tell are their stories. We make what we want of them.
Generally, they describe out of body experiences, awareness of a spiritual body, light and music of unworldly beauty, deceased relatives and friends in the prime of life… or else a place of torment from which they are sent back to life with a less self-destructive perspective.
For those inclined to simply dismiss the whole business as hallucinations that “science will easily explain,” there’s the interview with Dr. Greene who, as a young neurosurgeon, heard an NDE experiencer recount, after she came to, what had happened in the operating room. But she was clinically dead by all three criteria and he was a witness. Chilled by the recognition that her descriptions were accurate, he, in his own words, “put the kybosh” on the conversation. That was the famous Pam Reynolds case from 1991.
Apart from such descriptions of events that can be verified, there is the fact that near-death experiencers typically change their orientation to life. It is not easy to change, which points to the idea that the NDE, whatever it is, is not just a hallucination.
The film bravely addresses some downsides that Michael Egnor and I also tackle in our upcoming book, The Human Soul (Worthy 2024). For example, one NDE experiencer became “a zealot, a complete zealot” about his experiences, alienating his wife and children. Bruce Greyson has pointed out that the divorce rate is high after NDEs — largely, he thinks because of a newfound clash of values. But, the film suggests, it’s also possible that some experiencers just never really wanted to come back anyway.
I found After Death, as a film, a bit confusing. People are introduced by name only once. Later, I struggled to remember who was who, as I tried to connect their interwoven stories. Other viewers may not feel as confused. At any rate, the stories are absorbing and the accounts of an unseen world, rendered in people’s own words, are haunting.
What near-death experiences mainly point to is the real existence of a human mind or soul apart from the body. That’s a threatening idea in a world of promissory materialism, where, we are assured, science will soon figure out why it all didn’t really happen, given that the mind is just an evolved illusion anyway. Thus, science media probably won’t cover NDEs unless they can somehow be debunked. As the number of stories mounts, however, that approach is beginning to wear thin.
You may also wish to read: Neuroscientists: Near-death perceptions not just hallucinations. Published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. The researchers represent many medical disciplines and represent many of the world’s most respected academic institutions.