Almost-four-year-old Colton Burpo is rushed to the emergency room for a burst appendix. His parents anxiously wait as he undergoes surgery. After several hours, they are filled with relief when they discover their son is stable and healthy. But when Colton opens his eyes, he begins to describe how he “died” and then “came back to life.” Dismissing these comments at first, his parents decide he has merely had a dream. But as time goes on, Colton reveals more and more information about his experience that raise some very pressing questions. Somehow, upon waking from surgery, Colton has gained knowledge about relatives he never met, can tell his parents what they each were doing while he was in surgery, and can describe in perfect detail visions of Heaven, Jesus, and Bible figures that have stunning biblical accuracy.
Could Colton’s soul have
really left his body, and then returned again? Was this an authentic spiritual
experience, or was it just the product of child’s vivid imagination? Could
there be some biological explanation? If so, how can we explain the knowledge
he gained? These are the questions that scientists and theologians have been asking
for years regarding these events known as Near Death Experiences (or
discussion on personhood was diverted to this intriguing topic as students were
trying to determine which aspects of the person were material, and which were
immaterial. The primary question at hand was "does the mind exist outside
the observable world?" Personal accounts of Near Death Experiences
all over the globe certainly pose some significant talking points when trying to answer this
question. To learn more about this phenomenon, click here.
So how do we explain
this phenomenon? Well, there are two primary theories. One is solely “material”
in that is proposes NDEs are caused by, and experienced within, the physical
realm. This theory establishes that NDEs are an evolutionary response caused by
neural and chemical reactions in the central nervous system, and serve as a
coping mechanism for stress or trauma. The second theory could be characterized
as “immaterial” in that it proposes that NDEs are caused by something outside
the physical realm, and have spiritual validity. Evidence can be found to
support both theories. The problem that is often noted with the “material”
theory is that it fails to explain the out-of-body experiences that result in
people receiving some kind of knowledge they would not otherwise have any other
way of receiving. It also does not explain the often life-altering effects these
experiences tend to have on people. One argument against the “immaterial”
theory is that the experiences can be inconsistent. This still leaves open the
possibility that some NDEs are authentically spiritual, and some are not.
So how does all of
this relate to the world of counseling? In addition to the fact that we may
encounter clients who have had these experiences and are seeking help to cope
with the after-effects (social, emotional, spiritual, etc.), talking about this
complex subject reminds us that not everything can be easily explained. There
are mysteries in the world that we won't be equipped to completely untangle.
How we choose to handle these types of subjects will affect our personal
worldview, our relationships with people, and our counseling practice.
Unexplainable phenomena should be put to the test by both our scientific knowledge and theological wisdom. It is the responsibility of the Christian counselor to use discernment in analyzing all the available scientific data, and view it through a Christian lens.
In light of this perspective, I found it reasonable to determine that some of these NDEs could quite possibly be authentic spiritual experiences, and could still align with the collection of scientific evidence. These views are not strictly opposed to one another, and it would make sense to conclude that the immaterial world simply manifests itself in the material. And here lies the difference between the secular and Christian approach; one addresses only the material and neglects the immaterial, and the other addresses the interaction between the two. For the Christian counselor, this concept is extremely important,
because to only address the material would be to neglect a significant part of
the person, and would therefore be incompetent practice. My greatest discovery was that sifting through the mysteries of the human experience can be an enlightening adventure if we are willing to examine the evidence with an open mind.