Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Seeing the Light

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 NDEs). 

A class 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.  



  1. It is a good reminder for the counselor that there are misteries out there that we will not be equipped to understand. Whether it is something like a Near Death Experience or an unexplainable spiritual encounter, we have to accept that as human beings, some things will be over our heads. WE have to humbly accept that we will not be able to solve all of our clients' problems; only God is the ultimate healer and His ways are higher than our ways!

  2. Jennifer, thank you for sharing the different theories on Near Death Experiences (NDE)! I appreciated you sharing the different theories and correlating them with the immaterial person. After reading your blog post I felt refreshed by the concept of the counseling theories you presented, not everything in this world can be explained. As counselors, we will not be able to explain all of our clients’ experiences, but understanding, as simply you put it, that some mysteries of this world are merely not to be completely understood. Thank you for the challenge of being able to discern and analyze scientific data through a Christian lens. Sometimes the Christian lens can be put to the way side when looking at scientific data.


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