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The Negative Near-Death Experience

David Langness | Nov 25, 2014

PART 4 IN SERIES What Comes Next: Life After Death

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the official views of the Baha'i Faith.

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David Langness | Nov 25, 2014

PART 4 IN SERIES What Comes Next: Life After Death

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the official views of the Baha'i Faith.

Heaven did not seem to be my home; and I broke my heart with weeping to come back to earth; and the angels were so angry that they flung me out into the middle of the heath on the top of Wuthering Heights; where I woke sobbing for joy. – Emily Brontë.

The world’s artists have long utilized near-death experiences as powerful subjects for their art. Literally hundreds of books and films on the topic exist; and most tend to focus on the typical, positive near-death experience. Kenneth Ring, the well-known NDE researcher and author, synthesized the positive near-death experience into five specific stages:

  1. A permeating sense of peace;

  2. Separation from the physical body;

  3. Entering darkness;

  4. Seeing the light;

  5. Entering the light.

While these stages only describe typical NDEs in a general way, they’ve come to be accepted, like Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ five stages of grief, as describing the process most people usually go through when they temporarily visit the afterlife.

Darkness and Near-Death Experiences

But more recently, a new area of NDE research has begun to emerge—the study of the negative near-death experience. In 1982, the Gallup Organization polled people who had NDEs, and found that a significant minority (up to one-fifth of respondents) “felt uneasy, distressed or even terrified” by their experience.

Five years later, in 1985, a British psychologist named Margot Grey discovered similar findings when she studied NDEs in England. Grey identified five phases of a negative NDE:

  1. Fear and panic;

  2. An out-of-body experience;

  3. Entering a black void;

  4. Sensing an evil force;

  5. Entering a “hellish” environment.

Fall of the Damned by Hieronymus Bosch

Fall of the Damned by Hieronymus Bosch

Grey’s study revealed that only a small minority of people (20% or less) who had an NDE went through a negative near-death experience—but those who did felt varying levels of anguish, desperation and desolation.

Then, in 2013, a group of American researchers led by Bruce Greyson and Nancy Bush interviewed fifty people who had negative NDEs, and concluded that common features included a lack of control, despair, a sense of existing in an eternal, gloomy dark void, and even menacing, hostile landscapes study participants described as “hellish” or “abysmal.” They felt foreboding, and saw other bitter, raging and frustrated souls. Surprisingly, though, the researchers heard very few accounts of what could be described as a conventional hell—no devils, demons, torture or eternal fiery torment.

Instead, they learned that most people who had negative NDEs felt an overwhelming sense of moral failure and remorse for their life choices. They experienced enormous anguish and agony because of their separation or distance from the light; and realized, often much later in their post-NDE life, that they needed to change their actions when they had negative consequences for others.

The Life Review, in both Positive and Negative NDEs

For centuries people who faced imminent death have said they saw their entire life flash before their eyes. In much the same way, many NDE veterans report going through a humbling “life review” during their experience. In the presence of the warm, bright light that many describe, they revisited their life’s moral decisions and evaluated, in the context of justice and kindness and their own conscience, the actions they took during their life on Earth. Some say they suffered enormous feelings of guilt, pain, remorse and regret while reviewing their lives. Many reveal that they understood, for the first time, their responsibility for their words and deeds, and their effect on the people around them. Many resolved, after their near-death experiences ended and their physical life resumed, that they would endeavor to change.

But no matter what the content of their near-death experience, whether primarily positive or negative, they overwhelmingly say they felt unconditional love during their life review—which later inspired and motivated many of them to become better people.

The Baha’i teachings affirm the basic spiritual framework of these near-death experiences. Baha’is see heaven not as a place, but as a state of nearness to the Creator; and see hell as an inner state of existential remoteness from that source of light. Each of those spiritual conditions comes as a result of our decisions and our deeds, what we do each moment to acquire or reject the spiritual virtues of love, peace, kindness and compassion that form the heart of the teachings of every great Faith.

Beyond that, Baha’u’llah wrote, the afterlife will always remain a mystery: “The nature of the soul after death can never be described.”

Because of that inherent mystery, the accounts of those who have near-death experiences can help provide a brief glimpse of what awaits us when this life bears us into the next. The Baha’i teachings say that the inevitable nature of our human transition to that stage of our existence means we should each review our lives every day, not just on the day we pass into the afterlife:

Bring thyself to account each day ere thou art summoned to a reckoning; for death, unheralded, shall come upon thee and thou shalt be called to give account for thy deeds. – Baha’u’llah, The Hidden Words, p. 11.

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  • Sarah-Ruth Lebouthillier
    Jan 5, 2018
    I really do not like this article. My question: if a person decides to stop believing in God or a life after death, does the person cease to exist after this one? No experience neither positive nor negative, the real big peace! The beautiful big rest of a difficult life ?
    • Barry Ashbridge
      Jul 7, 2018
      whether a baby believes wants to or not it is inevitably born into the outer world of physical existence and we are likewise born into the spiritual worlds of God when the soul is freed from the body
  • Oct 25, 2015
    An had its says that God does not multiply our sins. In other words, our evil deeds are punished proportionally to their severity. Our good deeds, however, are multiplied and rewarded far beyond what they deserve. "This is a Revelation if for whose sake a man sacrificed a drop of blood, myriads of oceans will be his recompense." Working off memory, so it's not exact. It's in Gleanings.
  • Jul 8, 2015
    I really loved this post. Very informative. People don't often get to hear or read about the negative side of NDE, Thanks.
  • Mar 28, 2015
    I found this one very interesting as it its an insight into the possible suffering of the next life if you do not come up to scratch.
  • Nov 26, 2014
    David, Y
    ou are doing justice to this fascinating topic. Keep up the good work.
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