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The Soul Goes On

Christian, tell me why do you believe that anything about us persists after we die?

Because…The Bible teaches of things each person will experience, as themselves, after death. Those are (possibly) reinforced by stories from those who have died but then been resuscitated.

I recently read a couple of fascinating books about “Near-Death Experiences”, or NDE’s. In these experiences, the subject is clinically dead — no breathing, no heartbeat, no brain activity — or very nearly so, but is later resuscitated. They report things they experienced during their “dead time”. These experiences can be compared to what the Bible describes of life after death, with more correlation than one might first expect.

As I started this post to look at those correlations, my first goal was to refresh my memory on what the Bible does say about the soul’s continuity after death. Note that at this point I am just looking at immediately after death, rather than at final end-of-time resurrection and judgment. Those are two separate topics; this post is concerned only with the first one.

Christians take great comfort in knowing that their deceased loved ones have “gone to be with Jesus”. They are right to do so! I was a bit surprised, though, to find that some can read the same Bible that I do, and come to a different conclusion. I can think of a couple of possible reasons why: First, there are multiple connotations of the Hebrew and Greek words translated “soul”. Second, the Old Testament really does not seem to directly address the subject very much, although it is well-addressed in the New Testament.

What is the Soul? Can It Die?

The Hebrew word most often translated as “soul” is “nep̱eš“, from a root “nāp̄aš” which means “to breathe”. Nep̱eš is also translated as “life”, “person”, “creature”, and others. The Greek is “psychē“, also from a root, “psychō“, that means “breath”. So when our Bibles say “soul”, the context must be used to decide whether it is talking about a living, breathing creature … or … the breath that gives that creature its life.

This translation/context issue explains why some can look at Ezekiel 18:4, “The soul who sins will die“, and say “See, the Bible says that the soul can die!” That is not necessarily what God is saying. It more likely means that the person will die, with no reference either way to their soul as we understand it (their immaterial, non-physical essence or spirit). I can’t find a Biblical word to match our definition. The Bible simply talks about the whole person, without separate words for our meaning of “body” and “soul”.

Other verses used by some to say that the entire person ends with their death 1 include Ecclesiates 9:5For the living know they will die; but the dead do not know anything” and Job 33:22Then his soul draws near to the pit, and his life to those who bring death“. But Ecclesiates 12:7 says “the dust will return to the earth as it was, and the spirit will return to God who gave it” and Job 19:26 says “Even after my skin is destroyed, yet from my flesh I shall see God.” King David believed in an afterlife for himself: When his baby son died in 2 Samuel 12:16-23, he said “I will go to him, but he will not return to me.

It seems that the dueling word studies could circle around inconclusively for a long time!

Examples of Existence after Death

It is easier to find clear teaching of continued “personhood” after death in practical examples instead of word studies. To me, the clearest and most definitive is Jesus’ words to the thief on the cross: “Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:39-43, my emphasis) If that were all I had, I would still be certain that “I” will still be in conscious existence after I die. But there are other clear examples, as well.

Moses and Elijah at the Transfiguration

At one point after Jesus had started teaching His disciples that He would be killed, and would rise again three days later, He took Peter, James and John aside onto a high mountain. There, the disciples saw Jesus changed until “His face shone like the sun, and His garments became as white as light.” They also saw Moses and Elijah talking to Jesus. Moses had died somewhere around 1400 years earlier; for Elijah, it was about 850 years. Note that Moses and Elijah were recognizable by the others, even though they had never seen them physically. See the full accounts in Matthew 17:1-8, Mark 9:1-8, and Luke 9:28-36.

Rich Man and Lazarus

Jesus told a story, recounted in Luke 16:19-31, describing the experience of two men after they died. The unnamed man who had spent his life in wealth with no consideration of God experienced suffering. Lazarus, the poor man who had nothing in life, experienced comfort. Both were still themselves, even after death.

God of the Living

In a specific rebuke to the Sadducees, religious leaders who discounted any idea of the resurrection of the dead, Jesus said:

But regarding the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was spoken to you by God: ‘I AM THE GOD OF ABRAHAM, AND THE GOD OF ISAAC, AND THE GOD OF JACOB’? He is not the God of the dead but of the living.”

Matthew 22:31-32

Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were not physically alive, either at the time God spoke in Exodus 3:6 or at the time Jesus was quoting Him to the Sadducees. But God still considered them to be the patriarchs that He claimed as His.

Elijah and the Widow’s Son

Elijah stayed with a widow and her son during a time a trouble in his life. They had very little, but they graciously shared what they had with the prophet, and God blessed them all. But then the son died. When Elijah prayed, “the life of the child returned to him“. Returned from where? His life existed — somewhere else — while his body was dead. See the whole story in 1 Kings chapter 17.

Evidence from NDE’s

Back to the books about NDE’s and the Bible, the evidence is rather compelling. Of course, it’s possible that all NDE stories are worthless. They could all be hoaxes, illusions, or mistakes of one kind or another. But it is also possible that at least some of them are gifts from God to us. When people from all cultures, backgrounds, and ages share similar experiences, and those experiences often match how the Bible describes God, Jesus, Heaven, and Hell…maybe they are worth a bit of our attention.

Note: Most of this information comes from research by author John Burke, presented in his books “Imagine Heaven” and “Imagine the God of Heaven“. He has read or interviewed the subjects of over 1000 NDE’s. I recommend those two books, as well as others such as “Heaven is For Real” by Todd Burpo 2 and “90 Minutes in Heaven” by Don Piper.

In John Burke’s books, he refers to a study done by Dr. Jeffrey Long, an oncologist who became so interested in NDE’s that he started a foundation to study them. Dr. Long also wrote a book about his findings, “Evidence of the Afterlife: The Science of Near-Death Experiences“. In that study of 1300 NDE’s from around the world, he found several commonly-experienced features 3:

  • Out-of-body experience – 75.4% (including awareness of things like ongoing resuscitation efforts, or events happening elsewhere)
  • Heightened senses – 74.4% (“more conscious and alert than normal”)
  • Intense and generally positive emotions – 76.2% (“incredible peace”)
  • Passing into or through a tunnel – 33.8%
  • Encountering a mystical or brilliant light – 64.6%
  • Encountering other beings, either mystical beings or deceased friends and relatives – 57.3%
  • A sense of alteration of time or space – 60.5%
  • Life review – 22.2% (Often with emphasis on relationships rather than accomplishments)
  • Encountering unworldly or “heavenly” realms – 52.2%
  • Encountering or learning special knowledge – 56%
  • Encountering a boundary or barrier – 31%
  • A return to the body, or a decision point to do so – 58.5%

This article is not the place to quote entire books about NDE’s. You can read them and decide for yourself how credible the evidence is, or is not. I include the discussion here simply because 1) NDE’s can give evidence of some form of conscious existence separate from physical life and death, and 2) many NDErs 4 describe experiences that overlap with the Bible’s descriptions.

NDE Evidence of Consciousness

NDErs have described being aware of activities in progress, such as attempts to revive them. For instance, the doctor/researcher who interviewed “Pete” said that his description of resuscitation efforts during his cardiac arrest had “such detail and accuracy that I could have later used the tape to teach physicians.” (A study of similar cardiac patients who did not report an NDE or out-of-body experience found them unable to make even a good guess as to the procedures used.) Among the more interesting stories are:

  • A patient was able to describe the exact location (in a drawer of a specific crash cart in the operating room) where the staff had placed his dentures when they were removed during the emergency.
  • “Mary” was observing resuscitation efforts from a point-of-view near the ceiling of the emergency room. She noticed a red label on the blade of the ceiling fan…on the top side of that blade. Afterward, a nurse and an orderly got on a tall ladder to check, and found the label exactly as Mary had described.
  • “Maria” saw a tennis shoe on the outside ledge of a third-story window of the hospital where she was being treated. She saw details like: It was a man’s shoe, left-footed, dark blue with a wear mark over the little toe and a shoelace tucked under the heel. After hearing Maria’s story, the researcher went looking…and found the exact shoe in the exact location that Maria saw.

At this point, these stories tell us nothing specific about the afterlife. But they do strongly indicate that there is one. These people were conscious — aware of themselves and their surroundings — while their heart, lungs, and brain were not functioning.

NDE Overlap with Biblical Descriptions

Again to avoid simply quoting entire books, I will just point out a few of the common NDE experiences that seem most relevant to Christians. Note, however, that these experiences have been reported not only by Christians, but also by people who knew nothing of the Bible’s teachings. They include young children, atheists, Hindus, and Muslims, among others.

Light and Love

NDErs very often report encountering a Light that fills them with love and peace. Sometimes they describe the light as being all over, with no specific source to be seen. Other times, it centers on a specific person, whom they instantly recognize as the source of that love and peace.

Other People (or Beings)

NDErs report meeting family, friends or other loved ones who died in the past, sometimes in the distant past. One girl met her sister whom she had never known, and drew such an accurate picture of her that her parents were shocked by it. Another child, Colton Burpo of “Heaven is for Real”, met his sister who had never been born: His mother had miscarried, but Colton had not been told about it. He also met his great-grandfather who had died over 25 years earlier.

Others have reported meeting beings that they recognized as angels. Those beings comfort or escort the NDEr during their experience.

Changed Physical Laws

Many NDErs describe differences in how they can move or communicate. They’ll say that speech is not needed, that they instantly know what another is thinking. For instance, they’ll have a question in their mind, and find it answered as soon as the thought is formed. They describe moving through the air, or through water, or immediately being in a new location with no sense of motion at all. They say that their sight is different, that they can see as far or near as desired, in any level of detail. Sight is also reported by people who are physically blind, like “Vicki” from chapter 2 of “Imagine Heaven”, as well as hearing by the physically deaf.

Life Review

Many NDErs describe a “life review”, the typical “life flashing before their eyes”. While they see their life events, though, they notice the impact they made on the other people around them. Whether good or bad, they see — and even feel, empathetically — the effects of their actions on others. Even during their bad moments, they continue to feel loved, rather than judged harshly. Usually, they are their own worst critics.

A Great City

Some NDErs report seeing a magnificent city, bathed in light and surrounded by a great wall. They may describe it as being huge, being cube-shaped, having stones that look like gems, or having streets that are transparent gold. This includes reports from people who have never read Revelation 21!

Whether they see the city or not, NDErs report colors more vivid than they can describe, and sounds more beautiful than they’ve ever heard. They run out of adjectives trying to explain the flowers, the trees, even the grass. “Heidi” 5 even said that the grass was singing! (Singing is another feature that is mentioned regularly.)

Reluctance to Return

Almost no NDErs report that they wanted to leave their experience. Some were pulled back into their body involuntarily, or were urged to return. Others were given a choice, or met a boundary, where they had to turn back or stay forever. Those who chose to return did so for the sake of the family they would leave behind, or because of a feeling of unfinished business. Returning because they didn’t want to stay is almost unheard-of.

After their return, they report looking at the rest of their lives differently due to the impact of the NDE.

Not All NDE’s Are Positive

It does bear mention that some NDErs see things that are quite unlike beautiful cities full of light and song. One doctor was terrified when his cardiac-arrest patient came to while screaming that he was in Hell, begging that they keep him alive so he didn’t go back. Others describe being surrounded by beings, whether human or demon, in a place full of hate, fear, and despair. Some of these NDErs cry out for rescue, receive it, and reverse course to encounter positive experiences. Others return before getting to that point.

NDE’s Are Not Final

Obviously, NDE’s are not showing a person’s final destiny. After all, they have come back to tell us about their experience. If they were given a glimpse of Hell, does that mean that they are destined there with no hope? Not according to the entire Bible! It is full of God pleading for sinners to turn back to Him and allow themselves to be rescued. If given a glimpse of Heaven, does that mean that they can simply coast through the rest of their lives, or that they will be stuck in Heaven even if they wholeheartedly reject its Light and don’t want to be there? That seems highly unlikely, considering how much God cares about honoring our free will.

No, each of them (and each of us) has remaining life on earth in which to make choices. The NDE simply gives a bit more data to inform those decisions.

Bottom Line

If NDE’s are real, and are accurate descriptions of the next steps potentially taken by a person after they physically die, then they are a helpful corroboration of what the Bible teaches. However, even if NDE’s are not real, and have some explanation other than a preview of the afterlife, that would not in any way negate Biblical teaching. NDE’s may continue to be of interest in helping us imagine what God has in store. But whatever He has in store for us is true nonetheless, whether we imagine it correctly or not!

Do not let your heart be troubled; believe in God, believe also in Me. In My Father’s house are many dwelling places; if it were not so, I would have told you; for I go to prepare a place for you. If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself, that where I am, there you may be also.

John 14:1-3

For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus…For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we shall always be with the Lord.

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 (My emphasis; Isn’t it interesting that even though “God will bring with Him”, also “the dead in Christ will rise first”?)

But I am hard-pressed from both directions, having the desire to depart and be with Christ, for that is very much better; yet to remain on in the flesh is more necessary for your sake.

Philippians 1:23-24

As Mary and Martha learned when Jesus raised their brother Lazarus (John 11:1-46), Jesus is the Resurrection and the Life 6. When we have Him, we have no need to fear. We know that whatever happens after we die, we will still be ourselves, safe with Him!

Footnotes and Scripture References

  1. Again, until the end-of-time resurrection and judgment
  2. Note: I do NOT recommend the similarly-named book “The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven”. The boy in that book has since recanted his entire story. Meanwhile, Colton Burpo of “Heaven is For Real” continues to stand by his.
  3. “Imagine Heaven”, chapter 3
  4. Common shorthand for “those who report experiencing an NDE”
  5. “Imagine the God of Heaven”, chapter 8
  6. Wouldn’t we love to hear about that NDE!

Unless otherwise noted, all scripture quotations are taken from the (NASB®) New American Standard Bible®, Copyright © 1960, 1971, 1977, 1995, 2020 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Scripture reference links go to, which defaults to another good translation, the New International Version (NIV).  The site has 20 or more translations available for reference.