Near death experiences (NDEs) are interesting collections of data. We might debate over whether there is actually something transcendent about them or whether they only occur entirely within the realm of human subjectivity, but regardless of which side you take, we have to agree that widespread commonalities reflect something that is intrinsic to human experience on the threshold of death.
One of these commonalities is the experience of someone’s life flashing before their eyes.
Transcending history, culture, geographic location, and religion (or lack thereof) is the phenomenon of someone experiencing their entire life paraded before them in a brief instant. This is such a common experience that there are even collections of data of mountain climbers experiencing this while falling (and ultimately surviving, obviously).
In most cases, the experiencers report that they watch this show not only from their standpoint, but also feeling the impact from the other people involved. In addition, they also experience a “detached” view as if they are a third party watching this play out (in some cases, people only report the “detached” view). In other words, they simultaneously experience:
- What it was like when they lived that moment
- What it was like for the other people who shared that moment
- What it was like to see that moment through the eyes of an objective party
Often in these experiences are memories that the observer has long since forgotten (in one case, someone found a contract they had hidden and forgotten where it was until they had this experience). In all, the viewer reports that it is as if every moment of their lives – big and small – played out before them, yet this obviously happens in seconds or less of real time. In many of these experiences, the experiencer cites that their expressions of love or lack thereof in those situations was the primary criterion running through their heads as they watched.
Virtually all religions have captured this idea in some form or another. At the end of life, all your deeds are replayed and the impact assessed. Both the Old and New Testaments also present this idea – that everyone, when they die, will have their deeds trotted out before them to be weighed.
For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or evil.
Ecclesiastes 12:14 (NRSV)
Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive commendation from God.
1 Corinthians 4:5 (NRSV)
Nobody likes the sound of those verses or the verses like them.
When we think of judgement, we automatically think of something negative. We tell each other not to judge or refer to people as “judgey” if they are very critical of us. For all kinds of reasons, when we think of the idea of judgement, and especially judgement that comes from God, we think of floods, locusts, hellfire, brimstone, and condemnation.
Therefore, “judgement” passages invoke a sort of terror. We read them and picture a God sitting on a throne who cannot abide even the slightest of errors, frowning down on mankind in general and ourselves in specific for our many failures, both typical and especially grievous.
This impulse is not new; it’s largely been used as a lever for control of the general populace, especially as we see in the political machinations of the medieval European church. In a much more decentralized way, it’s used to maintain control of congregations and individuals. Don’t screw up, folks, not even a little, or God will f* you up. So, live right, come to my church, give in the offering, get more people to come to my church, vote for the right people, and try not to touch yourselves, lest the foundations of Heaven quake with the wrath of the Almighty.
I grew up in a fundamentalist upbringing, and it’s probably not an exaggeration to say this was the theme of about 95% of the sermons. And it does something to you as a child (heck, it does something to you as an adult) and what you think about God, parents, and authority in general.
Retribution, fear, and constant displeasure. These are the gears in the machine of how religion works, yes?
Even as I got older and began to understand concepts like “grace,” this stayed with me. Now, God was constantly and vaguely displeased with me all the time, but grudgingly put up with me because of Jesus. But God really wanted me to be good, not the person I was. He really wanted someone else, truth be told. But He had me, instead, and lived a life in Heaven of constant aggravation.
“Why can’t you be more like your older brother, Jesus?”
I know I’m not alone in this. If you read any books by the Puritans (who were not nearly as dour and joyless as our popular mythology makes them out to be), the basic thesis of many of them is, “You think you love God? HA!” Very introspective group, the Puritans, and very aware of their shortcomings, the shortcomings of humanity, and what it meant to be sinners in the hands of an angry god.
But the interesting thing about judgement is that judgement on its own is neither bad nor terrifying. Judgement is also how mercy is bestowed, wisdom and discernment find the right answer, justice is accomplished, wrongs are righted, and benefits awarded. Christ’s resurrection was the result of judgment, after all.
So, if the final judgement is meant to punish us for our many shortcomings, it is something to be feared. But what if the purpose of the final judgement is to right all the wrongs?
What if the judge knows you intimately? They know your genetic constraints and dispositions. They know what your parents were like and what your upbringing contained. They know what strategies you chose as a child to defend yourself and navigate through life and how those shaped your personality. They know what traumas you experienced. They know about your desires for good things that went unfulfilled. Your needs that went unmet. Your longing for someone to be looking for you.
They know the pull of temptations and the powers that surround you like winds buffeting a ship. They know the chaotic and deterministic factors that go into your every action. They know not only everything you’ve done, but why you did it from your own point of view as well as theirs, and they know everything that was done to you.
What if this judge, looking through every event of our lives, sees them not only as a detached third party, but from our perspective and the perspective of everyone who experienced the same things?
What if this judge knew what it was like to be me with even more depth, thoroughness, and clarity than I knew what it was like to be me?
Is that a judge to be feared? Is this a judge who will hold me up to the stone cold tablets of Law and find me wanting like some kind of cosmic ethical calculator? Is this a judge who, at the end, will abandon all pretense of compassion and mercy and forgiveness of enemies only to embrace the cold calculus of violations and penalties?
Or is this a judge who is radically biased in my favor?
Is this judge a father who, because He is my father, cannot leave me to act in selfishness and self-destruction or harm other children, but is nevertheless delighted with my presence? I am a father; I know what it is like to see your children in that way. Would God be less so than I?
Perhaps that final experience of seeing my life before my eyes is finally to see my life from God’s perspective – the good, the bad, the noble, the ignoble – so that I may know myself the way He knows me, and I will at last be transfigured with that knowledge.
Did you know that some people who have NDEs are so changed by the experience that they long for death? I’m not entirely sure that’s healthy, but they do not fear the final judgement. They were confronted with their virtues and vices and were not condemned but transformed.
Perhaps we, then, can endeavor all the more earnestly to always act out love in all of our actions, big and small. Not because we fear punishment or exposure, but because the knowledge that we will give an accounting transforms us. It calls us to a day when we will review our lives and want to find there an abundance of love for ourselves, for God, and for every person we come into contact with – friend or foe.
Because that is the state of God, Himself.