What Is It Like to Be Dead?

Near-Death Experiences, Christianity, and the Occult

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Jens Schlieter
Oxford Studies in Western Esotericism
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , September
     376 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Near-death experiences (henceforth: NDEs) have been reported by an increasing number of individuals in the West since the 1960s. Common features of such NDEs include being out of one’s body, reviewing one’s whole life in a matter of seconds, and moving through a dark tunnel towards a bright light. The ”experiencers”—as they are called—often interpret their NDEs as spiritual wake-up calls. They say that their experiences have convinced them of the soul’s survival after physical death and moved them to lead a more mindful life.

Jens Schlieter’s book What Is It Like to Be Dead? explores the intriguing phenomenon of NDEs from the perspective of the history of religion. Doing so, the book makes two significant contributions to the existing literature. Most importantly, Schlieter unravels, for the first time, the genealogy of NDE reports in the West from 1580 until 1975, the year when Raymond A. Moody published his famous book Life After Life and introduced the very term “near-death experiences.”  About two thirds of the book (Parts II and III) are devoted to this task. Around this historical core, Schlieter develops a theoretical frame (Parts I, IV, and V) that discusses, in a new way, the tricky relation between reports of NDEs (which is really the only evidence we have) and the intangible experiences themselves. Going against most previous NDE scholarship, Schlieter makes plausible that NDEs are not as spontaneous as experiencers and NDE scholars like to stress, but that NDEs—and even more so reports of NDEs—are largely determined by the beliefs and expectations of the experiencer and his/her social surroundings.

The detailed historical sections of the book cover the intellectual and social history of near-death discourse in the West. As Schlieter shows, reports of extraordinary experiences near death are attested in antique and medieval sources and continue to be found throughout the four centuries covered by his own survey. Furthermore, the scope of Schlieter’s review makes it possible to discern which motifs of NDE reports remain common, which motifs change, and which motifs have been added to the “motif catalogue” over time. Continuously common motifs include the vision of a paradisiacal realm (in Christian discourse: Heaven; in spiritualist discourse: Summerland), a border or gate that is not crossed, and a bright light or a Being of Light (286-287). By contrast, judgment scenes and visions of the postmortem fate of others, which were stable ingredients in Christian deathbed visions in the 16th and 17th centuries, disappear in modern reports, probably as a result of decreasing literal belief in Hell and the Devil (287). Narrative elements that have been added to the motif catalogue of NDE reports reflect social and cultural developments.

For example, the new motif of the “panoramic life review,” that is, the experience of seeing one’s whole life pass by in a few seconds, was enabled by William James’ theory that everything ever experienced is stored in consciousness and may be accessed under certain circumstances (140-142, 288). In the same way, the “tunnel” motif appears only after the introduction of railway tunnels and underground metros in the late 19th century (172-173, 288). The motif of looking down on one’s physical body from an out-of-the-body perspective is not reported in the context of NDEs until the 1930s, when out-of-the-body experiences had already been reported for some time by users of various drugs—hashish, opium (78-79)—and induced ritually by theosophists in the form of astral travelling (126-127, 147-149, 289-290). Schlieter hereby shows that many of the motifs (for example, life review, tunnel) that according to Moody comprise important “core elements” of the NDE and may therefore be expected to be present in most NDEs across time and space (20-21, 219-221), can be shown to be, in fact, historical inventions.

Though his best theoretical ideas remain undeveloped, Schlieter deserves credit for pointing us towards a catalogue of co-determinants for the NDE (report). There are four of these. Besides (1) universal biological phenomena (as emphasized by Gregory Shushan) and (2) particular meta-cultures that may influence the beliefs and expectations of an experiencer (as emphasized by Schlieter in the historical section of the book), Schlieter comments briefly on two additional co-determinants. Inspired by the cognitive science of religion, he mentions (3) that NDEs may be expected to reflect the cognitive inclinations of the human mind and hence, for example, to be dominated by “minimally counterintuitive” concepts (34-35) and to feature a moral observer-God (209). This may explain why many NDE reports include an element of moral judgment, and why judgment scenes in older Christian deathbed visions transform the maximally counterintuitive idea of an omniscient God into the minimally counterintuitive notion that the deeds of each individual are registered in a big book (307). Schlieter further notes (4) that experiencers generally feel a need to offer some proof for the authenticity of their experiences and therefore provide their NDE reports with some rhetorical features intended to increase the report’s perceived truth value. Adopting a term coined by the undersigned, Schlieter refers to these features as “veracity mechanisms” (58, 300). The veracity of a NDE report can be enhanced, for example, by embedding the report’s supernatural claims in a thorough and detailed description of the quotidian circumstances of the experience (folklorist Gillian Bennett has referred to this strategy as “scene-setting”).

Another strategy is to emphasize the experiencer’s initial disbelief, his/her gradual process of acceptance of the supernatural implications of the experience, and the final conversion-like life transformation, a process which the skeptical reader of the report is now invited to emulate (88-89, 295, 300, 304). It may also be claimed that the experiencer returned to consciousness with certain revealed knowledge—for example that a relative had died somewhere far away—that could later be confirmed by more ordinary evidence (58, 61, 97, 305). All these observations are excellent, but Schlieter’s ideas that NDE reports may be cognitively and narratological-rhetorical co-determined are nowhere systematized in the book. Instead, Schlieter devotes a whole chapter (part IV) to less promising phenomenological speculations about what kind of meaning, and hence what kind of experiences, the threat of death may prompt consciousness to produce.

Schlieter’s book represents an important historical and theoretical intervention in the field of NDE studies. It is a shame that Schlieter’s promising theoretical ideas are not further developed, and as always in such a large book, there are a few additional things that one may criticize. The descriptive character, straight chronological structure, and sheer length (almost 200 pages) of the historical section demands much of the reader, and it is a little frustrating that two chapters are wedged in between the historical overview (part II) and the analytical summary of it (section 5.1). Also, Schlieter states that it is his aim to show how four “meta-cultures”—the Christian, Gnostic-Esoteric, Spiritualist-Occult, and Naturalist meta-cultures—each contributed to the unfolding NDE discourse (37-41), but because the historical overview is not clearly framed around these meta-cultures, it is difficult to follow which meta-culture contributed what. Perhaps the real problem is that the very conceptualization of four meta-cultures contributing to one emerging NDE discourse does not really fit the material. What is actually shown is that proponents of the various meta-cultures—ministers, theosophists, parapsychologists, and so on, strategically use NDE reports to back up their own idiosyncratic cosmologies. Also, while Schlieter shows that several of the features which Shushan—like Moody—considers to be cross-cultural constants of the NDE are in fact rather late innovations, he sometimes slides into an unsubstantiated dismissal of Shushan’s very agenda as apologetic (50). These are minor faults, however. Much more important is that Schlieter has provided us with the most detailed historical overview of Western NDE reports to date and set a course for future theoretical explorations of NDE reports that combine historical, cognitive, and narratological approaches.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Markus Altena Davidsen is University Lecturer in the Sociology of Religion at Leiden University, The Netherlands


Date of Review: 
October 15, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jens Schlieter is Professor of the Systematic Study of Religion and Co-Director of the Institute for the Science of Religion, University of Bern, Switzerland. His publications comprise contributions on methodological and theoretical questions of the study of religion, on Buddhist bioethics, and comparative philosophy.

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