From sentiments of surprise, skepticism, and even wonder, near death experiences are labeled with a wide spectrum of reactions, but easy to dismiss is not one of them. The tales of those who’ve died, been to the other side, and came back are plenty. And it’s often met with an assorted mix of responses. Some embrace it with belief, some dismiss it as mere exaggerated folk tales.
It’s a riveting juxtaposition: near death experiences met with both faith and disbelief. Topics regarding death inevitably raises doubt and a series of whys, but despite this, Professor Victor Gojocco of the Philosophy Department lays the cards on the table, cuts through the BS, and proves that it isn’t faith versus empirical facts—revealing a side of near death experiences not often heard.
The Lazarus Effect
“Near death experience is about people who have died officially—people who have flatlined. Meaning to say, they are officially pronounced dead,” says Gojocco. “It’s about these people who are dead, but came back.”
Resurrection, reanimation, revival; it’s the sort that exists far beyond the trope of the horror films’ squad of the undead, zombies, and ghouls. Flying off the pages of fictional storybooks, it’s the sort that has led to medical journals documenting multiple cases of people who have died, been pronounced dead, and then suddenly returned to the world of the living.
“When we talk about NDEs, we don’t just talk about people who have recently died. There are cases wherein the person was already in the morgue for days,” Gojocco clarifies. “This is what we call The Lazarus Effect.”
It’s a statement that rouses the mind and inevitably piques a long string of critical questions. But in a time that sanctifies the comfort of formulas, predictions, and certainty above many things, Gojocco rebuts the skeptics. “A lot of people are quick to simplify NDEs as delusions. But here’s what I found: most, if not all, stories of near death experiences are consistent—from beginning to end. So how can their testimonies be classified as delusion? These things [NDEs] did not just happen to any random group of people, they also happen to professionals.”
He shares a finding of his research on NDEs: The remarkable story of Dr. Mary Neal—a surgeon who was afforded a rare glimpse into the afterlife.
“While kayaking, Dr. Neal took a fall and got stuck at more than ten feet of water. Because of her training as a doctor, she was calm, but she knew that at that moment then, she was sure to die.”
Gojocco shares Neal’s almost encounter with death, detailing how quick she was to accept her seemingly unavoidable doom. “She spent several minutes underwater. And we know that it will only take four minutes without oxygen until the brain [dies]. But what happened next? In her near death experience, she meets Jesus.”
Gojocco backs the story up with an eerie piece of evidence, choosing to explain veridical near death experiences. “A thing about it is that the person who dies gets some information from the other side. The information that the person gets is, in fact, verified. Now, assuming if you’re dead, then your brain won’t work. So, where did these people get the information?”
He then goes on to explain that Neal was told by Jesus that He would have to take her eldest son when he turned nineteen. Years later, her son passed away at the tender age she was foretold.
“The question is, where did she get the information? She comes back with that knowledge, with that proof. She drowned, didn’t she? So where did she get what she knew?” he remarks, driving his point home with a sweeping gesture. “The thing is, when people hear about NDEs, the tendency is that they’ll say, ‘Okay then, prove your testimony!’ But these aren’t just fabricated stories. More than these compelling testimonies, there’s so much more to NDEs. There are actual physical proofs.”
“If you knew me about twenty years ago, I wouldn’t be talking this way. In fact, twenty or thirty years ago, I can turn you into an atheist in a few minutes,” he admits candidly. “I could destroy your belief in God, but as I was researching, I realized that my leanings on atheism could not help but swing to belief.”
Acknowledging that near death experiences aren’t the easiest topics to convince people with, he claims that he was once skeptic of NDEs himself. “I was also surprised. Am I changing? Was it because I’m getting old? But I weigh these things. And I thought, there has to be something here,” he says, stressing the word something. “It can’t just be delusions. There are so many testimonies, consistent testimonies.”
Gojocco also reflects back to a time he was told about angels and the gates of heaven. “At first, I couldn’t believe it. I mean, seriously?! My initial reaction was, ‘Come on! You can read that in story books!’” He exclaims and laughs as an afterthought, and then he pauses, this time growing even more serious. “But all of their testimonies are consistent. And if there are testimonies of heaven, there were also testimonies of hell.”
Hell—a topic usually skipped, if not altogether avoided. Yet, Gojocco tackles it in such a way that’s almost visceral with an analogy that can be easily understood. “I’m sure you’ve had your worst nightmare, right? Probably when you were a kid?” he asks and then paused for a few beats. “Now, multiply that a million times. That’s what hell is.”
“I teach about Plato in philosophy, and I found…his theories about world of forms. Before I didn’t know about NDEs, I thought Plato was just inventing all of these about world of forms,” he admits. “But Plato actually met a soldier named Er and this soldier supposedly died on the battlefield. Now, after three days that he was left for dead, the people discovered that Er’s body was not decaying. And then during his wake, Er had a Lazarus Effect. He came back to life. He woke up.”
Gojocco continues to share what Er saw in his near death experience—places in stark contrast with each other, one of bliss and one of pain. “What came to my mind was that the account was talking about the contrast of a beautiful place and one that is not. And what does that remind you? We’re talking about a time when there was no Christianity yet, but there’s already that concept of those two places—of heaven and hell. In other words, this is not the only world. There is another one that’s more real.”
“There must be a reason why there are these people who are brought back to life. Because why would Christ do this? Why does He talk to them about heaven and hell? And why didn’t any of those people met Buddha or Muhammad or Krishna or some other ‘god’? Why was it Christ who met them in their near death experiences?” he says. “Because the message is to let the people know that Christianity might be the true religion, and by showing these people what heaven is, they can live again to testify that it exists.”
The value of knowing
Aware of the different attitudes towards NDEs, Gojocco scoffs at the people who don’t grasp its relevance. “I really pity them. How could you not see the value of this? It relates to your existence!” he exclaims. “I don’t want to sound morbid, but we’re all heading there. You cannot tell when [death will come], but it’s better to be prepared.”
Gojocco also shares the effect of his research on his view on death. “By now knowing about NDEs, I think I have overcome the fear of death. There’s no longer any reason to fear death. I’m thinking that when I go on my deathbed, I’ll be saying, ‘Go ahead! Bring it on!’”
Set aside the horror trope variety, near death experiences revamp the meaning of faith in a different light. If there’s anything that NDE truly provokes, it’s the freeway for skeptics to resolve theistic dilemmas, using tools of inquiry to bridge faith and the unknown.
Gojocco puts it lightly, saying, “In the Philippines, I’m probably the only guy [researching about NDEs] then now I’ve heard Ateneo is also dealing with it.” The professor pauses and grins, “But well, I can say, La Salle is the first.”
Beyond his humor, however, he gives a reminder to pay more attention to what has to be done. “We really need more minds to explore this. It hasn’t really been explored yet, but really there’s still a lot more to know about.”
Dwelling in the gray area between certainty and mystery, science and spirituality, delving into the mysteries of the NDE yields big questions with even bigger answers. It can spark the beginning of debates and it can teach a thing or two about faith. But maybe what makes it compelling is its pull towards the intangible, the appeal to be drawn towards hidden answers obscured by the opposition of skeptic views.
It could generate a hundred different adjectives, with each different meaning to several people, but just maybe, skeptics and believers of near death experiences share one thing similar after all: A reason for their faith.
And for Professor Victor Gojocco, he has this to say, “I have my reasons to believe.”