Ben Breedlove and the Near Death Experience

The Internet has been chattering about the death of Texas teenager Ben Breedlove and the three near death experiences he documented in a YouTube video before his death this Christmas. 1,500 gathered to mourn and/or celebrate the passing of Breedlove, who described his last NDE as a “peaceful” place he “did not want to wake up” from. His description of NDEs began with an incident at the age of four, where he saw a bright light above him in the hallway of a hospital. His last one, where his heart had stopped for three minutes, occurred not long before his death and involved a large, white room with no walls, him in a nice suit, and a mirror where he could see that he was proud of his life accomplishments.

As Breedlove finished his video, he left viewers with the question, “Do you believe in Angels or God?” and replied, “I do.”

What should people make of Breedlove’s testimony? Should it give anyone reason to believe in God or Angels? Breedlove’s videos aren’t the first widely-propagated testimony we’ve heard of Near Death Experiences this year. The Boy Who Saw Heaven made similar waves throughout the religious community, as young Colton Burpo described his trip to heaven and meeting Jesus when his appendix burst at the age of 4.

The idea of NDE is not new–the sensation of “bright lights,” “dark tunnels,” or feeling “outside” of one’s own body during a life-or-death situation has been documented in human beings for many years. It’s arisen in pop culture, a part of nearly every drama and sitcom from House to The Simpsons. This year, Harry Potter even famously [spoiler] died and met his late Professor Dumbledore at an immaculate, bright white version of King’s Cross, where Dumbledore explained the vision to him as, “Of course it’s happening inside your head….why should that mean it’s not real?”

When we talk of such visions as being “real,” however, we mean “objectively real.” Did Ben Breedlove and Colton Burpo actually visit a spiritual realm, or were endorphins triggered in their brains as a response to death, causing symptoms similar to the effects of the drugs ketamine and PCP? Were these NDEs more like dreams or actual spiritual journeys, and why do NDEs seem to garner more credibility than any other religious “vision?”

As far as Ben Breedlove’s NDEs, the last one seems like much more of a dream than reality, and, objectively, should be easily defined as such by his vision of his favorite rapper, Kid Cudi, appearing in the spiritual realm and even saying a few of his lyrics from Breedlove’s favorite song (“When will the fantasy end, when will the heaven begin?”). Breedlove wrote of Kid Cudi, “Why he was the only one there with me, I’m still trying to figure out.”

Kid Cudi has since called Ben Breedlove his “hero,” but he has not revealed any memory of being in a spiritual realm with Breedlove or of having any previous experience which might have objectively and actually put him into a bright room to guide Breedlove in death. While this should be an obvious clue that what Ben Breedlove experienced was more like a dream than an actual journey to a spiritual domain, some commenters remained convinced that Breedlove’s Near Death Experiences prove something about life, the universe, and everything:

Only those who have a high regard for self will realize they have a God Who loves them more….

So, to the question: Why do Near Death Experiences seem to gain more credibility than any other vision? Is it the mere idea of going to “the edge” and coming back? Is it because, while everyone dreams and sick people hallucinate, not everyone has a NDE?

Since the invasion of Kid Cupi into Ben Breedlove’s near death experience, what makes this particular NDE anything more than a vision? Is it anything different from, say, Joseph Smith’s vision? Should people just believe him? What of Muhammad’s? Should we have believed Brian David Mitchell when he claimed to have been commanded by God to kidnap Elizabeth Smart?

The difference here, it seems, is that Ben Breedlove’s account of his NDE gives hope of an afterlife to people in a world where science and new ideas are extinguishing religion. As with the tale of the boy who saw heaven, believers, for a moment, have what they think is non-disprovable evidence that their religious views and dreams of an afterlife are objectively real, because someone besides them has confirmed it with an anecdotal story.

When I see this teenager, however, I’m reminded of how absent God truly is. There is no reason for a God who loves someone to create that person–a seemingly good-natured boy–with a heart defect that would kill him at an early age. There is no reason that such a God, on seeing how much said person believes in and loves God, would not heal his heart defect.

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K. Mason

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12 2011