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Father Richard Kunst: Is a near death experience death?

When I was in junior high school I got a book from my grandmother that was titled “Beyond Death’s Door.” It was a book composed of a semblance of stories from people who had “near death” experiences. It was a heck of a book for a middle schooler to be reading, but I have to say I found it a fascinating read. 

Father Richard Kunst

In my ministry as priest I have had a number of opportunities to interact with people who have claimed to have had a near death experience themselves, but I have to say I am skeptical. I do not doubt people’s sincerity in what they have experienced, but a big part of me thinks that there is a natural explanation, that maybe when a body flatlines something gets triggered in their brain that causes all sorts of unique responses, but the fact of the matter is that I simply don’t know what these experiences are really all about. Could they be true “near death” experiences? I suppose they could be. The fact is the Catholic Church has never made a statement of judgment on such phenomenon. 

Several years back, when I was in the first few weeks of my most recent former assignment, I had a man corner me after Mass. He was very determined to tell me of his “near death” experience, and I have to admit I was thinking, “This guy is a real winner.” Because who does that? 

Well it was not long before I started to appreciate Bruce’s story. Everyone in the parish who knew Bruce (which was everyone), including his family, could vouch for Bruce’s experience. I did not know Bruce before he had this near death experience, but from what I heard he became a very different person after the fact. In my observation, Bruce was a deeply spiritual man who had the most positive of demeanors, taking all things in stride, and that is not at all necessarily what he was like beforehand. 

To me what was most telling about the legitimacy of Bruce’s story is what he started to do soon after his near death encounter, and that was to start volunteering with hospice patients. Bruce himself told me that he had a great desire to be with people as they were preparing to die, to help give them comfort and consolation in their final journey. Bruce would tell these dying people (as he would tell everyone) about his experience and how transformative it was. I cannot help but think this has brought much comfort to many people over many years. 

Because what Bruce experienced was so obviously legitimate, I interviewed him on Real Presence Radio a few years back so he could get the story to a much larger audience. And remember, I am the guy who has always been highly skeptical of such things. Bruce knocked my skepticism down a peg or two. 

As of my writing this in early April, Bruce just died two weeks ago. When I was at his funeral, I could not help but think that Bruce was the happiest person there. The partial experience he had many years earlier he was now experiencing in full. You see, “near death” experiences are not really death experiences. Just like near beer is not beer, it’s just near beer, so too a near death experience really is not death at all. If Bruce’s near death experience transformed the rest of his life because of how wonderful it was, imagine what the real deal must be like? But we can’t imagine. “Eye has not seen, ear has not heard, nor has it even dawned on man what God has in store for those who love him” (1 Corinthians 2:9). 

For the faithful Christian, for the person who truly strives to follow Christ by how they live, death holds no threat. To the faithful Christian, biological death is nothing more than the soul leaving the body. That’s all it is. In the Gospel of John, when Jesus debates with the Jewish authorities who were looking to kill him, he states in the clearest way what our Christian hope is: “Amen, amen I say to you, whoever keeps my word will never see death” (John 8:51). Read that line a couple times, because it should have an impact on every aspect of our lives. 

Biological death is nothing other than the soul leaving the body. No near death experience, no matter how great it may be, holds a candle to the real thing as long as we have lived this life close to Christ. Many people have had the experience of “flatlining” only to be brought back. You may know people like that. Many of those people tell of similar experiences during that trauma, which tends to give credence to the fact that the experience is real. 

As real as it may be, it is not actually true death, which of course is permanent until the resurrection. That does not diminish, however, how transformative of an experience it can be. Bruce convinced me of that. 

Father Richard Kunst is pastor of St. James and St. Elizabeth in Duluth. Reach him at [email protected].