Question from Kamil:
I have done more research on Jesus NDEs, and found that while he does come up more than other deities from other faiths ex: Muhammad, that it may make some sense. I mean, Christians view Jesus on the same playing field as God, and they feel like they have a relationship with him. That may be why whenever they see a light in their NDEs they assume it is Jesus. Muslims do not feel like they have this kind of relationship with Muhammad, and they don’t worship him. Also there are no pictures of Muhammad, so during an NDE, their brains would be less likely to come up with seeing Muhammad potentially.

However, this leaves me with one question: what about the NDEs where Christians see Jesus, but he doesn’t look exactly like depicted in the paintings. Many report seeing him with dark hair, and some even say olive skin. Different people say he has different physical characteristics, and NDErs argue that he appears to each person differently so that they can understand who he is and so that their souls can learn in the best possible way. So person A may imagine Jesus as being tanned with black hair and brown eyes while person B may imagine him having fair skin with blue eyes, so he will manifest in those images for each person. My question is, does this mean that since he shows up to some people in ways that don’t reflect cultural imagery that NDEs with him are likely to be genuine?

And even though I feel Muslims would be less quick to jump to the idea that seeing a light or having a good “familiar” feeling is the result of Muhammad, it still seems Christian NDEs are much deeper with more life lessons and reinforcement of Jesus than Muslims are of their cultural beliefs. Does this prove Christianity?

Answer by SmartLX:
Kamil, did you start with the final sentence, “Does this prove Christianity?” and work backwards? Because if you read your question from the start up to that point, there is nothing approaching a proof there even if everything you write were true.

Jesus as described in the Gospels was one person, with one physical appearance. Shapeshifting was not one of his documented miracles. If different people who claim to see him are clearly not describing the same individual, this is a glaring inconsistency which contradicts the general claim that the same person is appearing to them all. The idea that Jesus is deliberately appearing to different people in different guises is an excuse for this inconsistency. The existence of an unsupported suggestion as to how the visions of Jesus might be both inconsistent and real is not evidence that they are real; it is at best an argument against utter disproof, which is a very, very long way from proof.

It would make the combined stories a lot more compelling in concert if the images of Jesus were separately verified as consistent AND did not fit the common media images. This would suggest that one person, independent of the cultural meme of Jesus, was reaching out to people. That still wouldn’t be proof, but it would be an interesting phenomenon which warranted further study. The reality is nothing like it.

Back from a Long Absence, But the Visions Keep Coming

Question from Graziano:
I am extremely curious, what is your view on these ‘spiritual communications’? A Hindu friend of mine sent me this clip for fun. I haven’t even watched it all, but it seems like this man in the video had this profound experience close to 30 years ago when he was in his late 20s. Something along the lines of him being an artist, then taking some gems to paint. When he was in a room alone with him, the gems turned to a crystal ball, he saw a lot of light, and these beings showed up. Some looked pretty, others somewhat demonic. Then, he saw this beautiful figure who was “take Marilyn Monroe and multiply it by 1000”. They had a detailed conversation, and he believes this figure was Krishna. I am wondering how an Italian American man like himself could have this kind of vivid and profound experience of a Hindu deity, having grown up in the West. He said he got revelations too and saw the whole universe. His title describes it as a Near Death Experience. While it has some features that other Near Death Experiences have, he was not near death when he had it, nor did he feel a sense of detachment from his body. I just don’t know what to make of it:

Answer by SmartLX:
Firstly, an apology: this is the longest I’ve ever left a question before answering it. I take full responsibility, but a long trip to New Zealand and a surge-devastated motherboard on my return sure didn’t help.

Anyway, you don’t have to make anything of this. It was a man alone in his room, and while he came out with great stories of what he’d seen there wasn’t anything verifiable in them. He’s not claiming divine foreknowledge of anything, or any information gleaned from remote or out-of-body viewing. It could have been dreams, hallucinations, the usual suspects. If the details of his “revelations” pique your interest, you can treat them as prophecies yet to be fulfilled.

It is indeed interesting that a non-Hindu American has stories of Hindu-themed visions, but while Hinduism was not a common religion in 1980s America, it was not entirely absent from the public consciousness. The Beatles, the Beach Boys and others had drawn a great deal of attention to Hinduism through their association with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in the 60s and 70s. And if there are any Hare Krishnas in your city, they’re hard to miss.

Grandma Sees Dead People

Question from Deco:
Ok, so I don’t know if this is really an “ability”, but my grandmother prides herself on having this sort of ESP where she can apparently detect the death of a person while it is taking place. I was skeptical of it, and I asked her a bit about it. She told me that at least 50 times in her life, she has had this sensation or feeling when someone dies. It has come to her in the form of dreams where she will have a dream about a person and being with them in heaven or some form of afterlife, and then she will wake up, and find out at the time of her dream that the person really did die. She has also had what I assume are hypnogogic hallucinations where she will see a person’s face in what she assumes is in the form of a ghost, and then see the devil’s face, and then later find out the person died. One of the weirdest examples is the time that her cousin died. She had a dream of him coming to her and saying that he had drowned. The next day, she found out that he did in fact drown. She has had these dreams with religious imagery, e.g. sometimes she claims Jesus tells her these messages, sometimes it’s family, seeing devils, angels, etc.

I guess my question is, put aside the fact that these claims sound too good to be true, let’s say if she could prove it, would that constitute proof of souls of the passed on communicating with her? Or, could there be another explanation for it that doesn’t require a supernatural component? Perhaps our brains have a method of picking this stuff up that we are not aware of, and her brain interprets the info in a certain way which causes her to dream with a religious background? Or could it be a combination of an active mind, (constantly thinking of people close to her and worrying about them) so sometimes when she has these sensations they are true? Maybe with this she counts the hits, ignores the misses?

Being an Orthodox Christian, I would like nothing more than for this to be true, but I am asking for an atheist perspective here, which is why I am posting it to an atheist community. I have asked many Orthodox Christians and received their opinions, now I want yours. My grandfather says that he has also seen my grandmother get these hits a lot, and he is very surprised by it, but he himself says he doesn’t think it points to the supernatural, even though he admits he cannot explain it. I guess I’m just curious. I don’t want you guys to just dismiss it as “lying” or “fake”, I mean, you can think it is a lie or fake, but I am asking kind of for fun, let’s just assume for a second that this ability were as true as I am claiming, what would you say? Would you then suddenly believe in afterlife and a spiritual realm, or would you still say “I don’t know, but I can’t conclude it is really anything supernatural”?

Answer by SmartLX:
My first question would be, on any of these 50+ occasions, did your grandmother tell anyone else (e.g. your grandfather) that she’d had one of these experiences before checking to confirm? Ideally, did she name the person or give a description before receiving any information from the outside world? (Someone’s always dying somewhere.) This is what would show that she wasn’t just claiming these after the fact.

That’s the all-important skepticism out of the way, and you’ve done a good job of this too by bringing up two possible sources of confirmation bias. So, let’s play with your enormous “if”. If she really were being informed through visions alone of the deaths of particular people, I’d be satisfied that something supernatural was going on, because visions can’t do that via natural means except by pure coincidence. They don’t convey information from outside the person’s senses, they can only work with what the senses are receiving and whatever the brain conjures up for itself, from memory and imagination.

The question would be by what specific supernatural means she was getting it (assuming someone wasn’t in her bedroom subconsciously feeding her the info). Interaction with the souls of the dying/dead would be one possibility, but not the only one. Someone living could be using conscious or unconscious telepathy to send her images of the newly dead. She could be psychic herself, and able to see the faces of those about to die, slightly before or after the time of death, but without help from their souls.

One specific point against the soul hypothesis is that the visions apparently aren’t consistent in their depiction of the afterlife. They could all be different aspects of the same afterlife system, or they could just be contradictory flights of fancy accompanying the real information regarding the identity or appearance of the deceased.

You’ve realised for yourself the difficulty a religious person would face when discussing even a confirmed supernatural effect: actually claiming credit for it on behalf of the “right” supernatural entities from your model of the spiritual world, as opposed to the countless others people believe in, plus the ones no one has thought of yet. Atheists would be challenged if something like this were proved beyond doubt, but in most cases the first thing to go would not be their atheism but rather their materialism. But then, there are already plenty of non-materialist atheists who do believe in ghosts, souls, psychics and so on, because they have a spiritual model in mind that does not include any gods. I’m not one of them, but they’ve written in before.

Cornering the Market on Divine Visions

Question from Spivak:
I had a question regarding proof of Jesus. People always say the bible or the quran are not reliable proof of Jesus or his existence. My question is, what about all the personal testimonies people have of seeing Jesus. There are many people who make claims that they met Jesus, or Jesus helped them in a particular time. More specifically, I have read and watched accounts of Muslims, Hindus, etc who say they had a problem for ex: they were about to die, they called out to Allah or Krishna, and wouldn’t get an answer. Yet, when they call out to Jesus, they see light, and he comes and saves them. He also tells them bible versus which they later confirm exist. There are healing testimonies, dreams, near death experiences, somehow, it seems no other deity really comes up in these kinds of potentially supernatural experiences other than Jesus. Does this mean Jesus is the most likely deity to exist?

Video examples: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_PExVfzRsKU

there are many more examples where that came from. There don’t seem to be testimonies of other faiths meeting other deities. Does this seem convincing for Jesus?

Answer by SmartLX:
We’ve often covered the implications of claimed personal experiences of the divine, and how they have little reason to mean anything to anyone who doesn’t already believe. Here I’ll focus on the supposed imbalance between claims of visits by Jesus and claims of other deities. There are a few potential and very likely reasons for this imbalance besides Jesus being the only real godlike entity that makes house calls.

The most obvious reason is the media sources available in the Western world and the English language, both of which have an immense Christian majority. Accounts of Jesus are written out, recorded, published and distributed because there’s guaranteed to be an audience for them. This is helped along by the engines that rely on people’s faith being continually reassured: televangelism and Christian Right political advocacy to name two.

The religion with the next most adherents worldwide, though with nowhere near the amount of English-language media profile, is Islam. It’s not surprising that there are no stories of visits by Allah, because it’s a matter of doctrine (see here for instance) that we’re not capable of comprehending or withstanding Allah’s presence while alive. As for Muhammad, Muslims take it practically for granted that he can appear in dreams (they have to take care that it’s not their Devil “Shaytaan” in disguise) so it’s no big deal when he does and they’re not so driven to proclaim it to the world.
That leaves Hinduism as the only other religion with more than 500 million followers, and it’s got even less profile in the West. From what I can gather it happens plenty for Hindus as well; many yogis, gurus, monks and priests have their own stories about how Ganesha or Hanuman appeared to them, but only their own congregations hear the tales.

That’s probably the big takeaway from this topic: only Christianity has the infrastructure in place to widely proclaim everything that happens to anyone as a miracle and a vindication. By and large people of other religions just rejoice and get on with it.

The Face Of Jesus

Question from Vlad:
Last night I got together with a few friends, and we were talking about how in Islam for example, there is very little imagery (if any) of the prophet Muhammad or Isa (Jesus) but how in Christianity, there are numerous depictions and drawings of Jesus. One thing I found curious was that many of the so-called visions people have of Jesus in dreams, or even according to some individuals “in real life” generally cater to the images they were brought up to believe. A Christian living in Texas, for example, who believes he or she encountered Jesus, is likely to describe him as having long dark hair, pretty light skin, a thin build, etc. However, I brought this up during our conversation, and one of my friends (who is very religious) told me that Jesus did actually look like the way he is depicted in photos. I know quite a few people on here may not even believe Jesus ever existed, but assuming he did, I would have thought that he would have likely looked less “European”. My friend told me that recently, a cloth with Jesus’s face on it was discovered apparently where he was buried, and there are documentaries about this. Apparently carbon dating was done to prove that this cloth existed around his time. He said the only thing they could not verify was Jesus’s skin colour, but that it is actually known what his physical structure looked like. I’m not sure if any of you are familiar with these recent claims, but I would like to know, what would your opinion be on this? Does this give these visions any more credence?

Answer by SmartLX:
Islam, or the widely practiced version of it, expressly forbids depictions of Muhammad. That was the whole basis of the furore surrounding the Danish cartoons depicting him, and the resulting attack on the publication in which they appeared. That’s why there are so few images of him. As for Jesus in the Muslim tradition, he’s only a relatively minor figure in that mythology, and not being able to depict Muhammad makes it difficult to express images of any of the other figures regardless.

The “cloth with Jesus’s face on it” was the Shroud of Turin, which I’ve covered before. Its whereabouts have only been traced definitively back to the 14th to 15th century, and the majority of carbon dating tests done on it so far place its origin around that time. The Christian image of Jesus had mostly been standardised by the 6th century, so if the shroud is a fake then it creators were already working from the image we’re familiar with from so many paintings.

There are claims that those tests were invalid because they were supposedly done on newer patches of cloth, but even the strongest advocates of the shroud’s authenticity can only point to a test which indicates a date range that includes the time of Jesus, but also includes the year 1000 BC and the year AD 1700. In other words it’s useless.

Coming back to your question about people’s visions of Jesus matching the image on the shroud, they also match the accepted image of Jesus from all the art. Even if the shroud is genuine, the supposed visions would only be amazing just for matching the shroud if the shroud were the only surviving source of that type of depiction of Jesus. To sustain the claim, a Christian would have to go on to claim that every famous artist who painted that kind of face for him had a similar vision, because otherwise the face comes to people’s minds for other reasons than that Jesus has paid them all a visit.