There’s this doctor who’s written books about all these hellish NDEs. How come he has so many people in hell and other researchers don’t hardly at all?”
The doctor was cardiologist Maurice Rawlings, in Chattanooga, who did indeed write almost a half-dozen books about hellish near-death experiences between 1978 and 2008 (he died at 87 in 2010). Here’s what I can say with any certainty about why he reported encountering so many distressing experiences.
Rawlings told the story of his patient who collapsed during a stress test, and “before we could stop the machine, he dropped dead.”
Well, apparently not completely dead, because in the patient’s own words,
“When I came to, Dr. Rawlings was giving me CPR, and he asked me what was the matter, because I was looking so scared. I told him that I had been to hell and I need help! He said to me, ‘keep your hell to yourself, I’m a doctor and I’m trying to save your life, you need a minister for that.’ … And I would fade out every so often, so then he would focus CPR again and bring me back…Whenever I would come back to my body, I kept asking, “Please help me, please help me, I don’t want to go back to hell.” Soon a nurse named Pam said, “He needs help, do something!” At that time, Dr. Rawlings told me to repeat this short prayer. “I believe Jesus Christ is the Son of God. Jesus, save my soul. Keep me alive. If I die, please keep me out of hell!”
The experience of the patient, Charles McKaig, then became pleasant, and he reported seeing his deceased mother and stepmother and being surrounded and comforted by the Holy Spirit. Upon awakening, he was an immediate evangelical Christian.
In Rawlings words, “After this was all over, I realized what really happened. It was a double conversion. Not only had this make-believe prayer converted this atheist … it had also converted this atheist doctor that was working on him”
Years later, Rawlings told his audiences,
“If you can catch people before they die and give them the option of accepting Jesus Christ as their personal savior, then they can’t loose [sic] whether they live or die. That is with them forever. And when they die like this, we don’t have to question where they went. And the preacher will be right when he says they are in Heaven. She went to heaven to be with God.
“But for those who die on the street, where do they go? It is the minister’s fault, your fault and mine because we did not approach them with the Gospel which is the free gift to anyone that wants it.”
Essentially, that is the backstory of why Maurice Rawlings reported so many hellish experiences: He wanted to get people’s attention in order to save them from the hell he believed in; he wanted to give them a chance to accept a faith he trusted completely, and telling heavenly NDE accounts was not going to achieve that. He was being steadfastly and thoroughly evangelical.
Despite his faith, a great many people object strenuously to that point of view and discount his work because of it. The real problem underlying the Rawlings material, however, is not theological. The problem is, as his fellow cardiologist (and fellow evangelical Christian) Michael Sabom pointed out repeatedly, a distortion of data.
A reading of any of Rawlings’ books will immediately give the impression that he resuscitated countless near-death experiencers—he himself said that his first book summarized “several hundred” cases—and heard their testimonies immediately, roughly half of them “hellish.” Sabom’s painstaking investigation of Rawlings’ data turned up quite a different picture.
Despite what was reported in Beyond Death’s Door, those “several hundred” cases “were represented by only 21 cases of ‘heavenly NDEs and 12 ‘hellish’ NDEs. Many of these were clearly not from Rawlings’ own practice, having been excerpted from other published sources. Others were simply left unidentified.”
The same situation presented with To Hell and Back, Rawlings’ second book. In a 1996 review in the Journal of Near-Death Studies, Sabom noted that of the 32 cases Rawlings claimed, twenty “were clearly lifted and referenced from other sources, and six were personally acquired examples used in his previous books. The remaining six NDEs appear to be new, previously unpublished accounts obtained from his own experience. However, two of these six cases were mentioned only in passing and never described.”
In other words, by reusing previous accounts and padding from other sources, Rawlings was able to give the impression of a greater number of distressing NDEs than he actually had. Further, his books leave one with the impression that many, many more distressing NDEs would be revealed if only people were interviewed immediately upon resuscitation. Sabom’s research indicated that conclusion also not to be supported by the data.
“In fact,” Sabom wrote, “the cases he presents actually seem to favor the opposite conclusion: out of 15 ‘hellish’ cases, ten (67 percent) were clearly shown to have been brought to Rawlings’ attention long after the golden ‘first few minutes’ after resuscitation, four were elicited at an unspecified time, and one 7 percent) was clearly noted as immediate.”
There are too many other problems to detail here. The gist of them all is that Rawlings, who was without question a lovely man, sincere in his beliefs and genuine in his concern for people, was working from a highly personal agenda more than from a desire for unbiased information.
What Michael Sabom reported after years of carefully reviewing Rawlings’ work was this:
[Rawlings] establishes himself before his audience as a cardiologist with impeccable credentials, a near-death researcher, and a committed Christian. Using these medical, scientific, and religious qualifications, he then presents the NDE as a glimpse of an afterlife and directly applies the Christian doctrine of heaven and hell to these experiences. This gridlike approach, however, poses problems to Rawlings in his interpretation of his and others’ research when the type of person (for example, non-Christian) or type of near-death event (for example, suicide attempt) does not jibe with the expected afterlife destination (for example, hell). Rawlings confronts the data of others with authoritative statements substantiated with little or no data of his own and illustrated with anecdotal accounts that, over time, appear to have been altered to fit his own designs…”
Sabom concluded, “I am a Christian and believe in heaven and hell. Based on current knowledge, however, we have much to learn about the NDE, both distressing and pleasant, before we can say confidently just what the experience means and how it fits into our spiritual beliefs.”
What this says to us is that before believing any claim about “ultimate truth,” or any researcher’s sincere pronouncement of having a final explanation about NDEs, it is wise, as Dorothy discovered about the Wizard of Oz, to look behind the curtain to find out who is providing the answers, where they are getting their facts, and what other people of substance are saying about them. This is not cynicism but discernment.