Date of Award

Spring 1988

Document Type

Restricted Thesis

Terms of Use

© 1988 Stephen Potthoff. All rights reserved. Access to this work is restricted to users within the Swarthmore College network and may only be used for non-commercial, educational, and research purposes. Sharing with users outside of the Swarthmore College network is expressly prohibited. For all other uses, including reproduction and distribution, please contact the copyright holder.

Degree Name

Bachelor of Arts


Religion Department


This paper investigates the phenomenon of near-death experiences, the vivid visions of an after-death realm reported by people who have come close to death. Though near-death visions are first of a1I Sources of profound personal transformation and liberation from the fear of death, every individual who experiences them also belongs to and acts within a society. It is therefore necessary to adopt a multifaceted approach to the study of near-death experiences which seeks to understand not only how near-death visions transform the individual, but how the individual then imparts some of that. transformative power to others by giving meaning to death. Any study of near-death experiences must begin by respecting the right of visionaries to believe in their experiences. Respecting the right of visionaries to believe, however, does not and should not entail accepting near-death testimony as proof of life after death. Paul Tillich's theory of religious symbolism provides a framework for understanding how individuals are transformed in their encounter with the deeper reality. Tillich's theological perspective is complemented by a socio-cultural comparison of shamans and near-death visionaries which reveals how they impart the power they gained in their visions to others in the community. Finally, the similarity between near-death experiences and rites of passage suggests that transformation, whether internal or external in society, involves a defined set. of stages and accompanying symbolic forms which may in part explain the striking similarities among near-death visions.