A Biblical Evaluation of Near Death Experience Books
2 Corinthians 5:6 “Therefore, being always of good courage, and knowing that while we are at home in the body we are absent from the Lord.”
Hebrew 9:27 “And inasmuch as it is appointed unto men to die once and after this come judgment.”
These next few posts will attempt to Biblically evaluate the growing fascination among Christians and the culture alike over books authored by those who have had “Near Death Experiences” (or what is referred to in the literature as NDE’s). In 2004 Don Piper’s book “90 minutes in Heaven” became an overnight sensation in a pastor’s retelling of his alleged hour and half experience in heaven following a traumatic car accident. In 2010 another book, featuring the alleged recounting of heavenly experiences by six year old Colton Burpo in the wake of emergency surgery sent the book in the coveted #1 New York Times Best Seller List.
What makes both of these books so popular among Bible believing Christians is that they were both written by evangelical pastors (Don Piper and Colton’s Dad, Todd Burpo). Furthermore, both books have spawned Bible studies, with Burpo’s account leading to a DVD based curriculum and a soon to be released movie (April 2014).1 As a pastor myself, I have read both books, have seen the Bible studies on Christian bookstore shelves, have listened to interviews of Colton Burpo and his family and have noticed the unquestioned acceptance of these kind of books by the Christian publishing world.
To be as fair as possible, the books are well written and prove very interesting to read. Certainly their emotionally compelling recounting of surviving trauma in the face of death draws the reader into the world of the author. With that said, the question that keeps pressing in the back of this writer is: are these types of book Biblical? Are they helping or hurting the cause of Christ? Are they faithful to the Gospel and Biblical Christianity or do they ultimately undermine the message? Answering such questions will be the aim of this paper. This author will aim to show that books written about NDE’s are ultimately without the authority, clarity or profitability in comparison to the only book that is singularly authoritative on matters related to life and death, heaven and hell – the Bible.
Evaluating the history of Near Death Experiences (NDE’s)
Dr. John C. Beck Junior wrote a review article of Richard Abane’s book:
“Journey into the Light – Exploring Near Death Experiences” in the Chafer Theological Journal wherein he summarizes Abane’s extensive historical and theological assessment of NDE’s. Dr. Beck writes: “One of the earliest is mentioned in Plato’s The Republic. A soldier, who is killed in battle comes back to life on the funeral pyre, and tells about his visit to the next world. NDEs were so plentiful in the Middle Ages that Pope Gregory the Great of the sixth century compiled a collection of them in Dialogues. NDE researchers agree that modern experiences mirror closely those of the past. Researchers study what they call the autoscopic NDE, where the experiencer allegedly becomes separated from his body and is able to view nearby objects and events from outside of his body. The ability to describe with accuracy events and objects while unconscious or clinically dead some consider irrefutable proof that NDEs are objective realities rather than subjective experiences. Next, they study the transcendental NDE where the experiencer looks into worlds that transcend or surpass our own earthly limits. They are the most interesting, because they give expanded revelations” and describe “alternate realities.” Third, is the autoscopic/transcendent combination that is “a blending of elements of both the above.”
Dr. Beck later notes: “These are the building blocks of NDEs, though every experience does not have every element.”2
At the time the above article had been written, Betty Eadie’s book: “Embraced by the Light” had been a major hit. Numerous other books of this genre have been written over the past several years, averaging one every two or three years. It must be underscored that these are “experiences” that end up being treated as objective fact. Practically speaking, once such experiences are put into print, such experiences become regarded as authoritative writing.
How has Bible believing Christianity regarded NDE’s over the past 20 years?
Where do such experiences fit in the development of one’s understanding of the here and now and life after death? Bible believing Christianity demonstrates a variety of responses. An otherwise reputable Bible teacher and scholar is the late D. James Kennedy who in his sermons and books treated NDE’s as valuable evidence for proving the reality of the Biblical accounts of Heaven and Hell.
On the other end of the spectrum are men such as Dr. John MacArthur who decries the accounts of NDE’s. A case in point is Dr. MacArthur’s 1996 book: “The Truth About Heaven” where he writes: “They are inevitably shaped and interpreted by the person’s existing worldview. They are no more reliable than dream analysis for giving us any reliable understanding of the unseen world. “3 MacArthur’s book was written to offer a much needed correction to what was then perceived (and rightly so) as a dangerous trend among Christians and the culture alike to embrace books about Near Death Experiences in an uncritical and unquestioning manner.
2. Chafer Theological Seminary. 1997; 2002. Chafer Theological Seminary Journal Volume 3 . Chafer Theological Seminary.
3. MacArthur, J. 1996. The glory of heaven : The truth about heaven, angels, and eternal life. Crossway Books: Wheaton, Ill.