Introduction and review:
Yesterday we began a series on Biblically evaluating 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.
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. Yesterday’s post went over some of the history of NDE (Near Death Experience) accounts. Today we continue by evaluating what place, if any, NDE books and literature should have in understanding life and Bible doctrine.
How should we regard the place of NDE’s in our way of understanding life and Bible doctrine? – a Biblical and personal assessment
Many theologians and Bible teachers have pointed out that in the Bible we can understand human beings as occupying one of three states: There is a living state, followed by an intermediate state that begins at death and concludes at resurrection (resurrection of the righteous for believers and a second, separate resurrection of the wicked for unbelievers). The third and lasting state, the eternal state, entails the New heavens and earth for believers and Lake of fire for unbelievers following the Great White throne judgment in Revelation 20.
The issue of one’s immaterial soul/spirit temporarily leaving one’s body and coming back, and the questions surrounding the possibility and conditions for such phenomena is admittedly difficult to place. Without a doubt the Bible does describe scenarios of people being brought back from the dead or resuscitated. (2 Kings 4:18-37 and John 11:38-46) In the 2 Kings account Elisha raises the son of the Shunammite woman while Jesus brings back to life Lazarus who had been dead for four days. In looking at passages such as these, one can observe that in no instance of people being resuscitated back to life do we them composing literature to describe their experiences. The silence of such “NDE” testimonies should catch the reader’s attention.
With regards to more modern day examples, this author exercises caution and a listening ear when approaching the subject of Near Death Experiences (NDE’s). Dr. Gary Habermas, a Christian Apologist and Professor at Liberty University writes: “Some ask, How can one gain evidence for life after death from individuals who have not yet died? The medical distinction must be made between biological death, which is physically irreversible, and clinical death, which is a cessation of measurements such as pulse or heartbeat. (Near-death experiences are not viewed as miraculous returns from biological death, though such would provide an additional reason to reject naturalism!) It is difficult to deny that there are many cases of corroborated experiences beyond (and during) clinical death.” 1
As a pastor who has attended the bedsides of those who have passed on from this world to the next, this author can testify that in those closing moments that the person’s actions, facial expressions and words seem to indicate the patient witnessing and perhaps glimpsing things that are otherwise unseen. This author’s mother, an ER nurse for many years, relayed many stories of patients whom she saw evidence similar behaviors. Such events in the general course of human experience cannot be denied. The issue at hand in these posts is not about the possibility of these experiences, but rather whether or not such experiences should be put into writing.
It is one thing to acknowledge such experiences. However it is quite another to take such events and make them normative descriptions and interpretations of life after death. Dr. Gary Habermas notes again: “Near-death experiences therefore cannot be used to describe (or interpret) heaven or hell but only to argue that certain types of veridical information do confirm the minimalistic conclusion that conscious life has been corroborated beyond at least the initial stages of death and that such cannot viably be explained by brain (or other bodily) activity. That such consciousness exists beyond the veil of death does seem to be a fact and as such is a serious problem for naturalism.” 2
The issue of life after death is not questioned by this author. Furthermore, NDE’s as a possibility is categorically not denied by this author due to the episodes of miraculous resuscitation in the Bible. What this author strenuously opposes is the writing of books by those who have had such experiences and such volumes being used as the basis for Bible studies and doctrinal instruction. Although this author would generally agree with Dr. Habermas’ assessment of NDE’s, personally I would probably not grant as much weight in using such experiences. Quite frankly, when one begins to read the numerous books about NDE’s (including “90 Minutes in Heaven” and “Heaven is for Real”), there are some important points that need to be mentioned.
1. Dallas Theological Seminary. 1989; 2002. Bibliotheca Sacra Volume 146 . Dallas Theological Seminary
2. http://www.donpiperministries.com/ For example, on Don Piper’s website we see the advertisement for his wife Eva Piper’s new book: “A Walk Through the Dark – How my husband’s 90 minutes in heaven deepened my faith for a life time”.