Last year, I said some unkind things about the glurge-y Christian best-seller Heaven Is for Real, a father’s account of his four-year-old son’s near-death experience (NDE). Among other things, I wrote,
Even giving Colton Burpo—the four-year-old son of the author who supposedly died and spent three minutes in heaven—the benefit of the doubt that he had some kind of out-of-body, near death experience (which are common), Christian eschatology is, in fact, so complicated that I would expect a four-year-old to misunderstand it.
My main criticism, in other words, was not that the child didn’t have the experience, but that his father—a Christian pastor—interpreted the experience in a theologically deficient way. He didn’t speak a single word about our ultimate Christian hope: resurrection of the dead. The intermediate state to which a soul goes prior to Second Coming/Final Judgment/Resurrection and of which the Apostle Paul speaks in Philippians 1:21 is strictly a spiritual state.
We may call this temporary, disembodied state “heaven” if we like, so long as we understand that on the other side of Second Coming/Final Judgment/Resurrection, we will be physically re-embodied in a redeemed, renewed, and restored Creation. See the New Jerusalem of Revelation 21: our final destination is a place in which heaven comes down to earth.
I feel self-conscious writing about resurrection because there is much we don’t know. Paul himself calls it a “mystery” in 1 Corinthians 15. Our bodies won’t be merely physical according to our understanding of physics. They will be like Christ’s resurrected body—physical but more than physical; in continuity with who we are now, but different, transformed.
As I said on Monday, for most of us it’s enough that through Jesus, we get to have an afterlife at all, and that this afterlife will be happy and fulfilling. We don’t need to sweat the details—which is good, since the Bible doesn’t furnish us with many. But the Bible tells us enough to know that heaven is a two-stage process.
That being said, the prevalence of NDEs helps us as we defend our faith against atheists who reject anything beyond this physical world. NDEs provide one tantalizing clue that life continues beyond death—that there is more to reality than meets the eye (or the lens of a microscope or telescope). There is something beyond this physical universe.
One thinker I admire, Adam Hamilton, thinks so. He said as much in 24 Hours That Changed the World. In their book The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, Habermas and Licona think so, too. They describe their own interview with the family of a nine-year-old girl who had a swimming accident and was underwater for 19 minutes. Although she was resuscitated, she had been, by all appearances, dead. She had no brain activity. To everyone’s surprise, however, she recovered from a coma three days later and described in detail verifiable events that occurred around the time of her death—events to which she had no natural access. Like Todd Burpo’s kid, she also met loved ones in heaven… the whole nine yards.
Habermas and Licona write:
Many of these reports [of NDEs] are so well-documented that some naturalists have been forced to take them seriously, even admitting the possibility they pose of life beyond the grave. John Beloff, writing in The Humanist, argued that the evidence for an afterlife was so strong that humanists should just admit it and attempt to interpret it in naturalistic terms. Amazingly, the well-known atheist philosopher A.J. Ayer experienced an NDE that he could not explain in natural terms: “On the face of it, these experiences, on the assumption that the last one was veridical, are rather strong evidence that death does not put an end to my consciousness.” Ayer concluded, “my recent experiences have slightly weakened my conviction that my genuine death, which is due fairly soon, will be the end of me, though I continue to hope that it will be.” Atheist philosopher Antony Flew attests that NDEs “certainly constitute impressive evidence of the possibility of the occurrence of human consciousness independent of any occurrences in the human brain…. This evidence equally certainly weakens if it does not completely refute my argument against doctrines of a future life.”
A couple of points: NDEs say nothing about resurrection. They simply cast doubt on the philosophical materialist’s belief that nothing exists outside the realm of time, space, and matter. If something exists beyond this physical universe—and according to reports it seems to be a heavenly place in which we’re reunited with loved ones, for instance—then why not believe in God and the Christian gospel, with which such a place is theologically consistent?
It could be, as I wrote in the comments section of my post on Monday, that in the liminal space between life and death, people are susceptible to the spiritual realm in a way that they’re not otherwise, when their defenses against God are at full strength.
1. Adam Hamilton, 24 Hours That Changed the World (Nashville: Abingdon, 2009), 124-6.
2. Gary Habermas and Michael Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2004), 147.