Near-death experiences and what they might tell us

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.[1] 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.”[2]

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.

10 thoughts on “Near-death experiences and what they might tell us”

  1. Okay, not to be argumentative (I don’t think), but I am not sure that NDEs prove “life-afer-death” (LAD). I am happy that some atheists may be led to think so, but the fact that these NDEs are virtually ALWAYS contrary to the actual state of LAD makes it unlikely, in my estimation, that they actually experienced any LAD, of whatever duration. I think it may instead be the case that persons presumed “dead” are not actually “dismissed from their bodies,” but, rather, “hallucinate” due to the lack of oxygen (or whatever). I don’t think that it is necessarily overly surprising that someone in such a state might think of relatives or “bright lights” or the like. Also, we “dream” of things that aren’t real when we “sleep.” So, count me as somewhat of a skeptic when it comes to NDEs demonstrating LAD.

    1. Not proof… Evidence. Maybe not strong evidence, but not nothing, either—as the testimony of these atheists confirms. People have lots of weird dreams, but there is an impressive similarity to these NDEs. Why imagine seeing loved ones in heaven? Why not imagine being eaten by crocodiles?

      1. Good point about the crocodiles. However, we don’t have the “universe” of NDEs to compare–the ones that “make the news” are the ones who say, “LAD experiences.” One of my sisters once got to 106 temperature and thought she was being bitten by snakes. I still can’t get past the fact that what is seen as LAD is virtually always wrong (like dreams usually are). Nevertheless, I don’t want to be too dogmatic on the subject.

      2. Habermas and Licona’s main point—which, granted, isn’t clear from the excerpt—is that this 9-year-old’s testimony was verifiably true. There were details that they fact-checked. They say that there are many such cases… That even enemies of the gospel seem to agree with this evidence lends credence to their argument, right?

      3. Okay, I don’t know Habermas and Licona, or the 9-year old, or what the child said, so I am in a position of ignorance in that respect. However, I must say that I have heard a lot of claims that don’t pass theological muster which I have to discount, regardless of who is making the “report.” As I say, I am working from a position where I have not myself made any independent investigation of this particular (or other) claims; I can only argue from general principles.

        Let me share a few examples. I once actually heard on a “Christian” (charismatic) radio station an ad for an upcoming service where the fellow was going to speak about how he was taken up into heaven. He said at one point he was taken into a huge building, in which there were arms, legs, etc. He asked why they were there. He was told that those were for people who had lost limbs in this life to replace them when they got to heaven. I’m not kidding about this!

        Another example. I heard that a missionary in Africa (amazing how many stories are “in Africa” where you can’t easily “check them out”) was under attack from some natives, who suddenly stopped attacking and ran off. Later the missionary encountered one of these natives and inquired about why they ran off. He was told that they saw some “big men” on the roof with guns and left. The missionary knew there were no big men, so he attributed the account to angels being present.

        Another one, in a “Christian” magazine. A lady was out swimming in the ocean and got too far out, lost her bearings, and was “lost at sea” in a panic. Suddenly a school of whales came around and started circling her. Gradually as they moved in one direction she was compelled to do the same. After awhile, land appeared on the horizon, and the whales moved on.

        The book “Angels on Assignment” is another such ludicrous account, about repeated angelic appearances to an old man (conveniently dead by the time the book was published) and his dog.

        See what I mean? Scripture tells us not to be gullible. John says, “Beloved, test the spirits, whether they be from God, for there are many false prophets gone out into the world.” “False prophets” are not those who deny the faith, but those who claim to be in the faith and try to lead others astray. This is not to say everyone who “passes on” such reports is unsaved–sometimes these are gullible ones who believed somebody else’s false reports.

        Final point here. The book about the four-year-old taken up into heaven. How many four-year-olds do you know who can give a coherent account of something they “envisioned” in a near-death account? Could it possibly be that the father made this up? Would his four-year-old be in a position to “contradict” what his father said about what the child said? I don’t know if that is necessarily the case in that particular instance–I just know the account doesn’t pass “theological muster.” So, as you can see, I am skeptical about all these NDEs being LADs.

      4. Tom,

        I hear you. Regarding the 4-year-old, the father goes to great lengths in the book to say that he didn’t coach his child, and mostly I believe him. Again, NDEs are commonplace, and what the child says isn’t so different from other reports I’ve heard—including one first-hand report. NDEs happen all the time. Whether there is anything to them or not, I would take on a case-by-case basis. Evidence suggests that in some cases, there is something to them.

        If it were my child, and he experienced the NDE reported in that book, I would say that he had a meaningful encounter with God—and I’d probably leave it at that. Since I’m in the business of believing in the afterlife, I probably wouldn’t be as astonished as the father seems to be. And I certainly wouldn’t interpret the boy’s experience in the theologically shallow way that the father does.

        But I wonder if you’re not overreacting because of a few outlandish reports you’ve heard. Of course, people misunderstand, misinterpret, or abuse these experiences. I am hypersensitive, for example, to Pentecostals who tell me that I ought to have these kinds of experiences—like speaking in tongues—if I’m fully Christian but I don’t doubt in many cases that they have them or that they’re genuine.

        There is a spiritual realm, and there is a lot of mystery in Creation. Our skepticism can be misplaced, I think, because we are victims of a post-Enlightenment milieu that tells us nothing beyond the physical universe is real.

        (I’m going to pull part of this discussion out as a separate blog post because I think it’s interesting and useful.)

      5. Brent, one more thought on this. I don’t want to sound too harsh to some people who give such accounts in the first instance, as though all of them were lost. I recall the account of the old prophet who falsely told the younger prophet that an angel had told him to tell the younger prophet to come home for dinner. “But he lied to him.” Obviously, though, he was attempting to “mislead,” and thus not following the “Spirit” in such an instance. Even Christians see fit to “stretch the truth” sometimes, including to “make a name for themselves.”

  2. I stopped coming to the Methodist Church because of a very judgmental service that you chose to reign over. You had no forethought for the age of all in your church or the impact of your words vs. God’s words and the words of Jesus. I came to you once after a sermon, because I thought you really got it. Even though I had an appointment, when I got there you said you only had a few minutes because your wife had scheduled something for you at the same time. You have reminded me of where I won’t find God and you reminded me of where I will find God. There is enough criticism in this world. Why would a man who says he is of God, do the opposite of what God does? Spread the good news.

    1. Since you didn’t identify yourself, I don’t know who you are, what sermon you’re referring to, or the situation that you describe. I’ve certainly made many mistakes as a pastor and person. By God’s grace I’m getting better, I promise. But I’m glad you know where you will find God and hope that you find him there.

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