Christianity Today’s take on near-death experiences

December 6, 2012

ct_decemberIf you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you probably know that I’ve softened my stance on near-death experiences. Like the most hardened philosophical materialist, I used to think that NDEs were merely ephemeral impulses of an oxygen-starved neocortex. I now believe that they are, in many cases, gifts from God that have some value for those of us who are interested in Christian apologetics.

Christianity Today editor Mark Galli, whose book-length response to Rob Bell’s controversial Love Wins I recommended last year, shares my point of view. In this cover story, “Incredible Journeys,” he addresses the biggest obstacle that Christians face in accepting the validity of NDEs: What if the God revealed in these experiences isn’t quite like the God revealed in Jesus Christ? Because of these discrepancies, he writes,

many Christians dismiss them as mere hallucination or a deceptive work of the Devil. I, for one, find the latter unconvincing. In most cases, people who have had near-heaven experiences return to earth and give themselves in love and service of others. If the Devil is inspiring such godly work, he’s confused about his job description.

As for the cultural and theological anomalies: First, it is hardly surprising that people interpret their experience through a particular cultural or religious lens. What other way do they have to process what is happening to them? Besides, all who’ve had this experience acknowledge Neal’s point: Words are inadequate to describe what they saw and heard. They really have no choice but to try to describe what happened in the language of their time and culture, and it is no wonder that so many of the descriptions seem to be at odds.

As for the confused theology, we have to remember that those who experience these things are not theologians. We are not required to accept every one of their insights as dogmatic statements of received doctrine. What they experienced is, at best, the anteroom to heaven. We have no idea what happens after the initial 90 minutes or so, what their experience of God will be like, what will be revealed to them if they remain.

And we must guard ourselves against the Prodigal Son’s elder brother syndrome. Too many of us are troubled when non-Christians enjoy an overwhelming experience of unconditional love in NDES. I would hope that we would all hope that the God we preach is in fact the God of prodigals, and that he reveals himself to us while we are yet sinners, sometimes on earth, sometimes during NDES.

Galli, careful theologian that he is, deals with the chief theological problem I had with Todd Burpo’s Heaven is For Real: What about future bodily resurrection? Our ultimate Christian hope isn’t heaven when we die, but fully embodied life in a renewed world on the other side of resurrection.

Galli couldn’t agree more, but he identifies the pastoral challenge we face when talking about resurrection versus an immediate, intermediate state that begins when we die.

In general, when life-after-the-afterlife folks talk about this future state, the language gets global and the vision abstract. There is a lot of talk about how “justice will reign,” and “evil will be defeated.” There are sweeping statements about “the culmination of history” and “the coming reign of God” and “the renewal of the whole earth.” This is heady stuff, and, as stated above, true as true can be.

But it doesn’t always connect with the widow whose husband was struck by a fatal heart attack. It doesn’t always speak to the 10-year-old whose mother just died of cancer. It doesn’t necessarily help those who wrestle with a question that troubles millions: “What happens when I die?” Some of us (usually the highly educated among us) may be most interested in life after the afterlife, but most people in the pews are deeply concerned simply with the afterlife—the one that comes right after this one. Their highest existential priority is not that justice will reign in all the earth, but to hear some good news about “what will happen to me next.”

Truer words… Even N.T. Wright, who’s done more than anyone to bring the Church back to a fully orthodox and full-bodied understanding of resurrection, tends to get fuzzy on resurrection. If our biggest fear is death, which I believe it is, then it’s enough for most of us to know that there’s an afterlife, never mind life after that afterlife. The distinction between the intermediate state and resurrection just isn’t important to most people.

When it comes to NDEs, Galli gets to the heart of the matter with this conclusion:

Despite their varied accounts and sometimes confused theology, there are moments when it is apparent that many of these people have had a remarkable encounter with the living God revealed in Jesus Christ. In the end, these are not so much near-death or near-heaven experiences, but, as a friend noted, near-God experiences. And when we see that people, even those who do not share our biblical assumptions, experience the God revealed in Jesus Christ—that is, the God of unconditional love—we cannot help but be thrilled and gratified. And to see it as an opportunity to talk about the full counsel of God.

7 Responses to “Christianity Today’s take on near-death experiences”

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    Brent, as you know we disagree on this point. Having read Galli’s article, I remain unconvinced. It seems perhaps his chief argument is that these NDES must come from God in some way, despite their uniform theological error, because the recipients become “better people” as a result. I don’t know if they do or they don’t. But becoming “better people” is not the ticket. Cominng to Jesus in repentance and faith is the ticket, and Galli does not suggest that this result has followed from any of these NDES. In fact, it may instead be that the reports of these experiences could cause people to believe they can have a nice “aferlife” even though they do not know the source of life Himself.

    • brentwhite Says:

      I disagree with your interpretation of what Galli wrote. At the very least, he says, an NDE is a starting point. If it awakens someone to the reality of God that’s good. Then, as he says at the end, let’s take the opportunity to “talk about the full counsel of God.”

      He’s also not saying that all NDEs are theologically incorrect.

      If NDEs result in our doing good work—which, theologically speaking, one can only do through God, the source of all good—then we are closer to God than we would be otherwise. It’s not “the ticket,” but it’s also not nothing.

      • Tom Harkins Says:

        Brent, sorry, but do you recall the Pharisees? Weren’t they doing a lot of “good things”? But did Jesus commend them? Did he not say they were of their father, the Devil? Yet he reached out to “publicans and sinners.” He said the publican who said, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner,” went home justified, rather than the Pharisee who fasted twice a week. So I totally disagree that doing “good” necessarily suggests that is “of God.”

        Galli, at least as I read him, did say some of the NDES were theologically incorrect. Such as, the one fellow who concluded he could not do anything wrong. “So much for sin,” Galli notes.

        It may be that God brings good out of bad, or out of morally or theologically neutral. This does not make the thing itself to be good or emulated or admired. Joseph said, “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good, to save many people alive, as it is this day.” Should we then sell people into slavery, and make like they were murdered to fool the dad? Of course not. So, despite the fact that some people perhaps may turn to a belief in God as a result is no necessary indication that the thing itself is a good thing.

  2. brentwhite Says:

    Inasmuch as an action is good, it’s from God. Augustine said that, and I agree. We can’t do good apart from God, the source of all good. But can sin enter the picture and corrupt good actions? By all means, as was the case with the Pharisees. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine any action that is purely good. Sin, again, is too pervasive.

    • Tom Harkins Says:

      Brent, I don’t necessarily follow you here. A person can do something that might otherwise be good but for a bad reason. This does not mean he was being “good.” The heart condition is the primary indicator of whether someone is “doing good,” as opposed to the “act itself.”

      And, as I said, merely because God “brings good out of something,” which he generally does as a part of his acts of redemption, does not mean the thing is good. “Shall we sin, that grace may abound? God forbid!” Samson definitely sinned in going after Philistine women, but scripture says his parents did not know this was of God, because he sought occasion against the Philistines. So, the mere fact that it is possible that someone hearing a NDE recounted might as a result turn to God does not mean the NDE itself came from God.

      And, mostly, scripture indicates that it is seldom the case that such NDES result in salvation. “If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they believe if someone rose from the dead.” I just don’t think that any of the NDES that Galli recounted in his article has a “ring of spiritual truth” to it that would lead me to believe God gave them that experience.

      • brentwhite Says:

        I agree about the heart condition of “someone” being good. I’m speaking about the “something”—the objective goodness of an action. Regardless, we are as incapable of doing something perfectly good as we are doing something perfectly bad. We’re a mixed bag of good and bad motives, at least until God fully sanctifies us. No one has written more powerfully about our mixed motives than Soren Kierkegaard in the 19th century.

        But I think you’re reading too much into this. It’s certainly true that people’s lives sometimes or often get changed for the better as a result of an NDE. “For the better” might sometimes mean that that person is one step closer to entering into a saving relationship with God through Jesus.

        But if you disagree, you disagree. You’re saying the same thing you said in previous comments. I have nothing to add to what I’ve said. My only point was that you misrepresented, I believe, what Galli was saying.

      • Tom Harkins Says:

        Brent, sorry if I was beating a dead horse, as it were. Let me explain my motivation for “revisiting” such discussions (like with evolution–you get my email?). I always think, if I could just express this some other way, or find some additional verse of scripture, or otherwise make my argument more compelling, I might be able to change someone’s mind on a point that I consider to be the truth. I recognize I can be a bit tedious at the same time, so I will leave off my debate on this issue.


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