Posts Tagged ‘Todd Burpo’

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.

Heaven is for real, but not like this

September 9, 2011

Since so many church people are reading Todd Burpo’s Heaven Is for Real, and since I’m talking about heaven in this Sunday’s sermon, I’ve also read it. Two hours of my life I’ll never get back! It’s exactly like some glurgey chain email that your Aunt Sally forwards to you, except it’s 150 pages long! If the author were reading this, he would undoubtedly think, “Well of course you don’t like it! You’ve been to some fancy-pants seminary. You make everything so complicated, when in fact it’s really so simple. So simple a four-year-old child can understand it!”

To which I would respond as follows: 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.

I asked someone what she liked about the book, and she said, “It just gives us so much hope—that we will be reunited with our loved ones after death.” And I said, “That’s fine, but we have this other book, the Holy Bible, which does that, and it’s inspired by the Holy Spirit!” The whole phenomenon of the book is, for some Protestants, what weeping statues of Mary or visitations by the Virgin are for some Catholics: an inferior substitute for actual revelation.

Catholic theologian Hans Küng put it nicely when he said that he would much rather have one more sentence from St. Paul in scripture than all the pages of pronouncements from the Virgin Mary over the centuries. (Besides, the actual content of Mary’s contemporary words are always so banal compared to her revolutionary words back in Luke 2. I want to hear more from that Mary!)

We may not have as much information about heaven as we would like in the Bible, but it’s enough. God obviously thought it was enough. And where a four-year-old child’s version of heaven contradicts what little the Bible says on the subject, guess which authority I’m siding with?