Wednesday, April 16, 2014
A Biblical Evaluation of Near Death Experience Books
2 Corinthians 5:6 “Therefore, being always of good courage, and knowing that while we are at home in the body we are absent from the Lord.”
Hebrew 9:27 “And inasmuch as it is appointed unto men to die once and after this come judgment.”
These next few posts will attempt to Biblically evaluate 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.
What makes both of these books so popular among Bible believing Christians is that they were both written by evangelical pastors (Don Piper and Colton’s Dad, Todd Burpo). Furthermore, both books have spawned Bible studies, with Burpo’s account leading to a DVD based curriculum and a soon to be released movie (April 2014).1 As a pastor myself, I have read both books, have seen the Bible studies on Christian bookstore shelves, have listened to interviews of Colton Burpo and his family and have noticed the unquestioned acceptance of these kind of books by the Christian publishing world.
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.
Evaluating the history of Near Death Experiences (NDE’s)
Dr. John C. Beck Junior wrote a review article of Richard Abane’s book:
“Journey into the Light – Exploring Near Death Experiences” in the Chafer Theological Journal wherein he summarizes Abane’s extensive historical and theological assessment of NDE’s. Dr. Beck writes: “One of the earliest is mentioned in Plato’s The Republic. A soldier, who is killed in battle comes back to life on the funeral pyre, and tells about his visit to the next world. NDEs were so plentiful in the Middle Ages that Pope Gregory the Great of the sixth century compiled a collection of them in Dialogues. NDE researchers agree that modern experiences mirror closely those of the past. Researchers study what they call the autoscopic NDE, where the experiencer allegedly becomes separated from his body and is able to view nearby objects and events from outside of his body. The ability to describe with accuracy events and objects while unconscious or clinically dead some consider irrefutable proof that NDEs are objective realities rather than subjective experiences. Next, they study the transcendental NDE where the experiencer looks into worlds that transcend or surpass our own earthly limits. They are the most interesting, because they give expanded revelations” and describe “alternate realities.” Third, is the autoscopic/transcendent combination that is “a blending of elements of both the above.”
Dr. Beck later notes: “These are the building blocks of NDEs, though every experience does not have every element.”2
At the time the above article had been written, Betty Eadie’s book: “Embraced by the Light” had been a major hit. Numerous other books of this genre have been written over the past several years, averaging one every two or three years. It must be underscored that these are “experiences” that end up being treated as objective fact. Practically speaking, once such experiences are put into print, such experiences become regarded as authoritative writing.
How has Bible believing Christianity regarded NDE’s over the past 20 years?
Where do such experiences fit in the development of one’s understanding of the here and now and life after death? Bible believing Christianity demonstrates a variety of responses. An otherwise reputable Bible teacher and scholar is the late D. James Kennedy who in his sermons and books treated NDE’s as valuable evidence for proving the reality of the Biblical accounts of Heaven and Hell.
On the other end of the spectrum are men such as Dr. John MacArthur who decries the accounts of NDE’s. A case in point is Dr. MacArthur’s 1996 book: “The Truth About Heaven” where he writes: “They are inevitably shaped and interpreted by the person’s existing worldview. They are no more reliable than dream analysis for giving us any reliable understanding of the unseen world. “3 MacArthur’s book was written to offer a much needed correction to what was then perceived (and rightly so) as a dangerous trend among Christians and the culture alike to embrace books about Near Death Experiences in an uncritical and unquestioning manner.
2. Chafer Theological Seminary. 1997; 2002. Chafer Theological Seminary Journal Volume 3 . Chafer Theological Seminary.
3. MacArthur, J. 1996. The glory of heaven : The truth about heaven, angels, and eternal life. Crossway Books: Wheaton, Ill.
John 20:31 but these have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ,the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name.
These past few days have been dedicated to taking a look at the life of Mary Magdalene and how the resurrection of Jesus Christ changed her life and made her a missionary for her Lord. I felt today that we needed to go forward into the rest of John 20 and consider why you and I need the resurrection power of Jesus Christ. John 20:19-31 details for us the events that followed from that dramatic encounter with Mary Magdalene. John 20:19-25 covers Jesus' second post-resurrection appearance to Peter and the other disciples. John 20:26-28 features a second episode where Jesus appears to them eight days later so as to lay to rest the skepticism of Thomas. The chapter then closes out in John 20:30-31 with John spelling out the purpose for why he wrote His Gospel. If one life application were to be drawn out of this text, it would be this: You and I need the resurrection power of Jesus Christ in our lives. With those introductory thoughts in mind, let us now briefly explain what all took place through John 20:19-31 and consider the four things that Jesus' resurrection power makes available to you and me today.
The Peace of Christ. John 20:19-21
John 20:19 opens up the scene with a most pitful sight. The future leaders of Christ's church, the very men appointed by Him to be His disciples - are shut up in an upstairs room, with all the doors shut and with a heavy cloak of fear hanging in the air. Much had occurred in 24 hours. Already Peter and John had ran to the tomb upon Mary Magdalene and the women's news of a stolen body. Having went to the tomb and Peter himself entering into the place to investigate the burial linens - the conclusion was reached that to add insult to injury - it had appeared that someone had done the unthinkable.
Yet we know that from the angel's subsequent appearance to Mary Magdalene and Jesus' post resurrection appearance - the truth had been made clear: "He is no longer in the tomb, He is risen!" Despite Mary's best attempts to convince these fearful, unbelieving disciples, their chosen course of action was to huddle in fear. What they needed was peace!
Suddenly in the little room we read of Jesus appearing in John 20:19 and saying "peace be with you!" Three times in all we find Jesus in both His appearance to the disciples and then his appearance to them again eight days later uttering this little four word phrase. (John 20:19, 22, 26. What power is there in God's peace, in Christ's peace? Jesus had expressed this truth previously to his disciples during his ministry prior to the cross. (John 14:27; 16:33) The Apostle Paul tells us of the power of such peace in Philippians 4:6-7 "Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, willguard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus."
As we have noted in the past few posts, anytime Jesus made a post-resurrection appearance, there was always a dramatic change. Always! We know that this same resurrection power is responsible for the peace of God that every Christian can experience and has experienced. Romans 8:11 notes - "But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you." Such peace can only be explained by the same power that brought it to the disciples in their most desperate hour - namely the resurrection power of Jesus Christ. The need for resurrection power is for the sake of the peace of Christ, but notice also...
The Person of the Holy Spirit. John 20:22-25
What was undoubtedly a preview of the fullness of Pentecost that would occur some 50 days after these events, Jesus breaths into the disciples the Holy Spirit. As Jesus looked at them, he knew that on their own, they would not be able to function for the next 50 days. Much work had to be done before Pentecost. We can liken this to the prophet Ezekiel who was shown a valley of dry bones. As God says to him in Ezekiel 37:5 "Thus says the Lord God to these bones, ‘Behold, I will causebreath to enter you that you may come to life." Lest the Holy Spirit comes, lest He enters into a person and does His work of regeneration and opens their heart so that they can exercise saving faith - no one will be saved. (John 16:8-11; 1 Corinthians 12:3) The Holy Spirit is the Agent responsible for salvation and sanctification. (Ephesians 1:18) He is also the One who enables every child of God to do the work of ministry. (1 Corinthians 12:1-6, 12-13) You and I dear Christian ever rely upon the Person of the Holy Spirit. His fundamental ministry of indwelling us at salvation (1 Corinthians 2:10; 3:16) leads Him to seal and preserve our salvation until the day we die or until Christ appears to take us in the rapture. (Ephesians 1:13-14; Jude 24-25) His ministry of adoption and uniting us to the Person of Christ is the basis for our assurance of salvation and knowing who we are and whose were are. (Romans 8:14-16; 1 Corinthians 12:12-13) The Holy Spirit gives us the ability to understand and apply the scriptures (1 John 2:20, 27). More could be said but the point is clear - the power of Christ's resurrection is what makes available His peace and the Person of the Holy Spirit. How we need His resurrection power. Notice now the third reason....
Personal faith. John 20:24-29
Who can ever forget doubting Thomas? What is striking about the post-resurrection narratives is the amount of doubt and unbelief that ran rampant throughout the disciples prior to their encounters with the post-resurrected Jesus. We may often wonder how that could be? Jesus spoke on no less than six occassions about His resurrection from the dead three days following His death. Yet I think we must also realize that we who have a full Bible and who have been transformed by Christ's resurrection power unto saving faith still have those moments of fleeting doubt, worry and wonder. Thomas knew what he was looking for. His persistent critical mind would not take verbbal testimony alone. He also knew what crucifixion would do to a man and being a good Jew - He also was expecting to see the marks left over by crucifixion in a physical body. The doctrine of the resurrection was a cornerstone of Jewish faith, spoken throughout the Old Testament scriptures. (Job 10:25; Daniel 12:1-3) So it would literally take a physical appearance by the risen Christ to convince an otherwise unbelieving Thomas.
John 20:24-29 records that very truth. As Jesus engaged Thomas and challenged Him to put his finger in his nail prints and thrust his hand in his side, Thomas bowed in worship at the feet of the God man. One of the most solid delcarations of Christ's Deity is recorded in John 20:28 "Thomas answered and said to Him, “My Lord and my God!” This declaration asserts two titles that acknowledge the resurrected Jesus as Yahweh (My Lord) and as the creator God - Elohim. This dramatic encounter brought faith to Thomas. We know that saving faith is a supernatural gifting from God that comes to us through His grace and which is placed in our otherwise empty open hands to receive and believe. (compare Matt 13:16; 16:17; Eph 2:8-9; Galatians 3:25). Without the resurrection of Jesus Christ - there would be no personal faith. 1 Peter 1:3 states - "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, whoaccording to His great mercy has caused us to be born again toa living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead". So you and I need the resurrection power of Jesus Christ for peace, the Person of the Holy Spirit and personal faith. Notice one last reason...
Power of the Scriptures. John 20:30-31
Whenever it is all said and done - if Jesus Christ had not risen from the dead, not only would the Christian faith be in vain - the the Word of God, the scriptures, would be rendered null and void. (1 Corinthians 15:12-19) John knew that in order for future generations to experience the resurrection power of Jesus Christ that includes peace, the Person of the Holy Spirit and personal faith, there would need to be God's own words which alone can convey such realities. Romans 10:17 reminds us: "faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God." Truly what Jesus did in His post-resurrection appearances was open the door for the New Testament scripture to penetrate, pierce and provide life to subsequent generations of people - just as had been the case for centuries with the Old Testament. (2 Timothy 3:16; Hebrews 4:12) The many of the men upon whom He breathed His Spirit would be the ones to compose some of those New Testament books. The scripture itself carries with it His Divine imprimatur and is the lone means through which the Holy Ghost imparts eternal life and ongoing growth in the Christian life. (James 1:18; 1 Peter 1:23; 1 Corinthians 2:10-13)
We have seen today why you and I need the resurrection power of Jesus Christ from John 20:19-31:
2. Person of the Holy Spirit
3. Personal faith
4. Power of the scriptures