From time to time, stories about Heaven appear on YouTube or in books.
Over just the last three months, friends have sent me several videos of people testifying to their out-of-body experiences of a life hereafter.
What are we to make of them? Are they biblical, do they contribute to what we know of spiritual things, or the character of God, or are they something else altogether? By something else I mean, are they self-serving flights of fancy or simply the products of brain chemicals and processes?
I have to say right up front that I have been less than convinced by the latest YouTube offerings, but I also confess that a book about a near-death experience (NDE) ranks as one of the books which have influenced me most. That book is Return from Tomorrow by George Ritchie and you can read what I had to say about it HERE.
Many years ago, George Richie’s book later prompted me to research the subject a little. The best of the several books I have read on NDE are Life after Life, a 1974 book by Dr Raymond Moody and a 2012 book, Proof of Heaven by Dr Eben Alexander. Both of these men were respected medical doctors, Moody a Psychiatrist and Alexander a Neurosurgeon.
A Typical Scientific Response
More recently, three academics produced a paper titled, ‘Towards a Neuro-scientific Explanation of Near-death Experiences’. They contend that ‘recent studies employing deep brain stimulation and neuroimaging have demonstrated that out-of-body experiences result from a deficient multisensory integration at the temporo-parietal junction.’ This is just an erudite way of saying, “It is all in the head Fred”.
Neither Doctors Richie, Moody, nor I, agree with this conclusion and I will have something to say about this later.
In the meantime, the three academics did save me some scratching around by listing common elements experienced in NDEs, and they are:
- a panoramic life review
- feelings of peace
- seeing a dark tunnel, experiencing a bright light
- an out-of-body experience
- meeting spiritual beings
- interacting with dead loved ones.
They also identified five stages of NDEs occurring in the following order: (1) feeling of peace and well-being, (2) separation from the physical body, (3) entering a region of darkness, (4) seeing a brilliant light, and finally, (5) going through the light and entering another realm. Of course, there must also be the sixth stage of returning to the body, otherwise, they would have no NDEs to evaluate.
From my reading and viewing, I could add a few more commonalities to the experience, but the list above is enough to solicit two pertinent observations. Firstly, this is a lot to attribute solely to brain processes and chemicals. Secondly, the accounts of Moody and Alexander do not support the limitations of five stages of an NDE. Their findings are not limited to this orderly process and, although they are both medical scientists, they firmly identify the NDE as a spiritual experience of a reality beyond the dimensions of space and time.
A View of NDEs
In essence, NDEs are similar in many ways to visionary experiences recorded in the bible andhistory, where visionaries and seers have claimed similar, if less intense, experiences while in meditative states. Even those who experiment with hallucinogenic drugs claim something akin to an NDE. I can understand this if, as it appears to me, the precondition for such an experience is a state of mind where the brain waves have moved down the frequency scale to the Theta band (4 to 7 pulses per second).
Now, to appreciate what I am about to explain, you will need some insight into an essentially Hebrew tripartite view of creation. In this scheme, what the ancients called the first ‘heaven’ is the physical world, the second heaven is the abode of spirits (I will refer to this as the spiritual realm), and the third heaven is where God and angels reside (I will call this the heavenly realm). In terms of this understanding, humans have a close interface with the spiritual realm, but can only enter the heavenly realm if invited and assisted from ‘above’. The Apostle Paul obliquely referenced this when he wrote that he ‘was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know…’ (2 Corinthians 12:2-4).
It seems to me that many NDE accounts contain references to the spiritual realm. For instance, leaving their bodies and seeing their physical forms down below them, interacting with spirit beings and people who had died, and so on. Those who claim to have entered the heavenly realm describe a place of light where they encountered angels and even God himself. They usually report that they were assisted to enter this realm by an angel or, in the case of Christians, by the Lord Jesus Christ. They often record that they enter the heavenly realm through a dark vortex, which they usually describe as a tunnel.
What those who have NDEs experience
Some describe tactile sensations, most report audible inputs of some non-physical form, but all report seeing things.
The strange thing is that almost all of them claim to see beautiful scenery, colourful spiritual creatures, animated flowers, communicating animals, and so on.
Even the biblical seers reported seeing things that resembled known physical objects. For instance, Ezekiel saw creatures with four faces each accompanied by an animated wheel, a valley full of dry bones that came to life, a bronze man with a linen cord and a measuring line, and a river flowing from the throne of God. The Apostle John recorded at the beginning of the Book of Revelation that he was ‘in the spirit’ on the Lord’s day when he heard, saw, and experienced the power of a wide range of extraordinary men, beasts, angels, and scenes.
Why did the prophets speak of things resembling earthly creatures and objects or strange combinations of these? Why do people who have experienced NDEs also speak of heaven as a material type of place full of familiar earthly things? Is Heaven a space within the physical creation that scientists have not yet been able to detect even with Hubble and James Webb? No, this cannot be, for consider what Paul wrote to the Ephesians: ‘we are not wrestling with flesh and blood [contending only with physical opponents], but against the despotisms, against the powers, against [the master spirits who are] the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly (supernatural) sphere’. Ephesians 6:12 AMP
- 1 Corinthians 2:9-10 ‘eye has not seen… no mind has conceived… but God has revealed it to us by his Spirit’
- Ephesians 3:20 ‘more than all we ask or imagine’
- 2 Corinthians 12:4 ‘heard things so astounding that they cannot be told’ NLT
I have quoted these texts out of their immediate context, but the principle holds good; as humans, we cannot comprehend, let alone express, the things that exist in heaven.
This is so because we are three-dimensional creatures living within the fourth dimension of time, whereas the spiritual and heavenly realms are multidimensional and timeless. We cannot describe what we cannot comprehend and have no words to portray.
Rather than being literal objects, these convey the idea of the peace and tranquillity that exists in the heavenly realm. Some people report experiencing a place of fire, torment, or absolute darkness and these signify the hell of separation from God. If someone asks me if I believe we will see our loved ones and pets in Heaven, I respond with an honest “I do not know, but what I do know is that Heaven will be wonderful beyond our imagining”. My opinion is that we will interact with everyone who has died before us who was born again of the Spirit in Christ Jesus whilst on Earth. Much as I would like to believe the contrary, I do not believe there will be animals in Heaven because animals have bodies, and souls (minds), but they are not spiritually alive.
What should we make of NDE accounts?
I mentioned earlier that some stories of Heaven are probably made up or greatly embellished, and we should give no heed to them. We should also be wary of details or insinuations in NDE accounts that do not line up with biblical revelation. For instance, purported messages or experiences of ‘salvation’ contrary to a salvation by faith in and through the Lord Jesus Christ. I am also very sceptical of accounts that include a call to buy a book, subscribe to a blog, or something else related to self-gain.
On the positive side, I am always encouraged when I read NDEs that result in the person experiencing a radical life change leading to a lifestyle of intimacy, trust and obedience to, in, and with Jesus Christ. I treat NDEs the same way as I regard modern words of prophecy; I test them against the biblical revelation of the Lord Jesus, discard the parts that miss the mark, and treasure the rest.
If anyone reading this article has had an NDE then I would love you to comment so that we can learn from each other and be encouraged in our lives as Jesus Followers.