April 2023

Stories about Heaven

 

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).

Those who report NDEs resulting from trauma or sickness would be functioning even lower down the scale in the Delta band (unconsciousness or coma). In these low-frequency brain states, the barrier between physical and spiritual appears to weaken or collapse and the person is able to experience a form of ultra-dimensional reality.

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

Consider also:

  • 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.

So, for God to communicate effectively with us within the heavenly realm he would need to show us things from our frame of reference that catch something of the reality of the experience. Therefore, some NDEs include visions of green hills, gently moving flowers, and so on.

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.

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The Man in the Middle: The Real Focus of Easter

Easter weekend is upon us again. I don’t much like the term ‘Easter’, but so many people refer to Passover Weekend by that name that I will let it stand … for now.

Please note that I have included the podcast along with this post, so scroll down or look out for it on your pocast listening device

The Sunday Service

 

See the scene played out at countless Easter Sunday services throughout the world. The place is packed with three types of attendees. There are the:

  1. Committed followers of Jesus,
  2. Christmas-and Easter-attendance-only religious folks,
  3. Reluctant agnostic relatives.

Some services are preceded by a hushed time of religious respect, but most are abuzz with happy and vocal people. The place is full of, “He has risen” with the response “He has risen indeed” accompanied by a brotherly hug, or the simple “Happy Easter” and a brisk handshake. There are happy hymns or clapping-accompanied spiritual songs, and then the preacher takes centre stage. Likely as not, he (or she) speaks about how Christ died for our sins and rose from the dead so that we might have life … or variations on that theme. Now my question is, how do the three types of attendees respond to this sort of message?

Different Responses to the Easter Message

 

The, hopefully, largest, group will respond with nods, beaming faces, and silent or proclaimed “Amens”. The Christmas and Easter brigade will most likely respond with self-satisfied semi-smiles manifesting a comfortable and pious “I don’t really care because I am a good religious person” attitude. The third group, the reluctant relatives, either doesn’t care or silently disagrees with the ‘gospel’ message. Members of both of the last two groups do not believe that they are sinners (Can’t even define true sin), doubt or repudiate the reliability of scripture, and don’t care much anyway.

So, what should the preacher be telling them that will cause them to comprehend and be open to accepting? Closer to the bone, what can you be saying to them when you, a believer, sit at lunch with them afterwards?

A Funny Story with a Powerful Message.

 

A dear friend of mine sent me a dated video clip of a man telling the following story:

One of the two thieves crucified to the left and right of Jesus arrives at the Pearly Gates. The angel on duty asks him why he should let him into heaven. The man replies that he really doesn’t know why. He had not read the scriptures, nor had he mixed with ‘church’ folk in Jerusalem. He hadn’t been baptised and he wasn’t even Jewish, so he just stared blankly at the angel. This flummoxed the angel who called for his supervisor. An important-looking angel arrived and asked the man: “Are you not clear on the doctrine of justification by faith?”. The man gave him the same confused look and so the Boss-angel said, “So why should I let you in?” And the man responded “I don’t know, but the man on the middle cross said I should come!

Jesus – It’s All About Jesus

 

OK, so it’s a mildly funny story (especially in the way the man in the video clip told it) but it conveys a profound truth – It is all about Jesus. It is not about church attendance, observance of sacraments, family affiliation, or correct doctrine – its about Jesus!

The Easter message is, or at least should be, about Jesus. Not the horror of the cross, nor the wonder of the empty tomb, but about the man who hung on the cross and who walked out of the open tomb – Jesus Christ of Nazareth.

What Paul Has to Say

 

In 1 Corinthians 1:18 – 2:5 the Apostle Paul develops some of the things I have been pointing to so far in this article. Here are parts of three verses cobbled together for effect:

‘For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing … Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles … ’

In my example of the Easter Sunday service, Paul’s Jews would equate to the Christmas and Easter religious people and the Gentiles to the reluctant agnostic relatives. To religiously half-asleep people, nothing short of a palpable miracle will wake them up. To the agnostics the ‘Jesus died for our sins because the bible tells us so’ is foolish naivety bordering on delusion. They need persuasion that relies on more than what to them is an ancient set of stories. I understand both states of unbelief because before I was born again of the Spirit at the age of thirty I was an agnostic with a religious family background.

Well, here is the thing; both the wanted miracle and the persuasively compelling wisdom is found only in … Jesus.

Consider how Paul counters the two statements that I have quoted above. He writes in 1 Cor 1:18 ‘For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God’, andWhen I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified’ (1 Cor 2:1-2). And again, ‘My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power (1 Cor 2:4-5).

Jesus followers will understand the profound doctrines of Easter, but the religious and the agnostic need the simple truth of Jesus Christ accompanied by the miraculously transforming power of Holy Spirit.

Three Questions to Ask

 

Here are some questions to ask as part of either a sermon or a one-on-one discussion about the Easter message:

The first question is: “Do you believe that Jesus was a real historical figure who lived in Palestine who taught and performed wonderful deeds?” The initial response might be scepticism concerning both his existence and his miracles. However, there is quite a bit of non-biblical evidence to offer. For instance, here are just some of the things early historical figures said about Jesus:

Cornelius Tacitus (AD 109) makes the following reference to Christians and to Jesus: “Christus, the founder of the name, was put to death by Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judea in the reign of Tiberius …”

Lucian of Samosta (second century satirist) wrote scornfully of Christians in the following terms: “The Christians, you know, worship a man who introduced their novel rites, and was crucified on that account …”

Pliny the Younger wrote to Emperor Trajan in AD 112 that the Christians “… were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light, when they sang in alternate verse a hymn to Christ as to a god …”

Celsus (AD 150) wrote, “First, however, I must deal with the matter of Jesus, the so-called saviour, who not long ago taught new doctrines and was thought to be a son of God …”

Mara Bar-Serapion, a Syrian philosopher, wrote to his son in AD 70 and referred to the ‘wise King’ of the Jews whom they put to death.

Josephus, the Jewish historian for the Romans, referred to Jesus in his Jewish Antiquities (AD 93): ‘Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man, for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews, and many of the Gentiles. He was the Christ, and when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men among us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again the third day; as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him. And the tribe of Christians so named from him are not extinct at this day.’

So, as you can see, there is quite a bit of non-biblical confirmation that Jesus existed and was extraordinary in many ways and these historical facts can be helpful for you to draw on when speaking to folk who dont accept the authority of the bible.

The second and follow-up question to ask is: “Do you believe that the bible is a trustworthy record of what Jesus said and did?” Again, there may be push-back and comments about the bible’s mythical nature. However, once again, there are simple rejoinders to this. For instance:

Four different people wrote four Gospels, each corroborating, amplifying each other and giving differing perspectives. In a court of law, the testimony of four witnesses would be overwhelmingly compelling especially if there are minor discrepancies and perceived contradictions which are a mark of authentic personal witness. In addition, there is the recorded witness of Paul, Peter, and James. There is also compelling evidence that secular history records many martyrdoms of people who believed in the biblical Jesus and put their very lives on the line for this belief.

Third question: “What then does the bible record Jesus as saying about himself?”

Well, he said:

  • “I and the Father are one.” Again the Jews picked up stones to stone him, but Jesus said to them, “I have shown you many great miracles from the Father. For which of these do you stone me?”. “We are not stoning you for any of these,” replied the Jews, “but for blasphemy, because you, a mere man, claim to be God.” (John 10:30-33)
  • ‘Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.”Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” (John 14:8-9)
  • I tell you the truth,” Jesus answered, “before Abraham was born, I am!” At this, they picked up stones to stone him, but Jesus hid himself, slipping away from the temple grounds.’ (John 8:58-59) Lest some miss the point of the last quote above, the ascription “I AM’ was an ancient Jewish divine ascription.

The most personally relatable of the above quotes is Jesus’ response to Philip and this would be a good example to tell in full to a congregation or in a one-on-one conversation –  John 14:8-11

So, despite what critics claim, Jesus did declare himself to be God incarnate.

Logical Conclusions

 

So, there is compelling evidence that Jesus Christ lived, ministered, taught and died as reliably recorded in the bible, and that he declared himself to be God himself on Earth. To back up his claims Jesus healed the sick, cast out demons, created substance from nothing (wine, bread, and new eyes), and even raised the dead. This is why he said, “Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the miracles themselves.” (John 14:11)

The logical observation to make is: “So, surely then we must believe what Jesus, God incarnate, said about things like salvation, eternity, commitment, love, faith, hope, and so on.” Well here are just some of the things he said about salvation:

  • I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved.” (John 10:9)
  • My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand.” (John 10:27-28)
  • ‘Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:25-26)
  • ‘Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me”.  (John 14:6-7)

Once again, the most personally applicable account in that of John 3:1-21 where Jesus explains to Nicodemus that he must be Born Again if he is to be saved.

Conclusion

 

I realise that I have not explained terms like Salvation, Rebirth and so on, but I have written extensively on this HERE. The main point of this article is not to teach doctrine, but to point out that:

  • The focus of Easter is the ‘man on the middle cross’ and his invitation to all who will listen, and
  • The most effective and compellingly simple way of applying the Easter message to both religious people and agnostics is to explain who Jesus really is, that the bible is reliable, and that what it records of what Jesus said and did is of the uttermost significance and importance.

However, there is one more thing I must point out before I end this article: The anointing of the Holy Spirit in the whole process of explaining and interacting is VITAL! It is the Holy Spirit who breathes life into our words and backs them up with convicting clarity and power.

This is why Paul wrote, “My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power.”

Remember, the man in the middle is the real focus of Easter.

The Man in the Middle: The Real Focus of Easter Read More »

About Me

My name is Christopher Peppler and I was born in Cape Town, South Africa in 1947. While working in the financial sector I achieved a number of business qualifications from the Institute of Bankers, Damelin Management School, and The University of the Witwatersrand Business School. After over 20 years as a banker, I followed God’s calling and joined the ministry full time. After becoming a pastor of what is now a quite considerable church, I  earned an undergraduate theological qualification from the Baptist Theological College of Southern Africa and post-graduate degrees from two United States institutions. I was also awarded the Doctor of Theology in Systematic Theology from the University of Zululand in 2000.

Four years before that I established the South African Theological Seminary (SATS), which today is represented in over 70 countries and has more than 2 500 active students enrolled with it. I presently play an role supervising Masters and Doctoral students.

I am a passionate champion of the Christocentric or Christ-centred Principle, an approach to biblical interpretation and theological construction that emphasises the centrality of Jesus

I have been happily married to Patricia since the age of 20, have two children, Lance and Karen, a daughter-in-law Tracey, and granddaughters Jessica and Kirsten. I have now retired from both church and seminary leadership and devote my time to writing, discipling, and the classical guitar.

If you would like to read my testimony to Jesus then click HERE.