Incredible Journeys: What to Make of Visits to Heaven
What has happened since then is a certain hardening of Christian theology. In this case, it has created a deeper and deeper distrust of spiritual readings of the afterlife. As N. T. Wright has said, he's not so much interested in the afterlife, but in the life after the afterlife—meaning bodily life in the new earth (Rev. 21). Those enthusiastic about these theological themes have little patience with spiritual and soul talk. They wax eloquent about what might be called a kind of Christian materialism, about the new heaven on earth, when justice will reign globally and we'll enjoy bodily life in a redeemed state.
All this is true as true can be. The resurrection of the body is indeed the best and final way to talk about our ultimate state in the eschaton. And we can be grateful that a generation of evangelical scholars has made this clearer than ever.
But here's the pastoral rub. 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."
The Good News of Near-Heaven Experiences
One of the great attractions of these near-heaven experiences—and a crucial aspect of our eschatological hope—is how utterly personal and loving the picture is. It is personal in two ways.
Colton Burpo meets his great-grandfather, as well as his sister who had been lost in a miscarriage. Mary Neal doesn't meet a relative but the people she did meet, she felt she had known "for an eternity. I was part of them." The near-heaven narratives are full of such encounters.
Vertically, they also have an encounter with God himself. As such, they find themselves immersed in love as a baby is enveloped in a mother's womb. That's the impression one gets especially in Eben Alexander's experience. And part of the message he kept getting was, "You are loved and cherished."
The kingdom of God will be a just world order that will bring history to a glorious conclusion. But day to day, that hope is too distant and vague for many Christians to grasp emotionally as good news. For many, it's just interesting news. What they want to hear more than anything, especially when they or a loved one is on the threshold of death, is this: "Today you will be with me in Paradise."