Mary Neal was white-water rafting in Chile with her husband and some friends when she got pinned under a waterfall. She tried to raise her head out of the water to get some air, but the surging water was so powerful, she says, "I quickly realized I was not in control of my future."
The current twisted her body violently and began pulling her out of her kayak. At the same time, she says, "I felt as though my soul was slowly peeling itself away from my body." Just as her body was freed from the kayak, she felt a "pop": "It felt as if I had finally shaken off my heavy outer layer, freeing my soul."
Neal says that when her soul broke through the surface of the water, she was met by some 20 human spirits. Sent by God, they greeted her with "the most overwhelming joy I have ever experienced." They had "formed shapes," but not with the distinct edges of physical bodies, blurred because each was "dazzling and radiant." They did not speak using mouths, she says, but simultaneously communicated their thoughts and emotions to one another.
Mostly Neal experienced a "feeling of absolute love" as the spiritual beings hugged her and danced with her. She was now in "God's world," she says, where everything "is exponentially more colorful and intense. It was as though I were experiencing an explosion of love and joy in their absolute and unadulterated essence.
"The intensity, depth, and purity of these feelings and sensations were far greater than I could ever describe with words."
Before she began the journey with her new companions, she looked at her earthly companions trying to revive her body. They looked "so terribly sad and vulnerable" as they begged her body to take a breath.
She and the human spirits soon came to "a great and brilliant hall … radiating a brilliance of colors and beauty." She felt her soul pulled toward the entry. As she approached, she says, "I physically absorbed its radiance and felt the pure, complete, and utterly unconditional absolute love that emanated from the hall. It was the most beautiful and alluring thing I had ever seen or experienced."
She knew with "profound certainty" that this was "the last branch point of life …. The place where each of us is given an opportunity to review our lives and our choices, and where we are each given a final opportunity to choose God or turn away—for eternity."
Though she was filled with the longing to be "reunited with God," her spiritual companions told her that it was not time for her to enter the hall; she had not completed her time on earth. This filled Neal with deep sadness and she protested, but "we shared our sorrow as they returned me to the river bank," where, she says, "I was reunited with my body."
Such was the experience of the orthopedic surgeon from Wyoming, as told in To Heaven and Back: A Doctor's Extraordinary Account of Her Death, Heaven, Angels, and Life Again (WaterBrook Press). As of this writing, Neal's book has sat on The New York Times best-seller list for 20 weeks.
When it comes to books about visiting heaven, it is not alone. Heaven Is for Real: A Little Boy's Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back, by Todd Burpo (Thomas Nelson), has been on the best-seller list for nearly two years. Don Piper's 90 Minutes in Heaven (Revell) began its epic sales adventure in 2004, with some 5 million copies sold to date. These three books are by evangelical Christians, but religious pluralists also report such experiences. Eben Alexander's Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon's Journey into the Afterlife (Simon & Schuster) hit bookstores in late October, eliciting a cover story from Newsweek earlier that month.
This is not the only time in recent history when near-death experiences have fascinated the public. Earlier attempts to understand the phenomenon include Raymond A. Moody Jr.'s 1975 classic Life After Life, for which he interviewed in depth 50 people who claimed to have experienced "near death." In 1980, psychologist Kenneth Ring published Life at Death, which studied the phenomenon as objectively as possible. As far as first-person accounts, the 1990s saw books like Betty J. Eadie's Embraced by the Light and Dannon Brinkley's Saved by the Light. So every few years since the 1970s, such books have been a regular publishing phenomenon. But the recent spate of afterlife books is new in two respects: they feature visits to heaven, not just tunnels of light (thus my reason for using the term "near-heaven experience" throughout this article). And in increasing numbers, they are written by orthodox Christians.
This is a remarkable shift. Up until Piper's book, most evangelicals had been suspicious of near-death experiences. As theologian Carol Zaleski, author of Otherworld Journeys: Accounts of Near-Death Experience in Medieval and Modern Times, has noted, "conservative Christians" have seen these books "as a Satanic trick, designed to lull us into a false sense of security about the future life … to sell us a secular … bill of goods about salvation without Christ." When people do encounter Christ in their experiences, evangelicals have tended to examine this Christ closely. And they usually conclude, as did Christian philosopher Douglas Groothius in the pages of this magazine in 1995 about Eadie's book, that the Jesus Christ portrayed by her is "not the same one the New Testament attests"—and therefore must be false.
Among Christian theologians, the skepticism has been consistently severe. With only a few exceptions (Zaleski, for example; see her The Life of the World to Come especially), they have largely ignored or repudiated such experiences. Some consider the whole thing a childish interest, a narcissistic preoccupation that distracts people from the church's mission in a hurting world. Others think that if true, such experiences would make the resurrection of Jesus superfluous, since as the titles of the books seem to argue, these experiences are what assure us that "heaven is for real." As Notre Dame of Maryland University philosopher Stephen Vicchio says, "[T]he empty tomb for … [Raymond] Moody is superfluous if not redundant. There is no need for Easter if we are immortal."
Those who try to integrate the findings of neuroscience with Christian theology believe they have even more reason for suspicion. Some, such as Fuller Theological Seminary's Nancey Murphy, have concluded that neuroscience proves we have no soul. In her Bodies and Souls, or Spirited Bodies? she defends a Christian version of physicalism, saying that "we are our bodies—there is no additional metaphysical element such as a mind or soul or spirit." As a Christian, she is no materialist, and naturally believes in "the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting," as the creed puts it. But in the end, there is no dualism of body and soul for Murphy and a few other theologians. So any claims of a "soul" escaping the body to travel to heaven, as in the case of Neal, are dismissed.
Since we've been able to locate where in the brain spiritual experiences are enjoyed, many neuroscientific theologians conclude, these experiences are merely electrical and chemical reactions as the brain tries to deal with impending death.
This argument is not convincing to everyone. And it's particularly interesting that Alexander, the neurosurgeon who had a near-death experience (NDE), argues vigorously for a new kind of body-soul dualism. He was a materialist before his experience, but now is a vigorous apologist for the existence of a spiritual world. In an appendix to his book, he explains why he rejects nine purely neuroscientific hypotheses regarding NDES, doing so in technical terms and concepts meaningful (I trust) to those in that intellectual stratosphere.
It's not hard to grasp that people experience these spiritual realities in certain parts of the brain. We also know that, given the right instruments—drugs or electrical probes, for example—scientists can stimulate parts of the brain that cause the subject to have something not unlike a spiritual experience. But does this suggest that spiritual experiences are merely physical responses in the brain?
Not necessarily. It could simply mean that God uses certain parts of our brains to communicate spiritual realities.
Does it suggest that an induced spiritual experience is the same as one caused by an outside spiritual entity?
Again, not necessarily. When I make love with my wife, some parts of my brain are deeply engaged in this extraordinary erotic experience. Then again, I also know that if I look at pornography, those very same centers of the brain are activated. It's also true that a neuroscientist could artificially stimulate that part of the brain while I lie on a table in a hospital, so that I again would experience sexual passions. But I don't know by what calculus one could say these three experiences are the same simply because the same parts of the brain were stimulated, or that the experience of making love to my wife is merely something happening in my brain.
To be fair: Christians have known for a very long time that one can have experiences that seem spiritual but are just abnormalities of the body. Spiritual directors are alert to diet, sleep, and adrenalin—to name three factors—that can lead to experiences that seem spiritual but are not. We call it the discernment of spirits.
So there seems to be no definitive scientific grounds for outright dismissal of near-heaven experiences. But given the church's experience, there's no reason to take each one at face value either.
One reason this writer is disposed to believe many of these stories, at least initially, is because they fit with what I as a historian have come to trust as real and true.
I was asked a few years ago to moderate a panel in which Don "90 Minutes in Heaven" Piper was to participate. After speaking with him before and after the session, and hearing him explain his near-heaven experience during the panel, I was struck with this thought: Piper is a reliable, trustworthy witness.
I have been a student of history since my undergrad days, and was editor of Christian History magazine for a time. One significant source of evidence for historians is personal testimony—people who have witnessed a historical event. Historians comb through these testimonies to help us understand what really happened. Naturally, not all testimonies can be trusted, so historians have to weigh their reliability. One way to decide whether an eyewitness testimony is to be trusted is to examine how the eyewitness talks about other things, how they comport themselves in life, and how their contemporaries view their character. If the eyewitness is shown to be a habitual liar or not in his right mind, historians won't grant much credence to his account. If the person seems otherwise trustworthy, mature, and wise, historians tend to trust the person's testimony as coming from a reliable witness.
Piper struck me as a reliable witness. As a Christian who believes there is more to this existence than the material, I do not dismiss out of hand the possibility of someone having an extraordinary heavenly experience. All manner of miracles have and continue to happen in our world. But a lot depends on the trustworthiness of the individual involved. And Piper simply had the look and sound of sanity, of someone who was telling the truth, whose word was his bond. If he said he had visited something like heaven, I would give him the benefit of the doubt.
Still, many Christians balk. A 1991 Gallup poll concluded that 13 million Americans (about 5 percent) have had such experiences, but the experiences are varied. While a large number follow the classic pattern articulated first by Moody (traveling through a tunnel toward a brilliant light, for example), many do not. Some see something resembling pearly gates, others open fields of flowers. Some hear music, others don't. Some see beings in human form, others see emanations of light.
Skeptics also point out how culturally and religiously unique these experiences are. Some people say they met Jesus, others God, others Vishnu, and so on. At points, traditional Christian orthodoxy is challenged in the experience. For example, Neal said she was about to enter a hall where she would be given one last chance to accept or reject God. Traditionally Christians have taught that this momentous decision is called for in this life, after which comes judgment (Heb. 9:27). Alexander had lived a life indifferent toward God, and yet when he meets God, whom he calls Om, he is told, "There is nothing you can do wrong." So much for the doctrine of sin.
Because these experiences do not line up with traditional Christian teachings, 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.
So, while we needn't be skeptical of these experiences, neither are they new revelations that dictate sweeping changes in theology. Like any miracles, these can at best merely confirm and illustrate that which has been revealed to us in Jesus Christ.
In this vein, the silliest claim made in the current wave of books is that because of such experiences, we now know, as some of the titles suggest, that Heaven Is for Real or that there is Proof of Heaven. Christians believe that "heaven is for real" not because of the testimony of a 4-year-old boy or even of a neurosurgeon, but because Jesus Christ testified to such and rose from the grave to vindicate his testimony. He tells the thief on the cross, "Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise" (Luke 23:43, ESV). His teachings not only assumed a tangible, bodily existence known as the kingdom of heaven, but also an intermediate glorious state of bodiless existence.
The apostle Paul affirms this reality when he says he would rather be away from the body "and at home with the Lord" (2 Cor. 5:8). Paul himself has his own NDE, apparently, wherein he was "caught up to the third heaven" (2 Cor. 12:1-4).
These passages and others point to a heavenly reality that we will enjoy after death, and what they tell is all we need to know, which is more than enough.
Materialism in Two Forms
It's just at this point that we may gain insight into why Christians in particular are increasingly enamored with these visits to heaven. To be sure, any complex social phenomenon—like the megapopularity of a certain genre of book—is driven by many factors. In the end, it is pretty difficult to prove causation. But I believe we can discern trends that should get our attention.
First, we live at a time and in a culture in which the spiritual is under assault by the cultural and academic elite. It's a time when many people get really nervous if high-school cheerleaders put Scripture verses on banners to encourage their football team. They couch their objectives with concerns for the constitutional separation of church and state, but many such cases brought to court are thrown out because they are shown to be nothing more than a profound prejudice against religion.
Secularism was conceived in part as a way to make for a neutral playground for a democratic society, but it is increasingly perceived as hostile toward religious sensibilities. The ruling philosophy of our culture is materialism—the belief that only what can be known through the five senses is real. In this philosophy, God may play a supporting role, but only in the very private lives of individuals.
Skepticism and materialism are thin gruel, and it never surprises Christians when people show signs of longing for something more. Our culture's fondness for testimony has a long history—from the Puritan requirement that to become a church member one had to recount one's experience of grace, to revivalism and its love of the born-again testimony. This is deeply embedded in our national psyche. Combine our yearning for something more than empty materialism with first-person testimony that suggests "heaven is for real"—well, you'll soon have a publishing phenomenon on your hands.
The fascination with this material we see in our culture corresponds to one within the walls of the church, certainly within Christian academia. It began with New Testament scholar Oscar Cullman's 1956 book, Immortality of the Soul or Resurrection of the Dead? Cullman argued that the immortality of the soul was not only the "widely accepted idea" among Christians about their destiny, but "one of the great misunderstandings of Christianity." It is a doctrine shaped not by the Bible but a "Greek concept." Instead, he argued, the New Testament proclaims not the eternal life of the soul, but the resurrection of the body. This has increasingly resonated with evangelical theologians, especially as we have emerged from our fundamentalist days. Those days were characterized by sermons and songs that moved more along the lines of Platonic dualism. The 1920s classic folk hymn is as good an example as any. The first verse and chorus give us the picture:
Some glad morning when this life is o'er,
I'll fly away;
To a home on God's celestial shore,
I'll fly away (I'll fly away).
I'll fly away, Oh Glory
I'll fly away; (in the morning)
When I die, Hallelujah, by and by,
I'll fly away (I'll fly away).
Such songs were sung and such themes preached in many fundamentalist churches that had backed off of social engagement, especially after the fundamentalist-modernist controversy ended with the sound defeat of fundamentalists in the Scopes trial (though fundamentalists won the trial, they lost the culture, thanks to the media's portrayal of them). Add to this the rise of premillennialism, a view of the last days in which the evils of this age are perennial, and the only hope is for rapture out of this evil life and into the realm of a bodiless, spiritual heaven, by and by.
The ground became fertile for a new appreciation of bodily life in 1947, with Carl F. H. Henry's The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism. If Henry sparked a new passion for dealing with the very earthly and social ills of today, Cullman's thesis become increasingly influential among theologians who deeply distrusted all talk of immortality of the soul.
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."
That, for better or worse, is the gospel that the current spate of books about near-heaven experiences is preaching. To the plethora of burning questions most people ask—Is there a God? Does he love me? Will I be reunited with the people I love? Will I ever know boundless joy? Is there life after death?—the near-heaven narratives say, "Yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes!"
To be sure, while these narratives preach a key aspect of the Good News, they fail to preach the full gospel. There is little that points to the centrality of Jesus Christ in the scope of redemption. No mention is made of Christ's life, death, or resurrection in these accounts. But I think it fair to say that from a Christian perspective, it is only because of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection that anyone can have such extraordinary divine encounters in the first place.
And that's precisely what the church can bring to these narratives—a full-orbed gospel, one centered on Jesus Christ, the revelation of God, and the hope of the world. In fact, some of the narratives beg for such. Take Alexander's description of God, whom he calls Om:
One of the biggest mistakes people make when they think about God—or Allah, or Vishnu, or Jehova, or whatever you choose to call that Source of absolute power, that Creator that rules the universe—is to imagine Om as impersonal. Yes, God is behind the numbers, the perfection of the universe that science measures and struggles to understand. But—again, paradoxically—Om is "human" as well—even more human than you and I are. Om understands and sympathizes with our human situation more profoundly and personally than we can even imagine ….
As they say, that will preach. Alexander may be confused about which God he ran into, but we certainly aren't.
This to me is the great redeeming characteristic of near-heaven experiences. 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.
Mark Galli is editor of Christianity Today.
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