Near-death experiences: Is ‘Heaven Is For Real’ for real?

MICHAEL-ANN ASKS:

How well do you think [the current "Heaven Is For Real" movie] addresses communicating out-of-body spiritual experiences?

AND ART ASKS:

[Regarding the "countless books" on near-death experiences such as "Heaven Is For Real"]: Is there any legitimate connection between these and Christian views of the next life?

THE RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:

Since maybe a few folks out there haven’t bought this bestselling book, or seen the movie, or read about the book or the movie, here’s a summary:

In 2003 Colton Burpo, not yet age 4, underwent emergency surgery for a burst appendix and had a close brush with death. At various times afterward he told parents Todd and Sonja about experiencing his soul taken to heaven while his body was on the operating table. He reported information the family said he couldn’t have known otherwise, most notably meeting a second sister in the afterlife though he’d never been told about Sonja’s miscarriage.

Years later father Todd, the pastor of Crossroads Wesleyan Church in rural Imperial, Nebraska, wrote this hugely popular book. Eventually Hollywood came calling.

Now, for some background information on this phenomenon. Burpo’s book sales pale compared with the various books written by the secular Raymond Moody, an M.D. and Ph.D. who coined the term “near death experience.”

In “Life After Life” (1975) he compiled more than 100 accounts of people who suffered “clinical death” and revived. Many shared such perceptions as moving through a tunnel, glorious light and feelings of great peace. Such matters had received little public notice till then, but subsequent polls indicated millions of Americans have reported “out of body” experiences.

Moody later explored reincarnation, including awareness of his own past lives while under hypnosis. That belief breaks from Judaism and Christianity and fits Eastern religions (though minus beliefs, less popular in the West, about the law of karma and reincarnation into sub-human species). Moody helped establish one of several centers that collect and analyze near-death accounts.

While the Burpo book typifies the theme’s common-folks appeal, elite near-deathers help counter assumptions that people telling such stories are unusually imaginative or suggestible and maybe a bit off.

Consider neurosurgeon Eben Alexander, long affiliated with Harvard Medical School and now at the University of Virginia. His book “Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife” (2012) describes his experiences during days in a coma. Beforehand, Alexander had been rather skeptical about God and heaven. Now he’s convinced of life after death and contends “the materialist picture of the body and brain as the producers, rather than the vehicles, of human consciousness is doomed.”

Research on such visions’ religious impact is sketchy and mixed. In 267 such cases studied by attorney Jody A. Long, a tenth reported religious renewals while two-thirds remained in their prior faith category. There was a slight uptick in Christian identification but bigger gains for “spiritual-universal” and “New Age” belief. Many reported increases in feelings of new purpose in life, reduced fear of death and efforts to be kinder or less materialistic.

During nearly 2,000 years of Christian tradition there have been countless and varied mystical experiences. The closest biblical parallel to today’s heavenly testimonies was not, as far as we can tell, a “near death” situation. In 2 Corinthians 12:2-4 the Apostle Paul wrote, “I know a man in Christ who 14 years ago was caught up to the third heaven — whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows.” New Testament scholars agree that Paul told of a vision he himself experienced and depicted it in the third person out of modesty.

Paul said the visitor to “paradise” had “heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter.” Did strict silence apply only to Paul? Or are all Christians supposed to imitate the apostle’s discretion, in which case Pastor Burpo is sinning?

Some are disappointed that the Bible reveals so little about heaven (unless the Book of Revelation is taken as strictly literal), but Paul was content: “Now we see in a mirror dimly but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully” (1 Corinthians 13:12). Similarly, “Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor have entered into the heart of man the things which God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Corinthians 2:9).

It’s perhaps surprising that the sharpest criticisms of the near-death experience wave come from hardline Protestants.

T. A. McMahon of “The Berean Call” newsletter says the Bible is “completely silent” about young Colton’s details, which “raises the question as to why God would leave out something of value for us in his inerrant Word.” McMahon concludes that the Burpos’ “sincere” faith nonetheless “does not have the support of Scripture,” and nobody can say pharmaceuticals or unconscious input weren’t involved. He warns that “spirit entities whose goal it is to undermine the Word of God and deceive the world” could be at work. Similarly, prominent author and preacher John MacArthur insists that “dangerous” and “seductive” stories like Colton’s yield “confusion, contradiction, false hope, bad doctrine, and a host of similar evils.”

Near-death experiences do not provide absolute proof of the afterlife, nor can skeptics provide absolute proof against, as is often the case with spiritual matters. Oh. Were you expecting this old-fashioned journalist to either affirm or deny the validity of these heavenly visitations rather than simply reporting on them? Guess again.

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About Richard Ostling

Richard N. Ostling, a religion writer for the Associated Press, was formerly senior correspondent for Time magazine, where he wrote twenty-three cover stories and was the religion writer for many years. He has also covered religion for the CBS Radio Network and the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on PBS-TV.


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