October 19, 2017

Visiting Heaven

[Sorry this is late today. As Chaplain Mike often says, sometime real life intrudes … ]

This boasting will do no good, but I must go on. I will reluctantly tell about visions and revelations from the Lord.  I was caught up to the third heaven fourteen years ago. Whether I was in my body or out of my body, I don’t know—only God knows.  Yes, only God knows whether I was in my body or outside my body. But I do know  that I was caught up to paradise and heard things so astounding that they cannot be expressed in words, things no human is allowed to tell. (2 Corinthians 12: 1-4, NLT)

Have you noticed the spate of books on Heaven in the last few years? And not just books theorizing on what Heaven may be like. I mean all of the books by people who have died, visited Heaven, and come back to tell us about it.  Books like To Heaven And Back, Heaven Is For Real, The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven, and 90 Minutes In Heaven (not to be confused with 23 Minutes In Hell). They seem to be popping up all over. People telling of near-death experiences where they visited Heaven, only to be told they needed to come back to this world to testify of their trip.

What are we to make of these stories? Is there something God wants us to heed through all of these books, or are they just words given to tickle itching ears and line publishers’ and authors’ pockets with easy money (and they do sell extremely well)? Why are people clamoring for such books?

As always, I may be raising up more questions than offering answers.

To be honest, I don’t think that much of Heaven. That’s not to say I don’t long to be with Jesus, in his visible and tangible presence. That is the hunger and longing of every beat of my heart. But I don’t spend my days cursing my rotten luck that I’m stuck here in this world and pining for the next. Not at all. I want to see and hear Jesus today, right here, right now. He told me to follow him. I don’t think for a minute that means I am to sit here, isolated from this world, waiting to follow him into the clouds where I will be able to see him clearly and then follow him. No. He said to follow him now, today, right here where I am right now.

Still, I have a deep hunger for a food I’ve never tasted. I long for Heaven, though I have but the smallest idea what it will be like, and even that idea is probably off-kilter. And this brings me back to the books on Heaven. Why are there so many right now? Is God wanting to give us an appetizer before the main course? Are these stories to whet the appetite of those who have forgotten their hunger? Are they to awaken a hunger in some for the first time?

Let’s assume, for the sake of this essay, that the stories being told in these books are true. I have not done more than flip through them on the shelves of the store, but they all seem to share the same elements. The author is in a horrific crash or accident, or is on the operating table undergoing surgery, when they seemingly die. At that time of near-death, they are caught up into a place where there is light, music, laughter, joy, celebration, love, and an overwhelming sense of the lightness of life. They are then revived and return to this life.

As I say, let’s believe what they (“they” being a collective pronoun for those who have written these books in the past few years; I am not including people like Todd Bentley who says he was beamed to Heaven in a pillar of fire during a church service) are writing is true. If so, then what is going on?

First—and, well, last as well—if these stories of visiting Heaven do not reveal Jesus and cause us to forsake all and follow him, I have no interest. None. I’m not saying they would not have merit as a scientific study or as interesting campfire tales. I’m just saying without Jesus, I ain’t giving them a moment of my time. Nyet interested. But if Jesus is revealed in these stories, count me in.

And I believe he is. And here is my thinking.

Let’s confine the effect these stories are having to the Western world, to our consumeristic culture. We are like Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King who lamented,

“Now I have already mentioned that there was a disturbance in my heart, a voice that spoke there and said, I want, I want, I want! It happened every afternoon, and when I tried to suppress it got even stronger. It said only one thing, I want, I want! And I would ask, ‘What do you want?’ But this is all it would ever tell me.”

We want what we know not what, but we want it very strongly. We’ve invented everything we can think of (for now) to try to satisfy that want, but we want all the more. All day long I sell video games, iPods, iPads, TVs, books, music and movies to people who want want want. They are satisfied for the moment, but will be back tomorrow to try and fill that want once more. Young and old alike, the people I see are starving for something nutritious, but are eating cardboard instead. They tell me of losing their jobs, of their families falling apart, of losing hope. Many who tell me this are Christians. Yet they still try to plug the leak in their soul with stuff that won’t satisfy.

Maybe—just maybe—God is speaking to us at our level. Maybe he is giving those who hunger a brief glimpse of the banquet table so that we don’t give up hope. Perhaps in his mercy he is giving us some bread and a glass of iced tea while we wait in the tension of the now but not yet.

These books about Heaven are not great literature, nor are they sound theology through and through. But they do show what changes have been wrought in their authors. Mary Neal, who wrote To Heaven And Back, was asked to describe the difference of her faith before her near-death experience, and then after her visit to heaven. She says,

Before my near-death-experience, I believed in God and took my kids to Sunday school but was not particularly religious. Like many accomplished young adults, I felt like I was in control of my life and my future. Although I tried to be a “good” and “moral” person, my faith was not integrated into my daily life and the demands of work and family left little time to think about spirituality.

With my near-death-experience, the truth of God’s promises and the reality of eternal life became a part of my every breath. I am in constant prayer and regardless of what I am doing, I try to reflect God’s love and live for His glory. I try not to miss opportunities to uplift or encourage the spiritual life of others, and I live with gratitude and joy, knowing that I never face challenges alone.

Ok then. There it is. A change from trying to accomplish righteousness on her own to receiving the righteousness given freely by God through Jesus. Is that a message that could change others’ lives as well? Is that a cup of living water, or just another piece of cardboard, pass the mustard please?

Is it ok if God chooses to awaken one’s heart to Jesus by causing them to hunger after Heaven? Sure it is. For me, I hunger now, but I know nothing in this life will completely satisfy that hunger. C.S. Lewis said that the very fact that we do hunger for something we cannot eat now should tell us that there is more to come. As for me, I need that reminder now and then so that I don’t ruin my appetite with junk food. Heaven is very real, and its banquet table laden with food beyond our imaginings.

Perhaps what we need to hear from these books is this: Get dressed, for the dinner bell is just about to sound.

Comments

  1. Jeff,

    It is amazing to me also that so many people are constantly hungering for something. Often times, we all settle for junk to fill a temporary void. But Jesus made something clear to us that few people seem to grasp: the kingdom of heaven is not “outside” of us, it’s “within.” Every waking moment should be a heaven experience for us on this earth. I am not saying there isn’t more to come, or that we never experience pain, but we are to focus on the Now – I appreciated you saying near the beginning of this post that you are not too focused on heaven (as a place to get to in the future).

    Now consider all the want, want, want again… Is it also possible that so many people (Christians included) are trying to fulfill a void simply because they have missed one of the Master’s most beneficial teachings? Christ said to enter to the kingdom we must be like a child. Children enter the kingdom every day because they know how to live in the moment, or the NOW. They are not too caught up in the past or future. As we get older, we constantly seem to live in moments that haven’t arrived yet or are long gone. In the meantime, the present moment, the only one which we have been given, is missed!

    Heaven for me is “within,” and life is all about perspective. At least, this is what I believe Jesus plainly taught.

  2. Joseph (the original) says:

    this life (temporal existence) may not be our home, but it is a very important temporary assignment that God is very serious about or we would not be here…

    if there is an escapist tone or thread that people find comforting, they are definitely not living the abundant life Jesus gives nor living it to the full…

    i will be the first pilgrim to admit that no, this life is not a bowl of cherries nor a bed of roses. that the BS of this life is real, common to all men & oft times tragic. i do believe eternal things are being worked out in & thru us during our time here, so we need to be very present (earthly) minded knowing full well we all are mortal & in time we too will finally be able to experience the afterlife as it is meant to be experienced…

    frankly, i do not give much credence to the ultra-detailed accounts of NDE or those people that claimed to have been caught up to heaven in the spirit. if you read enough accounts (i have read enough) you will notice something peculiar or odd in the person’s story. although plenty of experiences seem to share a certain theme, there is always something not-quite-right about the details. i think this is more an indicator it is a projection of the person’s bias & not a revealed secret. in the spiritual sense, there is not reason the spirit/soul of an individual needs to exit the brain/body. all those dramatic visions/experiences most likely taking place deep in the brain during severe trauma. and no, the brain is not dead in NDE or else that person would be alive today to write about & make money doing so…

    God is certainly able to meet us in the deepest parts of our brain/mind. no need to take a nickle tour of heaven. and the presence of angels or the absence of Jesus sometimes mirrors the theological understanding the person has before their so-called heavenly visit…

    {sigh}

    i think the fascination for such information is a reminder of our desire for gnosis, the hidden knowledge. we long for a peek behind the veil of death. we want to be comforted by news of the ‘other side’. we want to have some better idea of what will happen at our own passing. i do believe NDE are indeed real. i do believe those people did experience something unique & disturbing/wonderful. i just don’t believe it is all that they ‘claim’ it to be. and God really has no reason to suddenly be giving all these people super-duper details of the heavenly realms when He was quite reticent to do so in Holy Writ, tradition & thru His Apostles & saints. seems it is not important or to be sought after or even accepted as ‘gospel’. as a skeptic of anything supra-natural i will withhold any fascination with the accounts as if they are somehow glimpses behind the veil. i think they do reveal more about the person recounting the experiences & their motives promoting it than the claims themselves…

    no, i will not discount all accounts as figments of the person’s imagination, but i definitely do not believe they are what they claim them to be. those that have such experiences may not be devious with the intent to deceive, but they are not being very sober minded in their method of peddling such things for the amusement of the curious…

    Lord, have mercy… 🙁

  3. Joseph (the original) says:

    and no, the brain is not dead in NDE or else that person would NOT be alive today to write about it & make money doing so…

  4. “Not to be confused with 23 Minutes In Hell”

    Oddly enough, I think this was the original name for Suddenly Susan on NBC.

    (*rimshot*)

  5. Randy Thompson says:

    I’ll stick with the pictures we’re given in the last two chapters of Revelation.

    If these experiences draw a person closer to Christ, great, even if it is only a trip within one’s imagination.

    It seems to me that if someone really did have an experience such as these, and it was, in some sense, real, then they’re doing a great disservice to others by going on the lecture circuit and writing books. If the experience was “real” to them, and somehow or other a grace given to them by God, then, for their readers, their experience becomes merely a source of entertainment or grist for idle curiosity. Thank heaven Paul didn’t write an epistle describing his “trip” to the third heaven.

    In other words, for experiences like these to be significant or meaningful, you had to “be” there!

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      Randy, what you’re describing is “Private Revelation” and how to deal with it.

      My Church (AKA Romish Popery) teaches that Private Revelation is binding only on the person having the revelation. Others may voluntarily follow the private revelation, but it is NOT required.

      And in my church, Private Revelation (usually weird-ass “Mary Channeling”) IS the characteristic way to flake out. Just like End Time Prophecy Predictions are to Dispies or Ascetic Monk Wanna-bes are to Eastern Orthodox.

      And let’s face it, NDEs are trendy. It’s part of the not-quite-Occult fascination you get on the other side of the divide.. These NDE Testimonies are “Just like NDE travelogues, Except CHRISTIAN(TM)!” And they’ve been around for a long time; I remember NDE Testimony books in the Jesus Junk stores during my time in-country in the Seventies — except for the name and the details (and a “You Shall Live To See My Second Coming” End Time Prophecy tie-in), they read near-identical to this current crop.

      Tip: For a REALLY wild Vision-of-Heaven travelogue (including hitching a ride on Elijah’s size-changing chariot and Spirit Dogs “who neither bark nor bite but say ‘Praise-The-Lord!'”), google “Percy Collet”. He was some sort of Christian type who in the early Eighties had this multi-tape series on his Trip to Heaven (should have MP3 copies somewhere on the Web) that was seriously WEIRD City. I think he was on the Christianese lecture circuit of the time.

  6. The brain is often not “dead”, but inactive when these situations occur.

    NDEs have been studied over decades large numbers of samples.

    The empirical evidence is huge that it is not simply in the brain. Many cases include patients that are later able to describe medical instruments (while their eyes were closed/covered, speakers with white noise over their ears, etc), describe scars on top of surgeons heads, “meet” family members that they never know existed (e.g. twins, one died in the womb), etc. At least one person who was blind from birth had a vision during the NDE, and could describe sight. I suggest checking out:

    http://www.near-death.com/

    Also, a large number of “Shared Death Experiences” exist, with those near loved ones experiencing some of the same types of things. This would further erode the “dying brain creates it all” theory.

    http://www.near-death.com/experiences/evidence09.html

    • Joseph (the original) says:

      nope. not convinced. it is all a very personal experience that truly has no transferable value to those that are enamored with the stories…

      it is simply supra-natural ‘fluff’ of no apparent value to those in the here-and-now. that is why there is little of such experiences in Holy Writ. we can conclude the most amazing divine revelation is in fact Jesus the Christ come in the flesh who lived & died in this very real physical dimension…

      all the other sensational accounts more distraction than true spiritual revelation that has no direct application to the character transformation of the pilgrim/saint in this very visceral existence…

      Lord, have mercy… 🙁

      • Actually, I’ve heard about 1 in 38 persons has had an NDE, so if you haven’t, you probably know somebody who has. I certainly know a few. I’d agree there isn’t much transferable value, like any spiritual experience before death, but I’m not gonna tell my friends they were delusional. There’s too many out there sharing remarkably similar stories (…at least, as far as the “tunnel of light” is concerned).

        • Joseph (the original) says:

          oh, i absolutely believe NDE experiences are indeed real events. and the similarities more a physiological component than a spiritual one IMHO…

          people that have experienced them are not delusional. if you read my first comment you will notice i am not an outright debunker, simply a skeptic when it comes to the claims of exactly what those experiences where/are…

          i do not believe they have to be out-of-body experiences while being transported to the heavenly realms. and the differences in each story is more fascinating than the generic similarities…

          i think it is all part of our amazing existence right here. no need to leave this body to be in tune with some supra-natural special effects show. the brain & our self-awareness mysterious & still a wonder to modern science. no need to spiritualize something that most probably is truly a mind/brain sensitivity event that could possibly bridge the heavenly dimension, but no need to claim a trip to heaven (or hell) when the person does awake from their trauma & are left trying to explain the event that just happened…

          i think it is the sensationalist approach to something amazing that is my biggest issue with the entire genre. people claim many far-fetched things with no proof. they have experienced something profound, but that does not make them an immediate expert on what it is like on the other side…

  7. Good post. “Perhaps what we need to hear from these books is this: Get dressed, for the dinner bell is just about to sound.”

    Yep, we’re are going to die. But what I find a shame is our pastors don’t seem to be about equipping and preparing people to die. For those of us in the “green room”, we’d like some company.

  8. I often think too much emphasis is placed on the future and not enough on the “here and now”. While people are worrying about what is going to happen, people are starving today, people are being ethnically cleansed today, our earth is suffering today at our hands. While we all fret about the future, there is suffering that we can relieve here and now.

    I often tell people when they ask me what is to come, all I ever say is “I’ll find out when I’m dead”. That’s all I need. That’s not to say I don’t have a really long list of questions for God when I get there…the list gets longer as I get older – grin – but I am content to wait to see what’s next for when I get there. As I heard someone say “I’ll have plenty of time to sleep when I’m dead, for now, I gotta keep on making God’s Kingdom a reality here on earth.”

    • Klasie Kraalogies says:

      There is no way you can make God’s Kingdom a reality here on earth. That’s just a phrase that sounds pious.

      You trust and obey, and enjoy, even while you might be suffering.

      • Maybe not, but why not work for it in the meantime and have a little faith that we can, with God’s grace, freely given, make it a better world for everyone instead of sitting idly by and letting things happen, people starve, etc. I cannot enjoy when others are suffering and by taking care of the least, we are obeying.

  9. Jeff – Good article. I read Mary Neal’s book ‘To Heaven and Back’ with great interest because she is a physician (I’m an RN), and I wanted to read about a medical professional’s experience. Sometimes, I hear physicians discount any near death experience as just chemicals in the brain or a lack of oxygen, etc. The thing that disturbed me about this book is tho’ she mentioned GOD many times throughout the book is that I don’t remember her mentioning Jesus CHRIST once. Maybe I just failed to notice, but I don’t think so. So, I go with your statement:

    “First—and, well, last as well—if these stories of visiting Heaven do not reveal Jesus and cause us to forsake all and follow him, I have no interest. None.”

  10. Adrienne says:

    Jeff ~ I think the Scripture you started with says it very well. That Paul was even loathe to say that it was himself that was taken to the third heaven, then waited for so many years to even mention it and saw things not able to be expressed in words is a total contradiction of the people who make this claim today. They come back, sign up with a Christian publisher, splash their name all over the cover as well as their photo and then take a whole book to tell what they say…I don’t know. Then they go on a book tour and talk, talk, talk about their experience. Just doesn’t have a good feel to it.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      Seeing “things not able to be expressed in words” actually helps Paul’s credibility. That does sound like someone trying to describe something completely outside their experience (or outside the experience of whoever they’re talking to).

      There’s a “ghost story” told about St Thomas Aquinas which illustrates this:

      Aquinas was at some sort of conference out-of-town when a friend of his died unknown to him. Aquinas runs into said friend at the conference, expresses surprise that he’s there. Friend tells him he died several days ago and has just exited Purgatory into Heaven proper.

      Aquinas, ever the theologian, immediately starts asking the ghost of his friend several heavy theological questions (probably about the nature of God, Salvation, and Heaven). Friend answers pretty much that “If you haven’t experienced it, it is literally Impossible to explain or describe, and once you have experienced it, no explanation is necessary.”

  11. Matt Purdum says:

    I think all those books are fake. I could say more.

  12. David Cornwell says:

    Near death experiences are just that– near death– they apparently catch a glimpse of something, whether it’s the other side or not.

    Those who claim to have visited Heaven I put very little stock in. But those stories do sell lots of books. We would do much better to read about the One who said the Kingdom is near to us. It’s up to us to be it’s citizens in the here and now. Then when the time comes, we will find out more. Not before.

    • Jonathan says:

      Agreed.

      To the extent I’ve profited from reading about dying and death, it’s been in two genres: books that examine death from a medical perspective, e.g., How We Die, by S. Nuland, a doctor; and The Hour of our Death by P. Aires, a French medievalist who described centuries of Western civ’s attitudes toward death. Both of those books were written by highly intelligent, thoughtful men, so the analyses are interesting, provocative. I think there’s comfort from knowing how others, including our ancestors, have grappled with the truth of death.

      Media vita in morte sumus.

  13. While stories of NDE’s go back to ancient times (there’s one in Plato’s Republic), NDE literature as we know it arose in the late 1960’s and became popular during the 1970’s, in tandem with similar attempts to scientifically document reincarnation or ghosts. These books typically claim that NDE’s are similar even in widely-separated cultures, and that the experience is overwhelmingly caring and positive (i.e. no hell). Claims were also made to the effect that while “out of the body,” patients sometimes heard or saw details (conversations held in another room, for example), which they could not possibly have known about. Anyway, I vaguely recall Christian books appearing in response, describing “Christian NDE’s” which sometimes included visions of hell. These seem to be more of the same.

    Obviously, not everyone who revives after clinical death experiences anything of the sort. Of those who do, descriptions differ in important respects. Furthermore, the capacity of the brain to experience visions and hallucinations is well known.

  14. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    NDE literature as we know it arose in the late 1960?s and became popular during the 1970?s, in tandem with similar attempts to scientifically document reincarnation or ghosts.

    Were’nt these first-wave NDE books denounced as OCCULTic? Satanic Deceptions? (At least until the “Me Too!” Christianese knockoffs hit the Jesus Junk store circuit…)

    Anyway, I vaguely recall Christian books appearing in response, describing “Christian NDE’s” which sometimes included visions of hell. These seem to be more of the same.

    The first Christianese NDE book I remember seeing concentrated on “Hell Trip” NDEs, claiming they were the majority of NDEs but normally got repressed. (This was also the time of the “repressed/recovered memory” fad.) Don’t remember anything about it other than that; it was obviously trying to jump on the bandwagon.

    And like the mainstream NDE fad, the Christian NDE knockoffs all claimed “PROOF of Life After Death!” — except the Christianese ones were more like “Proof of OUR particular take on Life After Death!”

  15. As other posters say here, there have been many accounts of NDEs going back through the years. Most people who have such experiences don’t talk about them. The doctor who wrote one of the earliest such “modern” books, Life After Life, collected such experiences from his patients, who were grateful that he was interested. They had not mentioned these experiences to the other medical staff or even to friends, because they feared their experiences, which were deeply meaningful and sacred to them, would be discounted and ridiculed. Obviously, judging from the reactions here, their fears were correct.

  16. Good take-away, Jeff. Sometimes, I believe we loose the priority of living in view of eternity because we fail to realize how wonderful heaven truly is. Even if these stories are COMPLETELY fictitious, the fact still remains that as wonderful as they seem, heaven is even so much better than that. Sometimes a good narrative imagination can help bring that reality to our minds.

    That being said, I think all those books are about nothing more than $$$. It sells like crazy, and I truly believe that is at least 95% of what is behind them (the 5% is for the possibly of an actual NDE having happened). If the stories were all so true, then why are they so insanely sappy? Seriously, if heaven is as cliche as some of these books I will have to pass. On principle.

    Doesn’t anybody ever notice how EVERY family member or friend is found in these stories? Check out this parody over at lark news:

    http://www.larknews.com/archives/2936

    I’m not gonna rail agains the fluffy feeling some of y’all have gotten from reading these books. That’s OK. Just take it with a grain of salt. And I’m not throwing away my money or time on them. Scripture is sufficient, and it tells me all I must know about heaven and the afterlife.

  17. My main question about those experiences is actually a theological one: if they are genuine, how does that square with the Christian doctrine of the resurrection of the dead? I entirely believe that eternity will be a continuous feast and celebration in God’s presence – but, one in which we will inhabit resurrected bodies, not one in which we will be disembodied souls. The “resurrection of the body and the life everlasting” is something that _will_ happen some time in the future, not something that is ongoing right now. So, although it’s conceivable to me that someone near death could experience a vision of what that will be like, I find it hard to believe that they’re literally traveling forward in time to that moment and then back to the present to report on it.

    • David Cornwell says:

      I totally agree with what you are saying. However there must be an explanation, we just don’t, as yet, know it.

      • One possible explanation is that our body during an NDE is a “glorified” resurrection body which is different from the physical body. Oh yeah, and time works differently too, in case you expected the general resurrection to happen in the distant future. Or as some of the New Age books say, maybe “resurrection” refers to reincarnation.

        Here’s a related head-scratcher: Suppose you have an OOBE (out-of-the-body experience) and look down on your body from above your hospital bed, let us say. You are invisible to the doctors working below. Now vision works because light strikes the eye. Being invisible, light does not strike you. How, then, do you see?

  18. It sounds like Mary Neal had a life changing experience that brought her from adhering to a set of constructs to breathing in a spiritual reality. That’s good.

  19. Never hd a NDE, but in years as a hospice nurse saw those close to death speaking matter of factly of angels and family who had gone home before them. These folks were not gorked out on meds nor having brain related illnesses. Nothing they said was incompatable with Christian faith,even from those who were NOT christian by profession.

    If I were agnostic, this would make me “think”. If athesist, I would wonder a bit. As a Christian, what I saw confirmed my faith, but not as much as the look on the faces of those who died. I could never use this to convert anyone, but it sure is another point of grace and sure-ness for those who already trust in Him and the temporary nature of our training life here on our journey to HOME.

  20. My first thought was “nah” Paul’s vision wasn’t a NDE, just a very powerful vision while praying or meditating or, likely, fasting… not a near physical death experience. These are incomparable situations.

    But reading through some of these responses, I was reminded of all my nursing friends/relatives who say similar things about end-of-life experiences – people make comments as if they are seeing beyond this world, into the next. The thought that then came to my mind was – the veil that is lifted off Elisha’s (or Elijah’s?) servant – so he can see God’s angelic army standing behind the enemy (human) army. What if death begins to remove the veil to the spirit world? This is not the revelation style renewal – new body, restored to God, etc. – so much as seeing beyond what our fleshly eyes perceive (like the prophet’s servant)- something that seems to naturally occur once we begin to lose contact with our earthly body. Then, I wonder, can we do this in our prayerful meditative lives too? Could we see beyond our earthly senses? That cloud of witnesses that are with us, could we sense them?

    Just musing.

  21. Great topic Jeff!

    I have almost no confidence in the veracity of those stories. The scriptural description of heaven is more than enough to make me drool without the aid of NDE anecdotes.

    Truth be told, in the materialistic West, heaven is not our natural longing like those living in 3rd world miserable conditions. We have access to so many feel-good means.

    So if heaven is better than earth, I guess this is not “Your Best Life Now”. Somebody tell Osteen please!

    John