What Should We Think of Near Death Experiences?

Near Death Experiences (NDE) and Out of Body Experiences (OBE) are two similar events where a person is conscious of being separated from their bodies.  Experiences like this have always happened, but because of medical advances they now happen by the thousands.

In the Bible there are visions where the person experiences beyond their physical location, but it is not a true OBE/NDE.  When Daniel sees God on His throne or when Isaiah or John experience Heaven, these would seem to be visions.  The distinction is that God is viewed directly (which should not be possible for a sinful human) and/or much of what is viewed is symbolic.  It is more of a Powerpoint than a field trip.  A biblical exception is reported by Paul in 2 Corinthians 14.  In this passage, Paul speaks of himself going to Heaven and hearing “inexpressible things than man is not permitted to tell.”  Some theorize that this happened after an unsuccessful stoning of Paul.  If true, this was a Near Death Experience.  Paul refers to what he hears as “inexpressible” which could mean that he has no words to convey it, but he also says that he was not permitted to convey it.

Death normally separates body and spirit.  Other, not recommended, procedures seem to do the same thing temporarily.  We will get to that later.   Since we know so little about the interface of body and spirit, it is hard to medically or theologically explain the moment of separation and why it is possible to do this “before our time”.

Skeptics dismiss NDE’s and OBE’s as illusions created by the brain in distress, usually blaming it on hypoxia, a lack of oxygen to the brain.  There are several facts that make the hypoxia argument not credible.  First, hypoxia makes a person confused not hyper-aware.   Many people having a NDE find themselves floating above their bodies and they can recall details of the room or even details outside of the room accurately.  This takes us to the second reason it is not hypoxia.  People can see and hear without having their eyes open and with no discernable brain activity.  It is the soul operating without the body.

Careful recording of the nature of the experience is important before drawing too many conclusions.  People tend to under-report NDE’s.  The reason is that they fear skepticism or judgment.  This is especially true if the experience is bad.  Most reported NDE’s are about a beautiful experience of Heaven.  Some even come back with a message of universal love and salvation.  These collide with experience of many, and perhaps even more than is reported, who experience what is reported as Hell.  Obviously, universal salvation is incorrect if some are experiencing “Hell” (I would reserve the word “Hell” for a post-judgment day place. What they experience is technically Sheol–see my other blogs about this).

I believe the ultimate truth about the afterlife and many other things is the Bible.  Experiences like NDE’s are interesting and exciting but they need to be tested against the facts presented in the Bible.  The Bible itself warns to “not treat prophecies with contempt.  Test everything.  Hold on to the good.” (1 Thessalonians 5:20)  NDE’s could be seen as a type of prophecy.  It is information about the afterlife that gets to us by a different means.  But that doesn’t make the information correct.  It needs to be tested, because intentional deception is possible.

Who would the deceiver be?  I am not laying this on the people who have a NDE.  I suspect Satan has ways to intercept this experience and spin it in a way that disseminates false information.  On the flip side,  I see no reason to conclude that all NDE’s are the “work of the Devil”.

So with a degree of caution, we will examine in later blogs some of the NDEs and OBEs reported in books on the topic to see if there is anything to learn about life after death.

Holy Week and Life After Death

For many, Holy Week is a forgotten celebration.  The only remnant of it left in their lives is Easter, and Easter is nothing more than a celebration of Spring and a chance for kids to get candy for some reason.  Talk about missing the boat.

The events of Holy Week are not only historical, they are critical to any of us having life after death versus suffering after death.  Jesus had to do what He did or God’s Law would scoop everyone of us up and drop us in the same bucket with the most evil people who ever lived and Satan himself.  We are all sinners.  Something had to be done about that.  Holy Week is the celebration of the fact that somebody did.

In his life, Jesus did many miraculous and beautiful things.  He fed thousands of people, healed many sick, freed many from demons, gave us clearer insight on God and life after death, laid out a morality based on love and more.  None of these were his main purpose, however.  He was born the way he was (from a virgin mother) so that he could fulfill God’s Law on behalf of the whole species and so that he could bear the required punishment for the sin of all mankind.  To do this he had to be sinless.

The Bible says that we are all born sinful–altered from how God created humans and resulting our in being selfish and hostile to God.  Jesus’ unusual birth allowed him to be without our genetic deformities.  His life stayed within the bounds of God’s Law.  Making Jesus the only sinless human since the beginning.  This is why there is no alternative path to eternal life.  There is only Jesus.  Jesus said of the way to Heaven, “I am the way, the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father except through me.”

For God, sin demands death.  This is more complicated than it seems on the surface.  Our life includes our physical body which easily becomes non-functioning and decays away; but it also includes our (mind, consciousness, soul).  This is not caused by our physical body.  It interacts with our physical body.  This aspect of ourselves God has made to be eternal.  Death for our soul constitutes being forsaken/exiled from God, and it is miserable.  Such a thing could happen anywhere, but the plan of how this judgment is to be executed is to resurrect/recreate an indestructible body for all and to cast both that body and our soul into Hell.

That sounds harsh, but it seems appropriate when you understand that it takes the rejection of an enormously costly rescue attempt by Jesus.  Jesus was forsaken and physically died for us that first Holy Week.  His voluntary sacrifice makes a whole different narrative possible.

It seems strange to us that one person’s actions could potentially result in the satisfaction of a condemning law for all people.  That isn’t our idea of fairness.  But if you understand that one person’s decision (pick Adam or Eve) resulted in a modification of our DNA to make us sinful, and that this was inherited by everyone; the idea seems less out there.  Jesus was doing what needed to be done to save the people he loved.

If you still celebrate Holy Week, celebrate it again with a fresh appreciation of how much those events have changed your life and eternity.  If you are skeptical or unsure of such things, I exhort you to read one the Gospels’ accounts of Jesus’ death and ask God to keep your sinful nature in check if possible.  Perhaps you will see this story through a different set of “eyes” and understand that God is real, He loves you, and the road to eternal life in joy has been cleared for you by Jesus.

 

 

 

Do You Get a Body in Heaven?

Do you like your body?  Probably the majority of people have some complaint about their bodies.  Either they are the wrong shape or size or their functioning is poor.  Or both.  If you have a body that you consider beautiful, that is great.  Don’t get to comfortable with it.  Age comes to everyone.

We will all grow old, unless we die young.  We will acquire physical misfunctions.  That is the way it works in a world altered by sin.  And that is really all we deserve.  It is only by the forgiveness that comes through Jesus’ death and resurrection that we have a promise of more.

This blog has tried to bring out what is promised in the Bible about life after death.  There is Sheol and then, after Judgment Day, the lake of fire for those who remain unforgiven.  There is Heaven and then, at Judgment Day, a resurrection of the body and a New Earth for those who belong to God.  Details are limited.  Questions are abundant.

Do we get a body in Heaven?  The resurrection of the body is for the New Earth, so is Heaven a sort of body-less dream state?  There is surprisingly little said about our heavenly experience, but there is enough said to establish that Heaven is a destination for the Redeemed.  A couple of passages talk about our heavenly “physicality”.  First, 2 Corinthians 5:1-5:

For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. 2 For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, 3 if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked. 4 For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened—not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. 5 He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee.

Because Paul is using a metaphor, you might not catch that “the building” is your heavenly body.  Our spirit is “clothed” with a body (house) “eternal in the heavens”.  Now that is confusing.  We know that we will have a resurrected body on a New Earth from the Bible.  How can we have also a body that is eternal, not temporary, in the heavens?  Furthermore, why would you want a resurrected, earthly body if you have an eternal, heavenly body?  What are the differences?

I will be honest, I don’t know.  But I am really excited to find out.  I also have a theory that I can neither test nor substantiate.  More about this in just a bit.  Another passage that seems relevant here is 1 Corinthians 15:39-41:

39 For not all flesh is the same, but there is one kind for humans, another for animals, another for birds, and another for fish. 40 There are heavenly bodies and earthly bodies, but the glory of the heavenly is of one kind, and the glory of the earthly is of another. 41 There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; for star differs from star in glory.

While “heavenly bodies” may refer to the type of thing mentioned in verse 41, but I think it is referring to our heavenly bodies.  The glory of that body is different than the glory of our resurrected earthly body, but we have no details of how they are different.  They both glorious, however.

When we consider the complex creativity of the function of our present bodies, you could say that they have a glory of their own.  It is a glory altered from the original design, accumulating genetic flaws as we move generation to generation, and slowly dying because of sin.  We can count on sin, aging, defect and disease being gone in our future bodies.  Isn’t it exciting to think about what capabilities God has in store for us and what beauty!

A metaphor that comes to mind is the girl who was awkward and a little homely in middle school, who grows up to be a knockout as an adult.  We might be quite a mess at this point, but just wait.

The converse is true for the damned.  There seems to be a body for those in Sheol, for they suffer physical torments.  The resurrection of the body is for all, but the damned are forsaken by God and cast into Hell.

So besides the vague description of differing glories, how can we have an eternal heavenly body and a resurrected earthly one?  My theory is that it has to do with where you are dimensionally.  I think Heaven is in a different dimensional space, so our heavenly bodies are constructed to be a part of that “universe”.  Our resurrected and current bodies are for this dimensional space.  Perhaps, after Judgment Day, we can move freely in both.

No More “Oi!”

Perhaps you have heard the Yiddish expression “Oi Vey”.  It is an expression of  frustration that literally means, “Woe to us”.  In Isaiah 6, Isaiah has an experience of Heaven.  What kind of experience isn’t clear, even to Isaiah.  It seems like an actual field trip.  What could be cooler than a field trip to Heaven!  Isaiah probably thought that way at first until his unworthiness to be there set in.  At that point he exclaims, “Oi li!”, “Woe to me”, “for I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips.”  Isaiah didn’t need a napkin at that moment.  He realized that a sinner didn’t belong with the holy, and he was a sinner because of what he had said and more.

Isaiah’s experience was both terrifying and exhilerating.  A Seraphim flys to him and touches Isaiah’s lips with a burning ember from the altar.  “See this has touched your lips, your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.”  From that point Isaiah felt like he belonged.  There was no more “Oi!”

As it turns out, Isaiah saw and felt all these things without actually being in Heaven.  It was a vision of some sort.  Jesus said in John 3:13, “No one has ever gone into Heaven except the one who came from Heaven–the Son of Man.”  We can add “up to this point.”  Isaiah had not gone.  Daniel had not gone. Elijah and Enoch had not gone.  To this point no Old Testament person had gone because the true atonement for sins, which is represented by the coals in the altar, is Jesus’ death and resurrection.  They all would really go when Jesus accomplished what He came for.

When we are connected to Jesus through faith and baptism, then the “coal” has already touched our lips.  We are made holy by Jesus and belong in a holy place like Heaven.

Some people have out of body experiences of Heaven.  It is hard to say for sure what they are.  Are they a vision, a field trip or something else?  It is possible that they don’t have an “Oi” experience because of Christ.  This is certainly the experience we all should wish to have upon our death.  We certainly don’t want to experience an “Oi” because we have landed in Sheol without forgiveness and without a Savior.  That need never happen because Christ came to save “the world”.  While many are called but few are chosen, it is not because God doesn’t want us.  Those who reject Jesus will have the full “Oi” experience.

The Special Status of Martyrs

The word “martyr” gets in the news these days in the context of suicidal Muslim terrorists.  It is ironic that such people are called “martyrs”.  The word actually means “witness”.  What does their actions and their death say about their theology?  I hear, “God is full of hate”, “I am full of hate”, and “I will do anything to advance my selfish ambitions for the afterlife.”  Not exactly a compelling witness.

Christians have long used the word “martyr” for those who lost their lives because of their faith.  They did not commit suicide or even seek death, their lives were taken from them out of hatred for God or his message.  Their witness was “The gift of eternal life is better than this life”, and “I am not afraid to die because I trust God”.  That is a very different witness.

Martyrdom for Christians is not something isolated to the first century.  While the Romans took their share, genuine disciples of Jesus have been killed through the centuries, sometimes even by nominal Christian institutions.  Today, Christians are under the greatest threat of death in Muslim and Communist countries.

A strong theme, maybe even the main theme, of the book of Revelation is that martyrdom for the sake of Christ is well worth it.  Martyrs get special mention in Revelation 6:9-11, 12:11 and 20:4.  What do these passages teach us about this special class of people?

When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had be slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained.  They called out in a loud voice, “How long Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?  Then each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to wait a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and brothers who were to be killed as they had been was completed. (Rev. 6:9-11)

This passage is important because it rules out the idea of soul sleep or that we go immediately to Judgment Day at our death.  It also lines out one of the criterion for the timing of Judgment Day–there are a preset or pre-known number of martyrs.  You might think this a strange and morbid standard, but to be a martyr is a high honor.  Those who experience this are chosen for this.  Their location “under the altar” brings to mind where the blood of the sacrifices was poured.  Only the sacrifice of Christ has merit in saving others.  But the death of the martyrs hasn’t historically deterred faith in Christ but it has counter-intuitively advanced it.  They are a sacrifice pleasing to God in the sense that they truly trusted him, and their deaths advanced the Gospel.

The gift of a “white robe” is common for all who die in Christ.  It is probably not clothing but a reference to a heavenly body that is pure.  The desire for judgment may be a surprise.  It doesn’t feel like love for your enemy.  Such judgment is just, however.  It doesn’t preclude the possibility of repentance and forgiveness.

In Revelation 12 the martyrs are honored and their praise is sung.  In Revelation 20 it speaks specifically of souls who were beheaded.  This is probably synecdoche and actually refers to all martyrs.  Here they have the honor of reigning with Christ.  What is that?  In this context, it would seem that they are part of God’s divine council, which actually participates in making decisions executable on Earth.  This honor would make sense since their lifetimes were cut short on Earth.

The Citizens of Heaven

We have a sketchy picture of what Heaven is like.  We have an even more cryptic description of who or what will be there.

As you read through the Old Testament it is never revealed that humans had any hope of being citizens of Heaven.  There are a few visions of Heaven, but nothing more.  Old Testament believers understood that they were heading first to Sheol (preferably a good part of it) and that their ultimate hope was their resurrection from the dead and a New Earth.

I don’t believe that this means that Heaven wasn’t in the plans for humans or that the idea of going to Heaven was a “development of theology” or borrowed from other cultures at a later time.  Our place in Heaven had to be secured before it was promised.  Satan held some leverage over us.  Our species were rebellious sinners just like he was and like a significant minority of angels.  As long as humans were “under the Law”, we were stuck.

Jesus’ fulfillment of God’s Law as a human and His sacrifice of Himself to reconcile creation to God caused some major reorganization.  Satan and his minions lost their legal leverage and being inferior in power to God were cast out (Revelation 12:7-10). Humans were lead in a victorious procession in.  (Ephesians 4:7)  So for now, Heaven is the destiny of redeemed humanity until Judgment Day and a New Earth.

Who else will we find in Heaven?  Angels are one form of resident.  It is said of angels that they are “spirits”.  What does that mean exactly?  I think it means that they are properly citizens of Heaven’s dimensional space and not properly a part of this universe.  They can take on a form here or not, but it is not necessarily their form.  So what does an angel in Heaven look like?  We don’t know.  How many are there?  Beyond saying that there are many, we don’t know.  What are their abilities?  We can say that they are intelligent beings and that in some ways have higher capabilities than we presently have.  The name by which we know them, “angels”, speaks more to their function as “messengers” than as a proper name of their species.  I would expect them to be human-like in many ways.

Angels should be distinguished from Cherubim/Seraphim.  Isaiah 6, Ezekiel 1 and Revelation 4 described these beings as “living ones”(cherubim) or “burning ones” (seraphim).  They are described as intelligent and powerful beings who surround the throne of God.  Their physical description may be more symbolic than actual.  The description includes multiple faces, four to six wings, and covered with eyes–a rather frightening appearance.  Satan is described as being a disowned, guardian cherub (Ezekiel 28), beautiful, part of the council of God, and blameless until wickedness was found in him.

The only other citizens of Heaven that are described in the Bible (that doesn’t mean that their aren’t others) are a mysterious group of 24 elders. Who are these beings?  What are they?  They could be humans.  They do not appear in the only other descent description of God’s throne room in Daniel 7.  They are described in Revelation 4.  Since Revelation is full of symbolism, this could be a group symbolic of a greater portion of humanity.  Or not.  It is intriguing to think about how the picture given in Revelation 4 (a New Testament if not future picture) relates to references to a divine council found throughout the Old Testament.  More about this in my next blog.

Is Heaven Somehow Incomplete?

Many people have a biblically naive understanding of the afterlife.  That is one of the motivations for this blog.  It is typical to believe that immediately at death you go to Heaven if you were “good” and Hell is you were “bad”.  Heaven is commonly viewed as “perfect”.  Whatever “perfect” is.  That belief is folk religion, and biblically wrong in so many ways.

Most importantly, you are not destined for Heaven or Hell based on whether you are good or bad.  To God’s standard we are all bad–all tarnished by sin.  We are saved based on whether we have forgiveness or not, and the only way to have forgiveness is to have Jesus’ sacrifice of himself apply to us personally.  Jesus died for all, but God has to also be able to connect us to Christ through faith and baptism.

Popular conceptions of Heaven and Hell are a bit muddled as well.  The Bible makes you aware that there is an intermediate state, which is essentially the time between your death and Judgment Day.  Post Judgment Day the destination of God’s people is a “New Heaven and Earth”  with resurrected physical bodies.  The post-Judgment Day destination of the unforgiven is described as:  a lake of fire, Gehenna (which evokes a picture of a burning garbage dump), and a condition of being forsaken by God.  God won’t hang around to torment you.  Rather, God will permanently forget you.  That place and condition is what I prefer to call “Hell”

So where is Heaven in all of this?  It is the current dwelling place of God and the angels.  It will persist until Judgment Day when Heaven itself will be modified.  It is the immediate destination of those who die (I don’t buy the “soul sleep” paradigm and address that in a later blog), but there are some things incomplete about Heaven and our experience of it.

Don’t get me wrong, the experience of Heaven will leave our experience of life so far in dust.  We will see God, be without sinful nature, have no exposure to Satan, possess a heavenly body and no longer experience the discomforts of the curse.  It is hard to even imagine how good all that will feel compared to current life, so it is even harder to imagine what will be lacking.  While we consciously experience Heaven, our earthly bodies will still be in some state of decay or ash, and our earthly bodies are a part of what makes us.  The final release from the consequences of sin will happen at the resurrection.

For that matter, it would seem that the same is true for Heaven, the place.  Heaven has not been perfect.  Heaven hosted Satan’s rebellion and the corruption of a large minority of angels.  Heaven has experienced war.  God isn’t just going to make a New Earth.  He is going to make a New Heaven.

If you search the internet on the topic of Heaven, you will get a wide variety of interpretations, including mine.  You will encounter quite a few who suggest that we never will see Heaven, rather we are destined only for the resurrection and the New Earth.  They are right in saying that this was the Jewish, Old Testament expectation.  They might also state that the idea of our souls inhabiting Heaven forever is a Greek idea.  I agree in part.  The folk Christian idea is heavily influenced by the Greeks.  The Bible shares God’s revelation, which is the only reliable source on this topic.  It does speak of Heaven, even a Heaven we can inhabit, but it is a temporary dwelling with something even better to follow.