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.

What To Do With “Sheol”

Unless you are quite the Bible expert, you probably don’t even know what “Sheol” is.  You might be shocked to find out that this Hebrew word is actually quite common in the Old Testament, yet in many English Bible translations the editors struggled to know what to do with it.  It is a place name.  So it should capitalized and left as is, still many times it is translated as “grave”, “pit” or “Hell” with a little footnote that says:  Hebrew:  Sheol.  The footnote almost seems like an apology.

The main reason why Sheol is not something you heard about or that it gets translated away is that it doesn’t fit in the most common understanding of places in the afterlife.  Most people just know Heaven and Hell.  It is poorly recognized that Judgment Day makes a big difference in what will exist.  Before Judgment Day the best fitting understanding of what exists after death is Sheol and Heaven.  After Judgment Day, Sheol (or in Greek Hades) is thrown into a “lake of fire” along with Satan and his angels, as well as, all the damned of humanity.  This lake of fire is what I think of when I use the word “Hell”.

Sheol/Hades does have some Hell-like properties, which adds to the confusion.  There is suffering, fire, worms.  It is a prison.  But I can’t connect the presence of Satan and demons nor can I connect being completely forsaken by God with Sheol.  It is different than the final destination.

The classic picture of demons tormenting people, whether it be from Michelangelo or “The Far Side”, is biblically incorrect.  In Sheol, they don’t seem to exist.  In Hell, they suffer with everybody else.

I’m sure most people dismiss both Sheol and Hell as a myth.  Who wouldn’t want to?  I don’t like the idea that these places are the destination of most people at their death.  I hate it, but I can’t dismiss it. Jesus speaks of both Hell (Gehenna) and Hades.  Jesus also descended to Sheol.  It is forbidden, but apparently possible to communicate with people in Sheol.  And modern people have had out-of-body experiences of Sheol.

My dog hates going to the Vet.  When they are about to do a procedure on him, he hides his face under my arm.  It is like he is thinking, “If I can’t see you, you don’t exist.”  That is how those who dismiss Hell or Sheol are coping with a frightening reality.  Unfortunately, the Vet still exists, so does Hell and Sheol.

Would God really do this?  Where is the love?  God is very “literal” in the sense that once a law is written in Heaven, it is enacted.  The Law requires sinners to be sent to Sheol and Hell.  The love is found in that God created a personally costly way for both the Law to be fulfilled and people to be spared Hell and Sheol.  That way is Jesus being forsaken on the cross.

That is serious stuff.  You don’t go to the extremes that Jesus went to if you don’t really love who you are trying to save and what you are trying to save them from is something aweful.

Rationalizing about Hell, living in denial, ignoring it until later are all dangerous coping mechanisms that push one close to finding out about Sheol and Hell from personal experience.  I would rather just read about it.

Life After Death Impossible?

In an article published on the British website Express, Sean Carroll a physicist at California Institute of Technology categorically states the life after death is impossible because we are subject to the laws of physics and, of course, the laws of physics are completely understood.

Perhaps this is a misquote, but how many times in history have scientists been arrogant enough to say physics is completely understood only to find out that they really didn’t understand it at all.  If it is completely understood we should stop spending money on physics research projects.

The problem with Mr. Carroll is his devotion to a flawed philosophy–Materialism.  The belief that all that is real is measurable pervades the scientific community, but does it represent reality?  Perhaps the point of greatest contention is the understanding of our own consciousness.  Many people, including atheists, find the materialistic answer unsatisfying.

Scientists feel confident that consciousness is nothing more than the chemical reactions in our brain.  They feel this way because artificial stimulus of various parts of the brain can cause false experiences.  But this does little to show that consciousness is actually resident in the brain.  The same would be expected if the brain was merely the material interface with the conscious.

The philosophical viewpoint also diminishes Near Death Experiences (NDE) and out of body experiences as merely the fading memories of a dying brain.  This does not explain how people can experience sights and sounds while the brain is essentially shut down and the eyes are closed.  People have experienced travel outside of their bodies and accurately described surroundings without the use of their eyes.

Looking for proof one way or another about life after death using scientific methods is using the wrong tools for the job.  The hard part for science minded people is admitting that science does have its limits.  It is great for exploring the material universe but blind otherwise.  Even science posits the existence of other universes, yet can say basically nothing about them.

There are two ways to know about life after death: dying or revelation.  Dying makes it tough to change if change is needed.  God’s revelation about life after death can be trusted or not trusted. May God Himself give you insight on where to put your trust.

Thy Kingdom Come (Health)

You can have everything (money, power, beauty, fame, etc.) but if you don’t have health, you don’t have much.  Certainly, there are those with chronic health conditions who learn to overcome and make big contributions to society and enjoy their existence; but the loss of health has probably more to do with the loss of both productivity and happiness than anything else.  Wouldn’t it be great if there were no such thing as bad health–no infectious, malicious microbes, no breakdowns in our DNA, and no wearing out of our organs?

Jesus demonstrated His dominance over illnesses several times.  He cured the blind, the deaf, lepers and the paralyzed.  Every vector of illness, He proved He could fix immediately.  He used no surgery, no medicines, just the power of His words.  The biblical explanation for illness is the existence of the curse.  What exactly is the curse?  The Bible doesn’t describe exactly how the curse works.  The result of the curse is that a creation that worked flawlessly now seems unbalanced (even though it is still complex and amazing)  The healing miracles of Jesus are physical demonstrations of a promise regarding Heaven and the New Earth.

No longer will there be any curse.  Revelation 22:3

This may seem like a superstitious, impossible dream; but if the creative genius that made all living things in the first place decides to put His original system or even a new system back in place, a system that is not “out of balance”, why should this be hard for Him?  Jesus demonstrated the ease with which He could do it.

The curse must run its course.  God does not promise anywhere that people with “enough faith” can avoid the effects of the curse today.  Freedom from the curse is a future thing.  Nor does God command that we not find ways to bring healing through medical means.  Direct, miraculous intervention by God to undo the impact of the curse requires more than prayer.  It requires a God approved purpose.  Often God can use the negative results of the curse, even illness, to accomplish a good purpose.  He did so with Paul in 2 Corinthians 12.

Wholeness of health, even to the point of the elimination of physical death is a part of God’s plans for the New Earth.  It is definitely something for which to look forward–especially when you are sick.

In Revelation 22, mention is made of the “Tree of Life”.  The leaves of the tree are for the “healing of the nations”.  What sort of healing could be required in a place without the curse?  The Garden of Eden had the Tree of Life as well.  Adam and Eve where permitted initially to eat from this tree.  There was no curse until they disobeyed God.  Something about the tree promoted the eternal sustenance of their bodies even then.  While that may remain true in the New Earth, there is no concern about its absence.  The phrase “yielding its fruit every month” is something similar to “always in stock”.

Many aspects of Heaven and the New Earth are hard to even imagine.  Permanent, flawless health is something we can grasp and hold on to.

 

Thy Kingdom Come (Abundance)

In the Lord’s Prayer we pray “Thy Kingdom Come”.  This petition has several facets;  some that are about present life and some about eternal life.  In this series I will focus on aspects of eternal life (both in Heaven and the New Earth) that will be significantly different from the world as we know it today.  These differences will be also be things foreshadowed in the miracles of Jesus.

Scarcity is part of the world as we know it.  Food, water, energy, raw materials have been at the core reason for which people have gone to war.  When we feel that our existence or even our standard of living is endangered, humans get clannish and fight others for limited resources.

Harnessing fossil fuels and applying scientific methods to farming in particular as eased some of our scarcity.  This temporary abundance may be somewhat of an illusion, however.  Ground water and energy resources will dwindle and a crisis of scarcity could still become a reality for many of us who have only known abundance.  What happens then is beyond the scope of this essay but it is something to consider.

As the crowds followed Jesus to hear Him preach, a scarcity of food became a problem.  Jesus demonstrated His power by turning a few loaves of bread and fish into a meal for thousands of people–a miraculous breach of the laws of physics.  It is important to note that He made no promise to end scarcity during the course of this life.  In Revelation 7, however,  God’s promise about eternal life states:

Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst.

Scarcity is a part of the old (current) order of things and is passing away.  Currently, according to World Hunger.org, 815 million, approximately 10.6% of the world’s population goes to bed hungry.  This is a major improvement since the so called “Green Revolution”, but as I said before, energy and water resources threaten the future of food production at the level we currently maintain. Still, 10% is significant especially if you are part of the 10%.

The U.S. should be significantly better, but it seems that we are not.  Disparity of wealth, especially with families who have children leaves us with similar numbers if not worse.  Currently, enough food exists.  It is more of a problem of distribution and minimizing waste.  Jesus told his disciples to pick up the scraps and let nothing be wasted.  This speaks to the type of stewardship we are expected to maintain in this world.

Scarcity exists because of sin and the curse.  Heaven and the New Earth will no longer have these problems.  Food security is a problem here. Will we even need to eat in Heaven and the New Earth?  It would appear likely.  Isaiah 25:6 says:

On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine–the best of meats and the finest of wines.

This description points to a future “New Jerusalem”–a place of the very best without scarcity.

If you live in abundance today, this difference may not stand out for you.  For many it is something hard to imagine, something to eagerly anticipate.

Grief

Death isn’t meant to be celebrated.  It only exists as the wages of sin.  The body wasn’t initially created to be mortal.  When humanity essentially rejected God, the results of their actions introduced a biology that could die.  We’ve been dying ever since.  To die and have your body undergoing decay, even if your conscious soul is somewhere much better, is a consequence that is tragic.

It is right to grieve.  Many people want their funeral to be a celebration of their life.  Even more, for a Christian, we want it to be a celebration of the fact that we are liberated from our sinful nature and from a body under God’s curse.  But if we were valuable at all to the people we left behind, there will be grief.

How can we survive grief?  The victory over grief starts with an understanding of your own God-given purpose.  Life isn’t the prize.  Life is the time of accomplishing God’s plan for you.  As we navigate through this world, we are blessed to have people we love and who support us on our way.  They are valuable, but they will all die either before us or after us.  They may be dependable, but we can’t depend on them absolutely, because they are mortal.  We must depend on God.  Perhaps through a part of your journey, God will be the only one you have on which to depend.

The second necessary ingredient to surviving grief is hope.  This should be the understanding that you will have eternal life with God through Jesus.  All of life’s losses are temporary.  At least their impact is temporary.  When we leave this life ourselves we will leave behind every loss.  A clear certainty that we have eternal life and that we have a God-given purpose takes most of the sting of grief away.  The rest heals as we walk with God.  Jesus died so that you can have that hope, that reality.  What He has for you will overwhelm all sense of loss.

This is true even if we have reason to doubt that the person we are grieving has been saved.  While we live, we want to do whatever is possible to bring the Gospel of Jesus to those we know and love.  That doesn’t mean that they will believe it.  It is wrong to absolutely judge a person as damned.  You can’t always see what God has managed to do in the soul of a person.  Still, you might have a pretty good idea that there was no connection with Jesus from the words and actions of the person.  I have that situation personally.  I could be wrong.  I hope I am wrong.  What I have found is that God has given me peace.

Unexpected, tragic death can put an extra dimension on grief.  We recently had the tragic death of a beautiful young woman in our congregation.  Her loss is a grievous loss for her parents and the community.  There are many layers to pain that people are feeling, too.  There is grief, guilt, anger, confusion.  In addition to the self-understanding and hope mentioned above, a person needs to talk through their pain and experience the love of those around them.  They need to forgive and be forgiven.  And they need to reimagine life without her.  In this case, that life includes an eventual reunion, thanks to Jesus.

If we get stuck in grief, if we tell ourselves we will never get over this, then we might not.   Grief hurts.  But not progressing through grief does not honor the person you lost, nor does it serve God, nor does it help you.  Be determined to get beyond grief.  It is possible.

What Will We Be Like in Heaven?

In the course of this blog, I have covered the topics of Sheol, Heaven, Judgment Day, dying, Christ’s descent into Sheol, the Resurrection, the New Earth and Hell.  Use the search box to find any of these topics and more, if you didn’t see the entries as they came out.  We have been on the topic of Hell for awhile, in honor of All Saints Day, which is November 1, let’s go back to the topic of Heaven.

1 John 3:2 raises a question worth thinking about:

Dear friends, now we are the children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known.  But we know that when He appears, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.

What will we be like when we pass from this world, if our destination is Heaven?  As the text suggests, there is a lot we don’t know about that topic.  We will be whatever a glorified human being is like, because Jesus is still both God and human.  While we don’t know much about this, we can say some things.  The first set is more about what we will not be like.

We won’t have a sinful nature anymore.  Our sinful nature is a part of our flesh and we will leave that behind for the time being.  That changes many things.  All our tendencies toward selfishness, anger, lust, sloth, greed, addiction and whatever other sin will be gone.  We may remember what those are, but we won’t feel it.  For the first time ever, we will be able to control our tongue.  We will also have God’s love for others saturating our every moment.  Just think of the fantastic relationships we will have with the other people in Heaven!  Even if we had been conflicted with somebody, if they are saved, there will be a whole new, beautiful relationship with them in Heaven.

Assuming that there will be millions of humans, let alone angels, in Heaven, I wonder who we will know and how much we will relate.  At the Transfiguration, Peter, James and John see and know Moses and Elijah.  There doesn’t seem to be introductions.  I doubt if there were name tags.  They just seem to know who they are.  I think we will just know people.  We will know those who were a part of our lives on Earth and we will know others we had never met.

Our existence in Heaven will not be a ghostly, immaterial existence.  Paul speaks of a “heavenly body” in 1 Corinthians 15.  He is not referring to a planet nor is he referring to somebody who is sexy.  There is a body we will have that is properly a part of Heaven.  It is not our resurrected, earthly body for that is properly a part of this universe.  What will this body be like or look like?  I don’t know.  It may resemble you in some way, it may not.  It may be a set “age”, it may not.  Expect an improvement, however, for another thing we can say about Heaven is that there will be no “curse”.

The Curse is spoken of in Revelation and refers all the way back to the Garden of Eden.  It is responsible for such misery as sickness, aging, accidents, natural disasters, boredom and the frustration that goes inherently with this world.  The way I like to describe the curse is God taking a step back from the controls.  If God didn’t maintain some control, we would all just dissolve into non-existence.  The Bible says, Jesus “holds all things together”.  But with the rejection of God by Adam and Eve, it seems that God relinquished His control of creation in part.  The result is what I listed above.  In Heaven, God takes back control, and that is a good thing.

Now we can ask many more questions.  Do we eat, sleep, work, or poop?  I suspect the answer is yes, but I don’t know for sure.  Is there something like sex? What is the experience of time like?  Is there really no beer in Heaven, or is that just the words to a polka?  We will have to wait on all of that, but what we do know should make you think.  You should imagine past the end of life, because the “hope” we have is not wishful thinking.  It is a certainty based on the promise of God.