Thursday, January 30, 2014

What about Near Death Experiences? Part 1

Paradise: Ascent of the Blessed
Paradise: Ascent of the Blessed (Wikipedia)
(Part of a series on death and the hereafter)

There are those who claim to have temporarily died and been revived. Medical advances beginning in the late 20th century have given us the luxury of studying those judged dead by some medical standard and later revived

Many who have “died” have undergone cardiac arrest and were later revived with some type of CPR measures. Well-known books about this phenomenon have been Raymond A. Moody, MD’s Life After Life (with an introduction by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross), the best seller by Betty Eadie, Embraced by the Light, and an evangelical surgeon Maurice Rawlings, Beyond Death’s Door. In the past few years in the evangelical community, a book by Nebraska Pastor Todd Burpo has become a New York Times best seller Heaven is for Real, describing the story his son, Colton.

Most of the accounts involve the experience of being out of their body, encountering light or a being of light, and sensing a review of their lives before being called back to this life. One nearly universal effect of this experience, says Moody, is that almost every person says he or she is no longer
afraid of death because he knows he will survive bodily death. Is that such a good thing? For an unbeliever, the answer is no. Certainly there is nothing I have seen in Scripture about a tunnel and moving toward a light or being of light (2 Cor. 11:14). For believers, the Bible says they move immediately into the presence of Jesus (2 Cor. 5:8).
Over time Moody went from being a skeptic to involvement in the occult (as has Elisabeth Kübler-Ross) and Eadie is a Mormon with New Age ideas (while claiming to be a Christian). Rawlings, is an evangelical Christian and a surgeon. He is the only one who reports patients with scary near death experiences in which they saw hell, entered hell, or felt pulled by demons. Most of these experiences were reported immediately after resuscitation, while the fear was fresh, and later not remembered by the patient. Colton Burpo allegedly met his miscarried sister whom he did not know about, his great grandfather who died 30 years before he was born, a horse that only Jesus could ride, and a really big chair where God sat.

What is going on with these patients? Are they really seeing and accessing heaven or hell? Are they hallucinating? Lying? Dreaming? If so, then how could the patients give such an accurate account of what doctors did and said while they worked on the patient or what the family members were saying to one another. It seems that some kind of experience happened.

And did they die? Their heartbeat stopped. They lacked physical vital signs with the instruments we have today, but in light of Hebrews 9:27 (and 2 Sam 14:14; Luke 16:19-31; 2 Peter 2:9; 1 Thess. 5:10; Eccles. 12:5-7), many would hesitate to say these persons actually experienced their own deaths. But what about the accounts like Lazarus (John 11:43-44) and others who died and were resurrected (1 Kings 17:17-24; 2 Kings 4:31-37; 13:20-21; Matt. 27:52-53; Mark 5:21-42; Luke 7:11-17; 8:49-56; 7n. 11:41-44; Acts 9:36-43; 20:9-12) and of Saul who had a medium conjure up the spirit of the prophet Samuel (1 Sam. 28:7-25)? Perhaps the accounts of Lazarus, Enoch, and Elijah are demonstrations of God’s sovereignty over death.

Are their experiences genuine out-of-body experiences? Patients report seeing their body and are able to recount with accuracy what various doctors did while they were clinically unconscious. Paul seems to have reported such an experience in 2 Cor. 12:1-4. Perhaps we may speculate that his experience was coupled with his stoning at Lystra in Acts 14: 19-20: "Some Jews arrived from Antioch and Iconium and turned the crowds into a murderous mob that stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, apparently dead. But as the believers stood around him, he got up and went back into the city!" The Apostle John seems to have had such an experience in Rev. 1:12-18, but both Paul and John refer to their experiences as visions.

Christian theology has long understood that human beings are made of both material and immaterial (1 Thess. 5:23). Normally they exist as a unity, but we affirm that they can exist apart in the unnatural state of death (2 Cor. 5:6-9). Still, we must evaluate these experiences in the light of Scripture, our authoritative source for capital-R reality.

(Part 2 follows in the next post.)