Saturday, February 01, 2014

What about near-death experiences? Part 2

Photographic illustration of a near-death-expe...
Near-death-experience (Wikipedia)
(Part of a series on death and the hereafter)

So how do we evaluate near death experiences? The most common response among conservative evangelical leaders is to view them as drug-induced lucid dreams or even demonic in origin. Certainly if one looks at the direction many of these near-death researchers have taken, most of them have moved into the occult (Lev. 19:31; 20:6; Deut. 18:10-13; Rev. 21:8). 

Perhaps the light people see is
the tempter masquerading as an angel of light with his servants the servants of righteousness (2 Cor. 11:14-15). There is certainly little in the way of the holy that most of these accounts describe. If one is encountering the Lord, then it would seem that one would talk about the sense of holiness they encounter. Perhaps most of those they have interviewed are not believers themselves.

But what about those believers and believing family members we know (and those whom I have pastored) who had similar but very different experiences from the tunnels and lights? Their encounters were filled with peace, with sweetness, and with holiness.

For example, my own great aunt Inez Jerry was afraid to tell what happened to her on an operating room table in the mid-1980s, but she confided in my mother and me one day on her front porch swing when I was a college student. She said that she flat-lined on a surgery table and suddenly she saw herself lying on the table with the doctors frantically working, but she was not responding well. 

Then she turned and saw a beautiful green hill with flowers, and the most peace she had ever experienced, no pain, a sweet atmosphere, and a sense of the safety of the holiness of Jesus. She kept referring to a sense of indescribable peace and awe at the glory of the Lord. She did not expressly mention the word holy or its derivatives, but she kept talking about the glory she felt. She saw no people, but she did see a green hill with flowers and sensed the presence of Jesus. She did not hear the people talking in the OR while this was happening, but somehow they got her back, and later she woke up in a recovery room. 

I remember Inez telling us that day, “Oh, I can’t wait to get back there. One of these days, I know I’m going back to be with my Jesus, and I can’t wait. What peace and joy I cannot explain to you.” The rest of her life she just wanted to go back to that “peaceful place,” as she called it.

About 25 years later I was pastoring my first church near the North Carolina-Virginia line. After about a year, a couple showed up in church who had been members but had not attended for a long time. When I first visited Floyd and Isla Bagbey, it was like we had been friends for years. 

She was a retired nurse. She was deeply in the Word and had an intimate relationship with the Lord. In her patented wit, she threw me a curve ball about five minutes into my first visit at her house. She said, “You know, I died.” She threw me. I drew a blank. And I could see the corner of her mouth curl into a chuckle she couldn’t hold back. 

I thought she was playing a joke on me at first. Then she continued, “It was 1976 in South Boston, Virginia. She heard the surgeon, a friend of hers at the hospital where she was a nurse, talking and shouting to get help to work on her. I was on the table, and they couldn’t get me to respond. And I saw these beautiful green hills.”

I stopped her: “Were there beautiful flowers on those hills?”

“Yeah,” her eyes lit up.

“Did you sense a peace?” I asked.

“The most magnificent peace I had never imagined. I thought, ‘This is where I want to be.’ Then the doctor said he was going to try to shock my heart one more time – I heard him say that – and then the next thing I knew he was looking in my face, and he said, ‘Isla, you gave us a scare.’ And I told him, ‘Man, where I just came from, looking at you is a scare.’” When she sensed that she was no longer entering that place but going back to the OR, she was not happy. The doctor told her when she awoke that she was clinically dead but for some reason her heart began pumping again. He said he had done all he could and had given up when her heart began to beat on its own.

“Isla,” I said, “my great aunt Inez Jerry in Laurens, South Carolina, experienced those same hills and flowers and peace several years before she died. She didn’t tell many people because she thought they’d think she was crazy. But her one sure hope through Jesus Christ alone was to see those green hills and flowers again.”

Isla said, “Well I’m gonna tell you something, young man. If I ever get the chance to go back, I ain’t coming back. You hear me? I ain’t coming back. Y’all can have it all here. I know where I want to be.”

In February of 2008, Isla had a massive stroke. When I arrived at the hospital in South Boston a few hours afterward, her husband felt guilty for consenting to her doctor’s advice to place her on life support temporarily to allow her body to regain strength. I comforted him the best I could and told him he did not go against her wishes. She remained on life support for a week. When they pulled the plug to see how she would do, she died in about 20 minutes. I thought then that Isla kept her promise not to come back. She had said on several occasions, “I just want to be with my Lord,” and she was.

On the basis of these two women’s reflections with me, I just cannot agree that every near-death experience is automatically demonic. First, both women were Bible-believing, practicing Christians. Second, both did acknowledge the presence of Christ, a profound peace, and the glory of the Lord. Third, my personal knowledge of their lives makes them credible witnesses for me.

When we deal with near death experiences, there are several principles by which we must operate.

The Bible commands us to examine every teaching to see whether or not it is from God (1 Thess. 5:21-22; 1 Peter 3:15; 1 John 4:1; Gal. 1:6-9). Fascination with this area has led many toward the occult and false teaching, and one seems to easily find oneself trafficking with dark spirits.

Near death experiences are just that – near death. They are not death. Once death occurs, one does not come back from whichever place one goes (Luke 16). The best explanation I can offer is that they are visions that our loved ones are experiencing. Both believers and non-believers seem to have them, but they see different things and have differing experiences.