“Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is.” (1 John 3:2)
There seems to be an increased interest in the paranormal these days: crop circles, UFOs, alien abductions, zombies, vampires, etc. Included in these are the reports of “near-death” experiences. This seems particularly to have piqued an interest among Christians due to the Christian predisposition to think about the afterlife, particularly heaven. A new “Christian” movie that has added fuel to this fire takes its title from a book by the same name: Heaven Is For Real by Todd Burpo. This is supposedly a factual account of a little boy who dies in a hospital operating room and goes to heaven and returns to report all kinds of amazing things about his experience there.
A Christian lady concerned about what to make of this phenomenon told me about a nurse friend who told her about near death experiences she has witnessed. “I feel very uncomfortable about this,” she said to me. “It does not seem Scriptural…doesn’t seem to match with what Jesus has taught about death. And so, I’m wondering if these sorts of things are considered ‘false prophets doing great wonders to seduce even the elect.’”
She continued, “Surely it is tempting to hear ‘proof’ that such beauty exists…even to believe that, yes, heaven exists, and Jesus is waiting with outstretched arms when we die. Surely some people might become believers upon hearing such tales…at least, folks that would believe ‘we go to a place of great beauty, bright light, where Jesus is’ when we die. It’s such a comforting picture. But is it Scriptural? Are we to believe in these things?”
I assured her that I share her skepticism about these near death experience reports. Obviously, we cannot judge what another person experiences because only they are privy to that information. The same goes for judging another person’s salvation – only God (and the individual) truly knows the condition of the heart. So, when someone reports a near death experience, we have to take them at their word, because only they and God know what they experienced.
But going back to our example of salvation, we can pretty well guess the state of a person’s salvation because of the kinds of “fruit” they bear. Granted, a person may be putting on a good front leading us to think they are saved – in fact, they may even be fooling themselves – but they are not truly saved. Or the opposite may be true. The person may truly be saved, but are presently living in a temporary “back-slidden” state. Again, only God knows for sure, but we can certainly judge their “acts” and know if those acts, or fruits, are genuine – at least outwardly.
Coming back around to our near death question, except for a very small number of cases, most of these experiences report the very same thing regardless of the spiritual condition of the individual. There have been a few reports of individuals experiencing hell, and they are very thankful that they were “brought back,” but this is the exception rather than the norm.
I viewed a video on the topic recently. For some time now neurologists have been studying near death experiences and to date they have no explanation for this phenomenon. It seems that the only thing they have been able to confirm is that when a patient is clinically dead, all brain activity ceases. They have been unable to determine at what point the patient has the “out-of-body” experience. Is it just before they die or is it when they are revived? They do not know. Yet the patients all seem to report similar experiences: a feeling of warmth, peace, acceptance and unconditional love. So, if all of these “good” experiences are true, regardless of the spiritual state of the individual, that might lead one to conclude that everyone goes to heaven – except for really, really bad people. The question then is how does that line up with what the Bible says?
There are several accounts of resuscitations in the Bible where people died and were brought back to life: the raising of the widow’s son (1 Kings 17:22); the raising of the Shunammite woman’s son (2 Kings 4:33-36); the man raised at Elisha’s tomb (2 Kings 13:21); the raising of Jairus’ daughter (Matthew 9:25); saints raised at the death of Christ (Matthew 27:52); raising of the widow’s son (Luke 7:15); the raising of Lazarus (John 11:43-44); raising of Tabitha by Peter (Acts 9:40-41); and the raising of Eutychus by Paul (Acts 20:9-12). With all of these examples, there exists no record about what the individuals experienced during their time of death. In every instance, the Bible is silent.
There is one instance where one died and then returned to tell about it. That was Paul in Acts 14:19-20. He later relates his experience in 2 Corinthians 12:2-7:
I knew a man in Christ above fourteen years ago, … such an one caught up to the third heaven. And I knew such a man … How that he was caught up into paradise, and heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter. (vv. 2-4)
So, Paul experienced something, but he was not allowed to speak about it. This evidence from Scripture calls into question all the reports we are hearing today. Is it possible that there is a hidden agenda there? – one that says, “What you believe makes no difference. If you are a reasonably good person, you will go to heaven.” That is the devil’s oldest lie: “Yea, hath God said …? … Ye shall not surely die” (Genesis 1:3, 4).
Jesus spoke more about hell than He spoke of heaven. In Luke 16:19-31, He relays the account of a rich man who died and woke up in Hades and likewise, poor, sickly Lazarus died “and was carried by the angels into Abraham’s bosom” (v. 22). Here we are given a peek into the afterlife from which no one returns (generally speaking). Two very different places are depicted and two very different experiences are presented. Jesus related this “story” as an actual account. Considering His divine nature, He had firsthand knowledge of this event, which clearly shows us that not everyone goes to the same place or experiences the same thing. Something else worth noting in this account is that nowhere does Jesus describe the rich man as being a particularly (what we would consider) a “bad” person. From Jesus’ account, we gather that the rich man was self-absorbed, narcissistic, self-centered, selfish, and unconcerned with the plight of the poor beggar that sat at his gate, but it’s not as if he were a mass murderer, or anything like that. He may have been a good father, husband and provider. He was evidently concerned about his loved ones (vv. 27-28). Had we known him, we probably would not have considered him to be a bad person. Those who mourned him at his funeral probably thought he ascended to “Abraham’s bosom,” but that certainly was not the case.
So, the bottom line is that we cannot know with certainty what these people have experienced, but we are right to employ a healthy dose of skepticism. There is no biblical basis for these reports, and science offers no satisfactory explanations. The fact that most experiences reported are positive contradicts Jesus’ very words that “strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it” (Matthew 7:14). The truth is that most people will NOT have a good experience. If these experiences are genuine, we should expect more bad experiences than good, but that is not what is being reported.
Of greater importance to anyone reading these words is the assurance and security of a place prepared for you by the Savior. He says:
Let not your heart be troubled: ye believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also. (John 14:1-3)
God promises: “And ye shall seek me, and find me, when ye shall search for me with all your heart” (Jeremiah 29:13). Jesus adds to that: “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me” (John 14:6). “Seek ye the LORD while he may be found, call ye upon him while he is near” (Isaiah 55:6).
 Note that resuscitation is not the same as resurrection. In the former case, the individual eventually dies again. In the latter case, the individual remains alive for ever. Jesus is the “first fruits” of the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:20, 23). Because He lives, we can be assured of eternal life.