The recent scandal regarding the boy who didn’t go to heaven is just one more reason to be skeptical of the “heavenly tourism” fad. Thankfully, many discerning believers have seen through this long ago, not only criticizing the publishing trend, but the unorthodox biblical messages such experiences often send.
However, in our haste to distance ourselves from the fads and fraudulent claims of “heavenly tourists,” there is the possibility of swinging too far in the opposite direction, becoming dismissive of all spiritual phenomenon, and reinforcing a materialistic worldview.
There are some good reasons to remain open to, at least agnostic about, the possibility that individuals can have genuine near-death (NDEs) and out-of-body (OBEs) experiences.
Scripture contains numerous accounts of individuals who were resuscitated from death (the son of the Shunammite widow, Lazarus, Tabitha, Eutychus and others). Scripture also contains accounts of individuals who glimpsed God or heaven (or something beyond this physical realm) and returned to talk about it. Isaiah, Ezekiel, Phillip, and the apostle John all had something equivalent to heavenly revelations or a “tour” of the spirit realm. Perhaps the most notable is the apostle Paul who writes:
I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know—God knows. And I know that this man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows—was caught up to paradise and heard inexpressible things, things that no one is permitted to tell. — 2 Corinthians 12: 2-4 NIV
Turns out Paul was speaking about himself. What’s interesting about this account is Paul’s inability to articulate his experience, to say whether he was “in the body or out of the body” when he glimpsed the “third heaven.” Whatever the apostle saw, and in whatever proximity his body was to his spirit, the revelations were “inexpressible” (which alone could call into question the current fad of writing in detail about ones experience).
Another reason to remain open to or agnostic about OBEs and NDEs is because of the wealth of evidence for them. In Beyond Death: Exploring the Evidence for Immortality, Christian apologists Gary Habermas and J.P. Moreland explore the philosophical, scientific, and theological sides to the question. Interestingly enough, one of the strengths for the case NDE’s is simply the vast number of them. Literally millions of people have reported mystical, out-of-body types of experiences, many of which bare striking similarity. This wealth of reported NDE’s is changing how researchers approach the subject. Though not a religious work and more academic, Irreducible Mind: Toward a Psychology for the 21st Century also appeals to the girth of unexplained phenomenon surrounding NDEs to postulate a less materialistic approach to neuroscience and our understanding of the brain.
Something else to consider is the Bible’s portrayal of a supernatural universe. Weird phenomenon abound in Scripture. Whether it is angelic visitations, exorcisms, prophetic utterances, Peter walking upon water, or Philip being transported from one location to another by the Spirit (Acts 8:38-40), the Bible frames a world of wonder brimming with “mystical” properties and potential. Surely the possibility that someone could expire and glimpse the Other Side (or some dimension in between) is not outside the boundaries of a biblical worldview.
Which brings me to my concern: My fear is that the weird, conflicting, and fraudulent claims made by alleged “travelers” to the Other Side will push us toward a more materialistic view of life or reinforce an already overly-materialistic worldview.
In his book True Spirituality, Francis Schaeffer explained the biblical worldview in terms of two chairs. In one chair sits the materialist who only sees one half of the world, the world of material things, of reason and rationality, of science and natural law. In the second chair sits the believer. The believer sees the material world, but he sees more. He sees the spiritual world, the universe teeming with God’s presence, the holy angels, the devil and his demons, and the Holy Spirit who is constantly at work in and through us. The believer’s world is far bigger than the materialist’s world for he sees both halves of the universe — the natural and the spiritual. But the point of Schaeffer’s analogy is to exhort those Christians who only live in half of the universe. They profess to believe in God’s power and the testimony of biblical history, yet they sit in the materialist’s chair. While Evangelicals profess to believe in the miracles of Scripture and a supernatural world, most of them live remarkably materialistic lives.
Likewise, some of the criticisms of “heavenly tourism” bespeak a materialistic worldview. Some categorically deny that any of these “tourists” actually visited heaven but were deceived by demons or, at least, simply experiencing explainable medical phenomenon. Others embrace a Dispensational point of view, seeing visions and miracles as no longer necessary. The result is often a broad-brush condemnation of ALL OBE / NDE claims.
Should we be critical of the “heavenly tourism” trend? Absolutely! However, the Scripture seems to teach a more balanced approach. The apostle Paul wrote:
“Do not put out the Spirit’s fire; do not treat prophecies with contempt. Test everything. Hold on to the good.” (I Thessalonians 5:19-21 NIV)
Notice, we are to “test everything” — that means we shouldn’t blindly assume that every supposed miracle or experiential claim is an act of God. But in all our testing, we must not “put out the Spirit’s fire.” KJV translates that, “quench not the Holy Spirit.” Test, but don’t quench. Be critical, but not unbelieving.
In their Handbook of Christian Apologetics, Peter Kreeft and Ronald Tacelli list Twenty-five Positive Arguments for Life After Death. One is the Argument from Near-Death Experiences. After concluding that they have “serious reservations” about validating all such experiences, the authors concede:
“Yes we also seem to have serious data and impressive testimonies, often from otherwise reliable, wise, even holy people, including orthodox Christians. The jury is still out on this one.”
At the least, adopting a jury-is-still-out approach seems wise.
As long as miracles are possible and the universe remains supernatural, plenty of weird, wacky, unexplained phenomenon will be claimed. Frankly, this is what many people don’t like. They want to box God in, apply a checklist to discount and discredit ALL claims of the supernatural. It’s easier to just believe NDEs and OBEs are not real than to sift through all the stupid claims people make. It’s easier to just disassociate myself from those wacky “heavenly tourists” than it is to believe that some of their testimonials may be true.
As a result, we end up sitting in the Materialist’s chair.
The wrong thing to do is to believe ALL supposed NDEs / OBEs because some of them might be true. Equally wrong is to reject ALL such claims because SOME prove fraudulent or unbiblical.
Christians should be both eager to denounce false testimonials of heaven while declaring the power of God, the wonder of our world, the mystery of life, and the hope of life beyond the grave.
Heaven and the afterlife is a realm of mystery. Let’s not completely sanitize it in our attempt to be doctrinally sound. Conversely, let’s not be so gullible as to embrace every testimony as legitimate. In our hurry to debunk fraudulent claims about visits to heaven, let’s not forget that our world is full of wonder, that strange phenomenon occurs beyond the limits of science and explanation, and that life beyond the grave is real.