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Heavenly Tourism Fad Doesn’t Disprove OBEs or Life After Death

Doré,_Gustave_-_Paradiso_Canto_31The 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.

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{ 11 comments… add one }
  • Gary Whittenberger January 26, 2015, 2:18 PM

    It’s good to be the first to offer a comment.

    Mike: This is an interesting essay, but I think you are not skeptical enough about NDEs.

    Just to make a minor point: The plural of “phenomenon” is “phenomena” or even “phenomenons.”

    NDEs are almost certainly not spiritual phenomena.

    It is possible that NDEs represent visits to a realm to which some or all people will go after they die, but this is extremely unlikely. Some reports of NDEs are simply fabrications or lies, as was the case with Alex Malarkey. Other reports of NDEs are probably reports of intense hallucinations which have some content triggered partly by a dim awareness of the close call the subject had. Overall, NDEs are rare among those persons who undergo a life threatening experience and recover.

    The reports of NDEs in the Bible are not surprising, and they are similar to some of the modern reports. The reports often reflect the culture, education, or prior worldview of the subject. Christians are more likely to have NDEs with Christian content than are Muslims and Hindus. The same pattern is prevalent for Muslims and Hindus.

    The fact that there have been perhaps hundreds of reports of NDEs has no bearing on whether these experiences represent visits to another world. In a similar way, the fact that there have been billions of reports of dreams has no bearing on whether these experiences reflect events in another realm of reality.

    To tie the cart of spiritual phenomena to the horse of NDEs would be a huge mistake. NDEs are probably no more spiritual than dreams are, which is not at all.

    The evidence for some kind of spirit world is already extremely weak, and NDEs do not help in the balance of evidence.

    Until somebody rationally demonstrates that at least one spiritual thing exists, then there is only one chair to sit in – the materialist chair, despite Schaeffer’s illustration or our wishes to the contrary.

    Paul was right when he said that we should test everything and hold onto the good. But he should have added that after we do our testing we should let go of the bad when we find it. This is the case with NDEs. They are almost certainly not indications of visits to a real heaven or hell. When these experiences are not concocted out of whole cloth, they are almost certainly hallucinations which, like dreams, are remembered upon regaining consciousness.

    If the jury is still out on NDEs, as Kreeft and Tacelli claim, the vote is now eleven for “guilty” and one undecided.

    So far, nobody has presented good evidence, reasons, or arguments to conclude that NDEs represent visits to another realm, heaven or otherwise.

    Christians are already eager to declare their hope of life beyond the grave. The problem is that hoping doesn’t make it so.

  • D.M. Dutcher January 27, 2015, 10:25 PM

    That’s a good, balanced approach. I think we’re in for a time where a lot of the slackness or looseness surrounding Christian cultural expression gets pulled taut and cut off. Heavenly tourism is one, but like you said, don’t toss it out entirely. Good post.

  • Dawn January 28, 2015, 11:00 PM

    A nice, evenly-balanced report. I tend to be hyper-critical of most of these ‘out of body’ tales, but it’s good to be reminded that we Christians are supposed to believe in the ‘other-worldly.’ Test the spirits, but quench not the Spirit! Thanks for the reminder.

  • Iola January 29, 2015, 6:57 PM

    Divided by a common language: you write OBE and I read Order of the British Empire, generally considered to be an honour (yes, honour. With a “u”).

    Once I get past that glitch: good article. We believe in a God who created the heavens and the earth, who parted the Red Sea, who fed thousands with a few loaves and fishes, and who raised many people from the dead, including His own Son. Nothing is impossible.

    • Gary Whittenberger January 30, 2015, 7:07 AM

      All possible events are not probable events. A man coming back to life is possible, but extremely improbable. A woman visiting heaven during an NDE is possible, but extremely improbable. We should not believe that all possible events actually happened. We should believe they happened only if there is good unequivocal evidence for them.

      Also, many things are impossible. A square triangle is impossible. A married bachelor is impossible. A perfectly just and perfectly forgiving god is impossible. Anything entailing an internal contradiction is impossible. If he existed, not even God could make a square triangle.

      • Christian February 1, 2015, 6:50 PM

        Why the crap do you bother, Gary? If you don’t believe, there’s no need to badmouth the God of those who do believe.

        • Gary Whittenberger February 3, 2015, 5:52 AM

          That’s just an ad hominem attack. Please stick to the substantive issues at hand.

  • T. W. Johnson February 1, 2015, 8:01 AM

    Interesting article, Mike. It’s an unfortunate letdown, though, that he confessed to a false experience, especially for someone like me. Not that it bothers me in any effective way.

    I think I’d mentioned it to you once before, but it’s documented (my mother still has the papers) that I was dead for several minutes (I think near ten) when I was eleven months old. There were two doctors, one nurse, and around forty people (family and church members) at the hospital that day.

    My grandfather (who wasn’t a Christian) arrived, fell on his knees, begged God to bring me back, then promised to serve Him the rest of his life in return. He passed away over a decade ago, serving God to the best of his ability.

    Do I remember any experience? Nope. I can barely recall as far back as 6 years of age. Anything prior is pretty much a blank.

    Did I write a book? No. And only a small circle of people know. It wasn’t even in the local news to my knowledge.

    I did, however, write a short essay in college about it—just to use for extra material.

    I’m not inclined to talk about it very often. But, yep, I’m living proof that people can still come back from the dead.

    • Gary Whittenberger February 3, 2015, 6:01 AM

      How long were you unconscious? Did you undergo rigor mortis? Did you begin to give a bad odor because of tissue disintegration?

      TW, You were never dead! You were in a state of reduced functioning which was not easily detectable.

      You report that you did not have an NDE. If you had been dead, if there is a heaven and/or hell, and if NDEs represent visits to heaven and/or hell, then you should have had an NDE. The best explanation is that you had not been dead. But also, it is very unlikely that there is a heaven and/or hell and that NDEs represent visits to these hypothetical places.

      Mike D. has too little skepticism when it comes to NDEs. A little logic, applied to cases like TW’s, shows why.

      • Daniel February 3, 2015, 5:50 PM

        And perhaps you have too much skepticism…

        Like others have said before me, why waste your time trying to counter every piece of information Mike and anyone who agrees with him says? What is your beef with him and his work?

        What is in it for you at the end of it all or if someone “converts” based on your arguments? The satisfaction that you discredited a belief that you don’t agree with?

  • DD February 8, 2015, 8:42 PM

    Neuroscientist Mario Beauregard wrote two books, The Spiritual Brain and Brain Wars, on NDEs, the soul, etc. He explores the science that strongly points to the existence of such things. Hank Hanegraaff does a tremendous job in his book Afterlife of exploring what the Bible states about the afterlife, heaven, etc., while reviewing many of the popular NDE accounts. Some think he was too critical on them, but in the wave of “Heavenly Tourism” books, his voice was needed.

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