Near-death experience stories are neither to be discounted as total fabrication nor recalibrated as a final apologetic for the Christian case for heaven. The little-known secret—to those who have studied the matter and the numerous who have not—is that near-death experience stories have been around as long as humans have been telling stories. Once while reading The Odyssey, I happened upon expressions about death that made me wonder if the themes of darkness and entanglements were not the residue of near-death experiences. A careful reading of Virgil’s brilliant Roman counter-story, The Aeneid, in which we once again see Aeneas’s encounter with shades in Hades, convinced me that these classical descriptions of the underworld emerged into the stories and consciousness of the Greeks and Romans from near-death experiences.
One good reading of the best book on this subject,Otherworld Journeysby Carol Zaleski, ought to convince everyone of two solid ideas: near-death experiences have been with us from the very beginning; and, far more importantly,they vary in profound correlation with that particular culture’s understanding of life, death, and the afterlife. Maybe Raymond Moody’s blockbusterLife After Life, first published in 1975, suddenly got Americans to take notice of the reality of an afterlife because it was founded upon “science” (or something that sounded scientific), or because it had such believable stories, or because people were looking for a reason to hang onto what they had learned from their parents or pastor, or because—and this is not unimportant—it offered hope to far more than the church envisioned. Moody’s stories were nothing new (though the media sensation made them sound new). Not only were his stories unoriginal, but the historian could trace their beginnings to late twentieth-century American universalism.
Near-death experiences are no reason to believe in heaven; they’re little more than profound confirmations of what we already think. Instead of being revelations of an afterlife or the nature of heaven, they are chemical reactions in the brain activating what humans already think. What you enter into in “near death” within your brain is what shapes the kind of near-death experience you have. One glance at Zaleski’s book reveals another story altogether: ancient Greeks and Romans encountered a “Hades” or a death that looked like their belief systems; Roman Catholics in the medieval era encountered purgatory and screams from hell and bright lights above with heavenly choirs, while modern Americans encounter…well, the heaven they want. In her very useful The Case for Heaven: Near-Death Experiences as Evidence of the Afterlife, professional journalist Mally Cox-Chapman concludes on the basis of stories about near-death experiences that “we will be provided with the Heaven that is right for each of us.” (1)
The “heaven” of modern Americans (the heaven that shows up in near-death experiences) deserves to be lampooned for the narcissistic affirmation it has become. The exquisite writer Julian Barnes, an English atheist, has done it for us. In his book A History of the World in 10½ Chapters, Barnes imagines in satire what heaven will be like. His guide, Margaret, has to answer the question that ought to haunt those addicted to near-death experiences that confirm our self-constructed belief system:
The question to be pressed into modern American theories of heaven is, “Is that what you want?” Barnes continues with Margaret:
I am not arguing that near-death experiences are nothing but dreamy wishes (though they can be), nor am I denying that humans have such experiences. Rather, I’m merely contending what the history of near-death experiences teaches with unimpeachable clarity: that the near-death experience is not a revelation about heaven itself, but instead a manifestation of the concept of heaven a person carries with him or her into the opening portals of death itself.
“It’s All Speculation!”
Alongside my suspicions about near-death experiences and, even more, my lack of confidence in them as revelation of anything about heaven, I want to mention another theme I hear in modern discussions about heaven. A few years back, Rob Bell and Shane Hipps made the rather flippant remark that heaven was “all speculation.”
I know that both of them grew up in an era when some rapture excitement had gone well beyond biblical parameters, but they were not old enough to have heard it in the form I heard from Salem Kirban and Hal Lindsay. So I will raise my hands with both Bell and Hipps and question, question, question rapture theology. But rapture theology is not the same as the hope of heaven.
I question their use of the words all and speculation. No, heaven is not all speculation, at least not if the Bible, Jesus, or the apostles John and Paul have any say in the matter. Heaven is not all speculation; neither is any revelation about heaven rightly considered speculation if it is grounded in the vision of God through the prophets of Israel, the explicit teachings of Jesus, and the clear contours of thought from the apostles about the new heavens and the new earth. It may be speculative to ask about the presence of dogs in heaven, but it is not speculative to ask if there is hope beyond the grave. Neither is it speculation to ask what Jesus thought about the “age to come,” his term for what most of us today call “heaven.”
A theology of heaven, to be sure, has at times led some Christians away from this world into a dualism/Platonism/Neoplatonism/spiritualism where all that matters are soul and spirit, and what must be shucked are body and earth. N. T. Wright’s major contribution in his eschatology books, not the least of which is the accessible Surprised by Heaven, has been to assault this dualist framework that shunts any biblical vision of a new heaven and a new earth into little more than a metaphor for a far more ethereal and spiritual heaven. Those who long for that kind of heaven, no doubt, have at times been of little earthly use to God’s good creation or our world, but distortion of the very-earthly kind of hopes about heaven in the Bible does not require or lead to the idea that it is “all speculation.” To call heaven “speculation” is, in fact, to spit in the face of the Lord of the new heavens and the new earth and to silence the voice of his apostles. (By the way, it has been observed by more than C. S. Lewis that those most enthralled by a hope of heaven have been the most active to make the world a better place.)
Why Believe in Heaven?
Perhaps we should ask what “heaven” is before we investigate the case for heaven. Heaven is—note that a biblical theology for answering such a question (rather than a modern sociological one) must be admitted—the place where God makes all things right in relation to himself, all of creation, and all humans. Heaven is where God is truly God, where the Lamb’s work on the cross will be celebrated on the throne, where our life will be intoxicated with divinely intended pleasures and joys, where death and evil will no longer be a threat, where humans from all of history and all of creation will enter into a global fellowship, and where we shall all live in the joys of love, justice, and peace. There is much to be said about each of these points, but this space was reserved for me to park but one car: the case for heaven.
If this is heaven, then why should we believe in it? If we are honest, many of us will admit that we believe in heaven because we were nurtured into a worldview and faith where heaven was either central or at least part of that faith. As a Protestant, I want to know how that nurtured faith is connected to and supported by what the Bible teaches. So to the Bible we must go, which challenges over and over what the near-death experience “theologies” teach. I think there are four elements to the case for heaven in the Bible.
1. Because Jesus was raised from the dead. No resurrection means no hope, and therefore no heaven—it’s that simple. If Jesus was contained by death, then we will be too; if he cracked the death barriers, then we will too. Some might say it’s nothing but foggy speculation, and they might have the steely courage to suggest we will just have to abide in that depressed fog with the little hope we can muster. After all, in the inimitable words of N. T. Wright, “All language about the future, as any economist or politician will tell you, is simply a set of signposts pointing into a fog.” But is it just a fog? Will the fog lift? Can we find our way through it? Because Jesus was raised, Wright declares that the “fog” will not have the last word: “Supposing someone came forward out of the fog to meet us?” (3) That “someone” is Jesus, who burns off the mists in the blazing heat of his resurrection. It’s in the fog that we discover the one who can dissolve the fog.
There is much more that could (and should) be said, but I want to narrow our focus to this singular point: The entire heaven hope of Christians stands or falls with the resurrection of Jesus. The Apostle Paul knew this from the outset, and he knew it in part because he encountered the crucified one as the resurrected one on the road to Damascus:
That is my point: If Christ is not raised, then our hope is false. The biggest if in the world now follows: If Christ was raised, then the barriers beyond death have been broken.
I may have believed in heaven as a child because my Christians parents taught me about heaven or because my Sunday school teacher’s flannel graph had heaven on it or because my pastor preached about it, but I believe in heaven now because Jesus was raised from the dead.
2.Because God is a God of promise who is faithful to his promises. If you read very far into your Bible, say thirteen or more chapters, you will discover the Promise of all promises. God made a promise to Abraham that included making him a great nation (which means lots and lots of descendants), a nation so big it would bless the entire world; and to this man God also promised a place to live in safety: the Promised Land. It is not hard to follow the land promise (which is tied closely to the temple promise) from Abraham to Moses (tabernacle, temple), to David (land, temple), to the prophets (land, exile, temple glory vacated), to Jesus (Jesus as temple, Jesus as God’s glory, Jesus and the Spirit), to the apostles (where land is expanded to the whole world, where the church is indwelt by the Spirit to make all Christians God’s temple), and then on to the new heavens and the new earth. The Promise of all promises is key to an accurate reading of the Bible. The heaven promise of the Bible is a promise that begins with Abraham and ends with the new heavens and the new earth. The case of heaven is established in faith in the God of promise: If God is good on his promissory word, then heaven is sure.
3. Because the Bible’s view of justice is incomplete without heaven. A third element in the case for heaven is what the Bible means by justice, and here I want to briefly criticize the accommodation tendency of too many Christians today to embrace “justice” as defined by the U.S. Constitution. The Bible’s sense of justice is inextricably tied to the term “righteousness.” “Justice” and “righteousness” are variant translations of the tsdq and dikaios word groups, which mean conformity to God’s will as revealed in the Torah, in the teachings of Jesus, and in life in the Spirit. This definition of righteousness/justice dictates the directions of the Bible from its very opening to its closing, and thus informs us of what God wants for this world: a world shaped by his will in Christ.
The Bible’s sense of justice without the reality of the hope of heaven leaves an incomplete world, an unfulfilled promise, and a disobeyed directive from God. From Moses to the prophets and then into the New Testament authors, the Bible both criticizes the injustices of God’s people and this world and anticipates the coming day when those injustices will be rolled up and destroyed so room can be made for a world marked by justice. The case for heaven, I contend, entails a conviction that the victims of the injustices of this world (many of which are never undone in this life) cannot experience the Lordship of God and the victory of the Lamb until those injustices are made right in the justice of the new heavens and the new earth.
4. Because the Bible says so. We’ve beaten this drum a few times now, but a few more bangs won’t do us any harm. The case for heaven is made not by trusting in near-death experiences or visions, but by trusting the Bible’s words as trustworthy and true. Jesus taught about “eternal life” over and over, and nearly every Bible scholar knows that Jesus used Jewish ideas about the Age to Come. Now the Bible’s view of the Age to Come is very much like that Jewish vision: it’s not an escape to an ethereal, spiritual, soul-only reality; rather, it is the restoration, remaking, and recreation of this world in the new heavens and the new earth. In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul also excited his readers by tying “gospel” to eschatology, reaching the heights of biblical, eschatological glory with these words:
But each in turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. For he “has put everything under his feet.” Now when it says that “everything” has been put under him, it is clear that this does not include God himself, who put everything under Christ. When he has done this, then the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all. (1 Cor. 15:23–28)
Paul’s vision is expanded and exceeded in Revelation 21, and I close by illustrating our fourth case for heaven. If you believe the Bible, then you believe in heaven, you believe in the new heavens and the new earth:
Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”
My favorite line in the whole Bible on the heaven promise is that last line: “These words are trustworthy and true.”
1 Mally Cox-Chapman, The Case for Heaven: Near-Death Experiences as Evidence of the Afterlife (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1995), 58.
2 Julian Barnes, A History of the World in 10½ Chapters (New York: Vintage, 1990), 298–99.
3 N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (New York: HarperOne, 2008), xiii–xiv.