I think that most people are somewhat curious about what lies beyond the grave. Maybe it’s just our hope that death isn’t the end, but most people want to believe that something awaits us beyond the grave. It might take the form of reincarnation or bodily resurrection or some other manifestation, but whatever the form, death can’t be the last word. The fact is, no one knows for sure what awaits us. So, most of us take this as an act of faith, hoping that our ultimate fate comes out well (many seem to believe in a hellish afterlife, but few believe they’re destined to go there).
While most of us take the idea of life after death as a matter of faith not fact, there have been, down through the ages, many reports about people going to heaven and returning to tell their story. For them, this seems like proof, and there are those who take their testimony as proof of heaven. What makes this question difficult to answer is that, at least from a faith perspective, there isn’t just one description of the afterlife. What Christians believe is very different from what a Hindu or Buddhist believes.
For those of us in the biblical tradition, whether Jew or Christian, the Bible offers hints of what an afterlife looks like, but there isn’t one clear picture. Prior to the Babylonian exile, little is little said about an afterlife. One looked for their legacy to be fulfilled in their progeny, not in another life, and what is said isn’t all that hopeful. The Jewish Sheol isn’t much different from the Greek Hades, a place of the shades, a place of grayness not the brightness that we so often imagine heaven to be like. In time, things do develop, and by the time of Jesus there is a rather robust view of resurrection – a sense that at least for the righteous there is the promise of bodily presence with God, and this view does take root in the Christian faith community.
While I affirm the idea of an afterlife, believing that there is more to our reality than this life would reveal – I’m skeptical about the reports of Near-Death Experiences. In these stories, a person allegedly dies, goes to heaven, and then returns. There are similarities to the reports – tunnels of light, meetings with family and friends now deceased, and in most cases a sense of warmth and love, though there are some reports of a hellish experience. Sometimes people will report having seen Jesus, and then receiving from him a word of instruction about how to live upon return to the body. The question is – how do we know that these experiences truly reveal heaven? Although I’m not saying that the reports are faked, I’m just questioning whether these are truly experiences of heaven. Could there be other answers? Could these be mystical visions stimulated by drawing close to death? Could this be part of a natural response to the death experience that’s been cut short? We simply don’t know for sure.
With all of these questions in mind I read Revealing Heaven by John W. Price for the TLC Book Tour. When approached I expressed my skepticism of Near-Death Experiences, but I was intrigued by the fact that the author is an Episcopal priest who served many years as a hospital chaplain. It didn’t hurt that the book is published by a major publisher of religious books.
What is intriguing about the book are the author’s accounts of the people he encountered in the course of his ministry told of having died and then returned to life. Most of these people told similar stories. These are some second-hand stories, but many are first hand. Indeed, on occasion he happened to be present in the moment of the Near Death Experience. Many of these stories speak of the way in which people’s lives are dramatically transformed as a result of the experience. Many experience what you would call a conversion, a turning around of life. People who seemed to die were full of anger or hatred, become gracious and loving people, who devote themselves to service to God and neighbor.
Price starts with the story of a person he encountered whose Near-Death Experience caused him to not only reevaluate his own view of NDE. He notes at the beginning that his own background was rather rationalist and defined by scientific values. As a seminarian, he found that his own professors didn’t even believe in an afterlife, so his encounter with a person who told of his own Near Death Experience raised questions that he felt needed further exploration. As he explores the possibility of life after death and the validity of these stories, he finds the resistance to belief in life after death on the part of seminary professors and fellow clergy to be frustrating. But, this resistance seems to drive his own efforts to explore the idea and then tell the stories he encounters, ultimately seeking in this book to defend the premise that NDE offer proof of heaven. As he shares the stories, he puts them in the context of a fairly open and pluralistic theology. He believes that God is love and that these experiences are all expressions of love.
Wanting to put the experiences in a theological context, he explores the biblical texts that deal with life after death, offers historical accounts, and offers a variety of theological responses to the question. Part One of the book ends with a discussion of recent conversations about NDE. And with all the recent conversations, including some best-selling books, his book seems to arrive at just the right time.
If Part One sets the context, part two focuses on the actual experiences and the process of death as well as seeks to describe what he believes heaven looks like – largely on the basis of the NDE reports. He also recounts several more hellish experiences, suggesting that both are possible, even if most accounts, whatever the religious background or personality are positive. There is also a chapter dealing with the return to the body – what that looks like and the responses.
The final chapter is entitled “What Heaven Reveals,” and here he speaks of divine love, offers a response to fear-based Christianity, touches on other religions, and suggests that experience should have primacy over doctrine. The emphasis on experience over doctrine is key to his response to those who complain that his accounts don’t seem to hold out the possibility of divine judgment or that one must accept Christ to make it to heaven. Thus, the complaint of some is that this just seems way too open-ended. Now, that’s not my complaint, but some critics don’t like the universalist tendencies of such reports.
So, what are my concerns? First, while I embrace the idea of life-after-death, I don’t have confidence that what is being reported is evidence of that reality. While I appreciate the reports that most people who go through these experiences are changed by them and live better, more loving lives, afterward, there are serious theological problems involved in his presentation. Although Price seems to believe that NDE experiences offer us a word of comfort, because they seem to suggest that there’s proof of heaven, there’s something about these accounts that leave me uncomfortable. The problem emerges with his explanation as to why people return from heaven. Price’s answer is simple. It wasn’t their time to die. As a result, Jesus sends those with NDE back to continue living. I don’t find this word comforting at all. It might be useful for those who have these experiences, and perhaps for their families, but what it does say about other people, especially children who die unexpectedly? Was it their time?
As you think about this possibility, consider the twenty children who were massacred at Newtown. Was it their time to go? Did God need them up in heaven? Such words are less than comforting for families who mourn the loss of their children. Part of my objection here is pastoral, knowing that those who lose loved ones unexpectedly won’t find this word helpful. They may appreciate the possibility of heaven, but this seems rather arbitrary.
I also have a theological problem with what seems to be a fatalistic/deterministic view of life. According to Price we all have our allotted time to die. If something happens where we die prematurely we get sent back. That’s not my theology. It’s not my vision of God. It’s a vision that allows no freedom, no openness of the future. Everything is already written out for me. What Price finds comforting, I find to be oppressive.