Greg Strand is EFCA executive director of theology and credentialing, and he serves on the Board of Ministerial Standing as well as the Spiritual Heritage Committee. He and his family are members of Northfield (Minnesota) EFC.
In light of the movie release of 90 Minutes in Heaven, the story of Don Piper’s death-back-to-life experience published in the book 90 Minutes in Heaven (2004), how do we think about and respond to this sort of phenomenon? Is it good? Bad? True? False? Partially True?
Scot McKnight has written a helpful response: What Do We Make of '90 Minutes in Heaven'?
McKnight refers to a study done of Near-Death-Experiences (NDEs) by Mally Cox-Chapman, The Case for Heaven: Near-Death Experiences as Evidence of the Afterlife. Cox-Chapman is a journalist (from what I gather, she is not a Christian) who pursued many who have had these experiences, which is the basis of the book. As she compiled the phenomenon from those who had NDEs, from all walks of life and from various religions, she noted the following nine phenomena, with not all being experienced by all: *Feelings of peace and quiet; *Feeling oneself out of the body; *Going through a dark tunnel; *Meeting others, including one or more beings of light; *A life review; *Coming to a border or limit; *Coming back; *Seeing life differently; *Having new views of death.
These nine common experiences led Cox-Chapman to three conclusions of NDEs, summarized by McKnight.
“If you believe the NDE stories because of the experience being told,” writes McKnight, “then you don’t need the Bible. If the experience itself is what determines what you believe, then you will believe the experience regardless of what the Bible says about heaven.”
Regarding his own reading of many of these stories, McKnight concludes “they in fact often don’t’ confirm what the Bible says. In fact, they bring into the light the faith and convictions and suspicions and hopes and dreams of what that person already believed. In this case, the Bible is being pushed to the side for the sake of the experience.”
To the contrary, we must go back to the Bible and there we will hear the true teaching about heaven and we will find it does not reflect what is told by those who experienced a NDE: “It seems to me in the flourishing of these NDEs, many Christians will want once again to take a whole new look at what the Bible says about heaven. What they will find, in almost all cases, is a view of heaven that is quite unlike what is experienced in the NDEs.”
When I hear these stories and the temptation to elevate experience over truth, I remember the parable of Jesus of the rich man and Lazarus. Both died and Lazarus was at Abraham’s side and the rich man was not. There was a chasm between the two. The rich man, knowing his five brothers were living the same way with a similar fate awaiting them, asked Abraham to send the poor man to warn his brothers so they did not end up in the same place of torment.
Thinking that would be a superior witness and testimony to assure their repentance, he was corrected. That was not the most certain word/testimony. That had already been given, and it would be confirmed shortly thereafter in the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Here are the words: “Abraham said, 'They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.' And he said, 'No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.' He said to him, 'If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead'" (Lk. 16:29-31).
The true testimony, the superior witness, the final word on this matter is the Bible. Experiences may be real. But one’s interpretation of those experiences is not necessarily true or accurate. Experiences are not self-interpreting. In fact, apart from God and his Word, the experience will not be rightly understood. Remember the women who ran to the tomb. They experienced the empty tomb, which was real, it was accurate, it was true. However, they wrongly interpreted it thinking someone had taken the body, while the Jewish religious authorities (the chief priests and elders) spread the lie by paying off the Roman soldiers to perpetuate the lie that someone stole Jesus' body (cf. Matt. 28:5-15; Mk. 16:3-8; Lk. 24:1-9; Jn. 20:11-18). It required a divine interpretation of the experience/event by the angels, confirmed by the resurrected Jesus Himself, to understand and interpret the empty tomb accurately. The same holds true for all other experiences. Any and all experiences must be read, understood and interpreted by God and his Word.