Near Death Experiences and the Bible

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Near Death Experiences (NDEs) and stories of people encountering Heaven have flooded the bookstands and airways for the past forty years. The Gallup Poll estimates some 8 million Americans have had a Near Death Experience with something to report. Unfortunately, rather than seeking to reconcile these experiences with scripture, many Christians have dismissed or demonized all such accounts, partially due to so few hellish accounts reported.

Starting with the death of my father 35 years ago, I began studying these accounts to discover an amazing correlation with what the Christian scriptures promise about the life to come (both Heaven and Hell). Not every detail of every NDE correlates with the Bible as people are interpreting an out-of-this-world experience. However, I found core experiences shared by thousands clearly point to the God of the Bible and the Heaven he promises. The core of these experiences gives greater clarity to the sometimes fuzzy, boring, and unimaginative views so many Christians (and non-Christians) hold, keeping them earth-bound in focus.

I’m convinced a main reason many people (Christians and non-Christians) live materialistic, self-centered lifestyles is a poor view of the life to come. They can’t imagine Heaven, so they don’t live for it. If eternity is not worth living for in your mind and heart, you’re not going to make decisions based on eternity.  Yet all of God’s heroes of faith “were looking for a better place, a heavenly homeland. That is why God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them” (Hebrews 11:16).  Imagining and living for Heaven is not optional in God’s eyes—it’s the only way to live.

Imagine Heaven (the working title) will change the way Christians and skeptics view God and Heaven. Using true stories of Near Death Experiences to color in scripture’s picture of the life to come, I hope to stretch the reader’s imagination to see that “the whole earth is full of the glory of God.” If that’s true, wouldn’t God’s World be far better—not discontinuous with His fallen creation, but so much more fulfilling, and definitely worth living for today?

My goal in writing is to propel readers into an experience of Heaven that will forever change their view of the life to come and the way they live life today. I will draw from three sources: A vast array of Near Death Experiences I’ve read or personally interviewed, an in-depth study of God’s Word, and healthy imagination based on what we experience as “every good gift that comes down from the Father of Lights.”

I want to explore key questions people have about Heaven, relating to the core common experiences of NDEs that correlate to the Bible: Will I be myself? Will I see friends and loved ones? Will it be gray and boring or beautiful and exhilarating? What is God like? What will we do forever? What about children and pets? Etc. We will then expound on what scripture teaches but from a perspective that keeps readers on a journey of imaginative wonder.

I will explore questions not often addressed. What about rewards in Heaven? How does what we do in this life affect what we experience in the next? Then we will tackle why so few NDE experiences talk about judgment or Hell. I will help the reader see that these experiences are not the final destination, and why our theology of the afterlife should be based on the words of Jesus, not NDE testimony alone.

While hellish NDEs are reported infrequently, I personally know two people who have died and come back to report a hellish experience. I’ll explore more thoughts on that topic in upcoming blogs.  But I think these accounts help us see why God would allow such suffering and pain mixed with such love and beauty during this life—life is a warning of something far worse, and a beckoning toward something so much better. We truly have a choice—to choose God and love God, or to play God and reject Him.

But in Christ, we have nothing to fear—not in this life or in the life to come.  In fact, we can have assurance of the Life we long for.

Heaven is for Real

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heaven light

I was sixteen when I watched my dad slowly waste away into a bag of bones in the downstairs guest room—dying of lung cancer. Watching the man that I once saw as strong and unshakable crumble with each step left me urgently seeking a new foundation to build my life upon. I needed hope.

I took the book off my mom’s bedside table and skimmed the first chapter.  It claimed to be about those who had clinically died, but had later been resuscitated and lived to tell of how they left their bodies, watched the resuscitation attempts from above, yet felt more alive than ever before.

I was not a believer. I was skeptical about God and running from Him because I knew how I was living was wrong.  But now my father was dying.

I took the book back to my room. Sitting on my bed with my back against the wall, I finished the whole book in three hours.  I was blown away!  Modern medical technology seemed to make resuscitation from “clinical death” more common, and here were one hundred cases of those who claimed to have had a vision of the afterlife.

Some of these Near Death Experiences (NDE’s) talked about encountering a Being of Light, whose brilliance outshines the sun.  They knew that with earthly eyes, they would not even be able to look at Him, yet as they gazed on Him in their new spiritual body none wanted to leave His presence.  They were home. Loved and embraced with warmth that made them never want to leave. But they all had to return.

I don’t know how I knew, but I knew.  “That’s You, Jesus, isn’t it!?” Maybe it was that some of them said it was Jesus. Or maybe in some of my early mandatory church attendance, I remembered Paul’s encounter with the blinding light on the Damascus road: “Who are You, Lord?” Paul asked.  “I am Jesus, the one you are persecuting.”  Or maybe I remembered Jesus’ own words, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12).  Or maybe He just drew me and let me know Himself, but that night I said, “Jesus, if that’s You, I want to be with You when I die.”

It was one year later that I got into the small group learning what the Bible taught about God’s Grace, and I professed faith in Jesus. Along the way, I discovered so much evidence for Jesus’ claim that He was God’s self-revelation (see all my messages about it on http://www.gatewaychurch.com/foundations/).  Since that time, I have read the Bible cover to cover numerous times, studied it in depth, and got a Master’s degree in it. I’ve also read hundreds of books by people claiming to have had Near Death Experiences. Some seemed whacked, and some seemed genuine, but despite differences in interpretation (which all are interpreting an experience), I saw a core of commonalities I couldn’t ignore.

heaven is for real2Last weekend I saw the movie, Heaven is for Real, about Colton Burpo—a four-year-old who journeyed to Heaven and saw friends and Jesus, the Father, and Spirit. I had read the book (the book is MUCH better, but the movie’s worth seeing). I have had this growing sense all year long that I’m supposed to write about Heaven, and Colton’s story would be part of it. Several months ago, I sent a proposal to my publisher called, Imagine Heaven: True Stories, God’s Promises, and the Exhilarating Future That Awaits You.

They accepted it!

I’ll tell you more about it in my next post, but I’m super excited to write it. So many Christians have a negative view of Heaven, and I think that’s why we live such materialistic lives. Scripture tells us to “Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3:2-3). I want to help Christians and skeptics see through God’s Word, NDE testimony, and our imaginations the exhilarating future that awaits you!

If you know of people who have had Near Death Experiences, please let me know as I’d love to interview them.

Want to Profit Large?

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BreadWhat is your idea of profit? Jesus once said, “People don’t live by bread alone, but by every word that comes out of the mouth of God.”  Over the course of my time following Christ, I’ve heard many people reminisce their old church or Christian group, often times saying, “I used to be close to God—when I was a part of that group, but ever since, I don’t experience God in my life in the same way.”  And I heard things like this over and over again.  But then there were others I would run into and somehow their relationship with God seemed to survive transitions from one church or group to another.

The differentiating factor was the regular, consistent learning from the Bible—as Jesus said, “feeding your soul on God’s Words.”  This was the dividing line that seemed to separate a personal, continually growing experience of God from an event or group-dependent experience of God.

God told us the Bible is useful to our spiritual growth in many ways: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the person of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” 2 Timothy 3:16-17

It’s God breathedinspired.  We don’t believe God dictated His words–that’s not what 2 Timothy 3 means.  Instead, it says God inspired (He used the people He created to record His interactions, thoughts and ways).  This is important—there is a dual authorship of scripture.  2 Peter 1:20-21 says, “Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation. For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” People wrote in their own language, grammar, historical context, using their own style and vocabulary.  But they were moved by God’s Spirit to write thoughts impressed upon their minds by God.  So it claims throughout to be God’s revealed words to us…and He intended it to be profitable for us.

Profitable for Teaching – It teaches us about God and about ourselves.  Just like you can learn a lot about a person by reading biographies, and you can understand yourself better by studying psychology—God has given us the scriptures so we can know him and ourselves better.  How many of us have had misconceptions about God that have changed since we read what the Bible actually says about God’s character or his love?

Profitable for Reproof – Were you ever reproved as a child?  From what I know of most of us, we were reproved a lot.  This just means pointing out when we screw up–pointing out our shortcomings.  Now the biggest problem we have with reproof is that if it’s not done in love, it feels like a hammer.  But God always points out when we go astray for one of two reasons:  To protect us from harm, or to provide something better.  And as we grow to trust that what we want is really what God wants for us, then we will listen to reproof with an open mind.

Profitable for Correction – Correction is different than pointing out what is wrong. Correction is showing the way back onto the right path.  When we’re lost on the road of life, God’s Word shows us how to get back on God’s road for us.

Profitable for Training – It shows us how to put exercises in our lives that will help train us to be spiritually strong.  Just like you work out and train your body to be physically strong, we must train spiritually to stay fit and able to respond to tests of our spiritual strength and endurance.

But the only way the Bible is going to profit us at all is if we make the time to invest ourselves in it.  Think of all the books we’ve read, studied, memorized from 6th grade until now. We have the ability, so why wouldn’t we invest at least the same effort in the Greatest Book ever written?  Thoughts?

The Best Way to Predict Your Maturity is….?

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Spiritual maturity_blade of grass

 

The single best practice to change your spiritual life is…? Before I tell you what research says, let me tell you what I’ve noticed in my own life and watching others over 25 years of ministry. About 18 months ago, my son got me back into weight lifting. I realized I only have a couple of years to model and apprentice him to be just as strong on the inside as he’s becoming on the outside. I set a goal to instill in him 3 practices that have made the most difference in my life:

 

~ Staying connected to God’s Spirit in a moment by moment way.  Jesus said apart from abiding in Him, “you can accomplish nothing” (John 15:5), so that seems important! We read Soul Revolution and practiced the 60-60 together.

~Loving, confessing community every week seems essential.  Jesus’ disciples implore us to not neglect meeting together, but encourage each other and to “confess your sins to one another…so you may be healed.” (Hebrews 10:24-25, James 5:16). He’s in a small group with other students.

~Daily reading the Bible is the third essential practice. The Lord said to his leader, Joshua, “meditate on [scripture] day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful” (Joshua 1:8). We just talked about getting more consistent on this one.

 

 

But which one is MOST important?

Last week, our leadership team sat with Nancy Lewis, a statistician here in Austin overseeing our church survey. Nancy’s the brains behind the Reveal survey.  She told us, “After surveying 750,000 Christians about spiritual growth, the single biggest predictor of spiritual growth, regardless of maturity level, is whether a person has a daily practice of reflecting on the Bible.”

She said of all the spiritual disciplines, this one stood out by a statistically significant wide margin. More than anything else, daily reflection on scripture determines whether a person actually does things that demonstrate love for God and love for others (signs of true spiritual maturity).

 

Daily?

She went on to say, “It’s got to be daily.”  I pushed for clarity, “why daily—isn’t a few times a week good enough?” “No!” she insisted. “We looked at the difference between those who said ‘daily’ versus ‘several times a week’ and there’s a big difference in outcomes.”  When I questioned why, she postulated that people who say “daily” probably really do have daily habits, whereas those who say “several times a week” might not even be that regular in reality.

 

Not Just Reading…Reflecting

She also said, it’s not just reading the Bible daily. They looked at the difference between those who said “I read daily” and those who said “I reflect on scripture daily,” and there was a statistically significant difference influencing maturity. So it’s not just reading and checking the box, “I was a good Christian boy/girl today,” it’s the daily practice of prayerfully reflecting on what you’re reading.  Not just reading God’s Word, but letting God’s Word read you (someone wiser than me said that). In fact, for growing Christ followers, scripture reflection is twice as catalytic as any other factor! You can read more of Nancy’s analysis in Greg Hawkin’s book, Move.

Lifeway Research followed 2,500 church attendees for a year to determine the biggest influence on spiritual growth and maturity. “Daily Bible engagement was the No. 1 predictor of spiritual maturation,” wrote Wagonner in his book, The Shape of Faith to Come.

With a bit of ironic twist, we wouldn’t need research to tell us this…if we meditated on God’s Word.  Moses, David, Isaiah, Jesus, Paul, Peter all say how important it is to read, meditate, memorize, and study God’s Word.  So as leaders, there’s nothing more important we can do than model this and help others live it too! Let’s talk more about it in upcoming posts, but first…

Share comments of what’s helped or hindered you most in developing daily habits in God’s Word?

Why Baptism?

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Baptism 2012

I love Baptism—this Sunday people of all ages, all walks of life, every sordid past imaginable, will walk into that pool wearing jeans, in dresses, not letting anything get in their way of publicly identifying with Jesus!  Such a beautiful picture of spiritual cleansing. But why baptism?

I’ve noticed over the years that it makes a BIG difference if I help those thinking about following Christ or who have never been baptized understand why baptism is so important. So I want to ask you who are at Gateway Church to think of those who are close to faith or have come to faith, and have these conversations this week.  If you’re still considering baptism, here’s why it matters so much.

 

1. Jesus did it and commanded it

I’m going to confess something to you, but you have to promise not to tell anyone—okay? When I was young, my parents took me to a fairly ritualistic church, I was baptized, or Christened, as a baby (which really was my parents’ decision, not my own), and as a kid I went through the motions.  But I didn’t find faith, and as a result, I always disdained meaningless church rituals. In some ways, I put baptism into that camp.  So I had been a Christian for 7 years when I learned this.

One night, I was reading the scriptures, and I read about Jesus’ baptism. Jesus went from Galilee to the Jordan River to be baptized by John. But John tried to talk him out of it. “I am the one who needs to be baptized by you,” he said, “so why are you coming to me?” But Jesus said, “It should be done, for we must carry out all that God requires.” Matthew 3:13-15

“All that God requires…all that God requires?” I had never really thought about it as something God would require—I had just thought about baptism as a church ritual. Yet here Jesus gets baptized—out of obedience to God. So I decided to really study what the scriptures say about baptism. I realized—this is not just some ritual—this is important to God. It’s a command for all Christ-followers. It really should have been my first act of willingness to follow God’s will.

One of the last things Jesus said to those who would choose to follow him: “I have been given all authority in heaven and on earth. 19 Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.” Matthew 28:18-19  Jesus commands every person who decides to follow Christ—to identify with the One true God, Creator and Father of all, who revealed himself in the Son, and lives in us by his Spirit. So I decided late is better than never…I got baptized.  But why does it matter?

 

2. Baptism is Public Identification with Christ

Baptism is going public with our unseen faith. Jesus publicly identified with you and me. He hung on a cross, died, and was buried because of Identification with us. He identified with us to pay for all our treasons against God (doing our will instead of God’s will). Jesus wasn’t baptized as a symbol of cleansing, he’d done no wrong. Christ suffered for our sins once for all time. He never sinned, but he died for sinners to bring you safely home to God. He suffered physical death, but he was raised to life in the Spirit…water is a picture of baptism, which now saves you, not by removing dirt from your body, but as a response to God from [as an appeal to God for] a clean conscience. It is effective because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. 1 Peter 3:18, 21

As this says, the water is a picture of baptism. The water is a physical picture, or symbol, of a faith transaction between you and God that no one can see. It’s not physical water washing or cleaning your physical body that saves you, but baptism is a picture of God cleansing your Spirit and conscience, so that you are made right with God spiritually (saved means brought into right relationship with the One who created you). All he needs to do this is your permission—your faith.  When the thief hanging on the cross next to Jesus admitted his wrongs and said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He didn’t have time to get baptized physically, yet Jesus said “Today you’ll be with me in Paradise.”

What God did through Jesus is provide a way to know that we know that we know—he won’t condemn us, no one can condemn us—we belong to God. For you were buried with Christ when you were baptized. And with him you were raised to new life because you trusted the mighty power of God, who raised Christ from the dead. You were dead because of your sins…Then God made you alive with Christ, for he forgave all our sins. He canceled the record of the charges against us and took it away by nailing it to the cross. In this way, he disarmed the spiritual rulers and authorities. He shamed them publicly by his victory over them on the cross. So don’t let anyone condemn you….  Colossians 2:12-16

When you go down into the water, you are publicly identifying with Jesus death and burial on your behalf. Saying, “Jesus was buried for my sins, it should have been me.” And when you come up out of the water, it’s a symbol of your Trust in the power of God that not only raised Jesus to life, but that cleanses you and gives you life with God, now and forever.  If he wasn’t ashamed to hang on a bloody cross to publicly identify with us, will we be ashamed to publicly identify with him?

 

3. Baptism has Cosmic Significance to God

Did you notice that last verse? “He disarmed the spiritual rulers and authorities. He shamed them publicly by his victory over them on the cross.”  When a person gets baptized, it’s like God says, “Look—love wins again,” to all the powers of heaven and earth. God’s love publicly shames evil with every baptism. What God is doing in you is of Cosmic Significance! Jesus said all the angels in heaven celebrate when one person turns back to God! That’s why we hoot and holler and celebrate every baptism. God wants to show you off to the unseen and seen world as “His Beloved Son or Daughter” publicly. That’s pretty inspiring, if you grasp it.

To God, baptism is a lot like a wedding ceremony or a ring. It’s a public symbol of a covenant relationship of faith. What keeps me and Kathy married is not our rings, or our wedding ceremony, it’s our covenant we made to each other. But what if after I proposed to Kathy, she said, “Okay, I’ll live with you, but…I don’t really want a public wedding—can we just keep it between us?  And the ring—wow—it’s really beautiful, but…you know if I wear it in public, like…people are going to stare and know I’m taken, I just don’t know.” To which I’d say, “I just don’t know either—I mean, if you’re ashamed to Identify yourself publicly as mine—how much do you really love me?”  Baptism is this declaring to the Cosmos—I belong to God.

 

What About Infant Baptism?

Many times people feel that adult baptism will negate their baptism as an infant.  I ask them, “Why do you think your parents decided to baptize you? Wasn’t it in hopes that you would one day decide for yourself to follow Christ?  That was their decision, but now you are fulfilling their decision by deciding for yourself to publicly identify with Christ.”

 

Get Wet with Them

Think and pray about who is exploring faith or has made a decision of faith but still has not gone public.  Make a few phone calls this week and explain why baptism matters to God (suggest our baptism study and check out the awesome baptisms pics at  www.gatewaychurch.com/baptism), and tell them you’ll be in the water celebrating with them.  There’s no greater privilege than celebrating baptism with a friend.