Monday, February 04, 2013

NDEs versus the Gospel

And when they say to you, “Seek those who are mediums and wizards, who whisper and mutter,” should not a people seek their God? Should they seek the dead on behalf of the living? To the law and to the testimony! If they do not speak according to this word, it is because there is no light in them. (Isaiah 8:19- 20)

The Popular Appeal of NDE Accounts

 The accounts of NDEs "Near Death Experiences" have become a mainstay of pop-Christian and non-Christian hope for some kind of life beyond death.

My first encounter with NDE stories came in the movie theater in 1978 with the Sunn Classic Pictures release of "Beyond and Back." It made some mystical impressions on me in my youth. But the central issue was that none of the evidence this "documentary" provided was consistent with Scripture.

Today NDE accounts are big money. Amazon, Goodreads, and many others publish lists of books they want to sell on the topic. And they do sell very well. Magazines, Tabloids, and newspapers willingly publish accounts of NDEs.

Last week an article came up on the topic at PJMedia by P. David Hornik titled What Near-Death Experiences Tell Us. The article reminded me why I so strongly reject these NDE accounts. The concluding words of the article may help the reader understand why clamoring after NDE accounts is so dangerous:
"[W]hile NDEs do not invalidate people’s religions, they do seem to invalidate harshly sectarian, exclusionary forms of religion. In today’s world, one particular religion keeps producing terrorism and systematic persecution of people of other creeds. The evidence from NDE research is clear: the road to heaven is open to all, and the deity does not exclusively favor any category of people. Perhaps, for the long term — centuries — these discoveries offer hope."
The lies of NDEs are compelling — relying upon human sympathy and compassion; after all, how dare anyone question the visions or experiences of those who have "crossed over"? The outrage against questioning these visions is especially pronounced when the person who had the NDE is small, like Colton Burpo in "Heaven is for Real!"

The books on NDE fill "Christian" bookstores because pop-Christianity sees these experiences to be of value to the Christian faith. [I know, I'll probably get in trouble for putting that in quotation marks, but the point is that most of the stuff sold in most of these bookstores is only nominally Christian and essentially Pelagian.]

And these accounts are a mainstay for pop-Christian periodicals, like Guideposts (N.V. Peale's magazine promoting the false "prosperity" gospel).

We come back to the quotation at the start of the article:
And when they say to you, “Seek those who are mediums and wizards, who whisper and mutter,” should not a people seek their God? Should they seek the dead on behalf of the living? To the law and to the testimony! If they do not speak according to this word, it is because there is no light in them. (Isaiah 8:19- 20)
To this day I have not been able to find, nor has anyone shown me an account of a contemporary NDE which points only to God's Grace in Jesus Christ given to us through Word and Sacrament. None of them, so far, have pointed exclusively to the Cross of Christ and His Means of Grace. This should be particularly noted of the "Christian" accounts. I'd gladly be corrected, shown such an example. But such an example would only prove the point that I'm setting out to make.

That is this: God directs us to rely only on what He has placed in His written Word: The Holy Scriptures. Any word from anywhere else must be viewed with the caution that understands that the devil, the world, and our own flesh seek to distract us from that Word of salvation through faith in Christ alone.

If the NDE is not perfectly in line with the teaching God has given us in His written Word, then the vision/experience of the NDE is not of God and has no value for our spiritual growth — except as an example of how people are deceived away from God's Word.

The basic motivation for clinging to NDE accounts is lack of faith in what God explicitly states in Scripture. And that lack of faith is common to all who are stained by original sin. Myself included.

 My Own Experience

Part 1: NDEs Supplant The Word of God

In January 2011, Shirley L., a member at one of my churches, asked me to review Todd Burpo's account of the NDE experienced by his son, Colton. The book is Heaven is for Real!

I put it off; some real reasons: 10 children, 4 congregations, 40 shut-ins at the time, driving about 30,000 miles a year just for church work.

Some of my reasons were selfish: I no longer like schmaltzy pop Christian literature: self-help, testimonies, spiritual growth, or etc... It doesn't take many books to see the patterns of the theology of glory, the minimizing of the means of grace, the focus on introspection and wrestling one's conscience into a state of peace with God through one's self-sacrificing spiritual struggle, the seductive distraction from relying only on God's grace in Christ through Word and Sacrament to rely upon miracles, visions, and works. And I have read literally hundreds of these kinds of "Christian" books.

Shirley persisted. She gave me a copy of the book. She had a real concern. The concern was that so many people were buying, reading, and praising this book. It had become something of a phenomena in our area of NW Minnesota.

So on about June 15, 2011, I started it. I finished it the next evening. It was schmaltzy, and very moving. It had all the key ingredients of the NDE accounts from around the world and in every religion. But the little boy hadn't really told his dad. He was too young. His dad kind of fished the story out of the little boy.  It was a feel-good story, but it didn't focus on the Cross or the Word alone. And it denied the Means of Grace, denied that faith in Christ alone saves.  It confused many non-Scriptural issues with what God actually says in Scripture.

Friday morning, June 17, Alan V., a neighbor and member called, "Pastor, get over here to Glenn's. It's Linda, she's... she's out in the field." 

She was.

Her car was about 100 feet out into the field, backwards, on it's side, smashed, with a hole in the back window.

It looked like it was through that window that Linda was thrown another 60 feet.

Linda and her husband Glenn shared their wedding anniversary with my wife and me. September 30th. They had become good friends.

Her body was terribly broken. I'm no expert on the physical process of death. So when I brushed the dirt off her ear and the color returned to her ear, she might still have been alive.

I went to Glenn; Alan was there with him. I told them what I had found and that I was going to go back to Linda in case she was still alive--so that she wouldn't be alone. Glenn was overwhelmed, he couldn't go.

Alan had called the ambulance, but our neighborhood is so far away from any towns, that it takes time for the volunteers to get to the ambulance and then more time to get out to an accident.

It was during this time that Colton Burpo's NDE story interfered with the truth. Because it was fresh in my mind, my thought was: "It will be alright, Linda. Colton was already there. He saw Jesus. We know it's true." Then: "Who the heck is Colton that Linda would trust his word?"

I'm not saying this was a clear logical foundational thought. It was the response of being overwhelmed by the emotions of this tragedy and having read that book just the previous day.

And I was astounded at my thoughts, shocked by this internal dialog.

And I was furious. Just a reading of this book had such an affect that in time of crisis Satan was using this NDE crap to distract me from the Cross and my duty toward Linda!

I prayed the Lord's Prayer with Linda, I sang Lutheran hymns to her. I recited some Psalms. I recited John 1, Luke 2, Matthew 26-28, and anything else I could remember. I recited the Nicene Creed, and the sections on Baptism, and the Office of the Keys.

And then her family started to arrive--before the ambulance.

The Burpo NDE story still tried to push its way to the front as I watched her grown boys see their mom so broken, so destroyed.

The ambulance did arrive. Linda was apparently still breathing. At the hospital they tried with heroic efforts to save her.

But her body was too broken.

And Colton Burpo's NDE is hollow, distracting from the Cross of Christ. His father is like the medium communicating beyond the grave. His vision/experience directs people to place their hope for salvation in the notion that this little boy in the hospital has a keener insight into the throne of God than do the Prophets and Apostles through whom God gave us His Scripture.

That day I thanked God that Shirley had insisted I read that book to know and appreciate the danger of how strong the deception of accounts like that of Colton Burpo really are. These NDEs are in direct violation of Isaiah 8:19-20
And when they say to you, “Seek those who are mediums and wizards, who whisper and mutter,” should not a people seek their God? Should they seek the dead on behalf of the living? To the law and to the testimony! If they do not speak according to this word, it is because there is no light in them. (Isaiah 8:19- 20)
I know that my friend and member of my parish is now in Abraham's bosom. I know this not because a Wesleyan pastor faced tragedy in almost losing his son and fished a NDE story out of him with leading questions. I know this because of the faith God gave to Linda through the Word and Sacrament. A faith which humbly confessed her own utter inability to save herself and confessed her total reliance upon Christ's life, sufferings, death, and resurrection for her. She was dressed in Christ's righteousness by God's washing of regeneration, Holy Baptism. And God is good on His promise.

Part 2: NDEs Encourage Doubt About God's Good Will

Every family and every parish has certain years that are particularly difficult. 2011 was a hard year for us.

My son, Matthew's best friend, Jake, died Monday, November 7, 2011. He was 17 years old.

When we came here in 2001 we learned about Jake's heart condition. Through the years we had seen many close calls. And we knew that if there were no really new medical technology available, Jake probably would go home to heaven by the time he out grew his 2 chambered heart.

Every day with Jake was an wonderful bonus. Given his congenital heart defect he would have passed away as a small baby in previous generations. And in His providential grace God granted that Jacob lived more than 17 years with us.

Even when we long expect the day, even while we appreciate the gift of life, death still cuts us to the core and hurts.

Given the unusual circumstances and seemingly miraculous nature of Jake's life it might seem odd to those not close to him that it hurts so much that he is gone. For those who think this way I direct you to John 11, particularly verse 35, to gain an appreciation for how much death really affects us.

The Burpo NDE book had different but very negative affect upon Jake's girlfriend and some of Jake's family. Here's the problem.

If God was willing to give little Colton Burpo back to his family then why wouldn't God be willing to do the same for Jake? There's nothing really specially important about what Colton said (or, rather, "his father wrote"). There was no new special message from God. In fact the only thing that seemed special about it was that Colton got to see dead people and sit on Jesus' lap. It didn't seem to matter what people believed about Jesus. Just that they be loving.

Jake loved God. Jake was a wonderful young Christian man. So why not him like Colton?

Now, of course this is grief of the flesh being torn.

But the point here is that this NDE account was a real threat and distraction from the Gospel of Christ. Because it is vague and there is no particular Scriptural reason given for it the NDE account implies that God is capricious. I'm not attributing this motivation to Colton or his father. I'm pointing out that the very fact of a NDE account that denies parts of Scripture undermines confidence in the good and gracious will of God.
And when they say to you, “Seek those who are mediums and wizards, who whisper and mutter,” should not a people seek their God? Should they seek the dead on behalf of the living? To the law and to the testimony! If they do not speak according to this word, it is because there is no light in them. (Isaiah 8:19- 20)

NDEs Are Modern Day Mediums

There are some very important things to learn from the Biblical accounts of people who were raised from the dead.

Here's the list:
  1. Elijah brings back the son of Zarephath's widow: 1 Kings 17
    The purpose of the miracle:
    Then the woman said to Elijah, “Now by this I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is the truth.”
  2. Elisha brings back the son of the great Shunammite woman: 2 Kings 4.
    The purpose of the miracle:
    According to verses 16, and 28ff the purpose is that the Word of God be established as truth when Elisha speaks it.
  3. A dead man comes back to life when he touches Elisha's bones: 2 Kings 13:21.
    The purpose of the miracle:
    Validating that this man was a prophet who spoke God's Word. Elisha died shortly after speaking about events that would take place later for Joash. The revivification of this man served as a reminder that Elisha's word would still come true because it is God's Word.
  4. Jesus brings back the widow's son at Nain: Luke 7:13-15
    The purpose of the miracle:
    To show that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.
  5. Jesus brings back Jairus' daughter from the dead: Matthew 9:25.
    The purpose of the miracle:
    To show that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.
  6. Jesus brings back Lazarus from the dead: John 11
    The purpose of the miracle:
    To show that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.
    41 Then they took away the stone from the place where the dead man was lying. And Jesus lifted up His eyes and said, “Father, I thank You that You have heard Me. 42 And I know that You always hear Me, but because of the people who are standing by I said this, that they may believe that You sent Me.”
  7. Many saints brought back at Jesus' death: Matthew 27
    The purpose of the miracle:
    To show that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.
    50 And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice, and yielded up His spirit.
    51 Then, behold, the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom; and the earth quaked, and the rocks were split, 52 and the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised; 53 and coming out of the graves after His resurrection, they went into the holy city and appeared to many.
    54 So when the centurion and those with him, who were guarding Jesus, saw the earthquake and the things that had happened, they feared greatly, saying, “Truly this was the Son of God!”
  8. Christ's resurrection: John 20
    The purpose of the miracle:
    To show that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.
    30 And truly Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book; 31 but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name.
  9. Peter brings back a female disciple named Tabitha (Dorcas) from the dead: Acts 9:36-42
    The purpose of the miracle:
    To show that Peter is speaking the Word of the Lord.
    Then he gave her his hand and lifted her up; and when he had called the saints and widows, he presented her alive.
    42 And it became known throughout all Joppa, and many believed on the Lord.

  10. Paul brings back Eutychus from the dead: Acts 20:9-12
    The purpose of the miracle:
    To validate Paul's Preaching as the Word of the Lord.
 The first common factor of these accounts is that God's written Word does not record what (if anything) these people remembered or spoke about what they saw in heaven.

The second common factor of these accounts is that all of them were done either to demonstrate that the prophet/apostle preaching was actually preaching God's Word, or to demonstrate the person and nature of Christ as the fulfillment of God's written Word.

There is one place where we find the dead in heaven speaking. It is when Jesus relates the events of Lazarus' death and going to the bosom of Abraham (Luke 16:19-31).
That account ends with these words:
30 And he said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if one goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ 31 But he said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rise from the dead.’”

Scripture shows what a danger these NDE accounts are. Scripture itself places them in the category of mediums and those who consult with the dead. Rather, the living should rely on Moses and the Prophets, that is on the written Word of God.

Experience shows that these NDE accounts disrupt and usurp the authority of Scripture, supplant the Gospel and tend to introduce all kinds of enthusiasm.

So when someone comes up with the next most best NDE story, share with them the story of a Real Death Experience: the Real Death and Resurrection of Christ.

That is the only Death and Resurrection account that provides the sure foundation for our salvation.

Comments brought over from Facebook:

Allie Enge posted to Joe Abrahamson

I first read what you wrote about NDE's and was like gee who brought Debbie Downer to the party, took a step back and reread it and what a great article. Thank you for writing that, eye opener!

  • Joe Abrahamson Thank you, Allie. I know that some people are going to be frustrated and even take offense at what I wrote. But when the issue is whether to believe Christ's word or some other promise, the real issue is also salvation.
  • Allie Enge I agree the sad part is that we believe in God we believe in his word, although we are fixated on this person that we know and see and almost idolize that person, not as a false God but maybe a hero. I dont agree with it, although its true. I have read Heaven is for Real, and smiled the whole time. I don't doubt by his reading where he was, but what Colton seen Bible has already stated, (well maybe not the part of asking the angels to sing "We will rock you", so why should we put Colton words up to a higher standard than we do scripture? We shouldn't, we should grab our scripture and think about our own salvation. I have read this books too and been upset on why was this person saved and not my brother. We all have the option to be saved, it's whether or not you chose it. I remember hearing a story about this older lady that had an NDE and for her remaining time on earth every morning she woke she was mad when she opened her eyes because she seen Jesus and knew that heaven held no comparison to earth.
  • Joe Abrahamson Allie, I could go on at great length as to how Ryan's death affected me and still does. He died at the same age as my brother, both liked the same things and had gone through very similar struggles. My dad found my brother's lifeless body. That same week my brother died I had Vera Gardner's funeral and my son John was born. John had a breathing problem and we were wondering if we should send him to NICU. When Ryan died I had just been at Betty Mostrom's death bead with Forest and Donna watching her fight for her last breath after her massive brain hemorrage. I came to your folk's place to sit with you all and went to Betty's wake that evening and buried her the next day.

    Both of them, by God's grace in Christ through His Word were brought to faith and are there at Abraham's bosom waiting for the resurrection for us to join them in Eternal Life: Chosen by God, Delivered by God, to be raised from the dead by God.
  • Allie Enge This really has made me think a lot! I was just frying bacon and thinking to myself about NDE's and what I would do it one in particular happened to me. Let's just say this if I seen hell, well move over Abrahamsons cause Allie is moving in with her pillow and sleeping bag and bible, so we have a major intervention to do! But on a more serious note, I am no longer angry with God over Ryan. I have accepted it, don't have to like it, but instead of being angry with God I took a step back and reevaluated my own spirituality. I get sad because he is not here, but sadness and anger while can be sometimes confused with one another is two different emotions and two different steps in the healing process.