Contemporary American Christianity’s Fascination with NDE Stories

I am not necessarily in complete agreement with all views expressed in blog pages, radio programs, or other sites I link to.

Sites discussing the popularity of stories about NDEs (Near Death Experiences) or visits to heaven or hell appear much farther below.

As I find more of these accounts or editorials from a Christian perspective that analyzes them, I shall add those links at the bottom of this page.

The second link is to a page by Christian commentator Phil Johnson, who expresses much doubt over NDE stories being true and laments the biblical ignorance of Christians today.

I am in agreement with Johnson that people’s stories of supposedly visiting heaven or hell should be measured against the Bible, but I think Johnson seems a little close-minded to it being a possibility at all, which I find off putting.

Perhaps I am wrong, and he would concede that such events can and do occur, but based on what I saw in the interview and web page, he appears totally opposed to it being a possibility at all, or he thinks all such accounts are demonic (i.e., Satan ‘appearing as an angel of light’ to deceive).

I also find his apparent wholescale rejection of NDE testimonies strange on account of them being supernatural (or, maybe he would say that the supernatural elements in the NDE stories don’t fully match the Bible?), considering that the supernatural is an aspect of Christian faith.

Our Lord and Savior was dead for three days and arose from the dead. Christ raised Lazarus from the dead, as well as a few other people. Stephen claimed to have a vision of Christ standing by the Father as he stood dying. One of the Old Testament prophets was taken alive into Heaven on a chariot of fire. Christ walked on water. Moses, thanks to God’s ability, parted the Red Sea.

To express extreme skepticism of all NDEs, or visions of the afterlife, as Johnson does, or to believe that such supernatural occurrences could never, ever happen in our day and age, or to ascribe every single last one of them to Satanic deception, is, to me, a little strange and narrow-minded.

I understand wanting to be cautious about such NDE stories, but Johnson acts as though supernatural activity stopped as soon as the last book of the New Testament was written.
(Click on the “read more” link to read the rest of this post. Thanks.):

I am not saying I totally agree with all the NDEs I’ve heard, nor do I believe in blindly accepting each claim, or accepting the totality of each claim (e.g., I’ve heard some NDEs that sound about 5 percent true and “biblically” possible, the rest of the same testimony, the remaining 95% of it, sounds false – “false” meaning the testimony contradicts the Bible on some point or another).

Some people who claim to have died and come back have stories filled with details that contradict the Bible, so I obviously reject those details, or maybe most, or all of the stories, based on those incorrect (unscriptural) details.

I tend to reject the NDE accounts I hear where the person says when they died they were not a Christian, and yet when they died, they (claim) they were taken into heaven and met Jesus.

The Bible seems to say that when we die, we immediately go to Heaven or to Hell. We are not told in the Bible that the unsaved, unforgiven sinners get a courtesy trip to Heaven, then brought back to life on earth where they get another shot at accepting Christ. So I would assume the moment a person dies, he or she goes straight to Heaven or Hell, based on their acceptance or rejection of Christ as savior.

Johnson does acknowledge on his site and in his radio interview that some people in the Bible experienced death and were brought back to life, but he still seems hyper-skeptical of anyone’s else’s claims (as in, anyone alive today) of having seen the afterlife, or having had an experience of meeting Christ or of having any sort of vision.

I’ve had one or two encounters with God personally, one of which happened to me at a very young age. And I was raised a conservative, sober, serious Southern Baptist. I’m not given to seeing God or demons or angels behind every tree or bush.

I’m ambivalent about the charismatic things (speaking in tongues etc). I’ve never spoken in tongues myself. I have no idea if the gift of tongues is still in operation today (both sides of that debate are wrong to be dogmatic about it, as far as I’m concerned).

My point is, I’m not a flake who claims to hear God or to see Him in visions all the time. But I have had one or two encounters where I did in fact hear from God (inwardly, not an audible voice).

What I take from that is that God is not limited to speaking to believers via the Bible alone.

The Bible should be used for a final barometer of truth, but it is not the only way God touches people’s lives or speaks to them today.

I’ve heard testimonies by Christians who claim they were saved by angels, say, an angel pulled them from a burning car.

Angels used to appear to people on a somewhat frequent basis in both the Old and New Testaments. So God intervening in that manner on earth is not unheard of – but I would assume Johnson would automatically discount any present-day account of someone claiming to have been aided or rescued by a visible angelic being.

While I consider myself pretty conservative, I have begun questioning the Christian faith the last few months (almost to the point of almost becoming an agnostic), due to different factors.

I am annoyed by both extremes in these sorts of issues. While I do appreciate Johnson’s skepticism to a degree with the NDEs, I think it’s arrogant to assume God always will, or does, work exactly the way we think He will or should.

I do not necessarily see it as being unscriptural for someone (a Christian, specifically) to claim they died briefly and got to visit heaven, or saw an angel.

Who is Johnson to claim (as he apparently is doing, but again, maybe I’ve misunderstood his views) that believers today never, ever have a supernatural experience, or, if you claim you did, it was automatically satanic (according to Johnson)?

I just think it’s very arrogant and presumptuous to put God in a box and imply God stopped speaking to people, stopped permitting them glimpses of heaven, or stopped sending visible (or even invisible- to- the- human eye) angelic help when the last jot or tittle dried on some biblical scroll around 2,000 years ago.

I have made a few additional observations below these links and excerpts:

Online radio show:
Phil Johnson from Grace To You discusses Christian claims of experiences in heaven

The Burpo-Malarkey Doctrine, by Phil Johnson

An excerpt:

Heaven is for Real, by Todd Burpo, tells the story of Burpo’s son, Colton, who says he visited heaven while anesthetized for an appendectomy at age 4. Colton, now 13, says in heaven he got a halo and real wings (though they were too small for his liking). He also claims he sat on Jesus’ lap while the angels sang to him; he saw Mary standing beside Jesus’ throne; and he met the Holy Spirit (who, according to Colton, is “kind of blue”).

More than seven million copies of this book are now in circulation, and the publisher has been assembling a sizable catalogue of spin-off products, including a planned movie version (to be produced by televangelist/prosperity preacher T. D. Jakes).

That book is not to be confused with The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven, by Kevin Malarkey—another runaway best-seller. Malarkey’s book is about his son Alex, who at age 6 was nearly killed (and left permanently paralyzed) in a devastating automobile accident. In the immediate aftermath, and then during his rehabilitation, Alex says he made multiple trips to heaven and back.

….Those books are part of a burgeoning genre, currently one of the hottest trends in publishing: imaginative tales purporting to be eyewitness accounts of heaven and the afterlife. (Blogger Tim Challies has labeled the genre “Heaven Tourism,” candidly dismissing one bestseller in the category as “pure junk, fiction in the guise of biography, paganism in the guise of Christianity.”)

…What’s different about the current crop of afterlife testimonies is that they are being eagerly sought and relentlessly cranked out by evangelical publishers. They are bought and devoured by millions who would describe themselves as born-again Bible-believing Christians

…But the larger issue is one no authentic believer should miss: the whole premise behind every one of these books is contrary to everything Scripture teaches about heaven.

Note that Johnson uses the words “whole” and “everything.” I’m sorry, but no. I have not read the books Johnson is writing of, but I have seen most of the authors interviewed on television.

The Todd Burpo kid, who claims to have visited heaven at the age of four while knocked out on a surgery table – some of his comments about heaven, God, and Jesus were in line with the Bible, as were testimonies I’ve heard from Piper and a few others. It’s simply not true that every single thing these people said, that the whole of their stories, were “contrary” to Scripture.

Also, someone in the comments asked Johnson to explain how Todd Burpo knew details if the story was bogus.

For instance, Burpo met his sister in heaven – she had died on earth. Burpo’s mother never told him that she had a miscarriage. That miscarriage was the sister Todd never met on earth. Todd’s parents never told him about the miscarriage prior to his NDE/vision experience.

That is only one example. There are several other things that Todd knew that his parents did not tell him which he only found out while in Heaven. How did Todd know about his dead sister, and other details?

Todd was later able to describe to his parents where they were and what they were doing when his physical body was knocked out in the operating room – because he was watching them from Heaven.

Unless Todd’s parents are liars or coached their son to say all of this, how else does one explain how the kid knew all these things?

Someone in the comments asked Johnson to address these points, and I skimmed down the page but did not see him remark on them.

As for these NDE stories being unbiblical, or not matching the Bible on every point, which are areas that Johnson says that he has issues with:

I don’t want to spend a lot of time explaining my views on this, but God Himself is not always consistent within the Bible itself!

God at some points in the Old Testament is very anal retentive, nit picky, and selective in how and when He applies His own moral codes and laws: in the Old Testament, we are told how God strikes a man dead for merely reaching a hand out to steady the wobbly Ark of the Covenant. Only the priest class could touch the Ark, and if I recall correctly, Mr. Touchie Feelie was not a Levite.

But then, in the New Testament, when the Pharisees point out to Christ that Christ’s men are disobeying some law or another (picking grapes or wheat on the Sabbath), Christ excuses this behavior by pointing out how David ate bread from the Tabernacle when he and his men were hungry.

Seems to me if you’re going to be God and be consistent about your rule-keeping and law-observing and kill some poor slob for simply touching the Ark of the Covenant (to keep it from spilling over), you’re going to have to strike David dead for eating the priest’s bread, and the apostles for picking grapes on the Sabbath.

If God is willing to bend or break His own standards and rules in that manner – if He is willing to make exceptions, and at that to show mercy on occasion, then maybe not everything in the Bible is as iron clad and for all time as we think it is.

So maybe it is possible that God can, and has, allowed Christians to visit Heaven for a time before reviving them and sending them back to life on earth.

I’m just really turned off by Christians who are just so adamant that ‘thus and so’ (in this case, visions or NDEs for contemporary Christians) is not possible at all, or that it’s necessarily contradictory of the Bible.

You can study the Bible all day, seven days a week, and still miss the point, as Jesus told the Pharisees….

“You search the scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness to me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.”
– Jesus Christ, speaking to the Pharisees (from John chapter 5)