How Should We Evaluate Near-Death Experiences?

A while back, I came across an article about near-death experiences (NDEs). That was not the first time I had heard or thought about them, but the article eventually spurred me on to research NDEs, especially as they relate to stories of people who claim to have visited heaven.

Let’s start with a definition of NDEs by Alex Orlando, an associate editor for Discover magazine: “While there is no widely accepted definition of NDEs, the term typically refers to the mystical, profound experiences that people report when they are close to death. They’re most common in patients who survive severe head trauma or cardiac arrest.” Often associated with NDEs are out-of-body experiences, or OBEs, in which people later report that their consciousness floated above their body. Roughly 9% of cardiac-arrest survivors have reported an NDE.

As a Christian, I am most interested in NDEs during which people claim to have visited heaven. Perhaps you’ve heard of the book The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven (2010), in which Alex Malarkey (an apt surname, as it turned out) claimed to have visited heaven when he almost died in a car accident in 2004. However, he later recanted his story. When asked why he had fabricated the story, he wrote, “I said I went to heaven because I thought it would get me attention.” Well, it got attention, all right; it was a bestseller. Another book which includes a purported visit to heaven is 90 Minutes in Heaven (2004) by Don Piper, who had been declared dead at the scene of an accident but was revived approximately 90 minutes later. Very little of the book is actually about heaven, and he was actually at the gates of heaven rather than in it. He wrote that he had seen loved ones, been greeted by angelic beings, and heard wonderful music which was hard to describe. There are other books like these as well.

David James, executive director of the Alliance for Biblical Integrity, writes that there are four things that are generally uniform in every NDE account, whether by a Christian or non-Christian: 1) An out-of-body experience; 2) going through a dark tunnel; 3) seeing a bright light or ending up in the presence of a bright, unidentified being; 4) experiencing a feeling of overwhelming and unconditional love and acceptance. However, beyond these four commonalities, not even two of the 25+ accounts that he investigated by people who claimed to be Christians agreed on anything about what they saw and experienced in heaven. James makes the point that if these people actually visited heaven, their accounts should have some similarities in terms of sights and experiences, but they don’t.

Beyond that lack of similarity in these accounts of heavenly visits and whether the details conform with what we know of heaven from the Bible, what has long made me rather skeptical is the lack of accounts about NDEs where people claim to have visited hell. In Matthew 7:13-14, Jesus said, “But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” Given that the vast majority of people are not Christians, I would expect a few NDEs that include purported visits to hell. On the other hand, I suppose that for people who may have had such experiences, they would not be eager to report them for a number of reasons. Here’s an interesting quote from a secular source by the aforementioned Alex Orlando: “While euphoric NDEs get the most press, other experiences can be deeply disturbing, dominated by feelings of terror, isolation and agony.” Read that again: terror, isolation, and agony; now that sounds like hell!

In connection with this, several years ago, a sister in a church that we used to attend shared that a relative had died; at the moment of death, he said, “Oh, no! It’s all true!” That was not an NDE, but an actual death; that story has stuck with me. Tangentially related to this is a book called 23 Minutes in Hell by Bill Wiese, who is a Christian; however, what Wiese experienced was not an NDE, but could more properly be called a vision. Whether the Lord actually gave him a vision of hell, only He knows. Click here if you are interested in a post I wrote regarding what the Bible tells us about hell: https://keithpetersenblog.com/2020/07/08/what-will-hell-be-like/

The other main reason I am skeptical about purported visits to heaven is what the Bible tells us–and what it doesn’t. When I first heard about such visits, what came to mind is what the apostle Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 12:2-4: “I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know–God knows. And I know that this man–whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows–was caught up to paradise. He heard inexpressible things, things that man is not permitted to tell.” Most theologians think that it was Paul himself who was taken to heaven, but notice that he was not permitted to tell about it. The reason is that talking about it would make him proud, as verse 7 tells us; here are the first few words of that verse: “To keep me from becoming conceited.” The book of Revelation gives us a glorious picture of the current heaven in Chapters 4, 5, and 7, plus 11:15-19, 14:1-7, and 19:1-16. (In Chapters 21 and 22:1-6, we also have a description of the new heaven and earth.) What is particularly interesting in the context of this post is Revelation 10:4, which says, “And when the seven thunders spoke, I was about to write; but I heard a voice from heaven say, ‘Seal up what the seven thunders have said and do not write it down.'” You will also find something similar three times in the book of Daniel. The point is that the Lord did not permit the apostle Paul, the apostle John, and the prophet Daniel to write down certain things; shouldn’t Paul’s example, especially, make us cautious about sharing purported visits to heaven?

Another thing I should mention in this regard is that in the Bible, we have ten accounts of people being resurrected. However, only in the case of Jesus are we told anything about what He experienced between His death and resurrection. Shouldn’t this also make us cautious about sharing supposed visits to heaven?

In summary, I am very skeptical of NDE accounts during which the person claims to have visited heaven. To be clear, I don’t discount Don Piper’s NDE, or even whether he believes what he wrote; I only question whether he actually visited heaven. I would frankly be less skeptical of a person who claimed to have visited hell during an NDE; maybe the Lord would allow that in order to bring the person to repentance. From Scripture, we know that the apostle Paul was not permitted to tell or write about his visit to heaven, which should at least make us cautious regarding writing–or possibly even telling–about such an experience. Let’s focus instead on the Good News of salvation through Jesus Christ.

If you are reading this and do not know the Lord Jesus Christ, I pray that this will be the day you turn to Him in saving faith. Then you will not need to be fearful of death, and you will have eternal life with Him in heaven for all eternity.

How Do You Respond to People Asking for a Handout?

I live in a city with a rather large number of homeless people, and it’s inevitable that you will be approached by someone asking for a handout, often in a parking lot in my experience. Several years ago in a church Sunday school class, the teacher/leader asked us the question in the title of this post. He asked us to share stories of panhandlers that we had encountered. As the stories were told, what emerged was that no one had a plan–including the teacher! What usually happened was that the person being asked for money would feel guilty and thus hand over some money. The other typical response was to ignore the panhandler.

Early on in our marriage, my wife and I talked over what we would do when encountering people requesting a handout and came to some decisions. I’ll relate some encounters that we’ve had which should illustrate those decisions, at least for the most part. The first two happened in other cities, while the others happened in ours.

  • My wife and I encounter a poor-looking man in a touristy area. We have a friendly conversation, and it becomes apparent that he hasn’t had any food or drink yet that day. He indirectly asks us if we would buy him something to drink, so we take him into a nearby cafe and buy him some coffee, then continue the conversation.
  • My son and I have just had lunch, and as we’re walking, we encounter a guy who says he’s hungry. Since I’m carrying a box with leftovers, I hand it over while telling him that the food has my germs. He’s glad to take it anyway.
  • My wife encounters a woman who needs some food. After a conversation, my wife tells her that she will go to a nearby grocery store and get her a few things. When my wife returns with food, the woman says with surprise, “You came back!” (She had had previous conversations with other people who had promised to buy her some food, but who had not returned.) The woman thanks my wife and goes home.
  • A woman comes up to me in a parking lot and asks for money. I’m in a hurry, so I take out a few bucks and say, “So, you’re going to use this for food, right?” (She nods her head.) “You’re not going to spend this on cigarettes, alcohol, or drugs, right?” (She shakes her head.) I give her the cash and say, “Remember, God is watching you.” She looks very startled, and we part.
  • My family and I are in the parking lot of a restaurant. A woman calls out to us. I tell my wife and kids to wait while I talk to her. She says she’s hungry, so I offer to walk over to a nearby fast-food restaurant with her and get her something to eat. She says she would like to eat at the sit-down restaurant that my family and I are about to enter. I shake my head, shrug, and turn around. She leaves the area.
  • My wife encounters a man at a gas station. He says that he needs some money to buy gas so that he can visit his sister. My wife tells him to pull up his vehicle to the pump, and then she’ll buy him a few bucks’ worth. The man hems and haws, and it becomes apparent that he has no vehicle. He goes to another person who is pumping gas. My wife also realizes that she had seen the same man in a nearby parking lot a bit earlier.

I admit that there have been times when I have completely ignored people asking for a handout, but I trust that there are a couple of principles that have emerged from these encounters. First of all, my wife and I always talk to the person. Second, with the exception of the fourth story (I was in a hurry, but I made it clear that I expected her to use the cash to buy food), we don’t hand out money, but we do sometimes buy food for them. My wife usually has a couple of granola bars in her purse as well. We also know people who usually carry a gift card from a fast-food restaurant for such encounters. Third, we don’t give to people who are demanding or lying.

I’m not saying that what my wife and I do (and don’t do) is the “correct” or “best” way, or that we always follow it, but the point is, we have a plan. I met a sister in my early Christian walk who was always willing to give money to people who ask for a handout, no questions asked; while I don’t follow her practice, at least she had a plan! Let’s look at what Scripture has to say in relation to this. In Deuteronomy 15:11, we read, “There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land.” While this command was given to the Old Testament Israelites, I have no doubt that it applies to us as well. It also goes beyond giving handouts to people we encounter on the street; let’s be wisely generous in giving to organizations as well.

Trusting the Lord When You Have No Control

I think it’s safe to assume that everyone has been in situations where you have no control, some more significant than others. When we who are Christians find ourselves in such circumstances, we have a choice: we can succumb to fear, anxiety, worry, and the like–or we can pray in the Lord’s will and trust Him for the outcome, no matter what it may be. I will give two examples from my own life, but first, let’s look at some Bible verses having to do with trust.

One of the more well-known pair of verses about trust is Proverbs 3:5-6, which says, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will direct your paths.” Notice especially the phrase “lean not on your own understanding;” in other words, we need wisdom, which the Lord invites us to ask Him for in James 1:5.

Here is another verse that I came across many years ago, tucked into the genealogies in 1 Chronicles 5:20; I’ll quote just the second sentence of it: “He answered their prayers, because they trusted in him.” Even though the context is the Israelites’ asking the Lord for help in battle, I believe this applies to us as well. On the other hand, when we read the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in Daniel 3, we notice these important words in what they say to the king before they are thrown into the fiery furnace (Daniel 3:18): “But even if He does not [rescue us], we want you to know, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.” Now there is trust! Those three young men knew that even if the Lord chose to let them die in the fiery furnace, they would be with Him in heaven. (As it turned out, they were not even harmed.)

Finally, here’s another verse that’s tucked away, this time in the book of Nahum. Chapter 1 verse 7 says: “The Lord is good, a refuge in times of trouble. He cares for those who trust in him.” Yes, the Lord is a refuge and takes care of those who trust Him!

Many years ago, when I was working in a Third World country, I got a letter from the head of a missions organization who wanted to visit me; he would be accompanied by an interpreter. (A little background: I was in the country partly under this organization’s auspices, but as an English teacher, not a missionary; this country did not even allow missionaries. However, we could talk to our students and others about the Lord, church, and the like if they raised such questions; that didn’t happen during class, but sometimes did when they visited me in my dorm room.) I replied that was fine, but that we should not meet on my college campus; the reason was that everyone would notice, and then I would have to explain to my college leaders who the visitors were.

When the visitors arrived in my city, it became apparent that our taxi was on the way to my college campus. I reminded them that we should not go there, but they brushed it off; they wanted to get a look at my surroundings and meet my fellow American teachers, who were also believers.

After my visitors left, my fellow believing friends and I prayed for protection because we all knew that I would be called in to meet with the college officials, and I was determined not to lie to them. Admittedly, the worst that could happen to me was that I would be kicked out of the country, but I had longer-term plans to teach there; my fellow believers would also then face “grilling.” Sure enough, a couple days later, I was called in, and after some pleasantries over tea, the conversation went like this:

  • Official: Mr. Petersen, we noticed you had visitors recently. How do you know them?
  • Me: One of them is a friend of my father’s.
  • Official: And what does your father do?
  • Me: He’s retired.

In case you’re wondering, yes, one of the visitors was someone my father knew, and yes, my father was retired; he had been a pastor. Notice they did not ask what my father had done before retirement, which would have also raised suspicion; much more significantly, they did not ask me what my visitors did for a living! You can imagine the celebration and praise to God that erupted when I told my believing friends what had happened!

There are other stories that I could tell about the Lord’s provision for me in that country as well, but let me illustrate with another situation that was out of my control in the U.S. One afternoon when my daughter (now 27) was in kindergarten, I got a confusing call from her; she sounded very happy, but she asked why I hadn’t picked her up; I asked her if she was in the school office, and she said that she was “playing with a girl.” To my horror, I realized that it was a minimum day, meaning she had gotten out of school an hour early. I asked my daughter where she and the other girl were, but she giggled, and when I asked her to put her friend or her friend’s mom on the phone, she hung up. Now I was really concerned because we did not have caller ID on our landline; if I had been thinking more clearly, I could have dialed *69. Anyway, as I got in the car, I thanked the Lord that my daughter had remembered our phone number and asked Him to help me find her. I figured she would be playing in a neighborhood near her school, and sure enough, it didn’t take long; I saw her, her friend, and a cop in a yard. (I’m not sure who called the cop; there was no other adult there.) My daughter laughed, said “Daddyyyy,” and ran into my arms, while the cop gently chewed me out a bit. You can imagine the praise to the Lord that erupted in my heart!

I can certainly recall other times when the Lord didn’t answer my prayer as I would have liked, but here’s another aspect of trust, perhaps the most fundamental one: I need to trust Him to always do what is best, even if I don’t understand it at the time; for me, this is the hardest part of trust, and I certainly don’t always do it immediately. However, there have been plenty of times where He has blessed me with understanding later; I have seen how much better the Lord’s plans are than mine. I believe He will do the same for you if you trust Him.

Creator God and Created Universe: Personal vs. Impersonal

For several years, I’ve noticed comments that begin something like, “I think the universe is telling me…” This has always struck me as bizarre because the universe is, in fact, very cold (in more ways than one!), uncaring, and impersonal. However, I have come to understand that these comments are a reflection of the deep desire that people have to give their lives meaning and purpose.

Over the past three months, I have been gathering examples of this kind of comment; I’ll start with this group of four:

  • Phoenix University TV commercial: “Ever get a sign the universe is trying to tell you something?”  
  • Gary to Maggie on the TV show A Million Little Things: “It just feels like maybe the universe is trying to tell us something.” 
  • Catherine Ryan Hyde’s novel Just After Midnight: “It’s like something in the universe would see that it was just too wrong for us [teen girl and horse] to be apart, and make sure it didn’t end that way.”
  • My neighbor: “I’m considering the pandemic over until the universe tells me otherwise.”

The first two are essentially the same in that they are said in a rather general sense. The next two are very specific–one regarding a girl and her horse, the other regarding the pandemic. Now, if you substitute “God” for “universe” into those statements, what do they sound like? Here’s the first one: “Ever get a sign God is trying to tell you something?” That sounds pretty Biblical if you’re a believer!

Here are two more comments by two actors, each with their own brand of uniqueness:

  • Chiwetel Ejiofor: “Human beings can love and laugh and enjoy each other’s company because we are afforded this space and luxury by a planet that cares for us.”
  • Jabari Banks: “I always say, if you ask the universe or God for something, they’re gonna send it your way.” 

In the comment by Chiwetel Ejiofor, he uses the word “planet” rather than “universe.” Much more significantly, however, notice the phrase “that cares for us.” That’s taking it to another level, to put it mildly. Now, if you substitute “God” for “planet,” the last phrase reads: “by a God that cares for us.” Now, that is very Scriptural! In the other comment, Jabari Banks tries to have it both ways by “ask[ing] the universe or God for something,” in addition to making an assertion which is not necessarily true even if you remove “the universe.”

All of these comments are sad because they are reflections of people who are looking to the universe, which is very impersonal, for meaning and direction. They’re also ironic in that these people are looking to the creation rather than the Creator, Who they have rejected, at least until now. In sharp contrast, there are many passages in the Bible which speak of God in a very personal way. One passage that comes to mind is Isaiah 43:1-7. The second part of verse 1 says: “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine.” The Creator of the universe knows each of His people and has called each one by name. In the second part of verse 6 and on into verse 7, we read: “Bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the ends of the earth–everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.” Each person who has trusted Jesus Christ for salvation is a son or daughter of God. And in fact, when Jesus taught His disciples what we commonly call the Lord’s Prayer, He taught us, God’s sons and daughters, to begin with “Our Father.” It’s amazing that we can actually address the Creator of the universe in this way!

Which makes more sense: to look to the impersonal universe (albeit created by God) for purpose and guidance, or to a God who invites His children to call Him their Father? For me, the choice is simple. If you are not a follower of Jesus Christ, I pray that will change, even today.

____________________________________________________________________________________

Within the last three weeks, there have been two more horrific mass shootings: one (killing ten) at a supermarket in Buffalo, NY, and the other (killing 21, including 19 children) at an elementary school in Uvalde, TX. If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you know that many of my posts are in response to current events. Last year, I wrote a post about a Biblical response to mass-death events; click here if you’re interested: https://keithpetersenblog.com/2021/04/07/how-should-we-respond-to-mass-death-events/

Responses to the Supreme Court Abortion Decision Leak

Earlier this month, the initial draft majority opinion of the Supreme Court decision regarding the overturning of Roe v. Wade (the 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion) was leaked. The leak was the first of its kind in that the entire document was made available; in other words, it wasn’t simply someone “whispering” that Roe v. Wade had been overturned. Following the leak, something else was made very public: the addresses of the six Supreme Court justices that are expected to overturn Roe v. Wade. Since then, there have been protesters in front of at least three of these homes, in a blatant attempt to intimidate them into “changing their minds” before the final decision is made. Listening to all the posturing and screaming from those who are opposed to this decision, one would think that abortion is about to become illegal, which is not true; it just means that the issue of abortion will be turned over to the states. In other words, instead of nine judges making the decision, voters and state legislatures will be able to decide.

The leak of the Supreme Court decision was clearly a felony, and prayerfully, the leaker will be identified and brought to justice. There has been some question of whether protests in front of the justices’ homes are also illegal, but it appears that they are. Even apart from that, the purpose–intimidation–is clear. One would hope that the Biden administration would speak out against these protests, or at least against the leak. However, here is what Jen Psaki, former White House Press Secretary, said: “We certainly continue to encourage protests outside of judges’ homes.” She added, “We want it, of course, to be peaceful, and certainly the president would want people’s privacy to be respected.” Right; as if the protesters are respecting conservative justices’ privacy. And while those protesters have not resorted to violence yet, some of their language has been extremely vitriolic–certainly things that you would not want your children to hear or read. And how about the coat hanger images; would you want to explain that to your child? On the other hand, protesters have already resorted to violence elsewhere; there was an arson attack on a Wisconsin pro-life group’s offices, and how ironic that it happened on Mother’s Day.

Here are some other notable responses. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot called her city an “oasis” for women seeking an abortion, “a safe haven for all who are unjustly denied the rights, privileges, immunities, resources & opportunities they deserve.” And Michelle Obama, former First Lady, couldn’t resist getting in her two cents, either: “If it [reversal of Roe v. Wade] comes to pass, we may soon live in a country where millions of women — not to mention our children and grandchildren — lose the right to make decisions about their bodies and their health.” Notice the irony that she’s not even aware of–even double irony–speaking of “our children and grandchildren.” Well, if Roe v. Wade is overturned, we will indeed have more children and grandchildren; one early estimate is that legal abortions would be reduced by at least 13%. That may not seem like much, but that’s ~82,000 more babies being born over the next year. 13 states already have “trigger laws” which would go into effect if Roe v. Wade is overturned, banning abortions in most cases.

Another response comes from U.S. Representative Rashida Tlaib, who said that she “welcomes” church protesting “in many ways,” although of course (?) not including violence. Some of the protests have indeed been outside churches, particularly Catholic ones. In that regard, I suppose one might expect that President Joe Biden or Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, both avowed Catholics, might speak out against the pro-abortion protests, at least in some contexts. Instead, Nancy Pelosi praised the protesters, saying that they have “channeled their righteous anger into meaningful action.” Notice the word “righteous” in her statement. She also referred to even late-term abortion as “sacred ground.” Other politicians have also used rhetoric which is strangely religious in nature. John Fetterman, who just won the Pennsylvania Democratic Senate primary, called abortion a “sacred right,” and he is not the only politician to do so. Even protesters have gotten into the act; one protester’s sign even said, “Thank God for Abortion.” The use of these kinds of religious words in an attempt to justify abortion makes me shudder.

This brings us to the most important question: What does the Lord God think of abortion? Scripture makes it very clear; for example, here’s what Psalm 139: 13 says: “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.” Abortion is the killing of an unborn baby. This is not to condemn those who have had abortions, those who have encouraged them to do so, or those who have performed the abortions; the Lord will forgive those who repent of their sin, including this one. I have written about this elsewhere, including a story of repentance; click here if you’re interested: https://keithpetersenblog.com/2021/09/23/abortion-and-vaccination-your-body-your-choice/.

The first word in the title of this post is “Responses.” I have already mentioned my response to the leak; it is a felony, and I hope that the leaker is punished. However, now that we know the Supreme Court’s decision (which prayerfully will not change before being finalized), here’s my response to it, which I hope would be echoed by Christians everywhere: Thank you, Lord, for the lives that will be saved as a result! Many years ago, my wife volunteered in a pregnancy center; there are still such places and people (not just at pregnancy centers) who demonstrate God’s love, including giving options other than abortion, to those women who are experiencing an unwanted pregnancy.