The Final Frontier
Vol: 84 Issue: 23 Tuesday, September 23, 2008
In previous volumes of the Omega Letter, we’ve examined what the Scriptures have to say about what happens when we die. The Scriptures suggest no cessation of consciousness at death:
“We are confident, I say, and willing rather to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord. ” (2nd Corinthians 5:8)
“And though after my skin worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God: Whom I shall see for myself, and mine eyes shall behold, and not another; though my reins be consumed within me.” (Job 19:26-27)
Jesus turned to the repentant thief on the Cross; “And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, Today shalt thou be with Me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43)
Theologically speaking then, we can make a case that death is not the end, but rather, the beginning of eternal life in the same way that birth is not the end of a pregnancy but the beginning of a human life.
We don’t mourn the end of a pregnancy — we celebrate the birth of a child. But there are two important reasons why. A pregnant woman knows what it is like to be NOT pregnant, so there are no unknowns involved. The second is that the end of a pregnancy means the start of a relationship.
When a loved one dies, we mourn the end of our relationship with them in this life. As to death itself, nobody has ever survived it and come back to tell the tale.
But those who have come closest to it are the ones who fear it the least.
They are called “Near Death Experiences” and such experiences are a lot more common than I would have believed. I ran across an interview done by TIME Magazine with a Dr. Sam Parnia of Cornell Medical Center.
Parnia is part of the “Human Consciousness Project” which is conducting a study known as AWARE (AWAreness during REsuscitation).
The study documents what happens when we die from the perspective of those who were resuscitated after being declared clinically ‘dead’ that were able to recall being conscious at the time.
Dr. Parnia explained to TIME: “When your heart stops beating, there is no blood getting to your brain. And so what happens is that within about 10 sec., brain activity ceases as you would imagine. Yet paradoxically, 10% or 20% of people who are then brought back to life from that period, which may be a few minutes or over an hour, will report having consciousness. So the key thing here is, ‘Are these real, or is it some sort of illusion?’“
Previous research suggests about 10 to 20 percent of people who live through cardiac arrest report lucid, well-structured thought processes, reasoning, memories and sometimes detailed recall of events during their encounter with death.
First off, are NDE’s real? The Bible says that once one is dead, there’s no coming back:
“And as it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment:” (Hebrews 9:27)
“And he said unto him, If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead.” (Luke 16:31)
But we are not discussing death — we’re discussing near death. Is that real? The Apostle Paul seems to indicate that it is.
In Chapter 12 of his 2nd Letter to the Corinthians, Paul discusses a time when he was ‘caught up’ to the ‘third heaven’ after being stoned [nearly] to death outside the Lystra city gates.
“I knew a man in Christ above fourteen years ago, (whether in the body, I cannot tell; or whether out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth;) such an one caught up to the third heaven. And I knew such a man, (whether in the body, or out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth;) How that he was caught up into paradise, and heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter. ” (2nd Corinthians 12:2-4)
Since the Apostle Paul references his own conscious near death experience and that fact that he was ‘caught up’ to the third heaven, we can be comfortable with the fact NDE is both real and has a Scriptural basis.
Paul says that he was given a glimpse of the afterlife, and he was obviously able to return to tell the tale.
Paul’s experience is very much like that described by the patients in Dr Parnia’s study. Not only that, but all of the experiences reported by Dr. Parnia are essentially one of two different scenarios.
In the first scenario, the patient reports seeing what is happening to his own body, from the perspective of somewhere on the ceiling. The patient reported feeling warm, at peace and loved.
Some patients reported a Presence — (some said an angel, others Jesus,) other patients reported being greeted by loved ones who had passed away previously.
Here is a quote from one of the patients in Dr Parnia’s study as published in the British medical journal, “The Lancet.”
“During my cardiac arrest I had a extensive experience ( ) and later I saw, apart from my deceased grandmother, a man who had looked at me lovingly, but whom I did not know. More than 10 years later, at my mother s deathbed, she confessed to me that I had been born out of an extramarital relationship, my father being a Jewish man who had been deported and killed during the second World War, and my mother showed me his picture. The unknown man that I had seen more than 10 years before during my NDE turned out to be my biological father.
Not every NDE is pleasant. According to the study, as many as a third of those who report NDEs describe having seen or experienced what the Bible describes as hell. The hell they describe is a place of fire and brimstone and torment and torture.
Here’s the thing – after I read the TIME magazine story, I went online and read everything I could find about NDE’s. What I was looking for were similarities and differences between the various accounts.
All the heavenly experiences were the same on all the major points, although the details varied depending on the individual. And all the hell stories were essentially identical.
One other thing I noticed that was the same in all the accounts. Those who reported a positive experience also reported completely losing any fear of death.
Those who reported a hellish experience all reported a subsequent religious conversion and a similar disdain for death. I was unable to find any reports in which someone who had an NDE remained unchanged.
What does it all mean? Medically, it means we don’t know much about death, other than it is a process, rather than an event.
Although there are medical skeptics who claim that NDE’s are caused by electrical impulses as the brain shuts down, there are too many instances in which the patient accurately described what was going on after he had died for the impulse theory to be viable.
There is only one explanation that does make sense, and it is the one Paul described in 2nd Corinthians 12:2-4. Being caught up alive to heaven, seeing and hearing the unspeakable, and then being returned to one’s earthly body.
You are NOT a body, you HAVE a body. You have a brain, but it is not the same thing as your mind. Your mind is the repository of your consciousness, your will and your emotions — it is the ‘soul’ which continues on after death.
If your soul’s spirit has been quickened (made alive) by Christ, then what follows death is precisely what Christians have believed for two thousand years — ‘absent from the body, present with the Lord.’
If not, then what follows death is the beginning of an eternity in hell.
There is something else one can glean from the NDE reports that is somewhat encouraging.
Not everybody who reported a heavenly NDE was a believer at the time, although all said they ‘had believed at one time’ — usually as kids in Sunday school.
Those who reported a hellish NDE all reported that they had, at one time, consciously rejected the offer of salvation through faith in Christ.
Why is that encouraging? Because it suggests that not every loved one we presume is lost actually is. We don’t know if they, at some time, gave their life over to Christ and then subsequently took it back.
But the NDE reports universally suggest that Jesus knows His own, even when we don’t.
“But I would not have you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning them which are asleep, that ye sorrow not, even as others which have no hope.” 1st Thessalonians (4:13)
Be hopeful. Pray often. I believe we’re all in for quite a surprise when we finally do make that trip and find out who is there waiting to greet us. I believe there will be a lot of folks there we weren’t expecting to see.
“And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.” (Revelation 21:4)
It’s good that Christians don’t know to the point of absolute certainty what awaits us on the other side. In that sense, a little fear is a good thing.
Without it, we’d probably all jump off the nearest bridge right after we got saved, just to speed up the process.