What does death tell us about life? In recent decades the door of death has sometimes seemed to have been turned into a revolving door. Through advances in medical resuscitation there were at last count some eight million Americans who, after clinically dying, were brought back to life. And what is amazing is the similar experience many of these persons go on to describe. They tell of feeling their soul leave their body almost like a hand withdrawing from a glove. They describe rushing down a dark tunnel and suddenly finding themselves in the presence of a brilliant being of light who touches them in such a way that they experience a sense of grace and truth.
N experiences must be tested against Scripture
What is a person to make of these things? As a Christian I would have to say that while such experiences, as they've come to be called, provide fascinating fodder for thought and conversation, we are wise to hold them against what the Bible tells us about life and death. In the words of Tal Brooke, the director of the Spiritual Counterfeits Project, we must do this becauseand I want you to pay attention to this because it's an idea foreign to the culture of our timeexperience can lie.
Indeed, as those who have been witnesses to a vision or the ravages of mental illness or the illusions of the likes of David Copperfield will readily tell you, experience untethered from the truth can be amazingly deceptive. This may be partly why God chose to give us the truth of his Word. He wanted us to have a reliable plumb line against which to evaluate our experiences and to rightly orient our lives.
In recent years books that have flowed out of these experiences, like Betty Eadie's Embraced by the Light, for example, have given millions of people certain ideas about life and death and God that have infiltrated the pop culture and even the church. Yet it is important to know that the Jesus Mrs. Eadie and others describe and the belief system she said he gave to her veer off from the plumb line of Scripture teaching on more than 20 different doctrines.
In Matthew 24:24 Jesus warned us that in the last days, "false Christs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and miracles to deceive even the electif that were possible." The apostle John said, "Do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world." And as if the apostle Paul could foresee the Celestine Prophecy and the other gurus of our time, he cautions us to hold up every popular spiritual claim against the plumb line of Scripture, because sometimes "even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light."
N experiences affirm many Scriptural teachings
With God's Word as our first and final authority, it must be said, however, that there are some things about these experiences that do seem to line up with what Jesus and the Scriptures have been telling us all along about life and death. That corroboration, in a sense, does bring a certain kind of comfort. One of the most terrifying thoughts is that one day what you and I areour uniqueness, our personality, our individualitywill be lost, snuffed out, deleted from existence. But what these experiencesand, more importantly, God's Word itselfsay to us is that there will never come a day when you and I aren't. While your body will waste away and finally die, your soulthat part that is most uniquely and personally youis going to survive the grave. It flows on. Remember the word of God spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: Before you were even born I knew you. I formed you uniquely in your mother's womb, and I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you, not to harm you, to give you a future and a hope.
When the cardiac monitor flatlines, that which is most you isn't lost. It doesn't dissolve like a drop of water into some ocean of cosmic consciousness. You in your particularity by the grace and intention of God go on.
But that's not all. N experiences also tend to corroborate the Bible's affirmation that your soul or those of loved ones who have died in Christ go on immediately. The soul does not invisibly wander the earth for a while as a ghost, no matter what the movies are telling you. It does not linger in some purgatorial waiting room. The soul doesn't have to work its way up some exhausting spiritual ladder. At the moment of physical death, all of the wandering, waiting, and working that have characterized this life are over and your soul goes intact and immediately from our perspective to be with God.
Once again, we don't depend on experiences to tell us that. Jesus tells us that. To the thief on the cross he says, "Today you will be with me in paradise." To his disciples Jesus declares, "Don't be worried. Don't be afraid, for I go to prepare a place for you, and I will take you to be where I am."
But there's more good news still. When you are where Jesus is, you are utterly renewed by his light and his love. Again and again the testimony of many of those who seem to come back from the other side is this: There's redemption over there. There's new life and light over there. There's hope. There's resurrection. There's renewal over there.
Illustration: Diane Komp, a pediatric oncologist from Yale University, describes being gradually converted from atheism to agnosticism to faith in Jesus Christ by witnessing the experiences of children near death. Kids who had no publisher's incentive to lie or to stretch the truth, who had no predisposed pictures of what the afterlife was like, who'd never seen the movies or read the books, told her the most amazing things. And in her book A Window to Heaven, Komp describes these encounters. She recalls sitting with a family in their final moments with their 7 daughter, a victim of leukemia. The little girl said, "The angels, the angels, they're so beautiful! Mommy, can you see them? Can you hear them singing? I've never heard such beautiful singing." Komp says, "The word that most closely describes what I've received from these children is the word gift." Other children speak of being totally surrounded by a warmth and a strength and a love so great that, like those apostles who had met the risen Lord, they seemed filled with a confidence that enabled them to face anything. What a deep sense of peace.
And this is the truth the Scriptures have been declaring. As we read in Isaiah 25:8: He will swallow up death in victory. And the Lord himself will wipe away the tears from their faces.
Or as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:52: In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, we shall be raised incorruptible. We shall be changed. We shall be changed for the better.
N experiences warn us of hell
But there is more to the story than this. While many of the narratives provide genuine comfort, it must also be said that some of them also line up with the pointed challenge Jesus gives us to recognize that heaven isn't all there is.
Illustration: I think of the old cemetery in Indiana that has a tombstone bearing the following epitaph: "Pause, stranger, when you pass me by. As you are now, so once was I. As I am now, so you will be. So prepare for death and follow me." And beneath those convicting words some passerby scratched some additional ones that read as follows: "To follow you I'm not content until I know which way you went."
We laugh partly from discomfort, for this insight scrawled at the bottom is often mocked or forgotten in our time. And all the "by the light" books of recent decades have helped to reinforce our sweeping away of that dimension of the question of death and life. All these books speak of the embracing warmth of God's love. They leave you with the impression that it doesn't matter how we lead our lives so long as we're not like one of those terrible people we hear about in the news, because when our body dies we who are within the broad range of acceptability will inevitably wind up in heaven.
Illustration: In my research, however, I came across another book, this one written by a cardiologist at the University of Tennessee that corroborates another aspect of the biblical message. In the course of their emergency room work, Dr. Maurice Rawlings and his colleagues interviewed more than 300 people who claimed experiences. What made Rawlings's study distinct is that the interviews were not conducted months or years later but immediately after the experiences had allegedly occurred, while the patients were still too shaken up in the immediacy of the moment to gloss over or to what they had experienced. Nearly 50 percent of them reported encountering images of fire, of tormented and tormenting creatures and other sites hailing from a place very different from heaven. In interviews much later many of these same people had changed their stories, apparently unwilling to admit to their families, maybe even to their own selves, that they had caught a glimpse of something like what the Bible calls hell. Dr. Rawlings concludes, "Just listening to these patients has changed my life. There is a life after death, and if I don't know where I'm going, it is not safe to die."
We don't hear this message anymore. It is swept from the mouths of preachers and most of the pulpits of our country. It is relegated to the likes of the televangelists, the placard carrier at the Super Bowl, the itinerant preacher from a century ago. Yet there is an ancient evangelical question we must recover: Do you know where you are going?
Some of us live our entire lives thinking that question is irrelevant because when we're dead, we think, we're dead. But that's not true. Life goes on. Others of us think the question about where we're going is premature because we'll surely have the chance to switch or to firm up our status after we die. But that's not true either, for our souls go immediately into the presence of God. Others think the question about where we're going is a dumb one since a loving God could not help but embrace the likes of us. But that's only partly right, for he is also a holy God, the brilliance of whose nature will not and cannot brook forever an encounter with the darkness of unresolved sin.
Illustration: The last words of G. K. Chesterton were these: "The issue is now clear. It is between light and darkness, and everyone must choose his side."
In the face of death, we urgently need to choose Christ
If these experiences are good for anything, it may be that they help us to reflect now, in a fresh way, on how important it is, how urgent it is, that we choose the Light. I do not mean the one we'll meet at the far end of the tunnel. I mean the One who has come already to this end of the passageway. John puts it this way: "In Christ was life, and that life was the light of men.The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world.Though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him."
Can you believe that? John is saying. Can you believe that? The true light had already come, and they were still out there wondering. Then John goes on to share this incredibly great news: "Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God."
Illustration: An elderly pastor once shared:
When my son was small, we often walked together out through the neighboring pasture. At first the young fellow would just hold onto my little finger. But whenever he stumbled over something, his grip would fail and he'd go down in the dirt or the snow. And I'd stop, and I'd help him up. And again he'd grab hold of my little finger all the harder this time, and this occurred frequently until one day as he was brushing himself off, he looked up at me and said with a tone of fresh revelation in his voice, "Daddy?" And I replied, "Yes, child, what is it?" "Daddy," he said, "I think that if you would hold my hand I wouldn't fall."
We can be like that child, absolutely certain we will not fall. But all we have to do is ask the Father to firmly take hold of us, not out there at the far end of the tunnel but here and now at this end. If you're going to go on this journey ahead, you have to start as a child, for Jesus said it is the only way into the kingdom of your Father.
That means you have to admit to yourself and to him that you need him utterly and that without him you know you will surely fall. It will not do to trust your good deeds. It will not do to trust your moral purity. It won't do to trust your religious lineage or your surface piety. Those fingers simply aren't strong enough. Do you understand this? You're not strong enough against the gravity of sin and its consequences. And until you know that there's no hope at all. But if you will trust yourself to his grip like you've never trusted anybody for something before, the Bible promises that when the time comes, when death isn't just near but truly pulling you down, you will not fall, for you'll have no reason to fear the light or the heat. As a child born of God, you'll be with him heading home.
Daniel Meyer is senior pastor of Christ Church in Oak Brook, Illinois.