For almost a quarter of a century I have spent my days working with utopians. The utopian is motivated to create heaven on earth because he is convinced that there is no other option. Put simply, the utopian believes there can be no heaven in the sense that it is described in the Bible because there is no supernatural realm. This commitment to naturalism is a philosophical commitment. It isn’t based on science. In fact, it flies in the face of science.
To paraphrase Josh McDowell, we only have three options when it comes to the origin of the universe. First, we can say that it came into being spontaneously – in other words, that it came to be without a cause. Second, we can say that it has always been. Third, we can posit some cause outside the physical universe to explain its existence.
The second option is no longer reasonable. Science has been leading inexorably to the conclusion that the universe is not infinite but instead had a beginning. That evidence has been accumulating for decades. It is therefore wrong to characterize the notion of a timeless physical universe as a scientific position. Once again, it is a philosophical position. However, in light of all the evidence, it is not a reasonable position for someone to hold.
This leaves us with only two options: Either the universe came to be with or without a cause. In other words, the universe either came from something or it came from nothing. Reasonable people grasp intuitively that it makes far more sense to say that something came from something than to say that something came from nothing.
Of course, admitting that the universe was caused by something rather than nothing comes with a price. Any cause predating the physical universe must therefore be non-physical in nature. To acknowledge such a cause is to abandon philosophical naturalism and recognize the existence of a supernatural realm. In and of itself, this by no means proves the existence of God. However, it raises the prospect. And that is enough to make the secular utopian nervous. It threatens his self-ordained role as the creator of heaven on earth.
It is against this backdrop that I initially refused to take seriously the claims of writers like Raymond Moody, who began writing about near death experiences (NDEs) in the mid-70s. I read his book Life After Life in 1985 - but only because I was forced to do so as part of an undergraduate course in psychology. At that time, I was an agnostic and rejected the prospect of all things supernatural.
After a religious conversion – to theism in 1996 and to Christianity in 2000 – I abandoned the indefensible notion that the cosmos is all there is, all there ever was, and all there ever will be. Such as statement was appealing to me as a humanist in search of cosmic justice. But upon critical examination I had to go where the evidence led me.
For those of us who have made the transition away from a strict materialist view of the universe there is no readily apparent need to examine the issue of NDEs. In my post-conversion life, I never had much interest in the topic until I stumbled across a copy of Imagine Heaven, by John Burke.
Pastor Burke is one of the finest teachers in America. He is also a brilliant writer. I devoured all three of his previous books and, quite frankly, was shocked to see that he was taking on the issue of NDEs. But since I had enjoyed everything he had written previously I took the plunge and decided to read it.
Having finished reading Imagine Heaven I now realize that I have been seriously mistaken in my decision to ignore the issue of NDEs for over 30 years – ever since taking that psychology course back in 1985. Presently, I can see at least two compelling reasons to examine the issue carefully. The first reason applies to believers. The second applies to skeptics.
1. Clarifying the issue of life review and judgment. There are many consistent patterns reported by people who claim to have had NDEs. Among those commonalties is the idea of a life review where people are able to see an overview of everything they did on earth. Those who have described the life review consistently report some interesting things. Among them is the idea that we are able to see with remarkable clarity the long-term ramifications of our actions. They often report that the things they did on earth that seemed trivial had a significant domino effect that ended up altering the lives of numerous people. Additionally, many report that the life review is used to show what really matters to God. These reports consistently claim that our relationships are revealed to be far more important than our individual accomplishments.
Pastor Burke wisely decided to write one chapter on “the life review” and another on “rewards and judgments.” The reason both are needed is that people reporting NDEs often say that there is an absence of judgment in the life review. Others assume that this translates into an absence of judgment in the afterlife per se. Such a conclusion is unwarranted. Put simply, an absence of evidence is not always evidence of absence. Pastor Burke uses scripture to explain judgment in the afterlife in very specific terms. His references provide crucial guidance on how we should live our lives on earth and how we should prepare for the afterlife just as we would prepare for retirement. These two chapters alone are worth the price of the book.
2. Clarifying the nature of consciousness. Many skeptics are convinced that consciousness can be explained in strictly material terms. I would urge these skeptics to take the time to read Body and Soul by J.P. Moreland and Scott Rae. In that comprehensive book, the authors make a compelling philosophical and ethical case for substance dualism, which views human nature in terms of both body and soul. But those who have never seriously doubted that consciousness can be explained in strictly material terms might benefit by first reading Imagine Heaven, which Moreland now considers to be the “go-to book” on the subject of NDEs.
Skeptics who read Burke’s book will struggle to find naturalist explanations for the cross-cultural similarities in NDEs. They will also struggle to find naturalist explanations for NDE accounts that have been verified by external evidence. I will close this review with one such example, which is not in John Burke’s book. It came to me in the form of a firsthand account from my friend Carl who died of a heart attack in 2014 and was later revived by attending physicians.
Carl and I were recently spending time with a mutual friend whose mother is dying from cancer. I was sharing some of the stories from Imagine Heaven and urging him to read the book as he prepared for his mother’s passing. As we were talking, Carl joined in and shared the specific details of his NDE.
After Carl was pronounced dead and revived he described his out of body experience to the doctor who revived him. As an unbeliever and a skeptic, the doctor began to pepper my friend Carl with questions. Carl responded with an extremely detailed account of what went on while the doctors were reviving him. In fact, he told them everything that happened between the time he was pronounced dead and the time he was revived.
At one point during the account, Carl’s doctor stopped him and said, “No, we didn’t do that.” In other words, he vigorously denied the veracity of one specific aspect of Carl’s report of the procedures used to bring him back to life. They argued back and forth for a few minutes until my friend Carl demanded in frustration, “Just go and check the records!”
Carl’s doctor retrieved the attending nurse’s records, which provided a detailed overview of what the doctors did to bring him back to life. The notes on the clipboard showed that Carl’s version of events was correct, and the doctor’s version was wrong.
As a reminder to my readers, Carl was dead at the time the disputed events occurred. Yet his account of what happened during those minutes was proved by external evidence to be more accurate than the doctor’s recollection. Readers are free to attribute this to luck just as they are free to believe that the universe popped into existence out of nothing.
I know that stories like Carl’s are difficult to believe when viewed in isolation. But they are far from isolated. Skeptics owe it to themselves to study the issue and provide honest explanations for these recurrent empirical patterns. In the final analysis, skeptics must decide whether they will follow the evidence or their philosophical presuppositions. They simply cannot do both.