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Are Near-Death Experiences for Real?

Remember all those books about people who died, went to heaven, and then returned to life with stories of their celestial vacation? They were referred to as “heaven tourism” books, and whether or not you are one of the millions of people who read one, you have to wonder. Are these Near Death Experiences (NDEs) for real or figments of over-active imaginations?

If you go by the immense popularity of books like Heaven Is for Real, a multi-million-selling book about a boy who dies and goes to heaven and comes back, the least you can say is that people are very curious about this question. They want to know if NDEs are for real, and by implication, if heaven is for real. Here’s our quick response.

If the historic words of Jesus, who actually died and came back to life, are not enough to convince someone that heaven is for real, why would the words of a little boy do the trick? Do the subjective words of everyday people carry more weight than the Bible? Maybe we’re being a little harsh. Personal experiences count for something, and millions of such experiences can’t be dismissed out of hand. Something is going on.

Certainly we don’t discount the story of someone who has radically changed because they became a Christian (the churchy word for this is “testimony”). Such stories can be a convincing way for people to see the power of the gospel. We don’t question someone’s testimony about Jesus setting them free from a life of drug dependency, so why should we doubt the experience of someone who said they saw Jesus in heaven?

In fact, didn’t the apostle Paul, when he was still known as Saul and was persecuting Christians with a vengeance, meet Jesus on the road to Damascus in a way that dramatically changed his life (see Acts 9)? Even though Saul was the only one who saw the blinding light and heard the voice from heaven calling his name, the Bible doesn’t record anyone who doubted his story. They may have wondered if he was a truly changed man, but evidently nobody said of his encounter with the living Christ, “You made that up.”

By the same token, do we have the right to question the experiences of people who have seen Jesus, whether it’s in a dream or in heaven? The answer is both no and yes. No, we shouldn’t automatically doubt someone’s experience of coming face-to-face with their own mortality and getting a glimpse of heaven in the process. At the same time, yes, we should be skeptical if that glimpse reveals a heaven that is very different from the heaven described in the Bible.

While the books and films about NDEs and heaven tourism could conceivably convince someone to consider that there’s something beyond this life we now experience, there’s another more reliable source for these common experiences: God himself. The Bible makes it very clear that God is the reason we think about the afterlife, whether those thoughts come to us in a dream or when we are daydreaming. “He has made everything beautiful in its time,” the writer of Ecclesiastes says. “He has also set eternity in the human heart” (Ecclesiastes 3:11).

We think about God because God is real and he made us. We think about life after life and the reality of heaven because that’s where God is taking us if we put our trust in him. These thoughts and dreams are but a preview of the reality that is coming in eternity. The reason we know this to be true isn’t because someone else went to heaven and back, but because Jesus has made it possible.

Excerpt from Answering the Toughest Questions About Heaven and Hell by Bruce Bicke and Stan Jantz. 

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Christianity 101 is a collection of books and digital resources by Bruce Bickel and Stan Jantz that talk about God in a way that encourages people to grow in their faith.