Friday, March 21, 2014

I Disagree With John Piper About Near-Death Experiences

I think highly of John Piper. I've often quoted him approvingly in my posts on this blog. I often recommend his books, and I've given many copies away. I donate to his ministry. Desiring God is my favorite book outside the Bible. However, he recently made some comments about near-death experiences (NDEs) that I disagree with.

Evangelicals often take a simplistic approach toward NDEs. They rightly perceive some problems with NDEs (in addition to wrongly perceiving other problems that don't exist), and they overreact. They seem to go looking for a Biblical verse or theme that will easily settle issues that actually can't be settled so easily. Instead of making more of an effort to think through the issues involved and make proper distinctions, they're looking for a simple way to justify their initial impressions and move on to other issues. I don't know how much Piper has researched NDEs. I don't know how guilty he is of mishandling the subject in the manner I've just described. But his comments during the podcast cited above suggest that he doesn't know much about NDEs.

He frames the issue in terms of a choice between doubting fallible sources and trusting infallible scripture. But we trust many fallible sources outside the Bible. Though scripture teaches us about matters like God's design of nature and the sinfulness of mankind, for example, we can learn more about such issues through extrabiblical means. We learn more about God's creation by observing it, we get insights about human sinfulness through what we experience in our lives, and so forth. Similarly, NDEs can give us reliable information about what it's like to travel outside our bodies, can provide us with additional evidence for the existence of the soul, etc.

He raises the issue of communicating with the dead. But there's a difference between initiating contact with the dead and coming into contact with them by other means. If the latter, which is what purportedly happens in the typical NDE, is sinful, then it seems that the Biblical authors who went to Heaven in some way and saw the dead, heard the dead speak, learned from the dead, etc. (e.g., John in Revelation) were sinning. Were the disciples with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration, where Moses and Elijah appeared, sinning? Scripture suggests that their experiences weren't sinful. As I've said before in posts about praying to the dead and angels, we have to distinguish between trying to initiate contact with such beings and coming into contact by some other means. The apostle John shouldn't have prayed to deceased believers or angels, but it was acceptable for him to speak to the angels who appeared to him and to report what he saw in Heaven, including his experiences involving seeing the dead. It was acceptable for him to have dead believers appear before him, listen to what they were saying, write about his experiences afterward, etc. If Piper is arguing that such behavior is acceptable, but that it would have been unacceptable for John to have spoken to those dead individuals who appeared before him, then where does scripture suggest such a distinction? And what about NDEs that don't involve the experiencer's speaking to the dead?

Piper's citation of Isaiah 8 doesn't prove what he suggests it does. When the apostle John had dead men and angels appear before him on the Mount of Transfiguration and in his experiences described in Revelation, he wasn't seeking counsel from the dead (or angels) in the sense of initiating contact with them. He wasn't trying to bring the dead into his presence. Rather, they were brought into his presence without his initiating it. Isaiah 8 need not be referring to experiences like John's. It might only be condemning behavior that involves attempting to initiate contact with the dead. Since that view harmonizes Isaiah with the remainder of scripture, whereas the alternative view doesn't, it's a preferable way of taking the passage. Passages like Deuteronomy 18:10-12, Isaiah 8:19, and 19:3 don't seem to be condemning something like John's experiences or the typical NDE that involves encountering deceased individuals.

And many NDEs don't involve dead humans, angels, or the like. What about those?

If anybody is interested, here's an index linking many of my posts on NDEs. Given the popularity of NDEs, the common misuse of them, the mounting evidence for their frequency and some degree of veridicality, and other issues involved, it's important that Christians be well prepared to address the subject.

Though I disagree with some of Piper's comments in his podcast, I want to echo his recommendation of Jonathan Edwards' piece on Heaven as a world of love. If you haven't read it, please do.


  1. This is helpful! Thanks, Jason. :-)

  2. Jason, I think you're absolutely right about how Christians should take NDEs more seriously. Both because of the positive confirmation against materialism and the negative challenge it poses to the Christian worldview.

    If anyone is interested, here's a link to my blog where I've collected links on NDEs from a Christian perspective.

    Near Death Experiences and Christianity

    It includes links to materials by Triabloggers Jason and Steve, as well as Gary Habermas, Steve Miller, Michael Heiser (hopefully more in the future).

  3. Jason,
    Iv'e recently begun struggling with the topic of Christianity and NDE's, and have found you work to be one of the most thorough thinking on the subject from a Christian perspective. That said, I have a couple of concerns I was hoping you could answer.

    First, do you know of any instances where the religious figure in the NDE identifies itself? It seems that usually people see the being of light and then identify it by their prior beliefs. Do you think hat could be used a evidence of the "all religions are false, they just grasp a piece of the puzzle" or the Blind man and the Elephant way of thinking?

    Second, can you cite any specific instances of contradictions in NDE's? You sort of just give a general outline, and not specific cases. I was wondering if you could either post or link to specific cases that contradict each other.

    Third, how do you explain people seeing dead relatives that they did not expect, such as one man seeing his ex-wife and a small girl. He had not seen his ex-wife in a long time. When he recovered he went searching and found that he had a daughter who had died very young that he had not known about.

    Also, could you comment on this story related by Gary Habermas here: where he talks about a congenially blind woman seeing her friends. "An upcoming book by Kimberly Clark Sharp will also document a highly confirmed case of this sort. One congenitally blind woman had an NDE complete with color images, reporting correctly several items from her surroundings. But even more evidential, she reported a rendezvous with two close friends, both of whom were also blind, and was able to give accurate physical descriptions of each, even though she had never seen either one! Further, both of these friends were dead"

    Also, I'm looking at the demonic theory, but one problem that I find with it is that children have NDE's and I would think that God would protect children from demonic deception and attack. Could you speak to this a little?

    Lastly, do you know of any other good Christian resources besides Sabom's work? If you could give me some pointers that would be great. Thanks

    1. tlaps,

      Sometimes a religious figure in an NDE will be explicitly named. See here, for example, where a woman writes about how "I was then led by the hand and asked if I wanted to meet Jesus." Another experiencer (NDEr) refers to "the voice who called himself Jesus (he told me when I asked who are you/where am I)". And another NDEr writes, "I could not see a face but felt a presence of Jesus on a throne. I said who are you. He replied I am your Lord Jesus."

      I think most NDEs that include an encounter with a religious leader, like Jesus, don't involve any statements from that figure in which he identifies himself. Instead, we get comments from the NDEr saying that he saw Jesus without explaining how he knew the individual was Jesus, or he'll refer to clothing, bodily features, or some other indication of identity that didn't involve any statement of identity from the figure in question. Sometimes the surrounding context provides evidence for identifying the beings who are encountered. Indian NDEs that occur in settings anticipated by Hinduism, for example, thereby offer support for a Hindu interpretation of those NDEs. Sometimes the figure identified as Jesus has apparent nail marks in his hands and feet. (See here or the Colton Burpo case, for example.) It's doubtful that a central figure in the afterlife with apparent nail wounds in his hands and feet would be anybody other than Jesus. You wouldn't need a statement like "I'm Jesus" or "I'm a Hindu god" in order to be justified in concluding that the figure was Jesus or a Hindu god. To require something explicit, while ignoring the implications of what isn't explicit, would be unreasonable.

      (continued below)

    2. (continued from above)

      When people seem to identify a religious figure in an NDE against their prior expectations or against their current belief system, it's unlikely that they're just reporting what they expected or wanted to see. Craig Blomberg wrote:

      "I have known people who have had near-death experiences knowing nothing of Jesus who met Jesus but returned to this life and became Christians. Devotees of other religions sometimes report similar experiences, but typically only with religious figures and destinies they already have learned about within world views that are already largely theirs." (source)

      Ken Vincent commented:

      "While I agree that this NDE looks suspicious, it is not unheard of for persons of one religion to see religious figures of a different religion. I personally have met two Jews who saw Jesus during their NDEs; one converted to Christianity, and the other was thinking about it." (source)

      Penny Sartori wrote:

      "I also came across someone who had a childhood NDE and saw a figure she did not recognise and had no concept of at her young age. It was many years later that she recognised the figure as a God from Eastern religions whom she had never been exposed to before." (source)

      There has to be a reason why people think they've seen a particular religious figure, such as Jesus or a Hindu god. How many people would be so careless as to assume such a specific identity based on something that doesn't justify the identification? I'd expect some people to make their identification on insufficient grounds, but I doubt that everybody or a majority would be making that sort of false judgment. I suspect that most people have good reason for concluding that their NDE involved Jesus, a Hindu god, or some other religious figure, which means that NDEs are highly inconsistent with each other. I address such inconsistencies among NDEs in the thread here, including in the comments section.

      (continued below)

    3. (continued from above)

      You asked about people gaining information in NDEs that couldn't be attained by normal means. I don't deny that NDEs are paranormal. My view is that they're roughly like a supernatural dream or supernatural virtual reality. Just as NDErs report improved eyesight and improved hearing during NDEs, I suspect that people's paranormal abilities, such as telepathy, are heightened as well. If the soul in some ways operates at a higher level outside the body than it does in conjunction with the body, then the heightened abilities of the soul during NDEs wouldn't tell us whether NDEs are veridical. The soul would be operating at a higher level regardless of veridicality. If a soul experiencing an NDE telepathically acquires information it wouldn't normally have, such as information about the recent death of a relative, that would be consistent with both the veridicality and the non-veridicality of NDEs. And keep in mind that we don't just need to explain why NDErs sometimes have information they seem to have attained in a paranormal manner, such as information about the recent death of an individual. We also need to explain why their information is sometimes inaccurate (e.g., cases in which a person is seen in the afterlife who's still alive on earth).

      You brought up the demonic view of NDEs and how well it addresses the NDEs of children. While demonic deception is a possible explanation for NDEs, I doubt that more than a small minority of NDEs are demonic. Veridicality and demonic deception aren't the only options we have to choose from. I suspect that the large majority of NDEs fall into a third category. They're highly subjective, much like a dream or virtual reality. For my argument for that view of NDEs, see my index of posts here.

      (continued below)

    4. (continued from above)

      If I'm wrong, there are other options that would also be consistent with some form of Christianity. You've mentioned the demonic view. Or NDEs could be largely veridical, but represent only a temporary segment of the afterlife leading up to a later time of judgment. Or many NDEs perceived as heavenly could actually be hellish instead, involving a smaller degree of punishment than people often expect. The Bible teaches that there are degrees of punishment in hell. Though we often think of the strongest descriptions of judgment in the Bible when we think of hell, such as images of fire, some of the descriptions are milder, like the "few lashes" of Luke 12:48. See, for example, the NDE described here, which the experiencer takes to be heavenly, but could be seen as hellish. She's getting what she wants, but it's not what she ought to want. How long would that sort of experience remain pleasant? Or some form of Christian inclusivism could be true, which would allow for both the truthfulness of Christianity, thus explaining the evidence we have for the religion, and the veridicality of NDEs.

      But I don't think any of those other options are needed for explaining the large majority of experiences. I think the view that NDEs are roughly like a dream is the best explanation we have, given the current state of the evidence.

      You asked for Christian sources on NDEs. I don't have any to recommend. There are bits and pieces of good material in some places. Gary Habermas is helpful on some of the issues, for example, but his focus has been much narrower than mine. He's largely addressing NDEs in response to naturalism and in the context of arguing for Jesus' resurrection. There's a lack of resources addressing NDEs more broadly from a Christian perspective, which is one of the reasons why I've been researching and writing on the topic.

  4. Jason,

    Thanks for the reply, and keep up the good work. I think the fact that people are seeing Jesus with the nails in his hands gives more evidence for your interpretation theory. Nick Peters has written some on this before here:

    "There are some problems with the account of Colton... To begin with Jesus is described as having the marks from the cross in his hands. Yet those who know about the crucifixion know that Jesus had the nails put in his wrists instead of in his hands. Had they gone in his hands, then Jesus would have fallen off of the cross."

    Since the NDEr's description of Jesus is not accurate, this could mean that they are not seeing the real Jesus, just their version of him.

    One more question: in another blog post you mention orthodox Christian views of psi. Could you go into more detail on this subject or give some references that I could look into?

    1. tlaps,

      We've cited some Christian sources on individual paranormal topics in the past. Steve cites some here, for example. How many Christian sources are available and the quality of them will vary from one topic to another.

      If you're asking for a resource that addresses the Christian orthodoxy of psi explanations in general, I don't know of one. The orthodoxy of psi views is something I've evaluated through my own research and by making case-by-case judgments.

  5. Also, in response to your most recent post:, one other way to look at NDE's is I think talked about by Michael Sabom in one of his Christian Research Institute articles was that NDE's are genera revelation. They could be looked at in a metaphor-ish way. They show that we have souls, but not much more.