Thursday, April 24, 2014

Is Heaven is for Real a hoax?

I'm going to quote from (and comment on) some of these posts:

i) I've been reading some bad objections to Heaven is for Real. Bad objections can backfire. Bad objections to NDEs invite empirical disproof. Bad objections may inoculate people against good objections.
If a pastor tells people that a certain kind of experience is impossible, and if a person later has that experience, or knows someone he trusts who has that experience (e.g. a friend or family member), then the pastor has blown his credibility. When people are told something can't happen, then encounter evidence to the contrary, one reaction is to become cynical. 
Ironically, bad objections can predispose people to the very error you warn them against. Take inaccurate objections to Roman Catholicism. Some converts to Catholicism had an "anti-Catholic" religious upbringing. Unfortunately, in their experience, Catholic theology was caricatured. That actually made them ripe for conversion to Catholicism when they were later exposed to a more accurate version. When their childhood indoctrination was corrected, they felt betrayed. Had they been raised on accurate objections to Roman Catholicism, they'd be far less susceptible to Catholicism. 
ii) One danger or misuse of NDEs is religious pluralism. As Ken Samples puts it, "NDEs can be used as evidence for everyone’s worldviews."
That highlights the need to distinguish between the raw experience and the interpretation of the experience. 
These books are coming out with such frequency that it is virtually impossible to read and review them all. But that shouldn't even be necessary. 
There's some truth to that. It's possible and preferable to stake out a general position on NDEs. Our position at any given time shouldn't be based on the last book we read on the subject. 
It's like natural disasters which kill hundreds or thousands of humans. That goes to the problem of evil. However, a Christian needn't and shouldn't revisit the problem of evil every time there's another natural disaster in the news. He should have a theodicy which deals with that kind of event.
Same thing with NDEs. It's good to work out a position on that kind of experience. At the same time, your position needs to be informed. 
“I’m convinced that the entire book and movie is a hoax from start to finish,” said John MacArthur, the pastor of Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, Calif.  “It has nothing to do with Christianity.  It has nothing to do with the Bible.”

i) We need to distinguish between the book and the movie. Movies take artistic liberties with books they are based on. If the source of the movie is factually dubious, and the movie takes artistic liberties with a dubious source, then the movie will be even less factual than the primary source. 

ii) To say it's a "hoax" suggests conscious deception. Is MacArthur alleging that Colton and/or his parents are intentionally deceiving the public? Certainly that's one possibility we need to take into consideration. But is MacArthur in a position to know that? Rather than speculating on their motives, unless he is privy to inside information, it would be preferable to critique the book and the movie on the merits. 

Colton’s descriptions of heaven are full of fanciful features and peculiar details that bear all the earmarks of a child’s vivid imagination. 
i) This goes to one of the basic problems with the account. A 3-4 child lacks the mental competence to be a reliable witness. In evaluating NDEs, one preliminary consideration is the competence of the subject. Compare Colton Burpo to Eban Alexander. What makes Alexander's case interesting, aside from the medical details, is the fact that he's a neurosurgeon with Ivy League credentials. He brings professional competence to the issue.
Keep in mind that this is just a necessary rather than sufficient condition of a credible witness. You can be a mentally competent witness, but still be unreliable for other reasons. But in Colton's case, he lacks prima facie credibility because he lacks a necessary condition to be a reliable witness. 
In evaluating NDEs, we need to do some preliminary sorting. Some accounts have no prima facie credibility. Others pass that initial test. Some of them merit further scrutiny. 
ii) Having said that, MacArthur's objection exposes a point of tension in his theology. MacArthur subscribes to universal infant salvation:
He thinks all children who die before the age of discretion go straight to heaven when they die. But in that event, what do they experience? 
Is there a kindergarten section of heaven for kindergarten decedents? Is heaven age-appropriate? 
Keep in mind that the intermediate state is, in a sense, a subjective state. A psychological state. The condition of the discarnate soul. It has simulated sensory stimuli. Heaven is not an objective "place" in the concrete, physical sense that the new heavens and earth will be. So, in principle, the experience of heaven could vary to some degree. 
Does MacArthur have some antecedent theological reason to think God would not accommodate the experience of heaven to a child's mind? To what would be pleasant and intelligible to 3-year-old? 
There is simply no reason to believe anyone who claims to have gone to heaven and returned. John 3:13 says, “No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.” [NLT: “No one has ever gone to heaven and returned. But the Son of Man has come down from heaven.”] And John 1:18 says, “No one has seen God at any time.”
But even MacArthur has to make exception for Samuel, Moses, and Elijah. So that proves too much. 
Four biblical authors had visions of heaven—not near-death experiences. Isaiah and Ezekiel (Old Testament prophets) and Paul and John (New Testament apostles) all had such visions. Two other biblical figures—Micaiah and Stephen—got glimpses of heaven, but what they saw is merely mentioned, not described (2 Chronicles 18:18; Acts 7:55).
i) That's a superficial criticism. After all, some Biblical seers (e.g. Ezekiel, St. John, St. Paul) describe their visionary experience as an out-of-body experience. And a near-death-experience is an out-of-body experience, where the soul or consciousness disengages from the body. An out-of-body experience needn't be a near-death-experience, but a near-death-experience is a type of out-of-body experience. 
ii) In addition, Scripture doesn't presume to give an exhaustive list of every type of experience people can have. So, at best, that's an argument from silence. 
In this podcast, John Piper argues against such books from Isaiah 8:19 (And when they say to you, “Inquire of the mediums and the necromancers who chirp and mutter,” should not a people inquire of their God? Should they inquire of the dead on behalf of the living?)
God’s beef with necromancy is that it belittles the sufficiency of his communication. Why would you inquire of the dead to find out what you want to know instead of inquiring of me? And if they say: Well, I have inquired of you and you didn’t tell me what I want to know. He would say: Well, that is your problem. I have told you what you need to know. You don’t need to know about such and such if I haven’t told you. And, in fact, if you go trying to inquire about such and such that I haven’t told you, you are dishonoring me. So that is the nature of the argument. And, therefore, I think the prohibition of séances and necromancy applies to this kind of thing and people ought to stop writing those books.
i) That fails to distinguish between an altered state of consciousness which we initiate, and an altered state of consciousness which we were involuntarily caused to experience.
ii) How is necromancy germane to the experience of a dying child? The child wasn't conducting a séance.  
- Impossible like “people having near death experiences?”Probably not.  That happens all the time.  Even I had a near death experience once when I woke up in a bed soaked in my own blood from head to toe…well, it was mostly my blood…and 2 liters of saline…- Impossible like “people having surgery and being on the ropes?”Again, no.  That happens all the time.  I know of a guy that swallowed a rope and had to have surgery to get it out…well, it was more like floss…and the surgery was non-invasive…
Does Unger deny veridical NDEs? If so, has he studied the evidence for veridical NDEs? Can Unger stop performing stupid pet tricks long enough to do real research? 
- Impossible like getting to go to Heaven outside of Christ, based on the “hope” that…uh…somehow that God will just toss aside his own holiness and the entire person and work of Christ and let everyone in?Well, not everyone everyone.I mean, God can’t let Hitler in…and Stalin…and really bad guys like kidnappers, and child molesters, and pyramid scam artists, and homophobes, and people who deny global warming, and people who eat gluten…and people who are bigots according to your standards of what’s “open minded”…so in the end nobody but yourself and your relatively small circle of friends…Is that the kind of impossible we’re talking about?Well, that must be it.  That’s gotta be the “possibility” that the film is portraying.No sin.No repentance.No gospel whatsoever.
That's a valid objection when NDEs are cited to defend universalism, but what about the status of a dying child? That specific example. What does Unger think happens to children when they die? Does he think a baby has to repent? 
As usual, Unger is incapable of mustering intelligent criticism. He thinks his brand of puerile ridicule is a substitute for reason and evidence. 

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