Is ‘Heaven Is for Real’ for real?


April 2014

Colton Burpo’s story of visiting heaven while on the operating table during an emergency appendectomy became the best-selling book, Heaven Is for Real, and is now in theaters. This follows an earlier best-seller, 90 Minutes in Heaven, written by an adult who believes he, too, visited heaven during a horrific car crash. Both books feature experiences in heaven, then returning to earth.

So, is Heaven Is for Real for real? Here’s a chapter from my 2000 book, The Why Files: Is There Really Life After Death, which asks . . .

Can your soul leave your body before you’re dead?

      I opened my eyes and looked around as I floated face down in the cool, eerie silence of Cadilac Lake. I couldn’t feel any pain–or anything else–as I mentally checked myself out. I’ll just sit up and rest a bit, I thought.

      Nothing happened.

      Well, it’s just like a football tackle when you have to wait to get your breath back. After a moment I put every ounce of strength and mental energy into lifting my head out of the water. Again, nothing!

      I strained to turn my head so I could gasp for air, but the surface of the lake always seemed just a quarter-inch away from my mouth!

      God, I need air! Come on, don’t panic. I’ll just wait for Mom and my brother to see me and pull me out, and I’ll be okay.

      Moments before the sun had shown brightly on the sparkling lake. I was home from college for summer vacation and had been enjoying the laughter and good times with my family at our lakeside cottage in Michigan. I had planned to swim underwater out to the raft to give my Mom, brother, and two sisters, who were sunbathing, a good scare. I sprinted to the end of the dock and jumped off at a flat speed dive.

      Instantly, my head smashed into something solid. I remembered thinking, This is just like the cartoons where Sylvester is chasing Tweety Bird on skis, and suddenly there’s this telephone pole in the middle of the lake. POW! The skis keep going but the poor cat slithers down the pole into the water. But this wasn’t funny!

      Come on, Mom! Notice me! I’m running out of air! I waited and waited. Gradually the sandy lake bottom began turning gray. My lungs felt as if they were being crushed by some invisible vise.

      I tried to fight panic as I remembered my life guard training. If I passed out, I wouldn’t be able to hold my breath any longer. My lungs would begin to fill with water and I’d be gone. My whole body felt as if it was going to explode with the pounding pressure in my chest.

      “Lord, I guess this is it,” I prayed. “I guess I’m going home. But what
      makes me deserve heaven? What have I ever done? I’ve never really shared my faith with the guys in the dorm or the people at work. God, I’ve failed you.”

      But then I sensed God saying, “Don’t worry, you’re my child.” My body began to relax as I felt this beautiful peace and joy. And unbelievable, powerful love seemed to push the pain out of my chest and fill my whole body. Everything had now turned black and yet there was a feeling that Christ was right beside me. And then, a blinding light as I struggled to open my eyes.

Mike Carlton’s story is incredible! According to the paramedics who revived my friend, he had been in the water long enough for severe brain damage or death. Doctors can’t explain why Mike was able to walk out of the hospital two weeks later in perfect health when he should be paralyzed or dead. Mike believes his faith in God brought him through this close call with death. Or did Mike actually cross the line between life and death and return from the dead?

Can people be brought back from the dead?

Mike’s not alone in his experience. Thousands of people come within a breath of death each year and one-fifth of those resuscitated report some kind of sneak preview of the after-life!

Medical science defines death as (1) the absence of clinically detectable vital signs, (2) the absence of brain-wave activity, and (3) the irreversible loss of vital functions. Because of this, we are really talking about near-death experiences (NDE’s) here.

Many NDE’s have several things in common:

      • The sensation of leaving one’s body

      • Passing through a dark tunnel

      • Seeing a bright light

      • A sense of love and peace

      • Seeing one’s life in review

      • Meeting friends and relatives who have died

      • Making a painful decision to return to earthly life or disappointment at being revived.

Not everyone has all of these experiences and NDE’s aren’t limited to these common experiences. Some have reported “floating in a blue bubble,” “being held by a giant hand,” “straddling a beam of light and touring the universe,” and seeing “cities of gold.”

And not all of the NDE’s are pleasant experiences. Some report “being horrified by nude, zombie-like people” and many report “a lake of fire” and the “smell of burning sulphur.” An Intensive Care Unit nurse I interviewed reports an unusual case. A thirty-two-year-old woman began bleeding uncontrollably, lost all blood pressure, and went into a coma during a difficult child birth. While she was being resuscitated, she later reported that she saw her doctor playing cards with a red creature with horns. “They were gambling for my soul,” she suggested. The doctor won.

Some researchers believe that there are many more negative experiences than are reported for many reasons: the experience is so frightening that the patients block it out of the memory; they’re ashamed to admit that they saw hell rather than heaven; or they fear people will think they’re crazy.

But NDE’s are nothing new! Ancient Egyptians created these near-death experiences as an initiation rite for priests of Osiris and would-be pharaohs by sealing candidates in mummy coffins for eight minutes. (Archaeologists speculate that many slaves died while cult members tried to determine the exact time that one could survive without oxygen and still be revived.) The Egyptian Book of the Dead documents these experiments and describes journeys down dark tunnels opening up to bright lights. The Tibetan Book of the Dead and The Aztec Song of the Dead describe similar phenomenon.

The Apostle Paul reports what some would consider an NDE in 2 Corinthians 12:2-4:

      I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know–God knows. And I know that this man–whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows–was caught up to paradise. He heard inexpressible things, things that man is not permitted to tell.

Is there proof that people have out-of-body experiences?

Raymond Moody, a medical doctor, was one of the first to attempt to scientifically study NDE’s. His two best-selling books, Life After Life and Reflections on Life After Life, were based on interviews with one-hundred-fifty patients who had a close call with death.

But scientifically verifying NDE’s is impossible. First, the studies are based on a extremely limited number of cases. Second, because of patient confidentiality, there is no way to know if the patient is a reliable witness. Is he or she a truthful, mentally stable person? (I’m convinced that Mike Carlson is such a person.) Or has he or she also seen Elvis recently? Third, the only proof is the patient’s subjective memory of a personal experience. There are no other witnesses to verify that this experience did indeed occur. And we all know how stories can become exaggerated after many tellings.

How do you explain people coming back from the dead?

Russel Noyes of the University of Iowa believes that the sensation of leaving one’s body is caused by “transient depersonalizations.” In other words, people experiencing near-death events become emotionally detached from their bodies. This allows them to handle a situation without panic and to initiate life-saving measures. Sigmund Freud, the famous psychiatrist first held this theory claiming that “our own death is indeed unimaginable and whenever we make an attempt to imagine it, we can perceive that we really survive as spectators.”

Similar phenomena is “autoscopic hallucinations” in which people see a mirror image of themselves during brain tumors, strokes, or migraine headaches. One out of fifty people have experienced this, including President Abraham Lincoln during a bout with migraines.

But “transient depersonalization” and “autoscopic hallucinations” can’t explain away every “out of body experience.” The first scientific report appeared in a 1889 issue of the St. Louis Medical and Surgical Journal, where a medical doctor fell into a coma, lost all signs of life, and was pronounced dead by another doctor S. H. Raynes. After reviving, the doctor reported that while apparently dead, his “non-physical body resembled that of a jellyfish. . . and that his body passed through those of others in the room without contact.”

The sensation of passing through a dark tunnel can be caused by oxygen loss (hypoxia). Dr. Marshall Goldberg has documented near-drownings (like Mike Carlton’s) where patients saw darkness, then a bright light. But Dr. Melvin Morse, author of Closer to the Light, claims that many of his patients had adequate oxygen while experiencing NDEs.

One’s “life in review” can be explained by brain activity. Under stress or grief the hypothalamus in the brain will signal the pituitary to secrete the hormone ACTH which has been found to cause one’s life to flash before one’s eyes–either from infancy to present, or in reverse motion from most recent to early life.

The most dramatic proof that NDE’s can be caused by brain activity was documented by Wilder Penfield, known as the father of neurosurgery. In the 1930’s Penfield discovered that poking the right temporal lobe of the brain (just above the right ear) produced out of body experiences. Since the brain has no feeling, Penfield, conducted these experiments with patients wide awake! Patients spoke of leaving their bodies or being “half in and half out.” They also reported “seeing God,” hearing beautiful music, seeing dead friends and relatives, and “seeing their life flash before them.”

Dr. Karlis Osis thought perhaps these NDE’s were the “product of a sick or defective brain” but his research reveals that “the clearer the patient’s mind, the more strong this experience was.” When he tried to explain the experiences with drugs or high fevers, he made some other interesting discoveries. Of those have NDE’s, only one in five were taking drugs and one in ten had medical conditions (such as brain tumors) that might possible cause hallucinations; fewer than one in ten had high fevers.

While many near-death experiences can be explained away physically or medically, there are some cases that seem to have no such explanation.

Michael Sabom, a cardiologist, discovered that thirty-two of his patients claim to have actually left their bodies and watched their own resuscitation. While these patients were not medically trained, each person accurately and with great detail could describe the intricate procedures performed on them while they were apparently unconscious.

People who have near-death experiences also seem to know other things that they shouldn’t humanly know. In 1926 Sir William Barrett’s book Deathbed Visions reported people who were critically ill and, so, had not been told of a loved one’s recent deaths. And yet when the patients “returned from death,” they described meeting that loved one “on the other side.” Many similar stories of talking with dead friends and relatives have been told in recent books and articles.

Do near-death experiences give us a look into heaven?

I can’t—won’t—answer that with absolutely certainty, but I do have some sanctified cynicism:

1. If NDE’s are a sneak preview of heaven, they should present a fairly similar picture. While there are many people who do see dark tunnels, bright lights, and feel intense love, there are many others who see things as diverse as blue bubbles, zombies, and giant hands.

2. If NDE’s are a sneak preview of the afterlife, they should reveal the same divine presence.

However, NDE’s seem to be based on one’s religious and cultural background. Protestants see Christ. Catholics tend to see Christ, Mary, or other saints. Hindus see Lord Krishna. Atheists and agnostics, however, only see bright lights or feel great love.

Many NDE’s also contradict the Bible’s teaching of the after-life. For instance, Satan is not a “red creature with horns” that the bleeding woman reported, but an “angel of light” according to Scripture. Betty Eadie’s best-selling tale of her NDE, Embraced by the Light, contains a mixture of New Age philosophy and Scripture.

For the person who has lived through a brush with death, the experience is real to them—whether it can be explained away by modern science or not. But to claim that it proves anything about the afterlife just doesn’t seem possible. But to quote St. Paul “I do not know, but God knows.”

Copyright © 2000 James N. Watkins

Note: April 2014
Do I believe heaven is for real? Yes! Do I believe that Colton Burpo actually visited heaven and met Jesus? The book and film make a very strong case that he did. But, I’m going to have to reiterate St. Paul’s disclaimer following his possible visit to heaven: “I do not know, but God knows.”

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