Wednesday, December 26, 2012

"Near heaven" experiences: Is the glass half empty or half full?

I am not a fan of books about "near death experiences." Most such works are sentimental fare by writers who claim to have had some kind of encounter with the hereafter but don't seem too interested in subjecting said encounters to rigorous theological analysis. I actually know several people who have had such experiences, but they tend to be humble folk who don't talk about them very often, much less write books about them.

In a most charitable piece for Christianity Today, editor Mark Galli explores the most recent spate of book on what he prefers to call "near heaven" experiences. After analyzing the evidence and considering the trustworthiness of the witnesses, Galli concludes:
Mark Galli
To be sure, while these narratives preach a key aspect of the Good News, they fail to preach the full gospel. There is little that points to the centrality of Jesus Christ in the scope of redemption. No mention is made of Christ's life, death, or resurrection in these accounts. But I think it fair to say that from a Christian perspective, it is only because of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection that anyone can have such extraordinary divine encounters in the first place. 
And that's precisely what the church can bring to these narratives—a full-orbed gospel, one centered on Jesus Christ, the revelation of God, and the hope of the world. In fact, some of the narratives beg for such. Take Alexander's description of God, whom he calls Om:
One of the biggest mistakes people make when they think about God—or Allah, or Vishnu, or Jehova, or whatever you choose to call that Source of absolute power, that Creator that rules the universe—is to imagine Om as impersonal. Yes, God is behind the numbers, the perfection of the universe that science measures and struggles to understand. But—again, paradoxically—Om is "human" as well—even more human than you and I are. Om understands and sympathizes with our human situation more profoundly and personally than we can even imagine ….
As they say, that will preach. Alexander may be confused about which God he ran into, but we certainly aren't.

This to me is the great redeeming characteristic of near-heaven experiences. Despite their varied accounts and sometimes confused theology, there are moments when it is apparent that many of these people have had a remarkable encounter with the living God revealed in Jesus Christ. In the end, these are not so much near-death or near-heaven experiences, but, as a friend noted, near-God experiences. And when we see that people, even those who do not share our biblical assumptions, experience the God revealed in Jesus Christ—that is, the God of unconditional love—we cannot help but be thrilled and gratified. And to see it as an opportunity to talk about the full counsel of God.
Galli takes a "glass half full" perspective. He acknowledges the problems with the quirky, even absurd, theology that often arises out of such experiences, but also sees an opportunity for more mature believers to inject the fullness of the Gospel into the discussion.

A harder line is taken by John MacArthur acolyte Phil Johnson of Grace to You Ministries. In a radio interview, Johnson not only chastises Christian publishing companies for publishing books about near death experiences (an argument which may actually have some merit) but also takes Galli to task for giving them a hearing via Christianity Today. Johnson expresses some legitimate concerns, but his harsh tone, echoing that of MacArthur (whom I have long considered one of the most polarizing figures in American evangelicalism), makes the bulk of his comments unpalatable. A glass that is half empty cries out to be filled with, to use Galli's words, "the full counsel of God."

It is difficult to see how Johnson is extending grace to anyone while harboring such a displeasurable attitude.