After hearing the many reports about near death experiences, are they real? How can we know? What does it mean?
Heaven and Hell
I cannot even count the number of people who have reported to have died and gone to heaven or descended into hell, and then came back to tell about it. For one thing, it’s impossible to verify every one of these reports, and besides, the Bible never says anything about a person dying and going to heaven or hell and then coming back. The only exception would be Jesus Christ Who came down from heaven and was born of a virgin, was crucified, and rose on the third day, but also, the Apostle Paul once reported (about himself or another?) that “I know that this man was caught up into paradise—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows—and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter” (2nd Cor 12:3-4). Paradise is clearly a reference to heaven, but whether this was Paul “in the body” or “out of the body,” he doesn’t really know. He does know what he saw but he couldn’t say anything specifically about it. God forbid him from saying what “cannot be told” and that “which man may not utter,” so even though there are thousands of reports about someone dying and going to heaven or hell, and then coming back, only one man did in all the Bible, and he didn’t come back and write a book about it.
Near Death Experiences
Near-death experiences are not the same as reported experiences after death, or at least apparent death, where some were thought to have died, only to come back to life, or perhaps they were in shock and suddenly come out of it. Near-death is not like someone who’s been legally pronounced dead but then has come back to life. Near-death is not death itself, but near it. That’s the difference. When people have these near-death experiences, they try to write everything down everything they can remember, and there are some very amazing things they recall, but again, we just can’t confirm every detail of everyone’s account of these reports. It would be impossible to do so. And even if it does happen, and many believe they do, what does it prove? Can we use these people’s reports and build a doctrine on it? No, because whatever doesn’t match what the Word of God says, doesn’t match what the will of God is. Some have even claimed to have been in heaven for a time, even seeing lost relatives. Others claim to have been in hell, but what does the Bible say about this? The author of Hebrews wrote that “it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment” (Heb 9:27). Once would clearly indicate one death. Lazarus, and those Jesus raised from the dead, are the only exceptions, but these were raised by Christ Himself. The apostles did this a couple of times, but these are the rare exceptions in the New Testament church, and not one of these people raised from the dead ever said anything about what it was like “on the other side.”
Are they Real?
I cannot prove that they are real or not. God alone knows this, but sometimes we know that these have turned out to be hoaxes, but there are many more that we simply can’t explain, so I won’t try to. God can do what God wants to do. Would those who have a near-death experience have a dream so vivid of heaven and hell that they really believed they were there? Absolutely yes, but we simply can’t account for every single near-death experience someone has had. I think the danger is that we start focusing on these stories and not on the Bible and Jesus Christ. Anything that takes our focus off of Jesus is not good. These accounts might be interesting, and a few I have read make you think, but I can’t make any biblical judgments based upon these accounts, and I am not going to drift off into another area that’s outside of the will of God. God tells us to grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord (2nd Pet 3:18), not grow in the knowledge of the unknown and mysterious. It’s like the preoccupation that many have about angels. They get so wrapped up in angels that they neglect the Word of God and Jesus Christ. What happens is a person starts reading more about these near-death experiences than what is best for them, and that’s the Word of God. There is real power in God’s Word (Rom 1:16; 1st Cor 1:18), but there is no power in human accounts or experiences. They might be inspiring, but they’re not inspired like the Word of God is.
We know for sure that Jesus Christ was dead and then rose again. He tasted death for every one of us so that we wouldn’t have to face the second death, mentioned in the Book of Revelation where John wrote, “Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire” (Rev 20:14-15). Now, how do you get past the Great White Throne Judgment and the second death? Paul makes it perfectly clear as he wrote that “if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Rom 10:9-13). If you have trusted in Christ, then death is no longer a barrier between you and God, and nothing can ever separate you again from the love of God (Rom 8:38).