What is the Biblical View of the Afterlife?
Near-Death Experiences may be real but deceptive; real but genuine, or false. Why are these experiences important and how do we distinguish among them?
Millions and millions of people today claim to have experienced what are termed “Near-Death Experiences” (NDE’s) which occur at the point of an extreme physical crisis that brings one very close to the point of death (car accident, heart attack, severe illness, etc.). These NDE’s involve a person experiencing something while in a physiological state near-death, not experiencing biblical death itself, something that is irreversible except in the case of a miraculous resurrection of the body (as in the case of Lazarus). These experiences typically fall into three categories: 1) real but deceptive; 2) real but genuine; 3) or false in the sense that they are somehow produced internally and do not deal with a person’s spirit actually going outside the body.
Characteristics of Deceptive NDE’s
How do these NDE’s relate to the Bible? First, let’s look at the majority of experiences. Based on the published literature (hundreds of books) it appears that the large majority of genuine NDE’s experienced by non-Christians are inherently deceptive and fit into the general category of biblical spiritual warfare (Matthew 13:19; Acts 26:18; Ephesians 2:2; 2 Corinthians 4:4; cf. 2 Corinthians 2:11; Ephesians 6:10-18). Why? Because it is clear that the deceptive NDE experience itself and the final “message” of the experience are clearly unbiblical and therefore could not be divine, appearances to the contrary notwithstanding.
For example, collectively, these NDE’s involve and/or teach things such as:
- Contact with: a) personal spirits such as a “being of light”; b) alleged friends and relatives who are deceased, and c) “angels” or a “Jesus” – all of whom deny the Bible, the revealed and authoritative word of God – hence they could not possibly be godly entities, despite their claims cf. John 17:3, and below);
- Universalism, the idea that everyone goes to Heaven which denies the teachings of Jesus (cf. Matthew 25:46); a mediumistic view of the afterlife;
- Religious humanism and the “social gospel”, the idea that mankind and man’s interests are more important than God and His interests (cf. Jeremiah 17:5); unbiblical definitions of the word “love”;
- Works salvation, the idea that we earn our own salvation, rejecting the biblical teaching that salvation comes by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone (John 6:47; 14:6; Acts 4:12; Ephesians 2:8-9);
- Reincarnation, a belief in many lifetimes, which rejects Hebrews 9:27;
- Experiencing an occult transformation of sorts, future contact with spirits and/or the development of psychic powers (cf. Deuteronomy 18:9-12);
- Removing the fear of death (hence the fear of coming judgment) apart from a conversion experience by the Holy Spirit (John 3:3-8). The general view of death implied by the common, deceptive NDE (a glorious Heaven for everyone, or a mediumistic worldview) is far different from the biblical view which teaches divine judgment immediately after biblical (true) death (Hebrews 9:27) and an eternal Heaven or Hell.
In essence, if these are genuine experiences of the human spirit outside its physical body, it is impossible such episodes could be experiences with the godly angels, Jesus or God Himself because it is impossible for God, being immutable (Malachi 3:6; Hebrews 13:8) to ever deny His own divine revelation. Therefore, if the experiences are genuine, they must be deceptive, i.e., as in mediumism and other forms of the occult, the work of deceptive spirits the Bible identifies as fallen angels. If so, the great increase in such experiences is most likely a result of the occult revival in the Western world and our turning away from the biblical God. We have opened the doors to our own deception in an most unexpected manner.
On the other hand, there are a small number of experiences that appear to be biblical. It is apparently also possible for genuine Christians (or even unbelievers) to have a true NDE; however the experience itself and its final “message” stand in contrast to the deceptive NDE in that they do not teach or imply false doctrines; they uphold biblical truth and glorify Jesus Christ and God and deepen commitment to the biblical Jesus Christ and personal evangelism, or result in repentance and returning to Christ or, with non-Christians, conversion to Christ and lifelong commitment to Him. Several of these are published at www.CBN.com (See e.g. the experiences of Tamara Laroux (cf. Luke 16: 27-28) and Ian McCormick). In addition, the doctoral dissertation of evangelical Christian Dr. Nina Helene on what she terms BNDE’s (biblical near-death experiences) provides further confirmation.
Skeptics, NDE’s, OBE’s & the Biblical Heaven
Based upon modern NDE research, cross-cultural studies and other data it is difficult to argue that every NDE is necessarily unreal or imaginary as skeptics, rationalists and materials maintain – their materialistic, anti-supernatural assumptions are simply not credible, philosophically, scientifically, biblically or otherwise. Biblically, for example we know that spirit does, in fact, leave the body at true death (e.g., 1 Kings 17:22; Ecclesiastes 12:6-7; Luke 8:55; 2 Corinthians 5:6-8), so the real question becomes can it temporarily leave the body prior to true death? It is at least theoretically possible that a) some natural “trigger mechanism” (such as extreme physiological stress) – or b) spiritistic influence – could occasionally produce a similar result prior to death. It may be possible, then, to temporarily enter a spiritual dimension where, for example, angels (both good and evil) might exist.
In occult literature spirits (morally fallen or evil angels) have claimed the ability to induce out-of-body (OBE’s) experiences in humans. And biblically we are told that the devil does have, in some sense, an influence over death (Hebrews 2:14). In our opinion, the evidence from the testimony of psychics, gurus, occultists, etc. regarding astral projection or out-of-body experiences indicates that the separation of the body and spirit of the living is most likely a temporarily possible condition. Exactly where people would go in something like so-called astral travel is unknown, but such an experience should never be sought as in the world of the occult. On the other hand, given the devil’s power as described in the Bible, one also cannot rule out demonic deception, or a manipulation of the mind that only gives people the feeling or experience of being out of their bodies when, in fact, they actually are not (cf. Luke 4:5).
Regardless, the typical NDE still does not supply a biblically accurate description of Heaven (or Hell for that matter, which is experienced as temporary and remedial, similar to a purgatory but not divinely just and retributive in relationship to eternal punishment of sin and the rejection of Jesus Christ). As described in my book, How to Know You’re Going to Heaven the Bible describes Heaven as an astonishing new order of existence that is wonderful beyond comparison. But it is only for those redeemed through the blood of Jesus Christ who have exercised personal trust in Him. The common cultural myths— Heaven as a reward for good deeds, people floating on clouds, plucking harps or polishing halos, Peter at the pearly gates checking invitations, etc.—are caricatures. What we can understand from the biblical descriptions is that the redeemed receive entirely new bodies like that of Jesus Himself with amazing new powers. They become truly one with God, yet retain their unique individuality—spiritual beings who are distinct personalities and are not, as in Eastern traditions, absorbed into God. We are still who we are, but wonderfully recreated to live forever with God in an infinite universe of endless possibilities. The common analogy suggested from nature is that of the simple larva emerging as a magnificent butterfly. But the heavenly experience will be vastly greater.
Because the Scripture clearly teaches that God is love (1 John 4:8, 16), a fact so thoroughly demonstrated at the cross on Calvary, Heaven will be a place that is permeated with love beyond our capacity to imagine. It will be a completely loving environment—a place where we eternally enjoy the presence of the very essence of love, peace, joy, beauty, creativity, and everything that is sublime, awe-inspiring and more. This glorious future is hinted at in 1 Corinthians 2:9: “Things which eye has not seen and ear has not heard, and which have not entered the heart of man, all that God has prepared for those who love Him.”
It is God’s nature to give, and we can only guess at what God will give those He loves throughout eternity, those he gave His only Son for. “He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all–how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:32) Jesus simply said, “Great is our reward in heaven,” and the Apostle Paul, who was surrounded with the worst of sufferings, assured us that “the sufferings of this present time are not even worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18).
Perhaps the most awesome fact of Heaven is not only that we will be in the presence of Jesus, but also that we shall be “like Him” (1 John 3:2). We are reminded of the statement by C.S. Lewis that if any person on earth could now see one of the redeemed, they would be tempted to worship him or her as a god. Each of us shall be completely sinless, joyful, and powerful. We will not only instantaneously know the personalities of the Bible, but also our own saved friends and relatives who have joined us for eternity, and even our “guardian angels” as we think of them, and the other angels. We will be content, with no wants. We will be with, talk with, and constantly commune with the God who loves us and has redeemed us forever. Time and space will no longer exist as we know them, but we will continue in fellowship with the Maker of time and space for all eternity in joy, happiness and bliss beyond imagining.
We will have every question answered, and yet because God is infinite there will be throughout eternity new things to learn about Him. And because we will always be learning new things about an infinitely perfect God, our joy of necessity will also increase and of necessity also our love. But whatever we learn, we shall forever be mindful of the infinite love of God for us expressed in the life, death, and resurrection of His Son, Jesus Christ. The wonderful thing about Heaven is that it never, ever ends – after trillions of years, eternity won’t even have started.
In essence, to inherit Heaven is to inherit all that God is and has (1 Corinthians 3:21-23), all that exists in “the new heavens and new earth” and even more.
The Biblical Hell
The typical NDE is universally deceptive when it comes to the biblical teaching on Hell, powerfully teaching that everyone goes to Heaven sooner or later, or that the “true” hell is simply remedial or purgatorial, i.e., only temporary. (Interestingly, occasionally some non-Christians have an experience of Hell that closely resembles the biblical descriptions; they become converted to Jesus Christ and may become powerfully evangelistic.) Regardless, the Bible also teaches that there is an eternal Hell for those who have willfully refused the love and mercy of God. In large measure, the real Hell about Hell is not simply that it never ends, but tragically that people actually choose it for themselves. Theologian Harold O.J. Brown once commented that “Hell has been called ‘the most enduring monument to the freedom of the human will.'” C.S. Lewis emphasized, “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.'”
In his book The Problem of Pain Lewis expanded on this idea: “If a game is played, it must be possible to lose it. If the happiness of a creature lies in self-surrender, no one can make that surrender but himself (though many can help him to make it) and he may refuse. I would pay any price to be able to say truthfully ‘all will be saved.’ But my reason retorts, ‘without their will, or with it?’ If I say, ‘without their will,’ I at once perceive a contradiction; how can the supreme voluntary act of self-surrender be involuntary? If I say ‘with their will,’ my reason replies ‘how if they will not give in?'”
There is no other authority than the Bible when it comes to the subject of life after death; it alone tells us the truth and is the standard by which every experience must be judged whether in the body or out of the body. Occult experiences that are demonic deceptions cannot possibly tell us the truth about the afterlife, nor false religion, nor endless human philosophical speculation from the dawn of time. Only God knows what death is like. And He has told us.
Unfortunately, many people who swear by the passages on Heaven in the Bible completely reject the passages on Hell, however irrational this might be. We stress that God is “not wishing for any to perish, but for all to come to repentance. He desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (2 Peter 3:9; 1 Timothy 2:4). Nevertheless, for those who refuse to do so there is a place of punishment for their sins that is eternal and in full harmony with God’s infinite Justice and infinite love.
Hell is described in the Bible in a variety of terms: “outer darkness,” “the resurrection of judgment,” “the black darkness,” “the punishment of eternal fire,” “the place where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth,” “eternal punishment,” etc. (Matthew 3:7-12; 8:12; 22:13; 25:46; Mark 9:43,48; John 5:29; Revelation 19:20; 20:10-15, etc.).
But why must hell be eternal? First, because God is an infinite being. Sins committed against Him require the full magnitude of a divine punishment based upon infinite holiness. Who can deny that infinite holiness might justly require eternal punishment, the only option for finite creatures? Further, without the punishment of evil, there is no justice in eternity. But can eternal justice coexist with temporal punishment if no amount of limited punishment has absolute meaning when compared to the timelessness of eternity? In other words, if, in eternity, there is to be divine justice—punishment of evil corresponding to the offended sensibilities of infinite holiness—one would think it must last forever or, by comparison, be ultimately meaningless. What if someone like Adolf Hitler were punished for a million years and then brought into Heaven for all eternity – comparatively speaking, in light of eternity, this would hardly constitute punishment at all, not even one “second” compared to forever.
Second, those who were never redeemed in this life will continue in the same spiritual condition they nurtured on earth. Their unredeemed personality will exist eternally. In their feelings, thoughts, and will they shall constantly be expressing the fruits of their sinful nature. In other words, they will continue to sin forever. But the punishment for eternal sinning can only be eternal punishment.
Whether or not we can adequately comprehend Hell, the Bible clearly teaches it. Jesus Himself taught that the unrepentant “will go away into eternal punishment” (Matthew 25:46).
Alternate views which reject eternal punishment cannot be defended biblically and never have been for 2000 years. For example:
Conditional immortality teaches that the human spirit is not innately immortal. But no Scripture anywhere proves this, and it goes against the implication of man being created in God’s image, and, therefore, having an eternal spirit. On the other hand, to say that the human spirit is immortal but that it will be annihilated in judgment rather than face eternal punishment is also wholly lacking in biblical support.
Universalism, the teaching that all will be saved, is also contradicted in scores of Scriptures, some of which we have cited.
Those who advocate the above beliefs frequently appeal to: (1) philosophical arguments (e.g., infinite love and eternal punishment are mutually contradictory); (2) humanistic arguments, none of which are convincing (e.g., men are too good to be damned; God is to loving to damn them); and (3) scriptural or exegetical arguments (e.g., that the specific Greek and Hebrew words for eternal really do not mean eternal.
But the biblical words for eternal do mean eternal, and the words for punishment do mean punishment.
In fact, the Scriptures are as clear on the doctrine of eternal punishment as they are on the deity of Jesus Christ or the doctrine of justification by faith alone. It is only emotional appeal, humanistic thinking, contaminated philosophy/theology or a preexisting bias against biblical teaching on Hell that can make a “case” for these unbiblical options.
The scriptural teaching on eternal punishment is not obscure or uncertain; further, the very difficulty of the doctrine argues for its biblical legitimacy. Given the natural tendency to reject something so unpleasant as an eternal Hell, only it’s scriptural certainty could explain the Church’s position of acceptance for 2,000 years.
The problem is that many people today, including some Christians, refuse to accept what the Scriptures and their Lord plainly teach. In 2,000 years, all exegetical arguments that have ever been put forth to reject the doctrine of eternal punishment have failed. To say it again, they have all failed. Therefore, conditional immortality, annihilationism, and universalism are mere humanistic speculations, not biblical or theological truths—and certainly not legitimate options for true Christians. To reject the doctrine of eternal punishment has horrendous implications for biblical inerrancy and authority, Christology, missions, and much else.
In an area where neither reason nor emotion is sufficient, to reject the clear scriptural teaching on life after death is to assume agnosticism. As Dr. Packer observes, “To fall victim to secular philosophy and ideology has been a characteristic Protestant vice for three centuries, and it is one from which evangelicals are by no means free.”