One expects the world’s secularists to look toward science to protect themselves from God. What is surprising, however, is to see the religious do the same.
With the release of “Heaven is for Real,” the movie, the afterlife discussions that the book opened up have once again surfaced in the public mind.
There is a very good reason for that: When we are young, few of us give death any thought unless we trip over him among family, career, or accident. As we age (about the 50 mark, I think), we begin to understand that death is not something that only happens to other people. So perhaps the boomer generation is now fully engaged in coming to terms with their own impending death, and near-death experiences seem to offer a glimpse of what awaits on the other side.
Presumably, the religious and secularists are coming at this from different sides of the aisle, but both seem to think science is going to save them from God. Near-death experiences are therefore viewed as nothing more than the brain’s almost-death-throes. The secularists are worried because they believe they are in the process of becoming God through technological prowess. The religious are bothered because they have already chosen a path, and they don’t want to stumble and fall onto the rocks of disbelief below.
Science and technology have, in the minds of many, opened up a new door into the eternal through which humanity may enter. The “singularity” or “transcendence” is a man-machine meld anticipated around 2037. Before that we may simply opt to have our “consciousness” emptied into a Google account.
Traditional religious beliefs, however, rely on the supernatural when describing the path to eternity. Various religions have lots of rules. Depending on whom you believe, following those rules either obligates God to let you into heaven (“My checklist! You have to!”), or tempers his judgment when he compares you to Harry and Alice who live down the street, have an open marriage and stage the Friday Night Spousal Debates for the neighborhood several times a month.
Christianity had rules when it began as Judaism. God had only Ten Commandments, but the priests, the legal experts of that day, worked hard to clarify the ten, and soon their were thousands. A priest, of course, was necessary to interpret and apply the rules.
In due course, which was probably when God determined that it had all become hopeless, he sent his Son into the world. Jesus called a dozen people to follow him, from fishermen to a tax collector. They did follow him. He taught them that the rules were going away. What was important for their journey to eternity was their relationship with him. Three days after the cross, each of them (except Judas) met him in various settings. He walked through closed doors and ate food in their presence. And they still knew him, even though he had taken on his eternal form.
So the secularists don’t like near-death-experiences because they hint at something beyond the material world; something they can’t explain. Something that may thwart them. “Science and technology, now that we understand!”
The religious worry that near-death experiences do not correctly fit their theology. They violate the rules, that when you are alive you are here, and when you are dead you are there.
Near-death experiences are often criticized because they are unique to the individual encountering them. Why wouldn’t they be? God already gave us the big picture in the Bible. Why would he endlessly repeat himself?
So if a 3-year-old boy is sitting on the fence between eternity and the operating table, his near-death view of heaven is likely to be at odds with a Harvard-trained neurosurgeon hooked up to an MRI that shows his cerebral cortex has shut down.
Here’s what near-death experiences used to be like, before most of us died sedated or hooked up to machines in hospitals. Dallas Willard, discusses the topic in “The Divine Conspiracy” (HarperSanFrancisco, 1998):
“Another picture (of death) is one who walks to a doorway between rooms. While still interacting with those in the room she is leaving, she begins to see and converse with people in the room beyond, who may be totally concealed from those left behind. Before the widespread use of heavy sedation, it was quite common for those keeping watch to observe something like this. The one making the transition often begins to speak to those who have gone before. They come to meet us while we are still in touch with those left behind. The curtains part for us briefly before we go through.”
I chose to place the reader in a similar position, where both worlds are present, in my novel “Reconnaissance,” the first in the “Armageddon Story” series. Or rather, the characters chose to place the reader there.
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