Every human culture throughout history has shown a fascination with what happens to people after they die. And each individual who has ever lived has had the same curiosity. This has led to all kinds of customs and superstitions around the world.
American society in the twenty-first century is supposed to be advanced and sophisticated, but interest in the intersection between life and death seems to be just as high as in the most “primitive” culture. TV ads abound for the opening of the sixth season of “The Walking Dead,” in which the main characters are zombies. A parallel series began last month on another channel, entitled “Fear of the Walking Dead.” This follows a tradition as old as the movie industry of trying to stimulate feelings of horror. The first full length film about the “undead” was “The White Zombie,” released in 1932, and Wikipedia lists 431 zombie movies that have been produced since then (This does not include movies that feature ghosts, ghouls, vampires and mummies – just zombies.). People may wince, wriggle or scream, but they don’t leave; their eyes are glued to the screen.
Halloween will be upon us in a couple of weeks. This is probably our strangest holiday. When you answer a knock on your door, you may be confronted with anyone from a big-eyed Disney character to a dark and threatening refugee from a graveyard. In other cultures the customs around this holiday are more serious and scary, including visits from long-dead acquaintances, as in the Mexican Day of the Dead.
Christianity has generally discouraged delving into shadowy speculation about these things. The death and resurrection of Jesus are at the center of its teachings, but individuals are urged not to be too curious about the details of their own journey from life through death to afterlife. Jesus promised, ”I go to prepare a place for you, and I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also” (John 14:5). Trusting him makes it unnecessary for us to know the details of the journey. How should we deal with the inescapable thoughts about such things? Well, we might pray this old Scottish prayer:
From ghoulies and ghosties
And long-leggedy beasties
And things that go bump in the night,
Good Lord, deliver us!
So all this is background for me to express my growing frustration that modern Christians are so gullible toward all the “Near Death Experiences” people claim to have had. It would be one thing if a person experienced hallucinatory dreams while in an induced coma and talked about them afterward. This might have profound, even life-changing meaning to him. But in certain Christian circles such a person is likely to report that he actually died on the operating table, that he literally went to heaven, that he met God face to face. People are expected to believe him, and they do. His experience becomes part of what they know about heaven, because he’s been there and came back.
I discovered a website that sets out to gather in one place all the “NDEs,” as the webmaster refers to them, in which the person has actually been in the presence of Jesus. You can view all his stories at http://www.near-death.com/religion/christianity.html. He left out the guy who went to heaven on the back of a butterfly and returned to talk about it on Oprah.*
Well, I don’t buy any of it, and I’m expanding my version of the old Scottish prayer for deliverance by adding “NDEs,” right after “things that go bump in the night.”
* Eben Alexander III wrote about his experiences in Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife