Christian philosopher Dr. William Lane Craig is concerned that stories of supposed heavenly encounters during near-death experiences could lead Christians to stray from biblical teachings about the afterlife.
While Craig believes that some accounts of children and adults experiencing the divine during life-threatening health scares could be true, he has some reservations.
“I hate to generalize. I think that some of these could be [valid] — that is to say that they would be real, authentic experiences,” he said. “On the other hand, there are elements of some of them that make me think that they often involve a kind of filtering through a person’s own frame of thought.”
At the center of the theologian’s contention is the fear that some believers might begin basing their views on the afterlife more on popular books and movies like “Heaven Is for Real” than on the Bible.
“For the Christian believer, he has in the Bible an authoritative guide to the afterlife that should determine his thinking about this,” Craig explained. “And then these experiences should be interpreted in light of that rather than putting these experiences in the primary place and lettering them trump scripture.”
He didn’t dismiss the story behind “Heaven Is for Real,” a book and film based on Colton Burpo’s claim that he met dead relatives and Jesus during an emergency appendectomy in 2003. That said, Craig cautioned Christians not to shut off their critical thinking faculties simply because a story feels good and seems plausible.
“I think we have to be very cautious about this,” he said.
Craig said that in his interpretation of the Bible’s teachings about death, a person’s soul is separated from their body when they die, leaving them as a spiritual, not physical, being.
“The body decays in the grave, while the soul goes with Christ,” he said.
Craig said that in his view, heaven and hell haven’t necessarily occurred yet, and won’t until the “end times” conclude — a future event that Christians believe is prophesied in the Bible. At that point, souls will once again become fused with bodies, he said.
He posited that Burpo and others might have experienced a God-given mental projection, but that they are not actually experiencing heaven as a literal place, nor are they seeing embodied spirits. Instead, he believes that are seeing disembodied spirits who are in a waiting place called “paradise.”
Paradise and its oppositional locality — hades — precede heaven and hell and are the spiritual realms where believers reside until they are reunited with their bodies at the end of times, he said.
“At the return of Christ, the trumpet will sound and the dead in Christ will be rise,” Craig said. “The Christian hope is the same as the traditional Jewish hope, which is at the end of the world, on judgement day, God would raise the bodies of the dead and the souls would be reunited with …supernatural bodies.”
That in mind, the philosopher said that Burpo and others might have actually seen projections of the spirits — images that God was allowing.
“What we cannot say as Christians is that [Burpo] was literally seeing his grandfather in a physical sense, because his [deceased] grandfather doesn’t have his body,” he continued. “You don’t go to heaven when you die. That sounds jarring … you don’t go to heaven or hell until after the resurrection.”
Much of this might seem like semantics, heaven versus paradise and hell verses hades — similar realms, but with very different theological meaning, Craig argues. Read his full explanation of the differences here (others have written about the distinction as well).
Some theologians would say there is no difference at all between heaven and paradise and that the Bible used the words interchangeably. Regardless, the theological viewpoints are fascinating to explore.
Craig told TheBlaze that he’s hoping to advance a positive and sympathetic look at stories like Burpos to help people realize that some digging and clarifying needs to be done to bring the stories in compliance with Christian teaching.
The title of the book, for instance — “Heaven Is for Real” — Craig called a “contradiction,” as he clearly believes heaven hasn’t yet come to fruition.
“The skeptic will say this is all delusionary … and it has no value whatsoever,” Craig added. “I am trying to allow that he had a genuine experience of the afterlife.”
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