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Stories about dying, going to heaven (or hell) and selling books about it has become a veritable cottage industry these days.
Two pastors, Don Piper and Steve Sjogren, both wrote about visions of heaven in their death or near-death experiences. Piper's "90 Minutes in Heaven" in 2004 was followed by Sjogren's "The Day I Died" in 2006.
The stories of two children and their encounters with heaven were published in 2010. "The boy who came back from heaven, A remarkable account of miracles, angels, and life beyond this world," recounts 6-year-old Alex Malarkey's journey into heaven while he was in a two-month coma. The story of Colton Burpo, who was almost 4 years old at the time of his surgery when he had his visitation of heaven, is described in "Heaven is for Real, A Little Boy's Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back."
In Colton Burpo's heaven, no one wore glasses, no one was old, everyone appeared to be in their 20s, but everyone the Rev. Don Piper encountered in heaven was the same age they had been the last time he saw them - "except that all the ravages of living on earth had vanished."
The people Colton saw in heaven had angel-like wings, a detail unique to his vision. Alex Malarkey's heaven is a lot like Earth, only it's perfect and has a hole that leads to hell. Sjogren didn't actually have a vision of heaven, although he heard the voice of God.
Colton's father is forthright is stating that Colton's experience of heaven happened while he was in surgery.
Malarkey's injuries were severe, but he was never pronounced dead.
Sjogren's heart stopped, but neither was he pronounced dead.
Piper's claim of death comes from the testimony of those who were at the scene of his car accident: "Someone examined me, found no pulse, and declared that I had been killed instantly." It would be 90 minutes before another EMT checked on Piper and again found no pulse.
Could a distracted EMT have missed something? Or was Piper actually dead?
We can't know for sure.
What should we make of these accounts?
Dr. Kevin Nelson, M.D., professor of neurology at the University of Kentucky, maintains that near-death experiences are in the brain. After the heart stops, brain activity continues for another 10 to 20 seconds and develops other waveforms. As the blood flow stops, memories become very discombobulated.
Furthermore, during cardiac arrest, there is often a small amount of blood flow to the brain, allowing the brain to go in and out of consciousness, even though those around the person don't know it. Nelson concludes from his research that in near-death experiences, the brain blends rapid eye movement with non-REM sleep, and this gives near-death experiences many of their important qualities. Out-of-body experiences are a part of this phenomenon and have even been clinically reproduced by disrupting the temporal parietal areas of the brain.
During near-death episodes, people are likely to draw on life memories that are most significant to them - hence the visions of heaven and encounters with people of personal significance. Nelson documents his findings in his just published book, "The God Impulse, Is Religion Hardwired into the Brain?"
His conclusions would help explain why people of different faiths and cultures frequently have varying visions of heaven during near-death experiences. Other studies report, for example, a Hindu entering heaven on the back of a cow and a Muslim identifying the bright light as Allah.
I have no doubt that something profoundly spiritual happened to the Burpo and Malarkey children, as well as the pastors Piper and Sjogren. I also am convinced they have no deceptive motive; they are sincere and convinced that the events they describe truly happened.
And maybe they did.
And maybe they didn't.
That's why we must not anchor our belief in the reality of heaven on such accounts.
Now, if someone were to come back after being dead several days, and in doing so fulfill a myriad of ancient prophesies about the event, and if this person were to live on Earth in a resurrected body for several weeks before ascending into this heaven - well, that would be something worth banking a belief in heaven on.
Hmm, wouldn't that be the story about Jesus, the One whose resurrection Christians just celebrated last Sunday?
Wherever he is, that's heaven. Whatever it's like, that's where I want to be.