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Can Heaven Be "Revealed"?

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Revealing Heaven: The Christian Case for Near-death Experiences (John W. Price, New York: HarperCollins, 2013; pp. 165+ix

A review by the Rt. Rev. Pierre W. Whalon

Since the publication of books by Raymond Moody and Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, there has been a great deal of literature on the phenomenon of near-death experiences. These are of course the reports from people resuscitated from clinical death. They are very controversial, as shown by, for example, reactions to the high-profile 2013 publication of Dr. Eben Alexander's Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon's Journey Through the Afterlife.

There are battle lines drawn. On the one hand are mainstream scientists and other skeptics, who categorically reject these experiences as anything more than hallucinations created by a dying brain. On the other are authors like John Price, who as a chaplain has heard hundreds of these reports, and is convinced that they are authentic insights into the afterlife. Moreover, some believers are outraged by apparent contradictions of their theologies.

Price's book is modest, which some others are not, and that is the first point that commends it. He tells his own story, as he went from skeptical rejection of two people's stories of afterlife experiences, to enthusiastic embrace of such reports. An Episcopal priest, now in retirement, he analyzes them in comparison to the Christianity he was raised with, and especially the seminary training he received in the 1960s (the era of "death-of-God" theology). The book is therefore split into two parts, "Discovery" and "Explanation."

In the first part, Price recounts how his interest in the topic began to grow. One story that especially piqued my interest was that of Ella. An early antagonist to Price in his Texas parish, she left the congregation, leading five other families with her. As time went on, she and four of the five returned. Diagnosed with terminal cancer, Ella fell into what seemed to be her death, diagnosed by a hospice nurse. An hour or so later, she began breathing again, stunning her entourage. During her interlude, Jesus came and reached down to her and pulled her up with him. She then had a review of her life, and realized that she had been wrong to attack her priest, and the five before him that she had helped drive out. She heard God say, "John Price is right, God does want us to pray for our enemies and not to work against them." (p. 60)

What more could any preacher want than for God to declare the message is right? And of course, this would make one more attentive to the quality of the writing of the sermon, since God is truly listening... But Price wards off any such talk, focusing instead on the beneficial effect the story had on the parish.

Another interesting facet of the book is the brief chapter on hell. Only 6% of Price's "returnees'" reports were visions of demons, fiery pits, and so forth. Nevertheless, some have had them, and Price relates that, uniformly, those had been cold, mean people, unable or unwilling to empathize with others. After these experiences, interpreted as warnings, most changed dramatically.

What, if anything, is the reality behind these stories? Although their consistency argues for more than just hallucinations caused by hypoxia, it also seems clear that the "returnees" interpret their experience through their own lenses, as it were. However, Price recounts the story of Fran, whose near-death experience happened at the age of seven weeks.

When their baby Fran stopped breathing, her parents rushed her to the hospital, where she was resuscitated. They put this episode behind them, until Fran and her mother were driving by the same hospital three years later.
"Look, Mommy," Fran said, pointing. "That's where Jesus brought me back to you."
Frances [her mother] nearly drove off the road. She couldn't believe what she had just heard. She abruptly pulled the car over.
"What did you say?" [italics in the original]
Fran was puzzled by her mother's reaction, and said, "You know, Mommy, Jesus came and got me, and brought me back to you there."
Frances had never told Fran about her trip to the emergency room. Nor did she ever talk to Fran about death or heaven -- or God or Jesus, for that matter. [p. 13f]

There have been criticisms from people who wanted to hear that accepting Jesus as personal savior or baptism was required for entry into heaven. Some also were offended that people of other religions or gays and lesbians reported good experiences. Here the Bible does not support them. The Scriptures are replete will people who are neither Jewish nor Christian who nevertheless find acceptance by God, sometimes as opposed to supposed believer (e.g., Naaman and Gehazi). And if we Christians really believe in a God of love, whose unmerited grace is offered to all, such reports should not be surprising.

Furthermore, the doctrine of the Holy Trinity is clear (even if Price says he has trouble with it). God IS love: it is, so to speak, what God is "made of," not just something God does (I John 4:8). And that same verse is clear that an unloving person cannot know God, for the same reason. That God is love is described by the communion of the Three, whose love makes them indivisibly One. And love, as even we humans know, is always directed at an Other. Specifically, we are that Other.

Therefore we should expect a variety of reports, indicating how wide and broad and strong God's love and forgiveness are, as well as individuals' interpretations of these experiences. So Price's accounts in this respect confirm, not deny, basic teachings of the Christian Church.

At the same time, these reports, while comforting certainly to those who experienced them as well as to many more, remain enigmatic. From the point of view of Christian teaching, what about the return of Christ -- a key doctrine? And what happens to people as their "transition" goes on, i.e., when they do not "return"? There is a tradition that Jesus' statement in John 14 concerning the "many mansions in my Father's house" that points out that the actual Greek word means not "dwelling-places" but "waystations". Following Gregory of Nyssa, perhaps the greatest of the Greek Fathers, this means that growth continues after death, an endless spiral ever closer to the consuming fire of God's love. The reports are silent on this aspect.

And can someone genuinely ask for forgiveness after death, even though one has been a terrible human being in life? Anglicans have longstanding traditions against deathbed conversions, that is, waiting for the last moment to repent. At death, we are, as the Roman Catholic theologian Karl Rahner astutely pointed out, the sum total of our decisions. I do not want to limit God's possible range of action (!), but Price seems to veer dangerously close to "cheap grace" -- the all-tolerating God-my-therapist.

At the same time, I do want to be forgiven, of course! It may be of immense comfort to people that even those they love despite their evil ways may still find forgiveness in the presence of God, but in point of fact, this life, here and now, is what is important. There is no time like the present to change. As Price's striking report from Fran relates, no one dies unless "it is their time." And none of us knows that moment.

Finally, this book will be useful for many readers who will appreciate its clear style and personal witness. It is not just for Episcopalians, or even Christians. Non-believers will find it a challenge, as well.

Skeptics must themselves confront the logical fallacy of claiming that such experiences are impossible, since the brain is the origin of the mind, and a dead brain produces nothing. That argues in a vicious circle -- which means it is also unscientific. While I am unwilling to give complete credence to these reports, never mind found my theology upon them, it seems only reasonable to insist that they be investigated without a priori explanations.

It is also very important to allow people who have had these experiences to be encouraged to tell their story. It is a terrible thing to live through something so powerful and yet be unable to relate it for fear of ridicule. Whatever they mean ultimately, these stories are profoundly important to those who have "returned", and therefore they should be important to the rest of us as well.

Especially Christians, for our faith is completely oriented toward the future that we believe belongs ultimately to God. And to which we too, and incalculable numbers of others, belong as well.