As evidenced by the success of books and films such as Heaven is For Real and 90 Minutes in Heaven, the afterlife is one of the most popular topics of today. While some are skeptical of such near-death-experience accounts, one Texas pastor believes they can be used as a tool to provide us with a deeper understanding of the biblical description of Heaven.
In his new book, Imagine Heaven: Near-Death Experiences, God's Promises, and the Exhilarating Future That Awaits You, Pastor John Burke, a former engineer, compares 120 amazing stories of near-death experiences (NDEs) to what Scripture says about our biggest questions of Heaven.
"I've studied about a thousand NDE accounts, and for many years I've studied the Scriptures," the Gateway Church pastor told the Gospel Herald in an exclusive interview. "In the book, I reveal how these 120 specific accounts overlap and back biblical descriptions of heaven found in Scripture."
He added, "I do not advocate taking one or two of these experiences and building your understanding of the afterlife based on those. I think you have to start with the Scriptures. That's why I believe God has done things to show us that the Scriptures are trustworthy."
Burke's conversion experience and interest in NDE's began about 30 years ago when his father was dying of cancer: "I was not a Christian, I had no faith, I didn't know if there was a god, I thought Jesus was a myth," the pastor explained.
However, someone had given his father the first book on near-death experiences, Life After Life, a 1975 text by psychologist and philosopher Raymond Moody.
"I picked it up off his dresser one night and read it cover to cover," Burke recalled. "By the end of it, I thought, my goodness, Jesus may be real, and this may be real, and if so, I want to be with Him when I die. The next year, I was invited to a small group and started studying the Bible, and I understood grace and came to faith."
Because of that experience, Burke, now a married father of two, not only embraced Christianity but became curious about NDE's and how they fit into the Scriptures. He found that one in 25 people in the United States have had near-death experiences, and many of these accounts included occurrences that were far too similar to be fabricated.
"In Imagine Heaven, I talk about the 12 common elements people experience and tie them into the Scriptures," he explained. "For example, people have a body in Heaven, but they're more like themselves than they've ever been. In fact, what people consistently say is that this world feels less real, like the shadow of what we're created for. Their senses are heightened - like an added 50 senses; they come alive in a whole new way. They talk about relationships: we recognize each other still, but relationships are so much deeper because communication is pure. They talk about beauty, not unlike earth, mountains, valleys, trees, flowers - all that experienced in new dimensions. The colors of heaven that are beyond the spectrum of anything we've seen before, because God is the light of heaven."
He added, "This book doesn't include any new content to the Scriptures...They give us a picture of the lives to come. These experiences, in a sense, give them color and make them more vibrant."
Don Piper, the author of 90 Minutes in Heaven, wrote the forward in Burke's newly released book. Burke said that while he believes Piper's story holds credibility, he understands why many Christians are skeptical of such accounts.
"Christians can interpret these circumstances in any way they want - we have a free will. The Pharisees watched Jesus performed miracles, and they called him a demon worker. God gives us that free will, and I think people interpret what they may experience in ways that don't match the Scriptures," he said.
However, Burke believes that NDE's that line up with Scripture can help motivate people to live for eternity, thus affecting every aspect of their lives.
"In Colossians 3 1-3, it says to set your mind on things above; we have died, and our lives are hidden in Christ. Unfortunately, I don't think we do that well - more likely, we set our lives on retirement because we can picture it, so it affects the way we live," he said.
"When we can imagine Heaven, what God has provided, we start to realize that's the life we need to sacrifice and save and plan for. When you start to imagine this incredible place that God has prepared for us, eternal life, you'll live for it."
Burke hopes his book will help Christians become excited about Heaven and the glorious eternity promised in the Bible: "If you don't really study the Scriptures in depth, you don't see very clearly the picture of the life to come," he said of why many people have a boring view of Heaven. "If you don't take the time to imagine it, you don't have that picture. What you do get is compared with cartoonish and movie ideas, and so people get this idea of this ethereal, less-than-real, not-really-that exciting life to come, and so they're not excited to think about
Most importantly, Burke hopes Imagine Heaven will provide readers with the kind of hope that can only be found in Jesus Christ and help erase the fear of the unknown.
"I hope people will see the hope that God has given us," he said. "It really does change the way you live because it makes sense why your little acts of kindness and love are so important. Jesus doesn't need one big grand act; He needs us to love the people around us as much as we do ourselves. This hope of heaven helps the way you endure trials and suffering because God is going to make something good of this for eternity. I hope this book helps takes away your fear - if I know my destination, I have nothing to fear. You're free to go for it."