Oct. 24, 2021, column:
It’s not that I didn’t believe in heaven, just that the concept seemed too surreal and unlike the natural world that it was hard to imagine what it might be like, and it was difficult to visualize family, friends or myself in a place that no one in this world has seen.
Our pastor did a fascinating series of sermons several years ago on heaven that I probably should revisit. Tommy Politz said that obviously, believers in Christ won’t be floating on clouds playing harps but that we would have houses to live in, satisfying work to do and plenty of time to drop in on friends for a cup of coffee.
Now that I think of it, maybe we could even take harp lessons if we wanted to.
I once wrote that I hoped heaven would include the chance to watch videotapes – this was a long time ago – of anything we wanted to see from the past. Maybe we’d be able to see the 1954 Cotton Bowl in color or the actual signing of the Declaration of Independence or, more important, Jesus being baptized.
But my thoughts of heaven were almost fantasy-based, sort of wishful thinking.
Now, because of a book and a series of Bible study lessons, I have a more concrete vision of heaven. And it has shed light on pretty much every bit of scripture that I come across.
John Burke’s 2015 book, “Imagine Heaven,” relies heavily on near-death experiences – so many of them that he refers to them as NDEs – to provide accounts of short visits to heaven that are convincing and inspiring. And he supplements those stories with biblical references to heaven that fit surprisingly well with the NDEs.
The book itself is enough to motivate serious consideration of life after death, but our Sunday school teacher, Kevin Hazelwood, brought it to life – or afterlife? – even more with his vivid descriptions from the book and his research of scripture passages that are corroborated by many NDEs.
Kevin and I agreed that the book is convincing because of the sheer number of well-researched near-death incidents Burke describes. Writing about “Imagine Heaven,” materials science professor Dr. Walter Bradley said he appreciated the varied accounts from interviews “with people of very different ages, cultures, religious beliefs, and physical challenges (such as blindness) to find the common elements that emerge to give a vibrant picture of what life after death will likely entail.”
Burke, pastor of Gateway Church in Austin, said he wrote as “a convinced Christian,” but he admitted that he had not always been convinced. And he said he purposely chose “stories from people with little to no profit motive: orthopedic surgeons, commercial airline pilots, professors, neurosurgeons – people who probably don’t need the money but have credibility to lose by making up wild tales.”
Of course, the stories are from people who claim they visited heaven but didn’t stay. Airline Captain Dale Black and two other pilots were in the crash of a small plane in California. The other two men died, and it appeared that Black did, too. But he was revived, and he reported breathtaking sights.
Black said he traveled through a path of light surrounded by darkness, escorted by two large, angelic beings dressed in white. He approached “a magnificent city, golden and gleaming among a myriad of resplendent colors. The light I saw was the purest I had ever seen. And the music was the most majestic, enchanting, and glorious I had ever heard. … I knew instantly that this place was entirely and utterly holy. …
“The entire city was bathed in light … The light was palpable. It had substance to it, weight and thickness, like nothing I had ever seen before or since. … Somehow I knew that light and life and love were connected and interrelated. … Remarkably, the light didn’t shine on things but through them. Through the grass. Through the trees. Through the wall. And through the people who were gathered there. …”
Black described “groupings of brightly colored picture-perfect homes in small, quaint towns … If music could become homes, it would look like these, beautifully built and perfectly balanced.”
That’s just the beginning of accounts from scores of people who “died” and came back. The most common experience was an overwhelming feeling of love and forgiveness. Many experienced reviews, some with Jesus by their side, of good and bad things they had done in their lives. They said when faced with the sins they had committed, there was no condemnation – just as Paul promises in Romans 8:1.
Teacher Kevin took from the book the concept that in heaven, our selfish human nature will be removed, leaving only love. “We will be who we were created to be,” he said. Another takeaway: We are not our body; we are spirit.
He also listed statistics of commonalities in the book’s reports, including out-of-body separation, 75%; heightened sense of sound, sight, touch, smell, 75%; encountering mystical beings, family and friends, 57%; a life review, 22%.
Many of the common reports came from people of diverse backgrounds such as Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and atheist. Some interacted telepathically with a man in white with sparkling, magnetic eyes. Christians thought he was Jesus.
Some were given a choice to stay in this fantastic world or return to Earth. Others were told it wasn’t their time.
The book reminded me of a recent story about Gary Bartel, a former Texas Tech football player, former West Texas A&M coach and Grand Prairie athletic director who was in a long coma with COVID-19 and finally recovered. After regaining consciousness, Bartel told Greg Riddle of The Dallas Morning News, “I was in a room with just a table and a couple of chairs, and a man walked in. The room was really bright, and the man sat down across from me and we talked about my family and my life. All of a sudden, he stood up and said, ‘It’s not your time,’ and he walked out of the room.
“My whole perspective on life has really been changed. I’m just thankful for every day I get to get up and I’m breathing and my feet are on the floor and I get to stand up. You can’t live in fear. You’ve got to live in faith.”
This book strengthened mine.
Mike Haynes taught journalism at Amarillo College from 1991 to 2016 and has written for the Faith section since 1997. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Go to www.haynescolumn.blogspot.com for other recent columns.