This is the first in a series of articles about the afterlife and the unseen realm.
Three-year-old Colton Burpo had a near-death experience (NDE) while on the operating table. When it was over, he described his “three minutes in heaven” in vivid detail, including encounters with Samson, John the Baptist, and Jesus, who had sea-blue eyes and owned a rainbow-colored horse.
Colton’s father, a Wesleyan pastor, believes the lad’s experience was real because he shared it with “the simple conviction of an eyewitness.”
You may read Colton’s story in Heaven is for Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back, which ruled the best-seller list for 44 weeks. Millions of people have devoured the book, watched the youngster’s appearances on TV shows, and viewed the major motion picture based on his story.
Less popular but equally intriguing are books about NDEs in which people “die” for brief periods and experience the horrors of hell. To Hell and Back by cardiologist Maurice Rollins, for example, tells us that hellish NDEs have to be recorded and verified immediately after the person “returns” or the horrifying memories are repressed.
In any case, stories like Colton’s appeal to our desire to know more about the afterlife.
The yardstick of Scripture
It’s important for Christians to realize that any reports of the afterlife must be measured against Scripture. God has chosen not to answer every question about life after death in His Word, but He gives us enough information to know at least 10 biblical truths:
1. Death is not the end of life. In perhaps the earliest biblical reference to resurrection, Job expresses confidence that in his flesh he will see God (Job 19:26). Samuel appears to Saul after his death (1 Samuel 28). Moses and Elijah appear with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration (Matt. 17:1-4). And the apostles Paul and John are given glimpses into heaven (2 Cor. 12:1-4; Revelation 1-22).
2. There is conscious existence beyond the grave. Jesus’ story of Lazarus and the rich man offers graphic details of the afterlife, showing us that people continue to think, remember, experience pain, communicate, and understand where they are – and why (Luke 16:19-31).
3. We maintain our identities. King Saul recognizes Samuel after the witch of Endor (or more properly, the Lord) summons him from the dead (1 Samuel 28). Peter, James, and John identify Moses and Elijah on the Mount of Transfiguration even though they have never met (Matt. 17:1-4). The rich man in Jesus’ parable sees both Lazarus and Abraham across the great divide in Hades (Luke 16:19-31).
4. We have memories of life on earth. The rich man remembers he has five brothers, and he asks Abraham to send Lazarus back to earth to warn them of Torment (apparently realizing he is not permitted to be set free).
5. We await future resurrection. Jesus tells us all who are in the graves will hear His voice one day and “come forth” (John 5:29). Paul writes that Christians will receive glorified bodies (1 Corinthians 15), while John sees unbelievers receiving resurrected bodies prepared for eternal separation from God (Rev. 20:11-15).
6. We await final judgment. Christians will stand before the judgment seat of Christ (2 Cor. 5:10). Unbelievers will stand before the Great White Throne (Rev. 20:11-15).
7. Believers are destined for life with Christ in the new heavens and earth. The apostle John describes what it will be like when Jesus renovates our sinful and fallen world (Rev. 21-22).
8. Unbelievers are destined for eternal separation from God in hell. “Outer darkness” awaits those who reject Christ. Not that God is cruel. Unbelievers choose eternity on their own terms. As C.S. Lewis writes in The Problem of Pain, “I willingly believe that the damned are, in one sense, successful, rebels to the end; that the gates of hell are locked on the inside.”
9. Our choices now have everlasting consequences. Jesus asks the question every person must answer: “Who do you say that I am?” (Matt. 16:15). And we must answer in this life, for there are no second chances beyond the grave (Heb. 9:27).
10. God has chosen not to reveal everything about the afterlife at this time. Paul is prevented from sharing his experiences in the “third heaven” (2 Cor. 12:4). John is forbidden from revealing everything he hears in the Apocalypse (Rev. 10:4). For now, we should be content with what God has revealed in Scripture.
Next: Sheol and the afterlife.