What do Matthew Warren and Reid Flair have in common? Apart from the fact that their fathers are superstars, both were found dead the same day—Friday, March 29, 2013. Suicide the cause of Warren's departure and drugs a leading role in the death of Flair.
Or what could Margaret Thatcher, "Iron Lady" of British politics, and Annette Funicello, "Queen of Teen," possibly have in common? Both died Monday, April 8, 2013—Thatcher suffering dementia and Funicello, multiple sclerosis. They, of course, were not alone. Each and every day more than a hundred and fifty thousand people die. More than fifty-five million a year! That's almost two per second; a hundred per minute; six thousand per hour.
The question is: what then? Do Matthew and Reid simply cease to exist? Were Margaret and Annette merely material girls living out seventy or eighty years in a material world? Or could it be that they have transitioned into a brand-new sphere of existence? And how could anyone possibly know to begin with? After all, dead people don't return to the land of the living. Or do they?
Eben Alexander, for one, says he experienced death and lived to talk about it. In the 2012 mega-bestseller, Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon's Journey into the Afterlife, Dr. Alexander writes, "I was allowed to die harder, and travel deeper, than almost all [near-death experience] subjects before me." Indeed, says Alexander, mine was "a technically near-impeccable near-death experience, perhaps one of the most convincing such cases in modern history."
Through it he grasped the essence of all religion and the single most important truth in the universe, namely, unconditional love. Says Alexander: "You are loved and cherished, dearly, forever. You have nothing to fear. There is nothing you can do wrong."
As a result of his near-death experience (NDE), Alexander knows first-hand that we are more than just bodies and brains—that there is a metaphysical aspect to humanity transcending the physical. Furthermore, as a result of his experience, he now knows that there is no such thing as hell; that reincarnation resolves the problem of present-day suffering; and that resurrection or "coming back to life someday in physical bodies doesn't really make any sense." By way of the Orb (Alexander's personal guide and interpreter), "Om" (God) revealed mysteries that lie far beyond the reach of modern-day science and learning: "Through the Orb, Om told me that there is not one universe but many—in fact, more than I could conceive." Not only so, but as revealed by Om, "the universe has no beginning or end."
From a spiritual perspective, the implications of Alexander's subjective predilections are equally profound. If he is right, the biblical authors are wrong. Moreover, if Alexander's experience corresponds to reality, Hitler merely dies in the comforting arms of a mistress with no ultimate eternal consequences. Such is no doubt solace for modern-day killers. After murdering his mother, twenty children, and six adults in the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Connecticut, Adam Lanza ultimately soars off on what Alexander romanticized as "the wing of a butterfly."
Are Heaven and Hell Real?
But there's more to the story. If Alexander is right, not only are the wrongs of Hitler's holocaust and Lanza's massacre never righted, but sans hell there is no choice. As G.K. Chesterton has well said, "Hell is God's great compliment to the reality of human freedom and the dignity of human choice." Without hell, there is no choice. Without choice, heaven would not be heaven; heaven would be hell. Imagine spending a lifetime voluntarily distanced from God only to find yourself involuntarily dragged into his loving presence for all eternity. God is neither a cosmic rapist who forces his love on people, nor is he a cosmic puppeteer who forces people to love him. Instead, God, the personification of love, grants us the freedom to revel in his love or to loath him. Such freedom provides a persuasive polemic of the existence of hell. Put another way, if there is freedom there must also be hell.
This is precisely the problem with making subjective experiences the standard for truth. Experiences are notoriously unreliable. One need only examine the facts. Since the 1975 multimillion bestseller, Life after Life, by Raymond Moody, widely considered to be the father of NDEs, an endless stream of stories concerning subjective experiences occurring during a state of unconsciousness brought on by a medical crisis, such as an accident, suicide attempt, or cardiac arrest, have flooded the market. Each paints an entirely different and conflicting portrait of afterlife. As such, they can all logically be wrong, but they cannot all logically be right.
While near-death experiencers seem convinced that their particular version of the afterlife is the real McCoy, in reality natural explanations might actually be far more realistic. Psycho-active drugs ingested during a medical crisis can cause experiences strikingly similar to NDEs. Physiological factors, such as oxygen deprivation and the release of endorphins may play a role in NDEs as well. In her book, Dying to Live: Near-Death Experiences, Dr. Susan Blackmore argues that a lack of oxygen in the brain can trigger both autoscopic and transcendental episodes in which NDErs leave their bodies and/or move through dark tunnels in route to being embraced by the light. Moreover, psychological factors, including fantasy proneness, may also play a role in near-death experiences. Statistically, one out of every twelve Americans is predisposed to creating a fantasy out of thin air and then believing it to be true.
So, where does all that leave us? We do better to go back to an objective frame of reference. Jesus experienced far more than clinical death. He experienced biological death. The best medical minds of ancient and modern times have demonstrated beyond a shadow of doubt that Christ's physical trauma was indeed fatal. Evidence for the empty tomb is conceded by friends and foes alike. Moreover, his post-resurrection appearances were transformational. Prior to his appearances, James, his half-brother, was embarrassed by everything Jesus represented.
Afterward, James was willing to die for Jesus. Inevitably, you have to ask yourself the question, what would it take for someone to die willingly for the belief that one of his family members was God? In the case of James, the only reasonable explanation is that Jesus appeared to him alive from the dead.
Unlike Alexander's subjective experience chronicled in Proof of Heaven, proof of the resurrection is so certain that millions have willingly laid down their lives, certain that they will take them up again. We can be just as certain. For all who are in Christ, the fountain of youth awaits.