NCW 11, August 1994
Q. I have read many accounts by Pentecostals, Mormons and others of those who have had near-death-experiences or out-of-body experiences and I find their experiences sometimes harmonise but sometimes contradict one another. What is the truth of such matters? Which experiences should be believed, and which not?
To begin with, truth is not known by the reading of other people's experiences. The best we can get from such is a deeper faith and hope in the love and providence of God. Ultimately, all truth can only be known by personal experience and faith and, it is important to point out, in the way in which God has destined us to know individually.
I have read hundreds of out-of-body and near-death experiences and it is only through prayer, knowing God's Word, and my own personal experiences have I learned to start to discern between different accounts. And I admit I am still learning and am still baffled by some of the accounts.
The first place to begin when studying or examining such an account is to see if it harmonises doctrinally with the Scriptures. But even here there are problems because there are some, like the Jehovah's Witnesses, Seventh-day Adventists and Worldwide Church of God who say that there is no consciousness after death. It is hardly surprising, since they have no faith in this area, that the people in these churches rarely, if at all, experience such things. And when they so they invariably mark such things down as "of the devil". Undoubtedly some of them are, but by no means all. I find their vision of the next life extraordinarily narrow and devoid of light and based largely on wishful thinking. Some of the more conservative evangelical Christians, though believing in the consciousness of the spirit after death, believe only in the written Word and are so suspicious of personal experiences that they too often mark them down as "satanic". We, as New Covenant Christians who have, in some cases, experienced these phenomena and know them to be of God, naturally reject these positions. We have no belief in the so-called "soul-sleeping doctrine" which is the product of faulty biblical exegesis and the mistaken belief that all the writers of the Bible had an equal knowledge of spiritual matters, and of interpreting poetic language as literal (e.g. "sleeping in the grave").
The first key to understanding the world of the spirit is that spirit does not operate in the same way as the physical world. Whereas here, for example, we have binocular vision and can only see directly in front of us, in the spiritual dimension we can see in all directions simultaneously. Whereas on earth to explain something (say, how a car works) must be done through the laborious process of speech, communication on the spiritual plane takes place instantly and completely.
The second key to understanding is that whilst there are two essential dimensions -- spiritual and physical -- there are, if you like, many interfacing "pseudo-dimensions". In the physical world you see what you see (though there are optical illusions too). Likewise, in the spiritual world you see what you see. Both are "real" and "literal". But in the pseudo-dimensions there is what one might call a different kind of perception which I will call "symbolic perception", for this is a world where what you can see for "real" is also mixed with symbolic forms.
The Bible is full of symbolism. Sometimes God communicates a principle in a symbol, such as a Lamb to represent Christ. We all know that Christ is not a literal Lamb but that He represents certain qualities that are peculiar to lambs, namely, their non-resistance and submission to death. Our dreams are, for the most part, experiences in this dimension of symbols. This dimension is not real. Rather, it is to be compared to a TV which does not show reality but images of it.
Very often people who have out-of-body and near-death experiences see either the pure spirit world or a mixture of real and symbolic. I remember a Polynesian man who belonged to the Reorganized Church who related how, as he lay dying on his bed, he saw an angel coming down with a chair to collect him. Though the angel did not actually bring a chair (for there was absolutely no need for one), this particular people believed that when a man died he was taken to heaven on a chair. Therefore the Lord adapted Himself to this man's reality and expectation in order to justify his faith and make his passage to the next world peaceful and joyful.
I suspect, though I do not know for sure, that Elijah was not taken into heaven on a literal chariot but that this was a combination of literal and prophetic imagery.
Each church tradition has its own particular beliefs about the next life in which the faithful have invested their hearts and desires. Some good Christians I know interpret parts of the Bible literally which are meant to be symbolic only. One man, Percy Collett, had an extraordinary vision in which he was taken to heaven and there he described God as having feathers. He assumed, wrongly, that this was literal, and therefore God met his expectations and faith by manifesting Himself in part reality and part symbol.
Others believe that angels have wings. Actually, we know they do not, but that wings are poetic symbolism meaning power and authority. Yet people see visions of angels with "wings" -- they meet God partly in reality and partly in symbol.
All of this must be sharply contrasted with what are false or deceptive manifestations. Satan and his spiritual allies are able to "shape-shift", make illusory projections masquerading as the real thing. He does this to deceive and communicate lies. Unlike the previous phenomena where, for example, God appeared as having feathers, satanic manifestations are designed to lead astray and away from the true God of Israel, Yahweh (Jehovah), and His Son Jesus Christ. Did God deceive in showing Collett feathers? No, because the feathers were a potent symbol designed to convey God's protectiveness. God can only meet us at our point of faith. He met Collett at his.
The world of spirits is a far vaster domain than our physical world. Much as our physical world is invisibly divided up between rich and poor countries, the spirit world is divided up into different areas of light and purity, regions where souls go after death according to their personal righteousness and holiness. When a soul dies it goes to that region to which it "naturally" belongs; it is no wonder that the regions differ from one another, and why people report different things. And do not forget that about one third of the spirit world is what is popularly called "hell" and there is little, if no, truth to be found there at all.
To know the truth and to be able to discern between different people's experiences means only one course of action: to live a life of exemplary purity and holiness in the resurrected Christ. If God shows us a part of the spirit world, it is usually that part we will inherit when we die, and what lies beneath....but not above. Therefore if you meet a Christian who is living his faith, and a disciple of the "New Age" who is living his, and they both gain access to the world of spirits, do not be surprised if their accounts radically differ. Their faith is different. And if two Christians gain access, and their accounts differ slightly, it may be that they believe in different things.
There are not many Christians who believe, as we do, in a pre-mortal spiritual life and it is not therefore surprising that only a few Christians have seen it. God cannot reveal what people don't want to believe. There are not many Christians who believe, as we do, that God the Father has, as part of His reality, a three-dimensional form; not surprisingly, not many have seen Him though they have seen Christ (who is in His exact image, incidentally). There are not many Christians who believe, as we do, that marriage continues into the next world, and therefore they are not shown this holy estate in the next world and are led to believe that they will be single. And the chances are they will be.
God reveals what we have the faith to see. If we do not believe, then God will not reveal. It is as simple as that. That is why so many churches have had their traditions for so many centuries -- they have built walls of unbelief around themselves through which the light of God cannot penetrate.
My advice is to be slow to judge the spiritual experiences people have and to search a matter out carefully. As discretion is better than valour, so suspended judgment is better than zealous dogmatism. Moreover, do not suppose that just because you pray in faith you will get an automatic answer: too often people pray with an answer in mind and invariably get a "confirmation", through their own unconscious spirit, of what they expect. Sometimes it takes many years to know a matter for sure. Do not be so na´ve as to believe that you have a divine right to know so long as you are not living a life of holiness and true faith.
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