I’m a socially awkward, pensively contemplative person who finds it easier to hug books than people.
— Kenneth Samples
I’m a socially awkward, pensively contemplative person who finds it easier to hug books than people.
— Kenneth Samples
Stories of heavenly visions, like the one at the center of the upcoming film Heaven Is for Real (based on the near-death experience of a four-year-old Nebraska boy), can have a powerful effect on people. They can inspire our imaginations, tug on our emotions, and stir our spirits because they address one of the most haunting questions humans face (or try to ignore): what will happen to me after I die?
A near-death experience (NDE) occurs when someone, usually on an operating table, undergoes clinical death, is resuscitated, and later reports events or circumstances that took place while they were clinically dead. These reports can include the perception of floating above the body, the ability to relate information (such as doctors’ names and descriptions of medical equipment) that would be impossible for the person to know otherwise, and visions of dead loved ones or religious figures.
Evidence for life after death?
Since the 1970s, when NDEs came to the forefront thanks to investigative books by medical professionals such as Raymond Moody and Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, researchers have amassed a large amount of data on this phenomenon, some legitimate, some not. Credible NDEs do happen and some of them defy naturalistic explanations. In this way, they can provide some corroboration for the Christian claim that humans are more than a mere body and that there is life beyond biological death.
However, extreme caution must be used in citing NDEs as support for Christianity. This is not smoking gun evidence. Some NDEs don’t fall in line with a Christian worldview, such as those where people see Krishna. Additionally, some people have reported hellish visions, rather than heavenly ones. Others, including Moody and Kubler-Ross, interpret NDEs in light of Eastern mysticism. In other words, NDEs can be used as evidence for everyone’s worldviews.
Thus, it behooves Christians to develop a healthy measure of skepticism with regard to NDE stories. It is precisely because of the strong emotional appeal of such accounts that we must exercise caution and careful thinking when dealing with these and other religious visions. (I join RTB colleague Hugh Ross and national security expert Mark Clark in addressing issues similar to those surrounding NDEs in our book Lights in the Sky and Little Green Men.)
For those planning to see Heaven Is for Real, I’d offer the following tips for thinking through the film. First, after enjoying the initial viewing, move into a mindset of critique and reflection by differentiating between your feelings toward the film and the facts behind the story. Second, ask the following questions: (1) what is the scientific and/or medical basis for NDEs? and (2) what worldview does the film reflect?
Talking about death—and the Resurrection
I do believe that Heaven Is for Real can be beneficial in encouraging people to think about death. This is a taboo topic in our society. Though we know death is inevitable, many of us avoid the subject. Yet if Christianity is true, then it is imperative that we consider what will happen to us when we die.
The central miracle of Christianity is the resurrection of Jesus Christ. I would argue that if Jesus rose from the dead, then there isn’t a more important thing for any person to possibly hear than that message. To draw from my book 7 Truths That Changed the World, if Jesus rose from the dead, then that is the most dangerous idea because it turns the paradigm upside down. It means that death isn’t the end.
A movie like Heaven Is for Real, released this Easter, can provide an impetus for talking about death and what Christ did to break its power over humanity.
For more information about the medical evidence for NDEs, I’d recommend the works of Michael Sabom, a Christian, distinguished cardiologist, and careful researcher who has become an expert on NDEs. You can also hear more about this topic in these episodes of my podcast, Straight Thinking:
For more about death in light of the Christian worldview, see these previous Reflections articles:
For more about Heaven and salvation, see these resources:
Coauthored with RTB editor Maureen Moser
Consciousness is the most conspicuous obstacle to a comprehensive naturalism that relies only on the resources of physical science.
— Thomas Nagel, Mind & Cosmos (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 35.
The big decisions of life (and even some of the smaller ones) can put us in a place where we need wisdom and guidance. When I’m faced with difficult decisions or simply need direction on how to handle a challenging issue or topic, I try to consider six sources of authority that are available to all Christians in pursuit of solid answers.
The first thing I do when faced with a problem or challenge is attempt to consider the issue clearly, concisely, carefully, and cogently. Though my emotions may run high initially, I try to use my logical training to think as objectively about the issue as possible. My own reasoning isn’t necessarily my supreme or final authority when it comes to decision-making, but it is my initial check in the process. Often, an appeal to reason helps to frame the problem—then I can look elsewhere for further objective guidance.
As a Christian, I want the Triune God to direct my thinking and decisions in life (Matthew 4:4). Since the Holy Spirit inspired the Scriptures (2 Peter 1:20–21) I can appeal to them as a reliable source that carries God’s supreme authority (2 Timothy 3:16–17) and allow them to shape my basic beliefs and values in life (1 Timothy 4:16). I try to approach the Bible according to sound principles of interpretation so that I avoid reading into the Scriptures my own private thoughts or beliefs.
Practicing sound interpretation allows the Bible to speak of its own accord. First, I look for direct or explicit teaching that addresses the issue with which I am dealing. If the Bible doesn’t address my concern explicitly, then I look for indirect or inferential principles that may provide help in thinking through the matter. A study of Scripture may lead me to other books outside of the Bible that provide insightful and authoritative wisdom on the topic I’m pursuing.
Someone once asked the great theologian Benjamin Warfield, “What is more important: prayer or Bible study?” Warfield replied, “Prayerful Bible study.” As I dig in to God’s Word in search of inspiration and direction I also prayerfully ask God to lead and guide me in my thoughts and decisions. For the Christian, prayer should be as natural as breathing (1 Thessalonians 5:16–18). And sometimes just spending time with the Triune God in prayer and study is answer enough to life’s questions and challenges.
Prayerful study of Scripture and Christian doctrine allows the Holy Spirit to shape my conscience. Thus, I can appeal to it as a guide and authority in life. According to Scripture, God can speak powerfully through one’s conscience (Romans 2:12–15), which can be a powerfully important moral check when it comes to testing motives and decisions.
Christian traditions and practices through the ages can be powerful tools in helping a believer to decide how to approach difficult or controversial issues. While tradition doesn’t carry the same authoritative weight as that of Scripture, nonetheless, I’ve found it to be invaluable. After all, believers of the past inevitably faced similar issues and challenges as we do today and their wisdom and experiences can be a helpful guide of what to do.
According to Scripture, love is the greatest of the Christian virtues (1 Corinthians 13:13) for it reflects the very character of God (Romans 5:8; 1 John 4:10). Everything the believer does should be motivated by love and our actions should reflect it. Our love for God and our love for others is the underlying value that should guide all of our decisions and pursuits in life.
Oftentimes, I don’t need to consult all six sources to gain wisdom or derive guidance for life decisions. But it is good to know that God has provided these authoritative resources for His children’s benefit. Moreover, there are other reliable sources found in trusted friends and advisers as well as in the authoritative writings of trustworthy people.
Allow me to close this article with words from that fount of practical, everyday biblical wisdom, the book of Proverbs:
Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding;in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight (Proverbs 3:5–6).
You can also get my thoughts on Christian guidance in a recent episode of my podcast, Straight Thinking.
The price of freedom is high and it’s a price I’m willing to pay.
– Captain America, Captain America: The Winter Soldier
From childhood, my favorite superhero has always been Captain America. In light of the Winter Soldier sequel released today, I’d like to offer two previous articles exploring the worldview questions raised by superhero comics and movies.
Whatever your opinion about the controversial documentary Blackfish, its impact can’t be ignored. CNN has been airing Blackfish periodically since October 2013. The documentary has won several awards and inspired numerous boycotts. Personally, I have three friends who vowed to cease taking their children to SeaWorld after watching Blackfish; one of them even had an annual pass! Hollywood’s elite is also jumping into the debate, with some artists pulling out of performances at SeaWorld. And now the film is inspiring new legislation.
A California state lawmaker (Richard Bloom–D) recently introduced a bill that would prohibit theme park entertainment shows featuring orcas, such as the popular whale shows at SeaWorld San Diego. Bloom says that Blackfish inspired his bill. According to Bloom’s press release,
There is no justification for the continued captive display of orcas for entertainment purposes. These beautiful creatures are much too large and far too intelligent to be confined in small, concrete pens for their entire lives. It is time to end the practice of keeping orcas captive for human amusement.
Bloom’s bill not only prohibits the use of orcas for entertainment in California, but also provides certain protections for those orcas currently in captivity. The goal of the proposed law would be to rehabilitate captive orcas and return as many as possible to the wild. In those cases where release isn’t possible, whales must be transferred to ocean-based pens where there is adequate room for them to swim according to their natural instincts. Furthermore, they would not be used for public display or entertainment.
The Message of “Blackfish”
Made in response to the orca-caused death of a veteran SeaWorld trainer, Blackfish features former SeaWorld trainers, whale harvesters, and marine experts to marshal the filmmaker’s case that keeping large-bodied mammals in captivity is unhealthy for the animals and potentially dangerous for their keepers (view the trailer here). The film’s premise is simple: long-term existence in a small, chlorinated tank separated from their natural pod is physically detrimental and psychologically traumatic to orcas, to the point that it drives some killer whales to act out against their trainers in psychotic behavior. After months of silence, SeaWorld finally responded to Blackfish in December 2013, asserting the film is propaganda, not a documentary.
The reasoning of the anti-SeaWorld crowd generally runs along these lines:
The Dignity of Soulish Creatures
Blackfish is part of a larger discussion in our culture about the use of higher-level mammals, including those in circuses and zoos, for human entertainment. After watching Blackfish several times, I’ve been struck by the relevance of this discussion to the Christian worldview.
In his book Hidden Treasures in the Book of Job, RTB founder and president Hugh Ross outlines his case for three categories of life: (1) purely physical life; (2) life that is both physical and “soulish” (Hebrew: nepesh); and (3) life that is physical, soulish, and spiritual (humans only). Ross builds a biblical and scientific case for the special creation of soulish creatures.1 These advanced mammals and birds exhibit certain high-level mental and emotional characteristics, including a drive to protect offspring, the ability to foresee the future to some degree, and the capability of engaging in symbolic thought.
If Ross’s theory is correct, then it raises provocative questions about its application to our treatment of these advanced animals. How should an animal’s soulish nature influence political policy regarding captive animals? How should it impact what we view as appropriate for entertainment purposes?
In the case of orcas, is it cruel to keep large-bodied, highly intelligent nepesh creatures in constricting, chlorinated tanks? Since God created whales to roam freely in pods in the ocean, what role should we play in preserving orcas in their natural habitat? Should these animals’ natural desire to serve and please others2 be exploited for mere entertainment?
In addition, I think that the topics raised by Blackfish provide potential for thoughtful dialogue between Christians and the broader culture. It is true that some people believe whales and other animals should have rights equal with humans’. However, that’s not an adequate reason for Christians to remain disengaged from the public dialogue about this issue or to ignore the plight of higher mammals in captivity. Rather, I believe it’s cause for Christians to engage more deeply in the discussion and explore how the Christian worldview comes to bear on this issue.
Although God conferred His image on humans alone (Genesis 1:26–28), perhaps there is a way to recognize the God-endowed soulish properties of high-level mammals without demeaning the special status of humanity. Simply because soulish animals aren’t created in the image of God doesn’t mean that their soulish qualities should be disregarded. Politics aside, our biblical responsibility as stewards of Earth’s resources ought to encourage us to provide some level of protection for higher mammals from exploitation or cruelty.
This is a sensitive issue for many people, but it’s my hope that my reflections here can start a conversation to consider critical questions about how humans ought to be proper stewards over nepesh creatures.
By Krista Bontrager
Krista Bontrager is the dean of online learning at Reasons to Believe. She is a teacher at heart and enjoys teaching the Bible to all ages. She has an MA in theology and another in Bible exposition from Talbot School of Theology.
Perhaps this world has the balance of the greatest amount of good and the least amount of evil.
— Paul Copan, Loving Wisdom (St. Louis, MO: Chalice, 2007), 128.
Have you ever been in a cave? Caves are dark, cold, and sometimes dangerous places—people who lose their light source in a cave often cannot find their way out and, without rescue, face the possibility of death from hypothermia or physical injury.
While on vacation several years ago, my family and I took the tour of Crystal Cave in California’s Sequoia National Park. To show the tourists just how dark caves really are, the park rangers turned off all the lights. It was so dark that I literally couldn’t see my hand right in front of my face. The rangers explained that tiny creatures living in the cave soil do not possess eyes because there is no light.
Plato’s Allegory of the Cave
The great Greek philosopher Plato (427–347 BC) famously illustrated the difference between reality and illusion through a story about men who lived all their life in a cave. In Plato’s allegory, these men were chained to pillars and could see only shadows cast on the cave’s back wall by a fire that burned behind them, out of sight.
The men in the cave took great pride in their eyesight and in their interpretive abilities—yet all the time they were looking at shadows, mere illusions. Then, one of the men breaks out of the chains and makes it outside of the cave where he discovers a whole new world. When he reenters the cave to tell his friends about his marvelous epiphany they reject and resent him to the point of wanting to kill him.
Of course, there are several important philosophical lessons to be mined from Plato’s cave allegory, one being the fact that a real metaphysical world exists independent of human experience and observation (what Plato called the world of the “Forms”). But Plato also intended his story to illuminate the life of his teacher, Socrates (470–399 BC), who was killed by the Athenian government for challenging ancient Greece’s view of truth and reality.
As a Christian, my first reading of the cave allegory immediately brought to mind Jesus of Nazareth and His attempt to reveal His true identity and mission (Messiah and Savior) to the religious leadership of first-century Israel.
Reflections on Plato’s Story
Personally, I find Plato’s story disconcerting, if not downright haunting. Consider its application on three levels.
First, on an individual basis, it is easy to sleepwalk through life, especially for those born into privilege (like many of us living in the Western world). Many people accept the norms and categories they have been given without asking the truly deep questions of life.
Family upbringing, the media, school, and other cultural factors shape our practical worldview narrative of life. And these life narratives often point us toward goals of personal pleasure (sensualism), financial affluence (materialism), and prestige (egoism). These narratives and their end goals stand in stark contrast with the Christian worldview narrative, which encourages the pursuit of truth, goodness, and beauty.
Second, as Plato no doubt intended, the message of this powerful allegory also challenges our political thinking. It is amazingly easy to accept a political ideology, especially when we talk only to people who agree with us. Unfortunately, in that case, we fail to benefit from hearing the best argument from the other political side and there is an absence of much-needed checks and balances.
Third, it seems to me that Plato’s story challenges committed Christians as well. Believers in Christ must exercise a reasonable faith by appropriately putting their beliefs to the test. A faith seeking understanding should replace blind faith. God’s gift of the life of the mind is meant to safeguard us against an undiscerning and excessively dogmatic religiosity.
If this article and its content trouble you in one of the three ways discussed above, then I’m not alone in my philosophical angst. I know philosophical angst isn’t easy to live with—but it’s much better than living in a dark cave.
The Greek word agape used here implies that self-giving love is meant: a love which does not ask What is there in it for me? But which seeks to give itself unselfishly to others.
— Anthony Hoekema, Saved By Grace (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1989), 45.
In January, I had the opportunity to discuss the always popular, frequently controversial topic of the end times on Issues, Etc. with host Todd Wilken, a Lutheran pastor and theologian. Our discussion lasted over an hour and included time for listener questions.
This interview about Christian eschatology teaching is likely different from what you’re used to hearing among many evangelicals. For example, here are five points that I touched on:
You can listen to this interview at http://lutheranreport.com/items/item/7223/. My book Christian Endgame: Careful Thinking About the End Times is available through Reasons to Believe.