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Friday, December 25, 2015

"Imagine Heaven" (John Burke)

TITLE: Imagine Heaven: Near-Death Experiences, God's Promises, and the Exhilarating Future That Awaits You
AUTHOR: John Burke
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2015, (352 pages).

Many books have been written about heaven and the Near-Death-Experiences (NDEs). What can we make of them? What are the legitimate ones? What is heaven really like? Are the testimonies too good to be true? Where is the biblical support for such incidences? In a book that has been incubated over 35 years of questioning, pondering, and experiencing, the author has heard over 1000 NDEs. Intrigued by the frequency of occurrences, Burke realizes the acute difference between "reported experiencing" and "interpretation" of the experience. Keen to understand all of these from a biblical perspective, author and pastor John Burke invites us on a journey to experience heaven. He believes that people who fail to imagine heaven will be unable to live for it. People must have at least that glimpse of the heavenly kingdom in order to have their faith revitalized and hope rekindled. "If you only knew what awaits you" starts the enticement toward heavenly matters.

George Ritchie was clinically dead for nine minutes. When we came back to life, his whole perspective to life was changed. He started a Peace Corps after experiencing a heavenly moment of glory and lament about things undone when he was alive. He came back with a powerful sense of purpose to ensure that the life he had would be well lived. Unlike medical skeptics and doubts among most people, the NDEs are not just about scientific explanations of subjective experiences. They are about a profound change of a person after their encounters. Studying the range of NDEs, Burke highlights some common things. Many of these NDEs are not profit driven and feedback from people do not necessarily gain them anything. Moreover, the experience is global. Mary Neal, an orthopedic surgeon came back from an NDE after a kayaking accident, with a renewed and even more purposeful sense of living. Jeff Olsen who had a low emotional point of life after experiencing heaven, returned with an amazing sense of joy. Pilot Dale Black started building orphanages, churches, and medical clinics after a plane crash in which he returned from an NDE with fervent desire to make a difference. Eben Alexander, a Harvard neurologist personally experienced and knew that the human experience lives far beyond the grave. These stories and many more occupy the bulk of these books, accompanied by professional opinions as well as interpretations, with the author as an interested participant as listener. Burke draws in biblical insights to show us that the Bible has already referred to lots of such experiences. We do not need to personally get an NDE just to believe. If we believe the Bible, surely, there are already lots of evidence and stories of Jesus that we can hold on to.

Perhaps, one of the core reasons people are so afraid of death is because they do not really know what to expect in the afterlife. Even if we are highly skeptical of NDEs, I think it is already an amazing thing that those who come back had a new leash of purpose for living. It takes a glimpse of glory to fill our lives with hope. It takes a taste of heaven to propel us with a deeper hunger for God. This book gives us lots of reasons to imagine heaven. As he covers different topics like angels, new dimensions, beauty, reunion with loved ones, and so on, he also tackles the topic of hell, and the surprisingly few reports of a "hellish NDE." It makes me wonder whether it is a psychological decision due to people preffering to suppress the bad while freely dispensing the good parts. For such people who tasted death, they learn that hell is about human choices.

A book of this nature is highly readable for three reasons. First, it is fascinating to talk about the afterlife. If everyone eventually dies, should we not have some kind of a trailer or a preview of the things that is to come? We will all get to experience that eventually. Hearing from eye-witnesses is far better than people who simply create stories and fictional ideas. We can try to critique things we hear but as far as witnesses are concerned, it does not matter. The experiences are theirs alone. Whether we believe or not is entirely a different matter. Second, there are implications for faith. While NDEs are powerful things, without the Word of God to guide us, we are susceptible to all kinds of interpretations and misguidance. This is where the value of reading this book comes in. An experience is one thing. Making sense of it is another. Christians with the Word of God know that there is nothing to fear except fear itself. At the top of the heap is the need to fear God. Not the phobia-type but the reverence-kind. Any experience without an interpretation is like speaking in tongues that has limited edification features. Believers who come back from an NDE, people like Mary Neal, becomes powerful advocates for life after life. Third, a heavenly vision powers earthly passion. The remarkable thing about people who had journeyed through an NDE is not what they had seen or heard, but life when they returned. Filled with much passion and purpose, they had a renewed sense of faith, hope, and joy.

Burke closes with two appendices. The first is about "Reasons to Believe" which is a brief description about apologetics. The second is about alternate views of NDEs. This book is a balanced treatment of the NDE and the testimonies of people who came back after that. The author does all of us a great favour by collecting many stories to show us that NDEs are much more pervasive than we think. It is a lot more global, which is a good measure of it as a human experience across all cultures. Writing as a "science-minded skeptical engineer," Burke knows what it means to question such out of this world incidences. Writing as a pastor, Burke understands the special relationships people have with loved ones who had passed on and the deep sense of family longing in them. Writing as a truth-seeker, Burke gives us a well balanced perspective of what people reported about their NDEs, what scientists and medical professionals explained to their best knowledge, and most importantly, how these NDEs proved how true and accurate, the things that the Bible had said. 

Rating: 4.75 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me courtesy of Baker Books and Graf-Martin Communications in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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