Wednesday, April 16, 2014

David Platt and John MacArthur on Heaven and Near Death Experiences

A brief word about the arguments put forward here:
and here:

Platte and MacArthur (hereafter P&M) REALLY don't like all the books on near death experiences (NDE's) wherein people recount their alleged trips to heaven or hell.  I'm not a big fan either, but mostly for reasons other than theirs.  I'm skeptical primarily because some of the longer accounts I've encountered have internal inconsistencies (i.e., the story asserts one thing that is later implicitly or explicitly denied in the story) as well as external inconsistencies (e.g., with other NDE stories, with Christian doctrine, and so forth).   P&M, though, seem to think that there is something wrong (heretical?) in principle with claiming to know anything extra-Biblical about heaven (or hell).

For instance, M says this:
The New Testament adds much to our understanding of heaven (and hell), but we are still not permitted to add our own subjective ideas and experience-based conclusions to what God has specifically revealed through His inerrant Word. Indeed, we are forbidden in all spiritual matters to go beyond what is written (1 Corinthians 4:6).

What does it mean to "go beyond what is written"?  What does it mean to be "not permitted to add our own subjective ideas and experience-based conclusions to what God has specifically revealed?"  It's not perfectly clear what exactly M means by those words, but what is clear from the context is that M thinks there is something wrong with the NDE books in principle.  You just shouldn't claim to know extra-Biblical stuff like these people are claiming.

But what is wrong with the following:  I believe (and believe I have excellent reason to believe) that God has performed miracles in my life and others that I know.  But, let's be honest, I'm not exactly in the Bible!!  Nor is there anything in the Bible that guarantees that such and such miracle today was caused by God.  There is some scriptural evidence (e.g. there's reason to believe from Scripture that God is in the business of healing), but I can't simply look in the Bible to see if God healed this person I know.  Yet there's nothing wrong with believing that God did such a thing. So why think that if I wrote a book about my life and included miracles by God that I'm somehow violating a Scriptural mandate?  I see no good reason to think this way.  But then why think reporting something about heaven is off limits?  If God heals my son, then it's true that God in heaven healed my son.  If I know God healed my son, then I know something true about heaven, namely, that God in heaven healed my son.

Let us also note that none of these books are thought to BE SCRIPTURE (which would be heretical) or to contain propositions which the authors advocate should BECOME CHRISTIAN DOCTRINE.  There's no adding to doctrine or scripture being advocated in these books. The authors are reporting additional things they (purportedly) take to be true about heaven (which, nonetheless, we might have good reason to be skeptical about).  Perhaps some of these authors have illicit reasons for saying what they do (e.g., perhaps some are in it for the money), but perhaps some genuinely believe their experiences were veridical and think that these stories will help bolster the faith of others.  I get the impression that P&M think the only legitimate mode of theologizing is to open up a Bible (King James only?) and simply read it out loud.

Another reason P&M think there is something wrong with these books is because they think there's good evidence that no one has been to heaven except for Jesus.  For instance, M cites the following (P adds Proverbs 30:4 which is similar):
John 3:13 says, “No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.” And John 1:18 says, “No one has seen God at any time.

I don't know exactly what to make of John 3:13, but Jesus can't be saying that he's already ascended into heaven, which a straightforward reading of the verse suggests.  So our interpretation can't be that straightforward. Still, suppose this passage rules out all bodily ascensions (adding curiosity about where the bodies of Elijah and Enoch went).  That's still not inconsistent with someone's soul being in heaven until the resurrection of the body (e.g., the one thief on the cross).  So if ascension can mean bodily ascension, then John 3 and 1 aren't obviously inconsistent with some assertions in these popular books.  But even if the souls of people aren't in heaven, it's still an open question whether they had visions of being in heaven without being materially or immaterially present.  I don't know what would rule that out in principle.

Much more needs to be said, but the matter is complicated.  It's more complicated than P&M let on.


  1. John MacArthur might annoy me enough to be placed on my "Brothers in Christ That I Want to Punch in the Face List." Now, if someone got the chance to punch MacArthur in the face, I'd want them to finish off the punch with a shout, "There's some grace to you, John!"

    I was only vaguely aware of him until several weeks ago, when I learned that one of my friends, who is now a thorough-going secularist, atheist, socialist, grew up in a household that basically thought that John MacArthur's Christianity was THE right Christianity. In particular, how he reads the Bible is OBVIOUSLY how the Bible should be read. Getting in a discussion about what the Bible says with people like my friend is one of the most frustrating things I've encountered in the last couple months. It drives me nuts! It's happened a couple times to me lately, with a couple different people. I think you're impression is right, that these people think the only mode of theologizing is to open up a Bible and read it out loud. In my conversations with these people, I can't get them to acknowledge that there is a difference between the words on the page, and what the Bible says. Here's a quick example: Psalm 60:1 says, "You have rejected us, oh God…" Well, there it is on the page! God has rejected us! But obviously the Bible does not teach that God has rejected us.

    All this to say, in regard to your post, there is a closely related topic of figuring out what the Bible says. P&M think they already know and they think it's blatantly obvious to all except those in the throws of New Age muckity-muck and "superstition" and whatever else these guys rail against. I don't think they Bible says what they think it does in the verses they cite. But, it's almost impossible to converse with this people. They will not acknowledge that there is a shred of reasonableness in other interpretations than their own, and they often think that people who offer interpretations other than theirs are doing so because they are giving in to the world, trying to make their Christianity fit with the world. That's just a nonstarter for them. It's a lot of work to overcome these mindsets.

  2. That's too bad about your friend, JS. I always try to remind my students that for every person who (for example) leaves the Faith (in part) because they never accepted the full authority of the Bible, there's probably another person who leaves because they once did accept the full authority of the Bible (but ended up thinking that the Bible said something it didn't).
    I know little about P&M (I hadn't heard of M until the last couple years), but there's a general trend, I think, to ignore the distinction between what is said in the Bible by the human authors, and what God the Author is saying by means of what is said in the Bible by the human authors.

  3. I cant answer for P or M but I have the same objections to NDE and the stories that follow. IF we take the stories at face value then they are making truth claims about what heaven or hell, angels or demons, Jesus or Satan is like. Now when we examine these claims many (if not all) contradict scripture and/or theological doctrine. What follows is that these claims arent very sound and cannot be trusted. They are interesting stories or dreams or fabrications, but they go against what the bible has revealed.

  4. Anon,

    Well, if they do contradict the teachings of Scripture/Christian doctrine then they are false. All the stuff I've read was over 7 years ago so I can't speak to anything more recent, accept about what I've heard. Of what I read there was little that seemed to me to contradict the teachings of Scripture....from Christians with NDE's. The trouble is, people from different religions tend to have NDE's which more or less conform to basic expectations of that religion. That's one reason I haven't put a lot of stock into them.
    However, I've heard at least one respectable review of this book which I have yet to read:

    Evidence of the Afterlife: The Science of Near-Death Experiences, by Long and Perry