Last year a relative encouraged me to read a book entitled Heaven is for Real by Todd Burpo and Lynn Vincent. The book tells the account of 4 year old Colton’s experience after a medical crisis. Upon his resuscitation, little Colton was able to tell his family amazing things that they claimed he could not have known. For example, Colton claimed to have met a sister that was miscarried that he didn’t know about. After reading the book, I remember thinking that Colton’s alleged experience, while fascinating, wasn’t concrete enough for me to say, “Okay, I believe it.” I simply needed more evidence and background knowledge about Colton and his family. I had heard scholars such as Gary Habermas  and J.P. Moreland discuss near-death experiences and while I always found these accounts intriguing, I never imagined I would reach a concrete conclusion on how reliable they were. For me, near-death experiences [NDEs] were possible evidence for the existence of God and the afterlife, but how could one really know for sure? Therefore, I never imagined them finding a home in my personal apologetic.
Well, as often happens when one reads a solid work on a given topic, my pre-suppositions have been challenged by author J. Steve Miller in his book Near-Death Experiencesas Evidence for the Existence of God and Heaven.
When Miller was 16 he became obsessed with the importance of seeking God. He reasoned that life was but a brief moment compared to eternity so his first priority should be to determine if God existed and, if He did, to figure out what He wanted out of his life. [xi] However, the author was faced with a problem- he was a skeptic. He explains:
“Not in the narrow sense of someone who puts down religion, but in the general sense of one who always questions everything. My dictionary defines skeptic as ‘one who by nature doubts or questions what he hears, reads, etc.’ That’s me. My picture should be in the dictionary beside that definition.” [ix]
I suspect a result of his skepticism is Miller’s tendency to exhaustively document and research each claim that he makes and in many cases offer resources for the reader to explore a given topic more in-depth.
The author is also sure to note that he not only sought God academically, but also through “prayer and trying to maintain a teachable, open heart.” [xii]
This is a great lesson for those seeking God.
Strengths of the Book
This book has many strengths, three of which I’ll highlight here. The first strength of this piece, as hinted at above, is Miller’s ability to write about something as technical as NDEs in laymen’s terms. Throughout the book I don’t recall once being bogged down by medical jargon or abstract argument. An as the author explains, this was by design:
“I try to write as simply as possible. Sloppy argumentation often dresses up in technical vocabulary and literacy profundity. Thus, while some NDE literature speaks of myocardial infarctions, I’ll simply call them heart attacks.” [xiii]
This reviewer was impressed with the results. Miller’s efforts certainly paid off as this book, while simple to read, doesn’t sacrifice any precision in its explanations.
Second, Miller does an outstanding job documenting his claims, as if daring the reader to check him out! The author further calls upon the best of the best in the relevant fields. As he explains:
“…I looked for serious books on the subject-books by objective authors (not pastors or new age gurus who might be out to evangelize) who had the academic credentials to do solid research on multiple cases.” [p. 19]
As a result, the reader is treated to overviews of works such as Dr. Raymond Moody’s seminal 1975 study Life After Life and Dr. Pim van Lommel’s Consciousness Beyond Life: The Science of the Near-Death Experience. Both Moody and van Lommel’s backgrounds are fascinating. Neither grew up believing in God or life after death, but through their exhaustive research on NDEs changed their minds!
The author briefly explains van Lommel’s conclusion:
“Near-death experiences don’t fit into a naturalistic worldview. There is life after death. His patients experienced, not vivid dreams, but very real journeys to the other side, the most significant part of which was an encounter with a personal being of light.” [p. 22]
Finally, Miller provides the reader with a wealth of information and resources should they want to explore NDEs more in-depth. If one desires to begin researching NDEs, I can’t imagine a better work to start with than this one.
Arguments Dealt with in the Book
In the Preface, Miller spends his time explaining why the book was written, his personal background and how his background informs his study of NDEs.
In Chapter 1, Miller recounts how after reading the account of Colton Burpo, he began asking questions about NDEs to “satisfy” his skeptical mind. [p. 18]
In Chapter 2, the author surveys many of the works he studied (some I’ve already mentioned above) on NDEs and reports that NDEs are not only written about in books, but in scholarly, peer-reviewed literature.
“In the 30 year period after Moody published Life after Life, 55 researchers or teams published at least 65 studies of over 3500 NDEs.” [p. 23]
He further explains the impact NDEs had on many of the researchers:
“It’s important to the note that most of these researchers don’t come across as heralding their pet theological or philosophical positions. Most that I read began their research doubting that NDEs involved anything spiritual but become convinced by the weight of the evidence.” [p.23]
Miller begins Chapter 3 by explaining that NDEs, contrary to what this reviewer initially thought, are not rare:
“Studies found four percent of the populations of Germany and the USA reporting that they had experienced one. That’s over one out of 25 people, or over nine million Americans.” [p. 25]
Upon reading such data, the thought occurred to me, “Then why don’t we hear about them more often?”
Miller was quick to answer:
“People tend to keep these experiences to themselves, fearing that people will think they’re crazy.” [p. 25]
The chapter continues with the author sharing numerous statements from the many NDE reports he personally read. I was surprised to see the commonalities in these reports. Details such as the presence of a being of light, an overwhelming feeling of peace and the awareness of the absence of time were just some of the things those who claimed to have experienced an NDE reported. Further, follow up studies have shown that those who've experienced NDEs are most often times changed permanently by the experience.
In Chapter 4, Miller examines 13 different naturalistic explanations for NDEs. The explanations are sub-categorized as follows:
Explanations from a Materialist Worldview
Explanations from a Materialist Worldview
· Theoretical Objections
· Methodological Objections
· Psychological Explanations
· Physiological Objections
Most interesting to this reviewer was the author’s response to Objection #1: “The mind doesn’t exist separate from the brain. Thus, the mind can’t survive the death of the brain. NDEs must therefore be produced solely by the brain.”
In response to this, Miller first points out that the materialist will often offer as proof to sustain this objection that as we age, our minds tend to work less efficiently.
However, as Miller points out, researchers such as “van Lommel…and many others surmise that the brain functions as a receiver for the mind. The mind connects with the brain while we are in our body, but isn’t dependent upon the brain for its existence. Damage to the brain impacts our ability to access our minds, much as damage to a radio impacts our ability to access radio signals.” [p. 33]
Miller ends the chapter concluding that “the present state of research finds naturalistic explanations inadequate.” [p. 48] However, as we’ll see in the next chapter, he does not then simply conclude, “Therefore, God…”
The thrust of Chapter 5 is to address the question, “Do NDEs provide compelling evidence that God and heaven exist?” Miller argues that they do by “weighing the evidence to decide which hypothesis best fits the data…” [p. 49]
According to the author, we have only two possible [broad] explanations:
Explanation #1- The spiritual explanation
Explanation #2- The naturalistic explanation
Miller then spends the rest of the chapter examining 12 known facts [“exhibits”] about NDEs and argues persuasively that the spiritual explanation is the more robust one.
One of the key claims dealt with in this chapter is, “An NDE is no more than a vivid dream caused by people’s expectations of the hereafter.” [p. 59]
“Several studies have found that the beliefs prior to the NDE didn’t impact whether people had an NDE or not- neither prior knowledge of NDEs, their religious beliefs, nor their standard of education. Many who had NDEs didn’t have a prior belief in life after death at all.” [p. 59]
Finally, in Chapter 6, the author assesses what exactly we can learn from NDEs about other worldviews and about God.
According to Miller, and this reviewer agrees, if NDEs are a reality, they are incompatible with naturalism. Further, I would also argue, along with the author, that philosophical materialists, determinists, deists and pantheists are going to find their worldview inadequate to explain the data observed from NDEs.
This chapter ends with the author explaining what the evidence from NDEs tell us about God.
Before reading Near-Death Experiences as Evidence for the Existence of God and Heaven, I would not have imagined using the reality of NDEs in my personal apologetic. However, Stephen Miller has removed many of the false assumptions this reviewer had before reading his book. The evidence for NDEs is persuasive and surely should cause the naturalist pause.
Miller’s self-confessed skepticism I believe proved to be an asset throughout this work. His writing is well-documented, persuasive and well-argued. Further, in many parts of the book he seemed to anticipate a possible objection to his arguments and dealt with the objection thoroughly and convincingly.
If you desire to learn more about the reality of NDEs and what they tell us about God and Heaven, in a way that is easy to understand, this is surely the book for you. Miller takes what is many times a very technical discussion and puts it on the bottom shelf where all can enjoy.
Courage and Godspeed,
Note: As stated in the review, Miller thoroughly documents his claims and provides numerous opportunities for the reader to study NDEs more in-depth.
Evidence of this can be found in the 9 Appendixes included in the book. They are as follows:
Appendix 1- Do NDEs Differ Across Cultures?
Appendix 2- Two Recent Articles Proclaim that Science Has Explained NDEs’ Paranormal Features
Appendix 3- Interviewing Circles of Trust- My Original Research and Tips
Appendix 4- But is the Evidence Scientific?
Appendix 5- Blackmore’s Dying Brain Hypothesis
Appendix 6- Nelson’s Spiritual Doorway in the Brain
Appendix 7- Reflections on NDEs and Christian Teachings
Appendix 8- NDEs with Corroboration
Appendix 9- Guide to Further Research