“Befriending Death”


Peter Kreeft, the very fine Christian Philosopher who teaches at Boston College, says that death wears five faces – that of an enemy, a stranger, a friend, a mother, and finally, a lover (Love is Stronger than Death – Ignatius Press – 1992).  This continuum moves from negative and alienating perceptions of death – “enemy” and “stranger” – to more positive and intimate perceptions – “friend,” “mother” and “lover.”  This book with its development of these fives “faces” of death is more than worth the effort it takes to read, but the big idea that I’m interested in with this blog is the journey by which this change occurs, how death ceases being the enemy that we avoid at all costs to the friend that we welcome and perhaps even embrace.  It’s what the spiritual author Henri Nouwen described as the process of “befriending death.”  In his 1994 book Our Greatest Gift: A Meditation on Dying and Caring (Harper Collins), Henri Nouwen asked –

Is death something so terrible and absurd that we are better off not thinking or talking about it?  Is death such an undesirable part of our existence that we are better off acting as if it were not real?  Is death such an absolute end of all our thoughts and actions that we simply cannot face it?  Or is it possible to befriend our dying gradually and live open to it, trusting that we have nothing to fear?  Is it possible to prepare for our death with the same attentiveness that our parents had preparing for our birth?  Can we wait for our death as for a friend who wants to welcome us home? (xii-xiii)

I thought about these things as I watched the movie “Heaven is for Real” last week.  I had not planned on seeing it, but a review in the paper that said that it set a new high water mark for faith-based movies, and an interview with Greg Kinnear, the engaging “star” of the movie, on one of the Sunday Morning Talk Shows peeked my interest.  And so I invested the $6 for an early bird matinee on my day off and the two hours it took to watch the film.  When it was over I had the feeling of having just seen a Hallmark Special – a really well acted and well produced television movie, but a made for television quality movie nonetheless.  It was not terrible, but it was pretty schmaltzy and it played for the easy emotional response at every turn.  The crisis of faith that it narrates could have been more profoundly explored in the dynamic between a character in the story whose son was killed in military action and her relationship with the father of the little boy who survived his medical crisis and in the process had his experience of heaven.  That’s a story that I would have liked to have seen.  But instead what we got was the standard sentimental/inspirational story where everybody hugs in the closing frame while somebody affectively sings a beloved hymn.  It was probably the best Hallmark Special I’ve ever seen, but at the end of the day, it was still just a Hallmark Special category and quality film.  Two unrelated notes: (1) If there’s an Academy award for cute, then the little boy in this movie has already got it locked down; and (2) the audience – and there was a pretty good crowd of us in theater – were all people in the last decades of life, 60, 70 and 80-somethings.  For us the question about the reality of heaven is apparently not just some abstract debate, instead it’s pretty urgent and immediate!

Heaven is for Real” is based on the 2010 book of the same title.  It’s the story of four-year-old Colton Burpo’s Near Death Experience during an emergency appendectomy and how it changed the life and faith of both his family and their church (Colton’s father is a pastor in the Wesleyan Church).  Many of you read this book when it first came out, and some of you enthusiastically shared it with me in those days.  At roughly the same time another book with a very different tone about the Near Death Experience, Don Piper’s 90 minutes in Heaven (Revell – 2004), was making the rounds and getting some attention as well.  And then there was Dr. Mary Neal’s extraordinary book To Heaven and Back (WaterBrook Press – 2012).  A good summary of her experience and its consequences on her life can be found at http://www.deseretnews.com/article/765576971/Life-after-life-This-Wyoming-surgeon-says-she-believes.html?pg=all.  But it has been the enduring work of Raymond A. Moody, a physician and psychologist, with people, and especially children, who have reported Near Death Experiences that has been particularly influential on my thinking (Life after Life – Bantam – 1976).


When I was in Houston in the 1980’s I was a volunteer chaplain with the Houston Hospice and served as their first Director of Spiritual Care.  In that capacity I arranged for a series of Continuing Education Events for our volunteers on spiritual issues, and one of the most popular of the series was the one I put together on the subject of Near Death Experiences. I had a couple of people who had Near Death Experiences come and tell their stories, and then I has a panel of religious leaders talk about how they made sense of such experiences from their particular faith perspectives.

In the course of putting this program together, I had to come to terms with my own thoughts and feelings about Near Death Experiences.  Specifically, I wrestled with how they “fit” into “my” theology.  Theology is just a matter of thinking and talking about God.  If you have ever thought or talked about God, then you are a theologian.  You may be a good theologian, or you may be a bad theologian, but if you think and talk about God, then you are a theologian.   Now, what determines whether you are a good or bad theologian has an awful lot to do with your sources and how you use them.   When you say something about God, what makes you say what you do?  What are the sources of your thinking?

A standard tool for theological reflection and conversation is called the “Quadrilateral.”  It is often associated with the name of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, although its origins go back much further than him (some say back to St. Augustine).  Wesley was the Quadrilateral’s great popularizer. The quadrilateral looks like this –


What the Quadrilateral says is that there are four sources for our knowledge of God – Scripture, Reason, Experience and Tradition – and therefore, there are four ways to assess what people are saying and thinking about God – Scripture, Reason, Experience and Tradition.  The critical question in this system is which of the four has primacy?  When a fight between the Quadrilateral’s four components breaks out (and they do all the time), which one functions as the referee?  When reason and experience come to blows, or when tradition and Scripture start throwing punches, which one of the four steps up settles the dispute? Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christians say tradition.  Pentecostal and Charismatic Christians say experience. Mainline Protestant Christians say reason.  Evangelical and Confessional Protestant Christians say Scripture.  Because I am a Christian of this fourth variety, Scripture has always had the primacy in my thinking and talking about God.  I am not dismissive of reason, experience or tradition.  They are invited to the party too.  They all have seats at the table of my soul.  They are welcomed and valued participants in the conversation of faith, it’s just that when push comes to shove in my head and heart, the voice of Scripture, properly understood and rightly interpreted, is privileged.  Scripture has primacy in what I think and say about God, and this has a direct bearing on a story like that told by the book and film Heaven is for Real.  The way I look at things, in the final measure, our experiences must be evaluated by what the Bible says and means.  So, what does the Bible say about Near Death Experiences?

Apart from the Resurrection of Jesus Christ and its implications for our own destinies (I Corinthians 15:20-24; 35-50; I John 3:2), Luke 16:19-31, the story of “The Rich Man (‘Dives’) and Lazarus” is our best source of information Biblically about what happens to us when we die.



From this Biblical narrative, I draw some conclusions –

1.  Life continues after we die.
2.  There is a double destiny, a realm of intimacy and blessing, and a realm of separation and sorrow.
3.  These two realms are separated and our place in them gets settled by the time we die.
4.  Our identity remains intact after death, our personality is preserved.
5.  Our choices, experiences and relationships from this life get carried over with us into the next life.
6.  Our relationship with God and each other find their completion in the next life.  What starts here will get finished there.

How do these conclusions line up with accounts of the Near Death Experience in general, and the story that gets told in Heaven is for Real specifically?   Well, I think that they are pretty compatible, but that conclusion is not nearly as important as the process by which I get to that conclusion.  It’s how I work with Scripture, and from Scripture, to test what reason, experience and tradition assert, that really matters.  I believe that “Heaven is for Real,” but not because of a little boy’s Near Death Experience, dramatic as it may be, but rather because I find that it is something that is clearly and consistently taught by Scripture.

Years ago in an interview with the writer Annie Dillard in Christianity Today, she was asked how what she experienced of God in nature fit with what she knew of God from Scripture. She answered that what the Scriptures teach are like the black lines of a cartoon in a coloring book for her.  They are what establish the boundaries and determine the shape of the picture.  What nature supplies are the colors that fill in the blanks.  It provides the shading that brings depth and the hue that brings texture to the picture that unfolds between the lines.  And it seems to me that this is exactly how a story like Heaven is for Real functions within the framework of the Quadrilateral.  Scripture sets the boundaries within which reason, experience and tradition then bring their distinctive colors.  The colors bring warmth and have a real capacity to generate deep feelings, but their place is always inside the lines.  It’s “Prima Scriptura” – Scripture first.   DBS+





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