“I have always believed Christian theology that declares heaven is real and a place of God’s people. Since my own experience of having been there, I’ve felt a stronger sense of responsibility to make the way absolutely clear…I don’t want to see others die without Jesus Christ.”
In this quote from chapter twelve in 90 Minutes in Heaven, Piper tells us that he has “always believed” that heaven is “a place of God’s people,” and that after having been there he does not want others to die without Jesus Christ. Later on in the same chapter we are also told what it means to die without Jesus as his friend Dick says that many people are “lost and going to hell,” to which Piper answers: “You’re absolutely right.”
While the book written with Cecil Murphey is a bit more subtle and diplomatic about this Christian fundamentalist view, Piper’s website is more to the point. At Donpiperministries.com we are told about his Ministry that Piper’s message is simple: We can all have “eternal life someday through faith in Jesus Christ!”
This is also where under the section on “How to go to heaven” we find the standard Christian fundamentalist line from the Bible: “Don Piper Ministries is a Christian ministry that believes the only way to go to heaven is to trust Jesus Christ as your savior. Jesus said in John 14:6, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Farther except through me.’”
One could assume that maybe Piper’s Ministry was clearly separated from the book, but this is not so as his ministry is using his NDE testimony to preach as it is: “dedicated to spreading the Gospel through one-day rallies, conferences, and revivals via Don’s remarkable testimony delivered in print and in person.” Also there is a direct link from the official website of the book to the “How to get to Heaven” section on the donpiperministries.com website.
In the last chapter of the book Piper tells us that, “I have looked at the research on NDE and thought about it often during the years.” This may be so, however, it is clear that he has not looked deep enough or thought hard enough as there is absolutely no objective evidence within research of NDEs to support religious fundamentalism.
A quick look on the internet at the International Association for Near Death Studies’ website tells us that,
As with the pleasurable NDE, distressing NDEs seem to occur about equally to people of both genders and of all ages, educational levels, socioeconomic levels, sexual orientations, spiritual beliefs, religious affiliations, and life experiences.
Here the group of pleasurable NDEs contains heaven-like experiences like Piper’s NDE and distressing NDEs contain so-called hell-like or hellish experiences, which in religious terms would mean the people going to hell. But as we here find in NDE research, there is no mention of Jesus as the only way since experiences of both heaven and hell happen equally to people of all walks of life and religious beliefs.
In my own research, I found that 92 percent of the people in my study who had an NDE disagreed with the statement: “Eternal life is only possible through a particular religion.” Nearly eight in ten said that they strongly disagreed with this statement based on their NDE. Also 92 percent said that, “No one has a patent on Salvation or Heaven,” and to the statement: “You need to believe in a particular religion to go to Heaven,” I found that 100 percent said that they “strongly disagreed.”
The conclusion of the International Association for Near Death Studies, which is based on over 30 years of research and many thousands of NDEs, together with my own findings clearly suggest that Piper’s claim that you need to believe in Jesus to go to heaven is wrong. In fact, weather you believe in a particular religion or no religion at all does not seem to be the determining factor as also atheists have heaven-like NDEs.
Here is one account from Chris S., who was an atheist before his NDE and he explains that,
Keeping in mind that I was an atheist going into this event, I found it fascinating, based on Christianity which claims only believers will be saved, that there was absolutely zero negative comments made to me by the voice describing my importance to others in my life, and no sense of negative judgment based on my earlier belief. In fact, the warmth and joy sensed while just starting to go to the light was so intense that it was with some hesitation that I decided to attempt to snap out of my altered state to become lucid and try to free myself to surface and continue my physical life.
As we find in NDE research that even atheists have heaven-like experiences and are allowed to experience heaven, we also find that many people experience heaven and God as something spiritually neutral. While some people do meet a specific religious figure, more common is it for people to meet a spiritual authority that is neutral.
Jayne tells us that, “I did not think to myself; this must be Jesus…or Peter, or anybody. I just simply recognized that he was a spiritual authority and I could trust this person.” Even though some people personify this spiritual authority, it is even more common that this spiritual authority is expressed neutrally as a “being of light,” or simply a “being.”
In his book The Truth in the Light, which reveals the research of over 300 near death experiences, Dr. Peter Fenwick explains that,
Although the ‘being of light’ always has a spiritual significance, it is only seldom that people describe seeing a particular religious figure such as Christ. Even those people whose Christian faith is strong don’t always see Christ. Much more often there is a feeling of ‘coming before one’s maker’: the being is felt as ‘God’ in a very broad sense.
To understand what “God in a very broad sense” means, Fenwick explains that the most common experience of the “being of light” is to be understood in a manner that is spiritually neutral. He says: “Perhaps ‘neutrally spiritual’ is the nearest one can get to the feeling the being evokes.”
In my own study, I found that this spiritually neutral experience of coming before one’s maker was indeed experienced in a very broad sense and much broader than a conventional understanding of God. I found that 93 percent would say that God is “non-physical” and experienced as a “form of energy.”
Also, as I revealed in the first chapter, when I tried to put a name on this form of energy by providing alternative answers to what God is, I found that 73 percent would say “the Light,” 66 percent “the Light of God,” 60 percent “the essence of existence,” and 53 percent said: “pure being.”
Not only is the experience of God in the NDE to be understood in a broader sense, but also heaven is to be understood in a very broad sense as a non-physical place. To the statement: “Heaven is a physical place,” I found that 69 percent said that they disagreed and instead 79 percent said that, “Heaven is an unearthly dimension of energy.”
Fenwick tells us about the core of heaven that,
Although many of these visions of Paradise include strong well-formed, visual images, sometimes the imagery is much less pictorial, at times almost losing its form completely. And yet it still remains intensely emotional, and still gives this very strong impression of heightened awareness.
Piper describes in the second chapter of his book that this intensely emotional state is experienced as perfect love and that “human words can’t express the feelings of awe.” Identical to this experience of Piper most people who have NDEs experience an intensely emotional state of love, peace and joy.
While this feeling state together with a strong sense of heightened awareness is regarded as the core or heart of heaven, Fenwick makes an important point about NDE research: visions of paradise are not considered the core of heaven. In fact, while the emotional state is universal, experienced by 88 percent of people in his study, the music heard or the visual images seen in heaven are not.
NDE research concludes that each individual will try to make sense of the experience by integrating their pre-existing belief system into their experience. Because the NDE is a very powerful experience that takes the understanding of most people far beyond their comprehension, many people will use their pre-existing belief system to try to make sense of it.
This we can even learn if we try to listen closely to the testimonies that contain meetings with Jesus. It is extremely rare that we hear of NDEs where it is Jesus himself that tells people: “I am Jesus.”
Instead we find that it is very often people themselves who make, or jump to, that conclusion: “Then a divine presence, which I knew was Jesus, put his hands on my shoulder.” In this testimony we have a meeting with someone “I knew was Jesus” and it is not Jesus who says: I am Jesus.
Another person relates that, “At the top of the mountain was this bearded man that could only be Jesus.” Here we have the anticipation that it “could only be Jesus,” and in another account we can see that the person makes this conclusion based on going to church: “It was like the Lord talking to me, and I knew it was the Lord because I’ve been in church all my life.”
This is very likely the same conclusion that Piper is making based on his Christian background. In the third chapter of the book he actually tells us that, “I did not see God. Although I knew God was there, I never saw any kind of image or luminous glow to indicate his divine presence…I only saw a bright iridescence.”
Piper here clearly tells us that he “did not see God” and that he “only saw a bright iridescence.” This is standard in NDE research as people most commonly see what they call “the Light.” Based on this bright light Piper concludes that God was there, like most people do and 80 percent in my study did as well.
However, while this connection between the Light and God is generally accepted within NDE research, Piper’s conclusion that this light is an exclusive God of the Bible is not accepted. And this is where he goes too far in his conclusion and takes the NDE on a personal crusade.
One understandable reason he does this could be the fact that he meets many fellow Christians in heaven. He tells us in chapter two that, “I didn’t see Jesus, but I did see people I had known,” and this is probably where Piper makes his false conclusion.
He explains about the people he met in heaven that,
They were to see me and welcome me to heaven and to the fellowship they enjoyed…I realized that they all had contributed to my becoming a Christian or had encouraged me in my growth as a believer…because of their influence I was able to be present with them in heaven.
It is common in the NDE for people to meet loved ones or people who have been of great significance to their lives. Based on this fact from NDE research, it would therefore be reasonable to conclude that due to Piper’s Christian background most of the significant people in his life would also be from a Christian background.
This, however, does not mean that because Piper met people who were Christians in heaven that only Christians go to heaven. As we have seen there is no “fellowship” or special “influence” that is the only guarantee of entry into heaven as it is spiritually neutral.
While the research of NDEs concludes that God is spiritually neutral and heaven is inclusive, Piper’s background is less neutral and inclusive. He has been a Christian most of his life and a minister starting out as a youth minister and then education minister, senior adult minister, Baptist Student Ministry director, long-time single adult pastor and senior pastor. And he has been in full-time Christian ministry since 1984 – five years before his NDE and experience of heaven.
This, I would suggest, is where the reason for Piper’s misrepresentation of NDE research is to be found: it is colored by his Christian fundamentalist background.