Beyond Science

How Near-Death Experiences Led Pastor to Start Church for Skeptics

BY Catherine Yang TIMEMarch 12, 2023 PRINT

Hundreds of scholarly articles have been written on the subject of near-death experiences (NDEs), including in major peer-reviewed publications like The Journal of the American Medical Association and The Lancet, describing what God has tried to reveal to mankind about heaven through Jewish prophets and Jesus, says Pastor John Burke.

Burke can rattle off a dozen commonalities between what those who’ve had NDEs say and corresponding snippets of scripture.

Burke knows this because he’s studied the Bible in detail, paying particular attention to details describing heaven. He has also interviewed more than 1,000 people who were clinically dead and came back with an experience to recount.

But when Burke began this research, he was a skeptic.

He was not religious, and wasn’t sure about God. He was “agnostic, skeptical.” But when his father was diagnosed with cancer, a friend gave them a book about near-death experience research, one of the first published, and Burke read it himself in one night.

“I said, oh my gosh, this might be evidence this afterlife, God stuff is real,” Burke said. There were multiple cases of people pronounced clinically dead without heartbeats or brain waves, who came back to life and spoke of astounding—and astoundingly similar—experiences. Some spoke of seeing God, some described Jesus. And Burke learned, through a national 1980s Gallup poll, that nearly 1 in 25 Americans had had a near-death experience.

“That kind of opened me up, and I began a journey of exploration,” said Burke in an interview with NTD Television for the show “Mysteries of Life.”

After he read that first book, Burke kept running into people who’d had NDEs, and eventually left his career in engineering to go into ministry. But it wasn’t overnight.

It took him about three decades to write what would become a New York Times bestseller, “Imagine Heaven,” piecing together Biblical parallels to commonalities shared across NDEs through dozens of stories. It took so long because Burke by nature is skeptical—even having heard as many NDE stories as he has, he is skeptical of each one as he conducts interviews.

“And many years later, we started Gateway Church for skeptics like me,” he said. “Doubters welcome.”

Looking for Proof

Burke has not had a near-death experience himself.

“Cardiologists, doctors, have over the years seen the same thing,” Burke said. “Many have studied it, like I did, and have become convinced that this is evidence our consciousness survives our mortality.”

What convinced Burke was the “out-of-body” type of recounts that NDErs tell.

In these types of experiences, these people can see themselves being worked on in the hospital, and recall with uncanny clarity and accuracy things that happened while they were brain dead, with no consciousness. Oftentimes, these recounts even include details that were out of the line of sight and field of hearing of the patient, even if they had been conscious.

These accounts are so accurate, Burke said, that they are also what have convinced many skeptical doctors.

“I interviewed Dr. Michael Sabom: when he first heard about this, and he actually set out to disprove it,” Burke said.

Sabom, a cardiologist, started interviewing his own patients because he hadn’t ever heard anyone talk of an NDE. “As he did, he started to see more and more say ‘yes, here was my experience.'”

“And what convinced him was how they could describe the resuscitation techniques he did, and he said ‘if I taped it, I could teach other physicians how to do resuscitation, it was that accurate.'”

In another case, from Holland, a man who had his heart shocked into beating again, could a week later tell the staff where they had misplaced his dentures because he saw the emergency room nurse place them into the lower drawer of a crash cart with “all the bottles on it.”

Pam Reynolds, an American singer-songwriter who had deep brain surgery with her body lowered to 50 degrees Fahrenheit, 100-decibel clickers in her ears, and her eyes taped shut, was able to describe what doctors were saying during the surgery, the song they played, the saw what looked like “an electric toothbrush,” and other uncanny details.

“There’s no way she could have been picking up, from her physical body, normal pathways, all of those details,” Burke said. “The most clear explanation is what every NDE person says, which is: you live on after this life. And it’s a life that’s more real even than this one.”

Besides being able to see their own near-death bodies being worked on, NDErs often describe being in a realm of otherworldly beauty and splendor. In this state, they describe their sensory perception to be so vast and beyond human senses that they feel like perception itself. Communication isn’t verbal, but immediate without room for misunderstanding. There is no ill will, only an all-encompassing and unconditional love. Time functions differently, where past, present, and future are simultaneous. Many describe a “welcoming committee” of the souls of loved ones. They sometimes witness a “higher power,” and a “life review” where the events of their entire life are re-lived in their entirety, but also in an instant, where they experienced not just their own thoughts and feelings, but also those with whom they interacted.

And they always add that they can’t fully or accurately describe the experience with mere words, giving metaphors like explaining colors to a blind man.

Burke says that throughout the Bible, there are descriptions of heaven and the afterlife. They’re dispersed throughout, and readers rarely try to piece them together to imagine heaven. But if they did, it would look a lot like what these NDErs are describing, he says.

Paul the Apostle’s Near-Death Experience

Burke concluded that Paul the Apostle had a near-death experience.

“In Acts Chapter 14 it says that he was stoned to death in the city of Lystra, and they dragged him out of the city and left him for dead. And then he resuscitates, and gets back up. Well that’s not very easy to get back up from being stoned to death, right?”

“But Paul, later, in 2 Corinthians 12 says, 14 years ago, whether I was in my body our out of my body I don’t know, but I was taken up to heaven, and I saw and heard things that are indescribable, some that no one is allowed to tell,” Burke said. “And Paul then goes to this spiritual body, that our bodies are buried physical, but they’re raised spiritual bodies, they’re buried in weakness, but they’re raised in power. And it’s fascinating because this is what near-death experiencers commonly say. Like, they didn’t just have five senses in this new spiritual body is more like 50 senses and blended senses.”

Burke has heard them describe what felt like “telescopic and microscopic vision at the same time, like ‘I could see miles away, but I could see … miles away the veins on the leaf of every tree.'”

“And, interesting, in the Book of Revelation, John, who’s one of Jesus’s disciples, also says he was taken up and to heaven, and saw the same city of God that many NDErs that I’ve interviewed claim to see. And he says he was taken up to this very high mountain, and he’s looking down at the city from a very high mountain, and he reads the names that are on the gates. How in the world could he read, from up on very high mountain, names on a gate? Well unless, like NDErs tell us, there is this expanded dimension to our senses, even this telescopic vision.”

“Another one of Jesus’s disciples, Peter, says in 2 Peter 3:8, to the Lord a day is like 1,000 years, and 1,000 years a day. Well the NDErs say almost the same thing,” he said. “We experience time linearly, but two dimensions of time would give every moment all the time in the world, and that’s kind of what they talk about.”

“Another commonality that NDErs say is that in heaven, the light is the light of God,” Burke said. “They’re experiencing this beauty, but they say things like colors, like far beyond our color spectrum, like colors you’ve never imagined, which would make complete sense because our color spectrum on Earth is the breakdown of the spectrum of the light of the sun. … and so the light of God is going to be far beyond the color spectrum of the light of the sun. And that’s another fascinating thing and something that really validated it for me.”

“In the Jewish scriptures … it says there is no sun or moon in heaven, because the glory of God is its light. And it says in Revelation 21, the nations will walk in that light. Well, now think about this, you have blind people who experience [the same],” he said. One woman he interviewed said “light was coming out of that grass out of the trees out of the flowers out of the birds and out of the people who were coming toward her.”

“I’ve interviewed multiple blind people who said light comes out of everything. But where would a blind person ever hear that on earth?” Burke said. NDErs who aren’t blind say the same things.

“In 12 Daniel an angel says to Daniel that the righteous will rise to eternal life, and they’ll shine like the stars forever. Jesus said the same thing in Matthew 13, he said, that the righteous will shine like the stars forever in the Father’s Kingdom,” Burke said.

“These things that are commonly experienced in these near-death experiences around the globe are exactly what we would expect if you really studied it, which I have, in the Bible.”

Hell and Free Will

“There are heavenly experiences. There are also hellish experiences,” Burke said. He said he interviewed an atheist college professor who, in his NDE, experienced hell.

“And then he actually cried out to Jesus, who rescued him from that,” he said. “A tenured atheist college professor comes back from his near-death experience and leaves his tenured profession two years later and becomes a Christian pastor—like Paul on the Damascus road who saw the brilliant God of light.”

“Two other Christian pastors I know also had hellish experiences,” Burke said. One had had a cocaine overdose and felt himself dropping through darkness, sober and startlingly aware that there was no hope.

“He said, ‘I’m a good person, I shouldn’t be going there.’ He knew where he was going. The more excuses he made, he felt like the more he was accelerating. Finally he cried out to God, he said, ‘God, forgive me. Save me.’ And that’s literally all he said. And he said, he felt the presence of God right there, this unconditional love like he couldn’t imagine.”

And then he felt God say, “Paul, what have you done with the life I gave you?”

Paul then experienced a “life review.” Burke points out it’s interesting that these reviews are all “neutral.” The NDErs describe no judgment from other souls or a higher power, but they are judging themselves as they experience the review.

There are many stories of people having such experiences and returning from death a changed person—a better person. Some of these experiences turn atheists into believers, materialists into those who live by the golden rule.

But not always.

One of the things studying NDEs made clear to Burke is how God gives us free will, he said. These people experience something beyond the human experience, but they all make their own choices as to how they live out the remainder of their lives.

A spinal surgeon Burke interviewed described how she saw Jesus show her her life review, but it wasn’t just what she had lived through.

“She said He showed me how those things had a ripple effect through humanity, that instance after instance, God could make something good of it in every life that turned to Him,” Burke said.

The majority of these experiencers realize, if they have a life review, that “love is what matters most to God, how we treat one another is what matters most,” Burke said. “He doesn’t care about all our accolades and trying to be great in humanity’s eyes, He cares about how we treat one another because that has a significant ripple effect throughout humanity, and many times He shows them that.”

Many NDErs who had gone through tremendous suffering in life also report that they saw the purpose of that suffering in these reviews. A schoolteacher Burke interviewed had always thought that if she ever saw God, she would ask how He could have allowed such terrible things to happen to her.

“Well she did, she died for nine minutes,” Burke said. She saw and felt, from God’s perspective, herself at age 3, and “was just overwhelmed to the point where she thought she was going to burst with joy.”

“Just because an evil world by our free will does things against God’s will doesn’t change how God feels about us,” Burke said. “And many others have seen that even though things happen in this world against God’s will, that God does still take it, and as we follow Him, use it for good in our lives. It’s a powerful reorientation of what we have to go through and how it can all count, and how it all matters in the end.”

The spinal surgeon who felt such revelation at her experience then asked Jesus, “why don’t you just do this for everybody, and then everybody would believe?”

“And he quoted himself, which I find hilarious; he quoted what he said to Thomas, that blessed are you because you have seen, but even more blessed are those who have not seen and yet believed,” Burke said.

After resuscitation, Paul said “I’m going to find the God who just saved me,” and went on to found one of the largest Hispanic churches in Austin. Burke has heard of others who are less concerned with finding God, and more interested in recreating their mystical experience through various substances.

“That’s the crazy thing, that really confused me for many years,” he said. “And what helped me realize it is that when Jesus was here, people saw him do what they claim to be miraculous things, right? He healed people, he fed people, he raised people from the dead. And some people said he’s the foretold Messiah of God, and other people saw the same thing and said he’s demon-possessed, he’s doing this by the power of evil. Our free will doesn’t change just because we have a near-death experience.”

“God doesn’t dominate, force, or control anyone. He has a sovereign will, and He knows what He’s doing, and His plan will be accomplished. But He gives us free will, and He respects it,” Burke said. “That’s why faith matters.”

‘God of Light’

The people Burke has interviewed span the globe, with various religious backgrounds.

He’s working on a second book now, and he writes about how “people who grew up Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, every background, interestingly they are experiencing the same God of light, and love.”

God, as the supreme creator, would obviously pre-date religion, Burke points out.

“Many people don’t realize this, but way before most all of the world’s religions were canonized in scripture, God claims He’s been reaching out to humanity, this same God of light and love,” Burke. “What I’m showing is that the same God who created us all loves us all, and what He did through Jesus was to make a way that anybody anywhere, by a simple yes to God, can turn their hearts back to Him.”

“What God has been doing, He’s been doing for all nations of all time,” he said.

With reporting by NTD News.

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