John Burke: And this is the thing that’s just… it’s hard to imagine, but it’s important to imagine. What people say in God’s presence is that every relationship we have on earth is just a metaphor of this relationship we were meant to have with the one who created us.
John Fuller: That makes perfect sense.
John: Even, I mean not only child to parent, friend to friend, best friend, who knows you and gets you and s- does things with you, but also spouse to spouse.
John: Well, that’s John Burke. And he’s our guest today on Focus on the Family. Your host is Focus president and author, Jim Daly. And I’m John Fuller,
Jim Daly: John, I don’t know about you, but the thought of Heaven excites me. (laughs)
John: It does me, yes. Yeah. Oh!
Jim: I… You know, it’s, it’s how we should be as believers. I mean, I’m, I’m looking forward to it. And I love the promise in the New Testament. E- Right there in the book of Revelation chapter 21 verse 4, “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes and death shall be no more. Neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.”
Jim: That’s something to look forward to. Uh, e- I think it’s even difficult to perceive that because this life is so full of burden and tears and disappointment, but we’re looking forward to when that will not be the case.
Jim: And uh, John Burke is here with us, and he’s gonna share some amazing stories uh, that will highlight an understanding of God that I think will challenge conventional wisdom, Christian wisdom particularly, and maybe stretch our ability to understand the character of God.
John: Mm-hmm. Yeah. God’s love is so big and deep and wide. John Burke is a popular speaker and author. Uh, he founded Gateway Church in Austin, Texas, and he was lead pastor there until uh, just this past May. He’s married to Kathy. They have an adult son and daughter and two granddaughters. We’ve already heard about the grandkids. (laughing)
Jim: Let’s see the photos.
Jim: (laughs) I love it.
John: And uh, today, we’re gonna be talking about John’s book, Imagine the God of Heaven: Near-Death Experiences, God’s Revelation, and the Love You’ve Always Wanted. And uh, we’ve got details about John and this book at focusonthefamily.com/broadcast.
Jim: John, welcome back.
John: Well, great to be back.
Jim: (laughs) So you’ve got two granddaughters.
Jim: That’s great. Let’s start there-
John: I know.
Jim: … to do little bragging, grandpa bragging.
Jim: Is it fun?
John: You know, it’s the best. In fact, I, uh, I was on the way to the airport. I went 20 minutes out of my way ’cause-
John: … I had 30 minutes, and I went to hang out with my little granddaughters.
Jim: Give them a hug.
Jim: Oh man.
John: It’s the best.
Jim: I think you are smitten.
John: I am.
Jim: (laughs) That’s a good thing. Um, your book, Imagine Heaven, was a bestseller. We covered that, you and I. That just ignited in many ways a, a sense of what heaven could be like for so many readers that got a hold of that book. It ended up being a bestseller, I think a New York Times bestseller.
Jim: That’s an achievement. And uh, especially, you know, in a world that uh, maybe isn’t so open to spiritual things or certainly Christian things the way they once were. E- how do you explain that interest in people? What’s going on there? And, of course, you’re covering near-death experiences in that book.
John: What… Well, what I find fascinating is that people who would not necessarily be open to talking about God or heaven are fascinated with near-death experiences.
Jim: And I think uh, again, for those that didn’t listen to that, go back in the archive and-
Jim: … listen to those broadcasts because uh, a- again, there’s a handful that really captured me. And maybe, it’s my enthusiasm, (laughs) but-
Jim: … it was, it was profound. It was different. Uh, and even in that regard, I mean you came at this as an agnostic and engineer, and I-
Jim: … I love that mind. I mean, gene is chemistry and so-
Jim: … you guys are very black and white. You wanna see the facts. You wanna have everything kind of in a column, and I appreciated that approach. Describe that journey for yourself. And then out of it, I mean, you became a Christian.
John: Yeah. I mean, I was. I was a skeptical agnostic, and my dad was dying of cancer. Someone gave him the very first research that coined the term near-death experience. It’s when someone clinically dies, their heart stops beating, their brainwaves cease. And yet, they’re resuscitated and, and sometimes minutes, sometimes hours later-
John: … which is-
John: … miraculous honestly, you know.
Jim: Yeah, that’s miraculous in itself.
John: And um, when they come back, they talk about this reality of a life to come more real than this life and the wonders, the beauty, uh, the reunions, this God of light and love. Some knew he was Jesus. Some, he looked like Jesus. And what I’m really focusing on is, is not just their experience of Heaven, but the God of Heaven.
Jim: Well, and those are the attributes you really get into, and that’s fantastic. So it’s not the experience of what they had, and that’s really important and interesting, but you covered many of those stories in Imagine Heaven. Imagine the God of Heaven really talks about God.
John: Exactly. And, and I think it is proof of God’s existence. I think God is giving these testimonies all over the globe right now as a witness to our global… our globally connected world that he is real, that he is the God of all nations.
Jim: That’s well said. Let’s talk about the idea, and you’ve dealt with this. E- Sometimes in the Christian community, particularly, we can be very careful, rightly so, about, you know, these areas, these edgy areas of experience. And some people might even think, “Well, this sounds a little new agey.” And you and I talked before uh, that in some ways the Christian community handed these experiences over to other philosophies, new age, et cetera.
Jim: But you, you can find them in Scripture. E- describe that uh, if you were talking to somebody with that attitude. You know, John, this is all good. It’s a great experience, but it’s a really new agey to me.
John: Well, I do not advocate that people go form their view of heaven or their view of hell or their view of God just from reading near-death experiences.
John: I don’t. And that’s not… What I’m trying to do is I’m trying to show… And, and by the way, the reason for that is that every one of these is uh, look at it like a testimony. If I went back to Jesus’ day and went around Jerusalem and interviewed witnesses-
John: … right, of Jesus raising the dead, doing miracles, I would hear some say, he’s of God, he’s the Messiah. How else do you explain this? And others who saw and experienced the same thing saying, “He’s demonic. He’s a sorcerer. He’s dangerous.
John: So an experience, though real, does not take away free will. And that’s a very, very important thing, that just because these people experience heaven or experience the God of the Bible, and that’s who they’re describing. And that’s what I’m showing in Imagine the God of Heaven, is that d- this is none other. And it doesn’t matter what their previous culture or even religious background.
Jim: This is all over the globe.
John: All over the globe.
Jim: Hindus, uh, Muslims-
John: Buddhist, Muslims.
John: So yeah. And um, I mean, some of the stories just blew me away.
Jim: Let’s get into Santosh. I’ve got one here.
John: Well, that’s one, one I was about to tell you-
Jim: (laughs) Well good. Let’s hit it.
John: … ’cause he’s, he’s such a dear man. He’s become-
John: … a great friend now. So Santosh was a manufacturing engineer. He grew up in India. His father was a Sanskrit scholar. H- Hinduism was all he knew. Um, he had gallstones that erupted into his pancreas. He hears code blue, code blue. His heart had crashed. And he’s suddenly up above his body. One of the commonalities like we talked about, you know-
John: … um, that also Paul talks about that when we leave this body, we have a spiritual body. And they say this. And, and that spiritual body can go different places, but we have a spiritual body and he experiences this. Um, he realizes he’s dead. This brilliant light comes to him and he describes… and this is ha- commonly how they describe, “Brighter than the sun, but mesmerizing to look at,” not hard to look at.
John: And he said, “I instantly knew this was a divine light. This was God, and this was an authority that I had to obey.” There wasn’t question, but he said, “But I, I fell in love with this divine light.”
John: He sensed this God of light is for me. So then, he follows. And they travel, and he said they traveled through and he described it as tunnels. Um, that’s also-
John: … a commonality many times, but they come to this place. This is what just… Santosh said, “I’m… This light parks over this giant, enormous, beautiful compound with very high, beautiful walls and inside lush, gorgeous grounds and, and mansions and these buildings of otherworldly material.” And he said, “It was enormous, thousands of miles, and it was a square, and there were 12 gates.” He said, “I counted them. And all these gates were gorgeous, but they were closed to me. And then, on the outside, I noticed angels guarding the gates. And suddenly, I knew I’m looking at the kingdom of heaven.”
John: Now, he is describing the new Jerusalem in Revelation 21. He doesn’t know it.
John: (laughs) He had never read the Bible.
Jim: But he’s seeing it.
John: But he’s seeing it. And, and there’s a lot more to it. I- You know, but he sees, he sees a vision of hell, and he describes it. And it is an a- abyss of darkness and a lake of fire. This is a Hindu guy. And that’s how he’s describing it.
John: And I have others from around the world describing these same things, even though they wouldn’t have known the Bible. Then, he looks to his right. And there, he sees what he says is, “The almighty on his throne.”
John: And he said, “I looked up.” And he said, “I…” He later believes it was Jesus in his glorified state. And he looks up and he sees eyes and like… He said, it was like lightning coming out of the eyes. Well, Daniel described that too-
Jim: That’s true. Yeah.
John: … when he sees God. So did John in Revelation 1, right? And so, this is Jesus in his glorified state. And he instantly knows this is the almighty. He drops to his knees and he said, “Forgive me, Lord. Forgive me, Lord. Forgive me, Lord.”
John: And he thought, “This is my last day. There’s no hope.” And then, he hears the Lord, and he said, “I was shocked because I heard tenderness and mercy and compassion and love in his voice.” And he said, “I’m gonna send you back. And when I send you back, I want you to love your family, especially your daughter. She needs you right now.”
John: Now, think about that.
John: Here’s a guy who doesn’t know the Lord, but the Lord knows-
John: … even if we don’t know him, he wants to guide us. But we have to turn to him.
Jim: But John, let me interject this because e- when I was reading your first book, I had this discussion I felt with the Lord on this ’cause I was like, “Wow, Lord, that’s very generous that this Muslim Hindu fill in the blank-
Jim: … person would pass out of this body into some other state and have this experience with you. And then, he comes back and begins to follow you. That’s only probably gonna happen to a handful of people of these other faiths. Is that fair? I mean, I actually said that. It’s embarrassing.
John: Mm-hmm. Yeah.
Jim: What I heard back in my heart was, “Oh, do you set the boundaries of my grace?”
John: Yeah. (laughs)
Jim: I was like, Lord, “I don’t understand it at all.”
John: Yeah. You mean they’re gonna get paid the same amount I am and I worked all day-
Jim: But he, he-
John: … and they only worked one hour? (laughs)
Jim: Yeah. He… The impression I had-
John: It’s the parable of Jesus.
Jim: … is he loves everyone. He created everyone.
John: Look, you don’t understand this-
Jim: I didn’t, I didn’t get that.
John: … as followers of Jesus. There are so many parables Jesus tried to give of this.
John: The unfair workers, right?
Jim: The brothers.
John: Yeah. If I wanna be gracious, the, the older brother and the younger brother. And re- we’ve got to remember all the way back, the Bible, and this is what I’m trying to do in Imagine the God of Heaven is show this is a comprehensive book about God, about his love story. You know, the Bible is a love story. It starts with a relationship, relationship broken, God making a way to restore relationship, and the whole thing ends in revelation with a wedding.
Jim: Yeah. (laughs)
John: If you miss that, you miss so much of why God does the things he does the way he does.
Jim: It’s the context.
John: It’s the context.
John: You miss the context, you’re left asking a lot of like, “Well, that’s not fair, and why do you do that?”
John: Why don’t you… And we deal with all that. But also, we’re, we’re showing in this book that the heart of God, the character, the attributes of God, and how God is ultimately the love you have always wanted.
John: And this is… So this is what Santosh… S- This is crazy. So Santosh then asked… He sees to the right of this throne a what he calls a narrow gate or a narrow door that was open to him. He knew it was open to him.
John: And when the Lord was so tender and compassionate to him, he said, “Lord, when I come back, I wanna go through that narrow door. I wanna go into your kingdom.” And he said, “What must I do?” And he’s thinking, “What religion must I join-
John: … and go to every week?” And here’s what the Lord said, “I want honest relationship. I wanna see how honest you are with me. Not, not s- one day a week. 365 days a year every day, walk with me.
John: Surrender daily to me. The wages of sin is death. So stop and walk, walk with me.” Well, he didn’t know what that meant.
John: And then, he’s back. Here’s the crazy part. He starts seeking God with all his heart. He’s like-
Jim: That was motivating.
John: … “Who is this God?” This is not like the Hindu gods. Why did he have compassion on me? I knew I deserved that abyss, but he was so tender and compassionate. Well, two years later, his daughter is invited to sing in a choir for an Easter service at a church. Santosh and his wife go. When he walks in, he feels the love of that divine presence. And the message is on the narrow gate-
Jim: Oh my. (laughs)
John: … and the broad highway and how Jesus is the gate through which we enter the kingdom of heaven.
John: He goes back, starts reading the Bible, and he says, “This is everything I experienced.”
John: Well, our guest today on Focus on the Family is John Burke. And the book he referred to is uh, a new one by John called Imagine the God of Heaven. And we’ve got details at our website. Get a copy and be encouraged. Uh, that site is focusonthefamily.com/broadcast or call 800, the letter A and the word FAMILY.
Jim: John, let’s uh, go into some of these attributes of God. There’s more stories we’re gonna… If you can stick around, we’ll go another day and talk more about these experiences and what people are encountering. But two uh, attributes that you’ve talked about um, a- and that is common in these experiences, let’s hit those. I think one is the God of light and what’s the other?
John: Well, I mean, God is light, and God is love.
Jim: (laughs) That’s a big one.
John: And those two, um, interestingly, what people commonly say all around the world. And, and this is one of the evidentiary parts of this is that it doesn’t matter if it was a Muslim, a mom in Rwanda. Uh, I’ve got um, a Muslim in Tehran, a woman related to the Prophet Muhammad, but they experienced this God of light. Sometimes, he looks more like Jesus, but brilliant light coming out of him-
John: … and love that is our word love doesn’t do justice.
John: And uh, and so, here’s the thing. Like um, this one guy, Dr. Ron Smothermon, he’s a neurologist and a psychiatrist. And he actually… He had a um, a guy staying in his house while he was traveling. He was traveling the world doing speaking, comes back. The guy had had a psychotic break and attacks him. And suddenly Ron said, “Time stopped.” And, yes. (laughs) Aman… Uh, uh, I mean, Amin, who is this guy has a knife aimed at his heart and is like frozen there as Dr. Smothermon sees this, what he called, he said, “Imagine being five feet away from the point of a nuclear explosion.”
John: He said, “The power of this light was roiling,” you know, like a nuclear explosion. But he said, “What was roiling even more was the love.”
John: And he said, instantly, these nine qualities of God were like imprinted upon him.
John: One was infinite love. And he, he describes it like this. He said, “Imagine our love is like you’re in the ocean, and these gentle waves are lapping against your knees. You know, that’s our love. That’s human love.” He said, “And then a tsunami comes.” That’s God’s love.
John: He said, “I- in a good way, it just blows you away.” But what it blows away, he said, “Is death and all fear and all worry,” and leaves you with… He, he said, “One of the qualities was this joy of God” that he said, “It put me into ecstasy-”
John: … which, you know, that’s part of what I think when people read, Imagine the God of Heaven. It’s going to blow their categories.
John: And we need to.
John: We all put God in a box, you know. Some of us, we don’t see how pure and holy and sovereign and righteous and just and, you know, enormous (laughs) God is. On the other hand, some of us don’t realize how relatable and-
Jim: Loving. (laughs)
John: … love… And… Well, not just loving, fun-
John: … and funny.
John: That… See, now that… For some people are like, “Huh? What? That’s not right.”
Jim: I’m gonna enjoy that. (laughs)
John: Well… And I’ve got… I mean, I’ve got some stories that prove it, but also scripture that proves it, that we’ve just overlooked because-
John: … what happens is we, we take some scriptures and some things we’ve heard from pastors or preachers or others. And we make our box.
John: We have to. We’re finite. But I believe that Imagine the God of Heaven is going to expand your box both ways.
John: And that’s l- So Ron… You know, like Ron talks about um, the humor of God that was one of the characteristics that just caught him off guard mixed with the purity. He called it purity. I think he was describing the holiness of God.
Jim: Holiness. Yeah.
John: He said, “He’s so pure. He’s so innocent.”
John: And then, the last thing he said to me, and I didn’t go through all the qualities, he said, “The power, you know, was like a nuclear explosion.” Like this is power that y- if you didn’t feel his love, you would just fear and tremble.
John: He said, “But i- it, it elicits surrender,” he said.
John: But then he said, “But you know what? Of all these qualities, he was humble.”
John: When… And when you read the overlapping stories like this of people experiencing God, it just… it blows your categories.
John: Uh, 1 John 4:8 tells us God is love. We’ve talked about that. It’s one of the things that is so inspirational about the Christian faith. I mean, he’s a God of justness. I get that, the commandments. I get that. But overall, he loves us. And so often, we forget that.
Uh, you have a story of Mary from London who experienced God’s love in that unique way. Tell us that story.
John: Yeah. Mary was, um… She was actually dying in childbirth or uh, in a complication with pregnancy. Um, and she had a lot of shame. She grew up Catholic. But she, she went away from the church and wasn’t sure about God. She got involved in an affair, got pregnant. You know, it’s just… It was a mess. Um, and then, she dies. And she’s up above, and she’s watching the resuscitation. So she then takes off, and she goes to this beautiful place and in the presence of this God of light. And she said, “Even though I had, I had turned from Catholicism, I knew this was God.” And in his presence, she experiences a, a love that is just unconditional, way beyond what a parent has for a child even, or a granddad for-
John: … his little granddaughters. And he tells her, “Your son is going to live, and you need to go back, and you need to raise him.” And she goes back. But as she’s coming back, so this is gonna sound bizarre, but she passes through the top side of the ceiling fan as she’s coming back to her body and she notices a red sticker on the top side of the ceiling fan. And when she comes to, she can not only describe who’s in the room and what they were doing during her resuscitation, she finally… No one would believe her.
John: That’s why a lot of these people just stay silent. That’s the first reaction they get.
John: She convinced a nurse and an orderly to get a ladder and go look on the top side of the ceiling fan, side you can’t see. And she described what was written on the red sticker and sure enough, there it was.
John: Right. Had her lots of those. Yeah. Lots of those. And man, Jim, I’ll tell you one of the most profound things that I wrote right about in Imagine the God of Heaven is several people I interviewed said, “In God’s presence…” So Erica was one of them. She’s experiencing this love beyond measure. And then, God is giving her these lessons and like lessons about our uniqueness, how he created each one of us unique. He gave us gifts. We’re not to compare to each other because we are to make a, a unique ripple effect through humanity. And our thoughts and our words and our deeds are what make that ripple effect.
John: And it all works with God’s plan. But then he s- Then, she said, “That feeling shifted, and I feel this enormous sadness.” She said, “I didn’t know where it was coming from at first.” She said, “Imagine a sadness like you had just lost all your children.” And she said, “It was like that,” e- but even more. And then, she realized this sadness is coming from God. And she said, “God, why are you so sad?” And he said, “Look, he was giving her these lessons.”
John: And she sees the planet. She sees earth. And suddenly, she realized, “Oh, my, my children are down there.” She loved her children. She had stopped her nursing career to homeschool her children because she loved them so much. And she was a bel- sh- a Christian. And um, she then feels this overwhelming sadness again. And s- and uh, she sees these flames around the planet. And then, the, the planet bursts into flames. And she starts to panic like, “My family’s there.” And then, she sees these lights, these what she realized were souls as they came by her going to heaven-
John: … and her family, and she realizes they’re safe. And she has this like moment of, “Ah.” And she turns to God and says, “God, why, why are you still sad? Look, they’re coming to heaven. They’re, they’re here with us.” And he says, “Look again.” And she looks again and she sees souls who are still there. They’re not coming. And what she really… And, and the Lord said to her, “Erica, with the gift of life, I give the gift of free will.”
And what he was saying is that it’s real. We’re here in a time of choosing. You know, God said to Moses, “I’ve set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life.” The Lord is your life. Choose life that you may live and… Right?
Jim: Well, of course.
John: And so we are, we are in that time. And-
John: … and the thing is it, it saddens the heart of God when people don’t choose him when-
Jim: Choose death. Yeah.
John: … they reject him.
John: But it’s real.
Jim: Yeah. No. And it fits. I mean, that, you know, that the Lord gives you that choice. That’s why on our part, it’s not a panic, you know. God’s gonna draw you or you’re gonna pull away. And that’s your choice.
John: And that’s why he wants everyone to know what he’s done for them through Jesus so they can have that confidence-
John: … because that’s the point. And, you know, the whole last section of, of Imagine the God of Heaven is my favorite because it’s walking daily with the God of joy and laughter.
Jim: Well, should we save this for next time?
John: Sure. (laughing)
Jim: Let’s leave a cliffhanger here-
Jim: … and talk about the joy of heaven. That would be great. And John, sorry to do that to you, (laughs) but let’s come back and continue the discussion because I really want people to hear what you’re saying and to talk to people around them uh, that may not know the Lord and let them read this, and then ponder the what ifs.
Jim: And I’m so glad. Can we do it? Can you come back?
John: Oh, I’d love to.
John: We, we can talk about some of the mysteries of God, the trinity, how the trinity-
Jim: Yeah. Yeah. We’ll start there. (laughs)
John: … is experienced.
Jim: So, uh, you know, I’m not sure where everybody’s at, but we want to make sure that you’re confident in your relationship with the Lord. Let me remind you that Focus on the Family is here for you. If you’ve never given your life to Jesus Christ, we’d like to talk with you about this important, I’d say, most important life decision. We uh, have so many resources available for you like our free booklet, Coming Home. Uh, you’ll learn in that booklet about God’s love and grace and the steps you can take to become part of God’s family. We also have the book we talked about today by John Burke, Imagine the God of Heaven. You can get it directly through us. That money goes right back into ministry, providing hope and help to families just like yours. After a year of overwhelming financial strain, social upheaval and other pressures, hurting families could really use some hope right now. And as we get near to the Christmas season, it’s the perfect time to share the hope that Jesus Christ came to give. You can come alongside those facing challenges and give families hope through your support of Focus on the Family. And when you give a gift of any amount today to the Ministry of Focus, we’ll send you a copy of Imagine the God of Heaven as our way of saying thank you.
John: And right now, through a special match opportunity, your year-end gift will be doubled dollar for dollar, which means God’s gonna use your gift to bring healing and redemption to twice as many families. Donate today, and get your copy of the book, Imagine the God of Heaven when you stop by our website, that’s focusonthefamily.com/broadcast, or call 800, the letter A and the word FAMILY, 800-232-6459. On behalf of Jim Daly and the entire team, thanks for listening today to Focus on the Family. I’m John Fuller, inviting you back as we hear more from John Burke. And once more, help you and your family thrive in Christ.