John Burke: Through the eyes of these people, God’s given us the gift of truly being able to imagine what the Bible’s told us all along in a way that, I mean, doesn’t it just make your heart fall in love with God so much more and want to do everything you can do to please Him because you’re just in awe of the love and the goodness and the kindness of God? And that’s what I hope people focus on most.
End of Excerpt
John Fuller: That’s John Burke. 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: You know, John, so much has been going on in our country and our world because of this coronavirus. People are discouraged or stressed out. They’re afraid maybe in some cases they’re desperately seeking for peace and what does this mean. And it does begin to alert you to the fact that you’re not going to be here forever. And I don’t know what’s going to take you out, but I will guarantee you something will in this life at, hopefully, 80, 90, 110, whatever you live to. But God’s got a plan for that transition moment. He knows every day that you’re going to be on this earth and, uh we need to trust in that as Christians. You know, the apostle Paul wrote in the New Testament in Romans 8:18, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” And it’s in that spirit that I wanted our guest today to come on. Jean and I have read a great book that he’s written called Imagine Heaven. And, uh, it really opens up our mind to what heaven is going to be like. And I know some people are going to have questions. We’re going to get into it in just a minute.
John F.: And John Burke is our guest as I said. He is a pastor. He’s the founder of Gateway Church in Austin, Texas, and has written this book, Imagine Heaven. It debuted, interestingly, on The New York Times bestseller list. And, uh, Jim, this is one of those opportunities where you said, “Team, I want to do this.” And here we are. We’re glad to have John with us.
Jim: Well, it was so fun. And our executive producer, Rob Kirkpatrick, you know, I talked to him about it. He got the ball rolling. And I think it was Ashley our other producer who got into this with John himself. And it started with Jean and I listening to the audiobook just about every night the last couple of months. And Jean is with me in the studio. Jean, it’s great to have you here.
Jean Daly: Oh, well thank you. I’m really excited to be here for this particular broadcast.
Jim: Yeah, I know. And again, both of us were really encouraged by the book. But John, let me welcome you into the program formerly. Great to have you with us.
John B.: Oh, thanks so much for having me, Jim. Appreciate it.
Jim: Yeah, it’s great that, you know, in so many ways you have spent 35 years compiling near-death experiences. Maybe a good place to start for the listener is what defines a near-death experience. What is it?
John B.: Yeah. Well, what I tried to focus on were the ones that – where someone clinically died. You know, there they had a heart attack. Their heart stopped beating maybe. In a car accident. There are different things that causes it, but heart stops beating, brain waves cease and yet they are resuscitated. Sometimes a few minutes after, sometimes 30 minutes, sometimes an hour and 45 minutes even. And they come back talking about the experience of the life to come that they say consistently was more real than this life.
Jim: It’s amazing. I want to make sure too – your background. I mean, you were a skeptic of Christianity, but in doing this work over the last 35 years, it played a significant role in you coming to accept Christ. Right?
John B.: Yeah, absolutely. So, I was a I was an agnostic. I didn’t know if I believed in God. I thought Jesus was just probably a good teacher, you know, blown up into something He wasn’t. I didn’t know if there was an afterlife. I didn’t really care. And then my dad got cancer. And someone gave him the first book that was the original research that coined the term “near-death experience.” And I read it in one night. I saw it on his nightstand. And so many of them talked about seeing God, this God of light and love and Jesus that I said, “Oh, my gosh. This God Jesus stuff may be real. And if it is, there’s nothing more important.” And I have since gone from a career in engineering. So, I’m analytically, science minded. That’s the way my mind’s wired. But I went from that into ministry. I was a missionary for a number of years. Went to seminary. And then my wife, Kathy, and I started Gateway Church 22 years ago here in Austin. But for the last 30 years, I have been curious. What are those experiences people have? And more importantly, how do they align with what the Scripture says? Eventually, I’ve studied over a thousand of them and started to see commonalities and started to see the alignment and found, which I hope we’ll talk, about some interpretive keys. And I wrote Imagine Heaven really for two reasons. One, to show skeptics like I was there is verifiable evidence for this, but secondly, to show how much it aligns with what the Old Testament prophets and Jesus have said in the Bible all along.
Jim: Well, and it’s so good. And this is the – the you know, it’s kind of tricky. And some people are very skeptical even in the church, maybe especially in the church, because they want to be careful that things are textually accurate. You know, that this is not some kind of moment that the enemy can play on us and that kind of thing. And I think in that regard, how do you approach these things that, you know, maybe we need to be a little flexible with the idea that we are going to go to heaven? That is the hope. That it is going to be a place of tremendous love. That we’re going to feel the presence of God. I mean, it’s almost a weird thing. As Christians, we want this. And then when somebody says, “I was there for ten minutes. It’s gonna be awesome.” They go, “Uh, were you really there? I don’t know if you’re really there.”
John B.: yeah.
Jim: Talk about that dichotomy.
John B.: Yeah. Well, I think it’s very important that we address it because, you know, the Gallup poll found that 1 out of 25 Americans has had one of these experiences. That’s 13…
Jean: I found that extraordinary
Jim: Yeah. Say that again so listeners grab it.
John B.: Yeah. Over 13 million Americans have had one of these experiences. And by the way, surveys done in Europe have found the same – about the…
John B.: …About the same percentage.
Jim: That seems so high.
John B.: But, you know, for – for the Christian, I think this is really, really important. Sometimes we reject and push away things we don’t understand without asking the hard questions and trying to wrestle through the mystery of it. I think at the same time, I am skeptical of any one of these experiences. And I think it’s very important to realize that all of them are interpreting an experience that is truly out of this world. The way I’d like to describe it is imagine if this entire experience – we live in three dimensions of space, one dimension of time. So, four dimensions. Imagine if our entire experience is being lived on a flat black and white painting on the wall.
John B.: Death means separation.
John B.: Our – our soul is separated from our physical body. So, imagine you’re ripped off that flat, two dimensional black and white photo and you come out into a three dimensional reality of this room that was all around you all the time. You just couldn’t even fathom it cause you didn’t have a third dimension. And there’s color. And then imagine being pressed back into the flat black and white photo and you have to describe color and three dimensions in two dimensional black and white terms.
John B.: That, I’m convinced, is what people are trying to do.
Jim: Well, let’s get to it and talk about these common features of the stories that you collected and they’re generally common amongst all near-death experiences. What are those common denominators that you found in your research?
John B.: Yeah. So, maybe just taking you through it. When people die, they say that they leave their body, but they have a spiritual body. And they talk about how it’s – they don’t even realize they’re not themselves. In fact, they feel more themselves, more alive than they’ve ever felt before. And not with just five senses, they say, more like fifty senses. And they have arms, legs. You know, they can – I mean, we’re – we’re ourselves. It’s life abundant.
Jim: (Laughter) Right.
John B.: But here’s the thing is that initially, uh, they say they – many of them are in the room still where they’re being resuscitated. Then they say they travel. And it’s a little bit different for different people. Some are – say they go through its kind of like a tunnel. Some it like a pathway of light. Some it was like through space. And they come to a place of incredible beauty, not unlike earth. You know, grass, trees, flowers, mountains, rivers, streams. But they’re experiencing it in new dimensions, like I said.
Jim: Heightened. Right.
John B.: New dimensions of time, new dimensions of space. Heightened everything. What they commonly come back and say is that this world is really the shadow of that world.
Jean: And I found that really interesting in the book that that common theme. That heaven is more real than earth. That that was repeated over and over.
John B.: Yeah.
Jim: Let me ask you, John, one of the stories and there’s many obviously. Your book is packed with people who went through this experience. One of their early stories in the book talked about I think a child who, you know, flat-lined died on the table, et cetera, at this hospital. They had the experience of being out of their body. But they mentioned to the doctor and the nurse when they brought this person back, this child back, that they saw a shoe either in – on the roof of the hospital or in a window. I can’t remember exactly. But the doctor said to the nurse, “Go check that out.” And sure enough, there was a shoe, a tennis shoe, if I remember correctly, that the child saw in that experience. And they found it, correct?
John B.: Yeah. And so, there are many experiences like that. And this is what convinced many skeptical, like I said, doctors and all kinds of people. So, yes, that was actually one – the child. That was in a hospital in Seattle. The person left their body, but as they were going up out of the hospital, saw the tennis shoe on like the second or third ledge outside the window and they checked it out. Now, here’s the thing. Um, you could say, “Well, maybe these are urban myth, right?” One of the doctors, cardiologists, that I interviewed, Dr. Michael Sabom – he set out to prove these were myth. So, he set out to prove that this this can’t be true. But after five years of studying it and as a cardiologist, he said what convinced him was so many of them recounting to him what he did during resuscitation. He said, “I could have taped it and used it to teach physicians.” And this is what’s, quite honestly, such a shame is that Christians have not spoken into it. See, every good gift from God the evil one’s going to take and try to twist and use it against God. We know that.
John B.: Right. I mean, sex is a great gift from God. But if you just looked at the way people use it, you know, without seeing God’s perspective on it, I mean…
John B.: …It does a lot of damage. Right?
John B.: So, it’s the same with these experiences. And unfortunately, Christians early on as this research was coming out, didn’t understand it and said, “It’s satanic. It’s – I don’t know what it is but leave it alone.” And as a result, many of these people turned away from the church and tried to make sense of it. And the new age kind of said, “Hey, welcome, come on over here.” And so many of them got interpreted that way early on, but that is not what they say. And, you know, I said a few minutes ago, I’m skeptical about any one of these because it is an interpretation of an experience. So, they are going to interpret their experience in our, you know, four dimensional terms based on their own world view.
John B.: So, I don’t necessarily agree with all the interpretations, but when I’ve looked at over a thousand of them and what they commonly report, it’s amazing how it lines up with the Scriptures.
John B.: I mean, this is what the Bible has been telling us…
John B.: …All along. It’s incredible.
Jim: Well, that’s that revelation. I think when you look at the Book of Revelation, in fact, I looked at that Scripture this morning. That they overcame the evil one, him, “by the blood of the lamb and the power of their testimony.” And in this context, that’s kind of what you’ve compiled are people’s testimonies of what they saw, what they experienced in that five minute, 10 minute hour, even hour and a half…
John B.: Yeah.
Jim: …Situation where they have passed away. And I – I think we have to have an ear for that. And that’s why I wanted to have you on is to let people, you know, think about this. Hopefully they’ll read your book and, you know, be challenged a little bit.
Jean: Well, John and I would say I was a skeptic. And I have a science background. So, what I’ve really appreciated about your book is the research and that you have tried to compile only near-death experiences from people that you felt had nothing to gain and only something to lose by retelling their experiences and I mean, there are really compelling stories in here. I’m convinced.
John B.: Yeah, I mean, you know, I’ve interviewed surgeons, commercial airline pilots, pastors, multiple pastors, bank presidents, I mean, college professors. These are people who have nothing to gain making up these crazy wild stories. They’re gonna – it’s gonna hurt their career and yet they say it was the most real thing that ever happened.
Jim: Hey, John, I – we want to get to some of the stories so that people can kind of, “Wow. OK. That’s interesting.” I think I’d rather lean on you. I mean, of course, Jean and I’ve read the book. You’ve got George Ritchie, war veteran. But what stories stick out to you that really exemplify what you’re trying to capture? Let’s go through two or three of them and just elaborate on them.
John B.: Well, I’ll tell you the ones that are the most evidential to me and quite honestly just kind of blow me away are the ones of people who are blind. So, I write about three people who were blind from birth in Imagine Heaven. And when blind people and doctors who have studied this, researchers who have studied this, have found blind people have the exact same experience. They can see. And yet when they come back, they’re still blind. But for instance, Vicky, who was blind from birth, she died in a car accident. She’s up above her body and she’s watching them work on her frantically. And it takes her a while to adjust to sight. And then she realizes that’s me because she had long hair and she could see that. And she had a ring, a wedding ring with orange blossoms on it. And she said she just felt awesome. And she’s like, “Why are they so worried? This is – I’m not worried.” And she was a Christian. And she said, “I know where I’m going.” And she was like, “I’m out of here.” And she says she takes off through the roof with the ceiling and goes up and enters what she kind of described as – as a tunnel. She comes out and finds herself on grass. And again, this is life. It’s everything of this life plus. And so, she looks around and there are trees. There are flowers. There’s this vast number of people in this place of tremendous light. Now, listen to how these blind people describe a light. So, Vicki said the light was something you could feel as well as see. And she said, “Everybody there was made of light. I was made of light. And what the light conveyed was love. And love was everywhere. And it was like love and light came out of the grass. Love came out of the birds. Love came out of the trees. It was incredible. Really beautiful. And I was overwhelmed by that experience because I couldn’t really imagine what light was like.” Okay, now all that may sound very bizarre to you again until you really look at what the Bible’s been telling us all along. In Isaiah 60 and in Revelation 21, you know, John says, and they basically say the same thing. But John sees the city of God and says, “The city has no need of sun or moon for the glory of God illuminates the city and the lamb” – Jesus – “is its light, and the nations will walk in that light.”
John B.: Now, think about that. How do people around the globe and even people who are blind from birth say the same thing about the light of heaven coming out of everything? And it’s not light like we see. It’s palpable. It’s love and it’s life. And yet, they are saying exactly what the Bible says, “The light is the light and life and love of God.” It’s the glory of God. Which think about that when Paul says, “The suffering we experience now is nothing compared to the glory…”
Jean: Mm hmm.
John B.: “…We will experience then.”
Jim: It’s a great – I mean, these are the observations. You know, at one point, the early world thought the world was flat and you could look at Scripture and realize that it was not, but people failed to see it in Scripture. Um, again, just evidence of reading the Scripture carefully and then adding it to what people experience. John, I do want to ask the question that some have to be thinking about, and that is – and I know doctors wrote about this or at least added to it. Those that come back with traumatic effect. In other words, they’re not experiencing love. They’re experiencing what we in the Christian community would consider at least hellish interpretations. Speak to the dark side of all this. And what some people experience.
John B.: Yes. So, you know, you asked me, kind of, the stories that stand out to me. Um, some of the people who are blind. The others are like Howard Storm. He was an atheist college professor. He was taking students on a tour his lower duodenum ruptures. He’s taken to the hospital. It’s a Saturday. They can’t find a doctor to operate on him. And he felt the worst he had ever felt in his life. He thought death is, you know, unplug the computer. It’s dead. There’s nothing. And he passes and he’s standing there in the room confused because he feels great. And he’s looking around the room and he notices this body in the bed that vaguely resembles him, but it’s not computing to him. And then people are calling to him from the hallway of the hospital. “Howard. You know, we’re here for you. Come with us.” And they seem nice. And they end up in this place of utter darkness. Just like Jesus talks about – the outer darkness, “where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth”, He said. And he starts – Howard starts to realize, “They’re tricking me.”
John B.: I can’t trust them. Well, they turn on him and they maul him. It’s like the worst prison scene ever. And as this is going on, something inside him says, “Pray to God.” And he’s fighting with his pride saying, “I don’t believe in God. I’m not going to pray to God.” But as he started – just pieced together anything he could say about God, these people back off. And a song comes into his mind, “Jesus Loves Me”, from when a neighbor took him to church as a kid. And he – he wants that to be true so much. He cries out, “Jesus, save me.” And into this outer darkness comes as brilliant light brighter than the sun, just like other NDEs say. Hands reach out. Pick him up. And as he is sobbing like a baby, Jesus rubs his back. And he says, “I don’t know how I knew, but I knew He loved me very much just the way I was.” And Howard comes back after this. And two years later leaves his tenured professorship to become a Christian pastor. His wife is still an atheist. She divorces him because she thinks he’s gone crazy. Um, but he’s been proclaiming the gospel of Jesus ever since.
Jim: That’s amazing. And John, I think that’s the point. People listening and I get it, everybody. I mean, is this really Focus on the Family? I mean, um…
Jim: But the thing that struck me here is, again, your diligence and the doctors and others who have studied this and the conclusions that you’ve referenced that there is something. What is it? And we as Christians should be running to the mountain top saying, “This is it. This is how it lines up with Scripture. This is why people are having these, you know, experiences. And the way that they describe it, this is what God is saying through them.” And again, going back to Revelation. You know, that “they overcame by the blood of the lamb and the power of their testimony.” These are powerful testimonies…
Jean: Mm hmm.
Jim: …From people who have experienced something. But, John, I know someone, if not a thousand or more, people are going, “Right. Jim, I have really thought so highly of you for so long…”
John B.: (Laughter).
Jim: “… But what are you talking about? And who is this John guy?” I mean…
John B.: Why do you – why do you…
Jim: You’re a pastor.
John B.: Yeah. Well, why do you think it took me 30 years to write it?
John B.: I know that. I know what people think. And hey, I feel the same way. It’s kind of like you open this door and all kinds of wacky things can come through. Yes, that’s true. But God allows that in this world.
John B.: Why? I mean, do we really think He couldn’t change it? No. So, we have to be willing to enter into the mess of how people take God’s good gifts and, you know, skew them or interpret them wrongly. But that’s why I put so much Scripture in Imagine Heaven.
Jean: Mm hmm.
John B.: You know? Is I wanted people to see this aligns. It – in fact, there’s nothing that align and then help interpret, um, even how some of some people might misinterpret these experiences.
Jean: Well, I just – I would encourage the skeptic to read this book. I was skeptical. You were skeptical.
Jim: Oh, yeah. Yeah.
Jean: But it is so compelling.
Jim: Well, I think that’s where we want to be. I mean, part of what we do here at Focus on the Family is we want to introduce people to Jesus Christ. And, you know, in this situation where we have a pandemic going around the world, as I started the program, death is, you know, being thought about in different ways right now, in more ways right now. And I really wanted people to hear from you, John. To hear what your research has revealed in the context of Scripture, not blindly. And I know there are those skeptics in the church and outside the church. And I think those within the church, they want to be true to the Scripture. They want to make sure that they’re not pursuing something that is outside of God’s will. And I get that. But I would say as you lined up so many of the Scriptures that reference things that we kind of read and blow right by. You know, we don’t quite understand when Paul says, “I was lifted up into the third heaven.” We don’t have context for that. Wow. You’re giving us context for that. What might have happened 14 years ago when Paul was stoned, and he made comment of both of those things. That’s a very intriguing thing to think about. And I think, John, for me today, it was to put in front of people the idea that yet as Christians, we believe there is an afterlife. These people are tasting it and experiencing it in some way. And you’ve just done the job of compiling it and saying, “I think here is the Biblical context for what they’re experiencing.” And I so appreciate it. Anything you want to add your defense?
John B.: Well, yeah, Jim, I mean, I’ve thought hard about this for decades.
John B.: But I mean, I think you guys felt this too. And it was what I was trying to put into the book. Through the eyes of these people, God’s given us the gift of truly being able to imagine what the Bible’s told us all along in a way that, I mean, doesn’t it just make your heart fall in love with God so much more and want to do everything you can do to please Him because you’re just in awe of the love and the goodness and the kindness of God? And that’s what I hope people focus on most.
Jim: Well, I appreciate it. And I think the challenge we have is really think of that agnostic or that atheist that’s hearing this. You know, they just happened to stumble onto the program somehow, some way, they’re hearing this. And I would say to you, if you’re listening, man, this is your moment. Maybe God inspired you to be where you’re at listening to this right now. And what if you’re that Howard and we’re giving you a little something to think about so that if that moment comes for you – when it comes for you, you’re going to be equipped to do something. And I hope you would do it now. That’s why we’re here. We want you to be walking with the Lord introduced to Jesus Christ. That’s our goal. That’s our first passion here at Focus on the Family. So, don’t wait for your near-death experience. Live it now. Contact us. Let us introduce you to Christ. Let us give you resources that will help build you. Certainly, John’s great book, Imagine Heaven. And I believe, I mean, if you call us and you are not a believer in Jesus, I will take care of sending this book to you. I trust other believers will help me do that. But get ahold of us. This is what it’s about. And, uh, we want you to know who Jesus Christ is in this life, so you’re affirmed and confident in the life to come. And again, John, thank you for the diligence, the work that you have done to put this together. And again, my defense is simply, I want people to think about this. I want believers to have a deeper conviction. And what I’ve walked away from, and I think you have to, Jean, is I am more confident now about what I’m going to be walking into. I kind of want to go into heaven like yahoo!
Jim: You know, just to experience that heightened everything that God has, the abundant life that you referenced. That’s what we’re gonna experience. I don’t want to do that tepidly. I want God to – to just be right there when I’m passing from this life. And I want others to have that confidence as well. What an awesome thing to be able to do that.
Jean: Absolutely. And He wants us to show that love – His love to those here on the earth.
Jim: Absolutely. So, again, thank you, John.
John B.: Thanks so much, Jim. Thanks for having me on.
Jim: Appreciate it.
John F.: And as Jim has said, we are a phone call away and would love to address your questions. We have a free little booklet called Coming Home that we can tell you about that explains what it means to become a believer in Christ. And also, as Jim said, we do have the book in stock, Imagine Heaven. Get that from us for your gift of any amount when you call 800, the letter A and the word FAMLY. Or stop by focusonthefamily.com/broadcast. On behalf of Jim and Jean Daly and the entire team here at Focus on the Family, thanks for joining us today. I’m John Fuller inviting you back as we once again help you and your family thrive in Christ.