John Burke: Through the eyes of these people God’s given us the gift of, uh, 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 wanna do everything you can do to please him?
Jim Daly: Yeah.
John: Because you’re just in awe of the-
John: … the love, and the goodness, and the kindness of God.
John: 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 this Best of 2020 episode of Focus on the Family. And your host is Focus president and author, Jim Daly. Thanks for joining us. I’m John Fuller.
Jim: John, I’m so excited once again, to share this episode featuring John Burke. When the COVID shut down first started, uh, here at Focus on the Family, we adjusted our programming plans to bring in guests discussing topics that were affecting you and your family in the moment. And more than anything, we all needed hope. And Jean and I had just finished listening to the audio version of John Burke’s book, Imagine Heaven, which is full of stories of near-death experiences that share the, uh, ultimate hope we have in Christ – eternal life with Him once this life is over.
And the response to this program with John was out of the ballpark. It touched many hearts just as we anticipated. And I don’t know about you, but COVID certainly makes you think about, uh, this life not lasting forever. And to realize that God has a plan for us from that initial transition moment, and I think it’s a beautiful thing. The apostle Paul wrote 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 to have John Burke share the information, and near-death experiences that he’s researched and recorded.
John F.: And, your wife, Jean, was part of the conversation, because the stories in the book-
John F.: … really touched her so deeply as well.
John F.: Let’s, uh, just quickly say John Burke is a pastor, and the founder of Gateway Church in Austin, Texas. Uh, his book is called Imagine Heaven. It debuted on the New York Times bestseller list, and here now is that Best of 2020 conversation with John Burke.
Jim: Uh, it’s great that, y- uh, you know, in so many ways you have spent 35 years compiling near-death experiences. Maybe a good place to start for the listeners, what defines a near-death experience? What is it?
John B.: Yeah, well, what I tried to focus on were the ones that, uh, where someone clinically died, you know, they had a heart attack, their heart stopped beating maybe, in a car accident. There’re different things that causes it, but heart stops beating, brainwave cease, and yet they are resuscitated. Sometimes a few minutes after, sometimes 30 minutes, sometimes an hour and 45 minutes even. Uh, and they come back talking about the experience of the life to come, that they say consistently was more real than this life.
Jim: That’s amazing. Um, I wanna make sure too, uh, 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 an agnostic. Um, 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. Uh, 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, uh, 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, um, I have since gone from a career in engineering, uh, so I’m analytically science minded. That’s the way my mind’s wired. But I went from that into, um, ministry. I was a missionary for a number of years, went to seminary. Uh, 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, uh, I hope we’ll talk about, some interpretive keys, and I wrote Imagine Heaven, really, for two reasons. One to show, uh, skeptics like I was-
John B.: … there is v- 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, a- and this is the, uh, you know, it’s kind of tricky, and some people are very skeptical, uh, even in the church, and 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 gonna be a place of tremendous love, that we’re gonna feel the presence of God. I mean, it’s almost a weird thing, and as Christians we want this, and then, when somebody says, “I was there for 10 minutes. It’s gonna be awesome.” They, “Uh, you, were you really there? I don’t know if you were really there.” Talk about that-
John B.: Yeah.
Jim: … dichotomy.
John B.: Yeah. Well, I, I think it’s very important that we address it, because, you know, the Gallup Poll found that one out of 25 Americans has had one of these (laughs) experiences. That’s-
Jean Daly: I-
John B.: That’s 13…
Jean: I’d found that-
John B.: Yeah.
Jean: … extraordinary.
Jim: 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-
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.
John B.: 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, uh, I am skeptical of any one of these experiences. Uh, 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 like to describe it is, uh, imagine if this entire experience, we, 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, right? 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.
John F.: Hmm.
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 50 senses.
John B.: And they have arms, legs, you know. They can, mm, I mean, we’re, we’re ourselves. It’s life abundant (laughs).
Jim: (laughs) right.
John B.: But here’s the thing is that initially, they say they, many of them are in the room still where they’re being resuscitated. Uh, then they say they travel. And it’s a little bit different for different people. Some say they go through, it’s kind of like a, a tunnel. Some, it was 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. New-
Jim: Heightened, yeah.
John B.: … dimensions of time, new dimension 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-
John B.: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Jean: … repeated over and over.
Jim: Yeah, let me ask you, John. Uh, one of the stories, and there’s many, obviously, your book is packed with people who went through this experience. One of the early stories in the book talked about, I think a child who, you know, flat line 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 the, 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, uh, all kinds of people. So yes, that was actually, it wasn’t a 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. You could say, well, man, these are urban myth, right? One of the doctors, cardiologists, that I interviewed Dr. Michael Sabum, he set out to prove these were myth. So, he set out to prove that 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 gonna 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 (laughs) I mean-
John B.: There’s a lot of damage.
John B.: 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, uh, 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.”
John B.: And so, many of them got interpreted that way early on. But that is not what they say.
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, uh, “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 an 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, uh, 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’ve 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, uh, uh, you know, I’ve interviewed, uh, 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’d, we want to get to some of the stories, so that people can kind of, “Wow, okay, that’s interesting.” I, I think I’d rather, y- uh, lean on you. I mean, of course, Jean, and have read the book. You got George Richie, a 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.
John B.: So, I, 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, uh, 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 was like, “Why are they so worried? This is, I’m not worried.” (laughs). And she was a Christian, and she said, “I know where I’m going.” And, she was like, “I’m out of here.”
John B.: And, she says, she takes off through the roof of 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’re trees, there’re flowers, uh, there’s this vast number of people in this place of tremendous light. Uh, now listen to how these blind people describe light. So, Vicky 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 (laughs) 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-
Jean: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
John B.: … glory we’ll experience then.
Jim: That’s a great, I- 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.
Hey, John, I do wanna ask the question that some have to be thinking about, and that is, a- and I know doctors wrote about this, or at least, uh, 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, uh, at least hellish interpretations. Speak to the dark side of all this, and what some people experience.
John B.: Yeah. So, you know, you asked me kind of the stories that stand out to me. Um, some of the people who were blind. The others are like, um, Howard Storm. He was an atheist college professor. Uh, he was taking students on a tour, and 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, 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’ll be weeping and gnashing of teeth,” he said. And he start… 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 gonna pray to God.” But as he started to just piece together anything he could say about God, these people back off, and a song comes into his mind, “Jesus Loves Me,” w- 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.”
John B.: And, into this outer darkness comes this 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.
John B.: 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.
John B.: His wife is still an atheist. She divorces him ’cause 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?
John B.: (laughs)
Jean: (laughs) yeah, uh.
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 mountaintop saying, “This is it. This is how it lines up with scripture.” This is why people are having these, uh, 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 (affirmative).
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, but what are-
John B.: (laughs).
Jim: … you talking about, and who is this John guy? I mean-
John B.: What do you-
Jim: I mean-
John B.: What do you-
Jim: … but, you’re a pastor.
John B.: Yeah. Well, why do you think it took me 30 years to write it?
Jean: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
John B.: I know tha.t 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?
Jean: That’s right.
John B.: I- I- I- 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 (affirmative).
John B.: You know, is I wanted people to see “This aligns.” It, in fact, there’s nothing that makes sense of it more than seeing how the scriptures align, and then, help interpret, even how 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, and I think that’s where we wanna 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, uh, 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 wanna be true to the scripture, they want to make sure that they’re, uh, 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.”
Jean: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Jim: We don’t have context for that. Wow, you’re giving us-
Jim: … context for that. What might’ve 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, uh, John, for me today, it was to put in front of people the idea that, yeah, 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 wanna add to your defense? (laughs).
John B.: (laughs) Well, yeah, Jim, I mean, I’ve thought hard about this for decades.
John B.: 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 wanna do everything you can do to please him?
John B.: Because you’re just in awe of the, the love, and the goodness, and the kindness of God.
John B.: And that’s what I hope people focus on most.
John F.: What a beautiful glimpse of heaven from John Burke on today’s Best of 2020 Focus on the Family. And the true message behind these near-death experiences of what awaits us when that final moment here on earth comes is so encouraging Jim, and so heartening.
Jim: Oh, that’s one reason Jean and I were so taken with the book, uh, the vision these stories paint is one of hope. And definitely a hope worth holding onto. Uh, the first step is having a solid relationship with the Lord.
If you’ve never given your life to Jesus Christ, we’d love to talk with you about this important, most important, decision. There’s no better time than now, especially, as we are approaching the celebration of His birth here at Christmas time.
John F.: And, here at Focus, we have a lot of resources to help you get started in your faith walk like our free booklet, Coming Home. Uh, you can, uh, get that, and learn more about God’s love, and grace, and the steps you can take to become part of His family.
Jim: We also have the outstanding book we talked about today with John Burke, Imagine Heaven. And you can get it directly through us. That money, those proceeds, then go right back into ministry
providing hope and help to families just like yours, and you know, after a challenging year like 2020, the Christmas season is more welcomed now than ever. Uh, from the pandemic, to violent rioting, to a contentious election, we all need the hope, and peace Jesus came to give us, and that’s our mission here at Focus on the Family. We wanna provide you with the tools, and insights to help you be a better spouse, a better mom or dad.
Uh, one woman wrote to tell us this, “I’ve been listening since our first child was born in 1980 and I couldn’t have done parenting and marriage without all the godly advice and encouragement from Focus on the Family. I’m now grandma of eight, soon to be nine grand babies-
John F.: Hmm.
Jim: … and my kids now listen to Focus on the Family. Thank you, thank you,” she wrote.
Man, we are so grateful to have this kind of impact. And this Christmas with a special holiday gift, you can come alongside families who are still struggling. Your support of Focus on the Family will give families hope. And when you give a gift of any amount today to the ministry, we’ll send you a copy of John’s book as our way of saying thank you. Your support is critical so that we can finish the year strong, and plan to reach even more families in the coming year. And I’m looking forward to what God is gonna do through you and Focus on the Family in 2021.
John F.: And, when you donate today, uh, because of a special matching opportunity your year-end gift is going to be doubled dollar for dollar. And God’s gonna use your gift to bring healing and redemption to twice the families. So, please donate today, and request your copy of John Burke’s book, Imagine Heaven. You can do that at focusonthefamily.com/broadcast, or when you call 800-A-FAMILY (800) 232-6459.
Well, next time we’ll have another of our Best of 2020 broadcasts featuring Milan and Kay Yerkovich. They’re gonna explain why you might be having problems with intimacy in your marriage.
Kay Yerkovich: I think what happened for years is we tried to have a sexual connection, and vulnerability, and the goal would be to be naked, and not ashamed, but we had no ability to be emotionally naked, and not ashamed.