Imagine Heaven, John Burke
Knowing, Jeffry Olsen
Eric Huffman: Hey there, Maybe God Podcast listeners, we hope you've been enjoying Season 2 so far. Thank you, as always, for listening. We're hoping to get more people listening to Maybe God, and you can help us out by going to your favorite podcast app or platform and leaving us a review. We love five-star ratings. Those really help our egos. But what helps us get the word out about Maybe God are the reviews where you leave us a sentence or two about why you love the podcast. That really helps spread the word to people that have never heard of us before. And that's why we're doing this is to have a bigger conversation with more people.
Also, if you ever have any feedback to share with us or any pushback, if there's something that I or one of our guests says that you just don't agree with, let us know about it by email at [email protected] or find us on Facebook at Maybe God Podcast. We created this podcast to be a challenging conversation. We want to challenge you, and we encourage and invite you to challenge us right back.
Now for this week's episode.
We've been working on this one for months now. And if you've talked to me in person recently about Maybe God, you've probably heard me get really excited about this one. The afterlife is everywhere these days, from music and movies to Netflix and novels, none of us can seem to escape heaven and hell.
Conversations about heaven and hell and the afterlife are never easy either. And I think that's because they're so deeply personal because we've all lost somebody that we care about. And not to be too morbid here and put you in a bad mood, we're all going to be dead one day too. So when we're talking about heaven and hell, and who's in and who's out, we're talking about ourselves, we're talking about the people that we love most. So this topic is so important.
Our team chase down so much amazing, and beautiful, and in some cases, shocking content we decided that we just have to make this episode a two-parter. So here we go. This is part one, and I can't wait to hear what you think.
Julie Mirlicourtois: On this episode of Maybe God-
Howard: I was 100% convinced that death was just like turn the light switch off and it's over.
Vicki: Immediately I was engulfed in this golden pure light and I just fell right to my knees. And I remember just worshiping and crying because I recognized God. I didn't meet God, I recognized Him.
Jeff Olsen: And she's saying, "You've got to go back, you can't come." And that was an interesting moment of choice. Because here I was looking at the woman I loved more than life and yet knowing I had a seven-year-old son crying in the backseat of that car, and I made a choice to come back.
Howard: The more I resisted, the more they enjoyed tormenting me, biting and tearing, and invading me in every way that they could.
Vicki: Here this God that I had feared my entire life scooped me up and held me in His lap. God knew how dirty and broken I was and yet He scooped me up.
Julie Mirlicourtois: Why these near-death testimonies and hundreds of others convinced Pastor John Burke that God Jesus heaven and hell are all real.
Eric Huffman: A few months ago, it seemed like every one of my church was reading the same book and insisting that I read it too. It's a New York Times bestselling book called Imagine Heaven by Pastor John Burke, who on the surface looks like a typical type A megachurch preacher. But after graduating college, Burke worked as an engineer for several years before entering the ministry in his late 20s.
Today, he leads a church of over 4,000 people in Austin, Texas. What makes his journey so different from other pastors that I've met is the way that he came to faith in Christ, by listening to people's near-death experiences, people who technically died and came back with stories to tell about what they saw and what they heard when they crossed over. We're going to hear some of those stories soon.
When I traveled to Austin earlier this month to interview John, I had no idea what to expect. I certainly didn't think I was going to find, in this big-time pastor, a kindred spirit. That's exactly what happened. John and I quickly realized we share a lot in common, starting with our deep doubts related to God and religion, doubts which began to surface in us at an early age.
John Burke: I grew up going to church but it was kind of a social deal. I had a lot of questions. I've a very analysts logical mind. I ended up becoming an engineer, if that gives you any clue. But I got old enough and I felt like I don't think anybody can answer my questions. And I kind of thought, Maybe there's a God, I don't know. Jesus is probably a myth. I don't know if any of this is true. And I just kind of didn't believe in anything except the next party.
And that's where I was living when my father got cancer. One day, I saw a book that someone had given him on his nightstand and it was the first book on near-death experiences. This is, you know, back in the 80s. I picked it up, I read the whole thing in one night. And I said, "Oh, my gosh, this Jesus stuff may be real. And if so, I got to find out."
Eric Huffman: John was 18 at the time, and that book on his dad's nightstand led to a 30-year journey studying over 1,000 near-death experiences. If you're anything like me, you're feeling pretty skeptical about John right now. I've always chalked near-death experiences up to wishful thinking or something explainable, like the final neurons firing in the brain before a person actually dies. I've always filed indie E's in the same folder as horoscopes. They're fun to think about maybe, but that's about it.
That's why I was surprised when John wasn't sensationalist or the type who is prone to wishful thinking. He's an analytical guy. He's not looking for a fairy tale to escape his mortality. He's looking for the truth, just like the rest of us.
John Burke: I'll be honest, I sometimes go, "Oh, my gosh, God, how did you get me here?" Like, I would have been looking at me going wacko, you know, the near-death experience stuff, but what convinced me is the same thing that convinced so many skeptical cardiologists and oncologists. I mean, these are doctors who start to hear from their patients. And by the way, if they don't ask the patients don't tell them because these experiences are not like a dream, kind of like, Oh, I had the weirdest dream. Like, haha, you know, funny." It's like a sacred experience. And it's a confusing experience.
Eric Huffman: Oh, sure.
John Burke: Because the truth is, they're back on this earth but they don't want to be. Typically they had a good-
Eric Huffman: They had a good experience.
John Burke: ...heavenly experience, they don't want to be here. One of the cardiologists I interviewed, Dr. Sabom, he actually set out to prove that near-death experiences were not true. He had never heard one from any of his patients. But then he starts asking them. And Dr. Sabom said he listened to this guy, Pete Morton, who described his resuscitation and he said, "If I had taped it, I could have used it to train other physicians."
So for five years, he researches and ends up coming to believe, no, these are really real. This is something real. And he publishes in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Dr. Jeff Long reads it in JAMA and says, "No, no way." He's a radiation oncologist. He never heard any of these. He starts to ask his patients. He's now collected 4,000 of them.
Eric Huffman: Wow.
John Burke: And says they provide such overpowering scientific evidence that there is an afterlife. And what's crazy is these are people have zero need to make up crazy, wild stories to sell books or make money. That's the skeptical kind of like, ah, they're making this up. They want to make a buck.
Eric Huffman: Sensationalist kind of... yeah.
John Burke: If you're a surgeon married to a surgeon living in Jackson Hole, Wyoming-
Eric Huffman: You have more to lose.
John Burke: You have a ton more to lose. If you're a tenured college professor, if you're a commercial airline pilot, if you're a bank president, why are you going to make this up?
Julie Mirlicourtois: Jeff Olsen was a junior at Utah State University playing division one football when he met Tamara.
Jeff Olsen: When she walked in and I saw her, it was like a lightning bolt hit me. It was like, bam, there she is. It was beyond love at first sight. It was like a deeper knowing. The family always teased us because even at family outings, it wasn't enough for her to sit next to me. She had to be sitting like right on my lap, arms around me, just very affectionate, very, very much in love. And many looked at our relationship and just thought, gosh, that's just cheesy, yet to us it was absolutely perfect. We were married for 10 years and never lost a moment of the magic. It was quite a beautiful relationship.
Julie Mirlicourtois: Tamara was a high school teacher who, according to Jeff, was filled with compassion and very spiritual. Jeff had a successful career as a creative director at an advertising agency in Salt Lake City. First, the couple welcomed their son Spencer to the family, followed by Griffin. In 1997, they all spent Easter weekend with Tamara's parents. On Monday morning, they buckled in for the five-hour drive home.
Jeff Olsen: I put the car in drive, hit the interstate and cranked it up to 75 and set the cruise control, and was racing in a home. I mean, I was a day late at work, I was thinking about all the things I needed to do. There was a million things going on. And I just happened to glance in the rearview mirror just to check traffic.
But when I did, what caught my eye was my toddler Griffin. He was just 14 months old and he had fallen sound asleep in his car seat. And it's like all of a sudden time just stood still and I looked at him. And I noticed details like how long his eyelashes were. And I just thought, "What a beautiful kid." I mean, we were told we may never have more children after Spencer, so he was our miracle baby.
Well, I noticed him I just glanced behind me where Spencer our seven year old was sitting and he was playing with Star Wars action figures that he had gotten in his Easter basket with all the, you know, sounds that a little boy makes of the grandest lightsaber battle in the universe. And I just thought, "What a joy! He's such a good kid."
And then I glanced over at my wife Tamara who had also reclined her seat, and she was sound asleep. But she was still holding on to my hand. And I realized, wow, 10 years into a marriage, two kids later and she's still holding my hand the same way she did on our first date in college, you know, when I had two bucks in my pocket and took her to $1 movie. But I had this moment of absolute gratitude, and of course, my attention went to the road and I carried on driving. And it was about an hour after that that everything changed.
Jeff Olsen: I'm not positive what happened. I mean, there was reports of crosswinds, there was reports of a red pickup truck driving erratically. The hardest part of this story is what I believe happened is I believe I dozed off. I think I just dozed off for a moment, and I swerved to the right, overcorrected to the left, and lost control of the car. It was a horrific automobile accident.
I blacked out for most of that. I don't remember the crash. I do remember losing control of the car but I was fully conscious and aware, you know, when the car came to a stop. And the first thing I recall hearing was Spencer, my seven-year-old, crying in the back seat. And I thought, "Oh my gosh, I've got to get to my son." And that's when I realized I couldn't move. I was pinned, struggling to breathe. I was struggling to see. There was intense pain.
What had taken place in that accident is both of my legs were crushed and shattered. My left leg was eventually amputated above the knee, my back had been broken, my right arm had almost been pulled off, my rib cage was damaged, my lungs were collapsing and the seatbelt had cut through my midsection and ruptured all my intestines. I had no idea. All I knew as my son was crying, I wanted to get to him but couldn't move. And that's when I realized the brutal reality that no one else was crying. And that's when I was acutely aware that both Tamara, my wife, and Griffin, my youngest son, were killed.
And that was the worst hell a man could be in, really. I mean, there I was with a hysterical seven-year-old, half the family's gone, and I was driving the car. I mean, the guilt, the remorse, the regret. Gosh, can I just not turn back time 3 seconds?
Julie Mirlicourtois: Tamara and their youngest son, Griffin, were killed instantly. As the gravity of what had happened started to sink in, Jeff felt the lights around him and all his pain disappeared.
Jeff Olsen: I can breathe and now I can see and everything seems to be fine. Am I really okay? It felt like I was lifting a raising above the accident out of all the trauma. And I thought, "This is really strange." Tamara, my wife, who I knew was deceased at the scene, suddenly she was there with me. Here she was in front of me, not traumatized, not injured, perfectly, beautifully, gloriously radiant, and perfect. I'm thinking, "Wow, she's okay, too. We're okay." That was my thought is, we're okay.
And she begin to communicate with words she was saying, "Jeff, no, no, no, you've got to go back. You've got to go back. You can't be here." And that's when I begin to process, "Gosh, I'm not at the accident. Perhaps I've left the body. Oh, my goodness, am I dead?" And I'm looking at her and she's saying, "You've got to go back. You can't come. You can't come. You've got to go back." That was an interesting moment of choice, because here I was looking at the woman I loved more than life, and yet knowing I had a seven-year-old son crying in the back seat of that car, and I made a choice to come back.
John Burke: I'm skeptical of any one near-death experience, quite honestly.
Eric Huffman: Why?
John Burke: I think people are describing a world that truly is beyond our dimensionality. It's extra-dimensional. So words cannot... It's why people are very hesitant to come forward and talk about their near-death experience.
Eric Huffman: You're not skeptical that they actually happen, you're skeptical of-
John Burke: I'm not skeptical that they happen. I have come to realize that they're all reporting something that's hard to put into words, so they're having to interpret. In writing Imagine Heaven and in studying the scriptures for the last 30 years, but also studying a thousand near-death experiences, what I've realized is that we live in a bubble. Three dimensions of space, one dimension of time.
The best way I'd describe it is imagine if our lives what we know is four dimensions, right, is actually being lived on a flat, black-and-white screen on a wall like your TV. Death is when you are separated, whoever we are, separated from our body. So imagine death, you're ripped off that flat, black and white, two-dimensional screen and suddenly you come out into a world all-around you in a third dimension. But you couldn't even conceive of a third dimension. But now you're in this room and you can look back on that screen and see it for what it actually is in the context of a larger world.
And it's a larger world of colors that you've never seen colors before. You just seem black and white. You're experiencing new dimensions. And then you have to go back and try to describe to flat two-dimensional people what a third dimension is or black and white, what color is. You'd just be at a loss for words.
Eric Huffman: How would you even start?
John Burke: I'm convinced that's what people who have had near-death experiences are trying to do. But secondly, I think it explains a lot about God, too. You know, one of the things Peter said in the Bible is to the Lord, a thousand years is like a day and a day is like a thousand years. And that's what people who've had near-death experiences say. Like time works differently there. Well, I didn't know if it was an instant or if it lasts my whole lifetime.
Eric Huffman: Wow.
John Burke: And the other thing they say is that that's the real life. This is more like the shadow. And it's interesting because it says the same thing in the scriptures. In Hebrews 8, it says, God had Moses make the tabernacle, which was a copy or shadow of the real one in heaven.
Eric Huffman: Fascinating. All three people we interviewed for this episode, people who claim to have died and came back to life echoed precisely what John said about this realm being merely a copy of the true realm that lies beyond.
Vicki: That realm with our reality, this realm is like the dream realm. Those memories of him are so vivid the moment I pulled them up, but yet I can't remember when I went to the store for, you know, here. It was the most real experience that I've ever had.
Howard: I knew this wasn't a dream, and I know it wasn't a hallucination, I knew that it was the most important, real thing that's ever happened to my life.
Jeff Olsen: This is the crazy, weird, foggy dream, the other side is real. That that's home. That's real.
Julie Mirlicourtois: Well, Jeff was in what he calls a bubble of light. His body and his son, Spencer, were raced to the hospital. Spencer was badly bruised. Jeff was in much worse condition and doctors quickly decided they couldn't do anything to help him, so he was taken to a level-one trauma center in Salt Lake City.
Jeff Olsen: All I knew is I's wrecked the car, I'd said the most profound goodbye I would ever say, and I made a choice to come back. And in making that choice. I found myself moving about this hospital, this level-one trauma center. And I'm encountering the doctors and the nurses and the patients and the families of the patients. I'm seeing all these people, and yet I'm seeing them in a brand new way.
I mean, everyone I saw and looked at, it's as if I knew them. I knew them perfectly. I knew their love, their hate, their motivations, their life. I was experiencing them as if they were me. And I had this overwhelming love for them, unconditional love. I mean, everyone from the heroin addict, you know, to the saintly grandmother, I just had this overwhelming love and compassion for them, and I saw them as beautiful and perfect.
I grew up in a Christian home. I had a biblical verse come up during this whole process, and the verse was the famous one that says, "In as much as you've done it, under the least of these, you've done it unto me," which I used to think was a nice verse about being nice. But I was experiencing it as a different oneness.
I thought, Gosh, the master teacher who said that realized that He was the man in prison, He was the beggar on the street because I was experiencing being the heroin addict, being the abused person. And here I was marveling at all that as I made my way around this hospital till I came on to a body I didn't feel anything from, a man laying on the gurney there. And I stepped forward thinking that was strange. And that's when I realized that I was looking at me. That was me and yet that wasn't me. I was this incredible connected being, you know, having this profound experience. But that was my body and it was an absolute mess. It was tough to look at it and realize, Wow, I got to get back in that.
Julie Mirlicourtois: When you talk about making the choice to go back, what did you have to do to make that choice?
Jeff Olsen: You know, it was interesting, the choice... And in fact, there's only one cosmic rule in the universe, and that is free will and choice. We get to choose. But as I was looking at my wife thinking, "Wow, I want to stay," and yet, as I was considering my son in that back seat, it almost felt that I didn't have a choice. It's like my heart knew, my soul knew I was going back. As soon as I had that intention, boom, that's when I was in the hospital. It wasn't like I flew. It wasn't like I went anywhere. It was as natural as walking from one room to the next. Suddenly I was just there. So the choice was not easy, but the transition was quite natural and comfortable. Getting back in the body was not. When I went back in the body, then all the pain, the trauma, the guilt, the grief, the regret, the sheer panic, it all returned.
Jeff Olsen: I was in the hospital for five-plus months. I was in ICU for almost three months. I kept throwing pulmonary embolism, the blood clots that lodge in your lungs. I had horrible infections you can imagine with the rupturing of my insides all over. It was really as if I had one foot in this realm and one foot in the next four months.
I would have conversations with my deceased wife. Strange things, almost trivial things may be about she wanted her party dresses given to her sister-in-law, she wanted this ring given to her cousin and that one given to her niece. And she let me know about the funeral services. She was communicating this with me, and I had no idea that the family was struggling. They were going to bury two of us. And the doctors had told the family that I might not make it, so it perhaps could be three of us.
My wife's family wanted to take them back down into southern Utah, where we'd been visiting to bury them there. And yet my family was saying, "Well, yeah, but if Jeff dies, shouldn't we bury them together? And what about Spencer, this little boy that could be left orphan? So there was quite a turmoil going on.
But what Tamara had communicated to me in these strange, out-of-body visits was, "I want to be buried near our home where Spencer will have a place to come, where my son can find comfort. I want to be buried with Griffin in my arms." She even let me know what song she wanted sung at her services.
The interesting part of this story is, it's almost funny, I had been life-flighted to a hospital that was not in my insurance network, and the insurance company was demanding that I be transferred to someone in the network. So everyone was very upset about it. But in the end, the insurance company won out and they were going to transfer me.
And in the process of doing that, they actually removed the ventilator so I was able to speak. And it was one of the days I was actually conscious, but I was able to share with these key family members not knowing anything they'd been going through, "Here's what Tamara wants." And it was a blessing to have that all happen.
Julie Mirlicourtois: It's been 20 years since the accident, but the details are still crystal clear in Jeff's mind and the emotions are all still very raw. Jeff told me it took him ten years before he could open up about this next experience. Five months into his hospital stay, he was finally off the narcotics and out of the ICU and a week away from going home when this happened.
Jeff Olsen: I rolled on my side, which I hadn't been able to sleep on my side for months. In fact, I had laid on my back so long, the back of my head had been rubbed bald and I fell asleep. And I remember thinking, "Wow, I haven't slept like this." It felt so good to lay on my side and sleep. And yet as I drifted into that sleep, I felt that same light come again. The light like at the scene of the accident, it came, it surrounded me, all this love and comfort, and I felt as if I was rising above the hospital bed. But this time the light actually dispensed and went away and I was in the most beautiful, glorious place. Some call it heaven, some say the other side. To me, the only word I can even put on it is I was home. I was home. It felt so beautiful, so good, so welcoming, so familiar. In fact, I began to run.
And it was a very physical experience. I say physical because obviously, I must have been out of the body, but I could feel the soft ground under my feet. I could feel the energy charging up through my legs. And I was so joyful just thinking, I'm home, I'm home. And then I got the message that I wasn't there to stay.
And about that same time, I realized there was this corridor off to my left. So I begin to make my way down the corridor. And as I did, at the end of the corridor was this crib. And as I peeked in the crib, there was my little Griffin, there was my little toddler boy who... Actually, at the accident, his car seat had broken apart and he had been ejected from the car. But there he was in that crib, beautiful, perfect, sleeping as peacefully as when I looked in the rearview mirror.
So I scooped him up in my arms, and that felt physical. Like I could feel his body. I could feel the heat of his body. I could feel his ribs rising with breath. And I thought, "How can this be?" I begin to weep just holding my little boy. And I thought somehow the whole universe just knew that I needed to hold my little boy.
And I just began to cry, thinking, "Wow, how can this be?' And every question I had, it was like, there an answer. It was like, "This is real. This is real, and it's for you." And then I begin to feel a presence come up behind me that was so overwhelming. I mean, it was so powerful, so wise, so cosmic, so big. I actually begin to have deep regret come up. I thought, "Oh, my gosh, here I am holding my little boy and he's dead because I crashed the car." And I knew this is God coming up.
My upbringing was fear God, life's a test. I'm probably failing, and here comes all the judgment. And my initial thought was, "Oh, I hope I'm forgiven." And as I had that thought, I felt, and it almost felt physical too, like these loving divine arms wrap around me. And the message which wasn't even spoken in word, it was just through my whole consciousness came, "There's nothing to forgive." And the message was, "You're loved. Everything's in divine order."
And I learned about choice again. I was given a choice. I was told and it wasn't the worst words, "You can feel like God ripped away your family and you can be angry all your life about that or you can choose to feel guilty and beat yourself up for the rest of your life because you were driving the car, or in this perfect design moment, you can choose to give your son back, to literally give him back and let go. In fact, you can give your wife back too if you choose. And that way you're exercising your will."
And of course, my upbringing said, "Well, yeah, but isn't it thy will be done?" And the answer said, "My will is your will. What do you choose? How do you choose to experience what's going on?" And in all that love, in all that beauty, and all that peace, I was able to kiss my little boy and give him back.
Julie Mirlicourtois: Even though his perspective changed, Jeff admits he felt homesick for an entire decade. He couldn't shake the emptiness. He wondered, "Where's the love in this realm? Where's the connection?" He longed for those divine arms he felt in heaven. But there were moments like the first time he came home from the hospital that reminded him of heaven.
Jeff Olsen: I saw Spencer, who was only seven years old, he's peeking out the window watching his uncles, you know, my brothers, lift his dad, me, and put me in the wheelchair, and I thought, "How is he going to accept this? How is he going to deal with me like this?" I was the rough-and-tumble dad and now I'm in a wheelchair with one leg and one arm that works.
Well, he came running out of the house and he came running toward me, but sure enough, he ran right past me. He just went right peeew, right past me. And I thought, Well, I knew it would be hard for him. And I just picked over my shoulder to see what Spencer was doing. And actually, yes, he had run by me, but what he was doing is he had run across the street and was knocking on all the neighbors' doors and he was saying, "Come out, come out, my dad's home. My dad made it home. Come see my dad."
So I realized, in all my judgment of my condition, he was so happy to have me there. And eventually, he did run and he threw himself on my lap. He wrapped his arms around me, and I held him and I said, you know, "It's going to be like this for a while. Are you going to be okay?" And he said, "Dad, if you are nothing but a puddle of blood, I would still love you." I just burst into tears, you know. This was one of those moments where here I am in a wheelchair holding my living son in this realm and it was no less divine than when I held my son that passed in that realm. I mean, suddenly heaven is right here.
Julie Mirlicourtois: Jeff was fitted with a prosthetic limb and he learned to walk again. And one day he walked into the New Yorker restaurant in Salt Lake City when he saw Tanya for the first time.
Jeff Olsen: It was an absolute déja vu. It's like that lightning bolt hit me.
Julie Mirlicourtois: Today, Tanya and Jeff are married and they're raising two adopted sons. In March 2018, Jeff released a book called Knowing. In it, he explores how his experiences in the afterlife have guided him to a life of purpose and gratitude.
John Burke: I think the point is love. That's what God revealed to Moses. That's what Jesus said, to love God is first, to love people as much as we do ourselves is second. And that sums up the whole Bible. And if that's true, though, we have to be free. We have to truly have a free will because you can't force love. You can put a gun to someone's head that you love and say, "Love me." And they could fake it but we all know you can't force it. And I think God created us to be able to love the creator, which means He doesn't force us.
Eric Huffman: Mm-hmm. You know, I've talked to skeptics who will hear Christian say things like that and they'll say, "If a God really loves us, then why not alleviate suffering? That would make it easier for us to believe in Him, that would make it easy for us to love Him and be happy."
John Burke: Well, and that actually gets for me into some of what I wrote about in Imagine Heaven. I think the only way to explain it is if God knows there's actually something far, far better and far, far worse than what we experience here.
When my daughter was five years old, I remember sitting on the couch one night and my wife had her on her shoulders and was walking through a doorway and my daughter reached up and grabbed the doorway and flipped over backwards, came down on her head on the tile, and I heard the war shriek I've ever heard in my life. It's just like it tears me up even thinking about it.
Well, turns out she had subdural bleeding, which you can die from. Bleeding out of the skull, can pressure up the brain and kill you. So we had to take her to the hospital, they had to shoot her with dye to see what was going on. And that just terrified her.
But the horrible part was the next day they had to do it again to see if the bleeding had gone down. And she saw them coming at her with the needles and she just starts thrashing about and screaming. And the doctor looked at me and said, "Dad, you're going to have to hold her down." Oh, my gosh. I mean, I had the pen my little five-year-old daughter while she screamed and said, "Daddy, don't let them hurt me. Don't let them hurt me. Why are you letting them hurt me?" And she's crying and I'm crying. Because from her little five-year-old mind, why is Daddy hurting her?
But I knew that there's something much, much worse that could happen if I don't allow her to go through the short-term pain. And there's something much, much better if she's healed, right? There's life ahead, and one day she'll understand.
I think only in light of heaven do we make sense of the sufferings and the pains and the trials and the evils of this world and why God would allow it for a time. And yet, in the Scripture, he says He catches every tear and He suffers with us. This is the amazing thing about the claims of Jesus is that Jesus was foretold. And in Isaiah 53, one of the places it's foretold what this Messiah would do, and this is 680 years before Jesus came, He's going to come as the suffering servant. He's going to enter into our pain. He's going to take it on Himself, and through that, heal us. And not just 2,000 years ago. He still is in it with us today.
Eric Huffman: In Imagine Heaven, John tells the stories of three blind people who had near-death experiences. One of them is Vicki. When she was killed in a car accident, she says she left her body and could see for the first time. It was the first time she saw herself, but she was on an operating room table. She only knew it was her body from the engraving on her wedding ring and her long hair.
John Burke: She ends up going through what she called, and many people talk about it, like a tunnel or a pathway. They describe it different ways. I kind of wonder, as an engineer scientist, is that like a wormhole from outer space-time dimensions into God's expanded dimensions? I don't know.
Eric Huffman: Fifth dimension.
John Burke: But she comes out in this place and it's like a garden of grass and trees and flowers and people. And there she sees... And she said, in the light... Now this is the thing that's crazy. They say the light comes out of things and the light is palpable. It's not light like we have. It's not hard to look at. And the light is love and the light is life and it's coming out of things. So then she sees Jesus, who she said is brighter than all of them. This is common: brighter than the sun, but easy to look at.
Eric Huffman: Jesus is in all of these?
John Burke: Yes, in all of these. And what's interesting, all around the globe, even if they don't recognize them as Jesus, they describe Him the same way.
Eric Huffman: Is that right?
John Burke: Brilliant. Brighter than the sun, love like they've never experienced, know their every thought and motive.
Eric Huffman: Non-Christians?
John Burke: Oh, yeah. And by the way, Isaiah, one of the Old Testament prophets, says there's no need of sun or moon in heaven for the glory of God is its light, and the lamb, referring to Jesus, illuminates it, and the nations will walk in that light.
Eric Huffman: Wow.
John Burke: And God is love. And so His glory is His light and the life and love and it's coming out of us.
Eric Huffman: So I got a couple of questions.
John Burke: Well, let me finish Vicki's story.
Eric Huffman: Okay, finish your story.
John Burke: Because the Vicki story is so good. So in Jesus' presence, she describes Him. He's got a beard. Light's coming out of the beard. He has a robe on. She describes Him and He gives her a life review. So that's another commonality is they relive their lives.
Eric Huffman: Kind of in a judgmental way?
John Burke: No, but they see it for what it truly is. They see the good and the bad. They see the impact of every little action and its ripple effects. And every interaction with each person, they didn't just see their interaction with that person, they felt what that person felt.
Eric Huffman: Wow.
John Burke: For some, they are condemning themselves because they realize, "Oh my gosh, I know what it's all about now. It really is all about love and how we treat one another. And why was I that way? Why?" And they all come back knowing that. They all come back knowing if they'd experience God, they experience the God of love and they know what He wants is for us to love one another. There's no doubt about that.
Eric Huffman: When Vicki was resuscitated, she was still blind, but now she could physically describe people that she knew from having seen them in her life review. And she described them in ways that only a seeing person could. Now, this is where things get even stranger. Not everyone who comes back from the dead comes back with an uplifting story about light and love. Some people cross over into a much darker and more desperate place.
John Burke: If you think about this world then as a diminutive world, it's a shrunk-down experience of real life so that the highs aren't as high and the lows aren't as low. We only know the little tastes of love and joy and peace we get here. But what if it's like nothing compared to the feast we're designed to have? But also, we only get a little taste of humans playing God, right?
And honestly, I think that is the root of all evil, is that we all want to be God. I want my will and ways done. So it's every man, woman, and child for themselves rule. So what if we're experiencing a small glimpse of hell? But what might it be like when people are given free reign without any of the love or light or joy or all the good gifts God's given? Imagine. Imagine the worst prison times a thousand.
Eric Huffman: Yeah. It's your daughter on the table at the hospital, you know, with the needle. And the needle at that moment seems like the worst possible thing. But you know, because you see it from a different vantage point, there is much worse.
John Burke: Yeah. So from God's perspective, if He sees that, then He allows us to go through it because truly, I think this is a time of choosing.
Eric Huffman: People usually think about the afterlife as a new beginning. If you were good in this life, you get your new beginning in paradise. But if you were bad in this life, you start from scratch in hell. But as John spoke, I began to wonder, what if the afterlife really isn't something totally new and different? What if it's really an amplified continuation of life as we know it? What if the happiness we feel in this life all the joy of friends and food, family and wine, love and sex, what if it's only a fraction of the pleasure we'll know on the other side? I like that idea. But if that's what we're saying, then it stands to reason that all the darkness we experience on this earth, the loneliness and self-loathing and the violence, it could also be infinitely magnified in hell.
Eric Huffman: We talked to a survivor who experienced the dark side of the afterlife.
Howard: I was art professor in Northern Kentucky University, I was married and had two kids, and was having some small success as a professional artist. I was an atheist and I thought I was living the American dream, you know, two cars, a house, a dog.
Julie Mirlicourtois: In 1985, Howard and his wife took a group of students to Paris for three weeks. On the last day of the trip, standing in his hotel room, Howard cried out in pain.
Howard: I had a perforation of the small stomach called duoden. I didn't know that at the time. I knew that I was experiencing the most intense pain I've ever had in my entire life.
Julie Mirlicourtois: An ambulance raced him to the hospital in critical condition. Doctors told him he needed emergency surgery within an hour or he'd die, but no surgeons were available to help. Howard says he waited for 10 hours without any pain medications.
Howard: The pain which had taken me to the ground, screaming and kicking in terror got worse and worse and ten times worse and twenty times and a hundred times worse. I was struggling to stay alive because I was very terrified of the prospect of dying because I knew, like any sane, rational person, that when you die, you're dead and that's it. And there wasn't anything else. I was 100% convinced that death was just like turn the lights switch off and it's over. We are an electrochemical organism. When that ceases to function, there's no more function.
At 8:30 that night, a nurse came into the room and said they were enabled to locate a doctor and they were trying to get one the next day. And 4 hours I have been struggling to stay alive. And when she said that, it was like that was it? I mean, no more hope.
The doctors in the U.S. told me my maximum life expectancy was 5 hours. So I'd fought the good fight and I was done. I mean, I was, you know, physically, emotionally exhausted, spent. I said goodbye to my wife and I closed my eyes and went unconscious. I don't know how long I was unconscious, of course, but I don't think very long.
When I awoke and I found myself standing in the room feeling better than I'd ever felt my entire life, completely bodily intact. I felt wonderful. And then I noticed that there was a piece of me in the bed that I'd been in. And when I looked at the face that was turned away from me, it looked just like me. Which was very disturbing because I knew that I was alive, standing there looking at this thing and I knew that that thing was gone. I tried to speak to my wife, she didn't acknowledge my existence, which made me very angry because I thought she was punishing me for giving her such a bad day.
I heard people calling me by name outside the and room. So I went over to the doorway and they were saying, "Hurry up. Let's go, We're waiting for you." And I said, "I'm sick. I have been waiting for a doctor. I'm supposed to get surgery." And they said, "We know all about you. We've been waiting for you for a long time. Hurry up. Let's go."
So I thought that meant that they were going to take me to surgery and I left the room and went with them and they took me on a very, very long journey. We walked into complete darkness and I was terrified because they had become very rude and crude towards me. And I said, "I'm not going to go with you any further." And they said, "Oh, you've got further to go, keep going." And I refused to. So they started to push and pull at me and I fought back with them.
Julie Mirlicourtois: What did they look like?
Howard: They were men and women, no children. The more I resisted it, the more they enjoyed tormenting me. And this went on for a very, very long time, then biting and tearing and invading me in every way that they could, and which I eventually was all ripped up on the ground of that place, unable to even respond to when I'm being tricked anymore.
Julie Mirlicourtois: Did you feel pain in the moment?
Howard: Oh, yeah, terrible. But the worst pain was the psychological pain, having that. I don't talk about it actually. I've never told anyone what really happened, and I can't talk about it now.
Eric Huffman: We're going to save the rest of Howard's journey for next week's episode. I'll also be talking to John about the question on everybody's mind who gets to go to heaven and who has to go to hell and why. If you have questions or feedback about part one of this episode, email us at [email protected]. And as always, guys, thank you so much for listening to Maybe God.
Julie Mirlicourtois: Maybe God is produced by Eric Huffman, Brandon Duke, and me, Julie Mirlicourtois. Our sound engineers are Pat Laughrey and Aubrey Schneider. Our editor is Brittany Holland, music is by Nathan Bonus, and our intern is Caroline Love. If you have questions or doubts that you'd like us to address in upcoming episodes of Maybe God, email us at [email protected] or start a discussion with us on our Facebook page, Maybe God Podcast. And don't forget to subscribe now on Apple Podcast or your favorite podcast app.