Saturday, 31 January 2009

90 Minutes In Heaven

Margaret in our Office lent me this book, 90 Minutes in Heaven by Don Piper, telling me that she had read it in one hit, unable to put it down. Me too. I read it in a sitting, and found it, in places, very moving. But a fascinating book is not necessarily a good book. This one is smallish, 205 pages, fairly well written by Piper's ghost writer Cecil Murphy, and quite undemanding. And it does seem strange, on reflection that a book which claims to tell of an actual trip to heaven and back should be undemanding.

In fact the time in Heaven occupies only 15 pages. There is a brief postscript which does some rudimentary analysis of the whole phenomenon of near death experiences, but by and large, the book is about Don Piper's accident and his gradual recovery from some horrific injuries. On the way home from a conference, while negotiating a two lane bridge, his little Ford Escort was run over by an eighteen wheeler . Piper was cursorily examined by paramedics, declared dead and left in the wreckage of his car for an hour and a half. He stayed there, apparently without a pulse, until another pastor prayed for him, whereupon his corpse breathed again, and he was cut from the wreckage by incredulous firemen. He says that in that 90 minute period he went to Heaven, and gives a brief account of his experience.

I have read many near death experiences. I have had very many people personally relate their own near death experiences to me - I have never served in a congregation where there is not at least two or three of them. I usually find these accounts intriguing and riveting. Strangely, I didn't find Piper's account to be so. He tells of a very literal Biblical heaven, with gates of actual pearl and streets of actual gold. There is the rustle of angels' wings and crowds of departed loved ones. There is a choir singing. All is described in superlatives with the constant admission of a failure to find words for the magnificence he beheld. There is no encounter with God, and no description of the angelic beings. This all left me a little cold. Give me CS Lewis any day.

What was moving, for me, was the long and honest account of his twenty year struggle with pain and with the depression caused by the limitations imposed by his injuries. Moving also was the very real testimony to the power of prayer: the prayer of the man at the time of his accident, the prayer of his friends and congregation throughout his ordeal, the prayer of thousands who had heard of Piper and interceded for him. He speaks with some insight about his own drivenness and inability to accept help. He recounts some of the ministry opportunites which his experiences have opened for him but there is surprisingly little reflection on how his ordeal had changed his view of God, the world and himself. Most surprisingly, given the book's title there is no real evidence that his experience of Heaven has changed him, other than by making his troubles seem all the worse in comparison.

Who knows what happens inside a human mind during moments of extreme duress, particularly if there is anaesthetics and/or physical trauma involved? Who knows whether the many reports of near death experiences are some sort of internal psychological phenomena or are perceptions of some great reality beyond our five senses? Some that I have heard I have suspected to be elaborate hallucinations or even downright fabrications.Some though, do seem to have the echo of somewhere else about them, and having just made that distinction, I am not at all certain that I can clearly elaborate the criteria on which I would judge; and those criteria certainly wouldn't be the incidental details of the recounted experience. If someone did have some encounter with the greater reality which lies beyond death, it would obviously have to be perceived, remembered and analysed in terms of what the person already knew; that is, it would be described in terms of this three dimensional reality whether that description quite fitted or not. If Don Piper did have a real experience of the beyond, of course he would have to remember it and describe it in the terms which are most familiar to him as a Southern Baptist preacher. When I hear accounts of near death experience it is not the details which most interest me, although they are sometimes fascinating. I am, rather, listening for two things: a sense of the transcendent and an impact on the person's life. People will describe their experience in terms of images and concepts they already know, but their description will have the feel of something that is not quite containable in the imagery they use. If you have stepped out of time and space, how do you tell anybody about it? Mostly though, it is the effect on people's lives that is the most persuasive. The fear of death and the conviction of our own mortality unconsciously informs much of what we think and do. When that fear is gone, as it is in many of those who report these encounters, there is a quality about them which is noticeable but not easily describable; it is a quality which I think would be impossible to fake, especially over a long period. These peoople aren't necessarily Saints or spiritual giants; but they know something, and it shows.

Does Don Piper know this? In truth, I wouldn't dare say without ever meeting the man in the flesh. He iseems to be personally convinced of the authenticity of his experience, but his book, for me, doesn't carry with it the rumour of Angels. It does however carry the testimony of faith and courage and the power of prayer. Which is not the same thing, but may in fact be better.


Janice said...

Honestly, Kelvin, I wouldn't read the book after your description, kind of reminds me of the Book of Mormon. I wonder if anyone has given you this possible explanation; the tunnel, the light, the beings at the end waiting to welcome one, are simply the birth process and a new beginning. The person who must come back simply leaves an opening for another soul to enter, or the baby at the other end simply isn't viable.
Of course anyone who thinks that this could be the explanation for the whole tunnel/light experience would have to entertain the notion of reincarnation, and I do. Does this make me a heretic?

VenDr said...

I hope I haven't been unfair. The book is interesting, and much of it is very worthwhile but I don't think it added much to my belief in or understanding of the afterlife. Incidentally he doesn't see the usual tunnel and great light. He seems to have a very Protestant Biblical perspective.

Of course reincarnation is a heresy - at least it is in some parts of the church, but I have had my certainty about it rattled a long time ago. Firstly by the birth of my son. Secondly by reading a very interesting book called Twenty Cases Suggestive Of Reincarnation which was a gathering of information by an American MD called Ian Stevenson which he treated as dispassionately and objectively as he could.It's fascinating stuff. Nevertheless I'm not sure about the tunnel of light thing being an experience of a new birth. It may well be an imposition of the memory of our last birth onto the data presented by the near death experience. The Tibetan Buddhists describe a class of states called Bardos which are sort of intermediary places - between sleep and wake, consciousness and unconsciousness and between life and death. They say we go to one of those and from there are born into one of a number of possible worlds.There is a bit of a hiatus, in other words. If reincarnation is true, this would seem to make more sense to me rather than just merely disappearing from one life and popping into another. But who knows?

Katherine said...

Oh I do so enjoy your posts Kelvin. They take me to my own thoughts on a subject, but shorn of my woolliness. And then a step or two on. Thanks.

Janice said...

I don't think you were unfair, Kelvin, I just get very impatient with things that don't ring true, and that goes for all written material. I remember trying to read The Celestine Prophecies a number of years back, couldn't get past page 2.
I always appreciate reading someone's assessment of a book, es-
pecially someone with your impeccable credentials!

The more I hear about Buddhist philosophy, the more I like it. It seems to give people an opportunity to be well rounded. It doesn't seem thaT there's time to learn much in one lifetime, considering how much there is to learn.

I guess it doesn't really matter what any of us believe, since we won't know until the moment comes, and even then, we might not know, we might just be gone into nothingness. No, I'm wrong, because if we believe in the latter, it would be a no hope kind of existance, so I choose to believe in hope, and in a God that cares about me and thee and all.
Goodnight and God bless!

Anonymous said...

It seems the reality of trying to describe one's near death experience stops many doing so. there is one almost universal benefit - the fear of death is gone. I have read many hundreds of accounts and most differ in the details but retain many common features. Don's account is based, to me anyway, on his own scepticism and his quest to make sense of the whole experience.
Yes there are many accounts more convincing of near death but the value of the book is very much in Don's subsequent journey. Craig

Rene Jorgensen said...

It's a good book and Piper should be congratulated for sharing his Near Death Experience. Only readers should be aware of one serious mistake he makes in the book which is to jump from hearing songs praising Jesus and meeting fellow Christians in heaven to religious fundamentalism. Research of Near Death Experiences show that there is no evidence to support that heaven is exclusively for Christians, or a narrow interpretation of the Bible, as experiences of heaven happen in all cultures and religions. Cross cultural studies of Near Death Experiences show that the Golden Rule truly means that we must love our neighbor - even if this person is of another faith - and "hell" is not something we can simply throw around when we disagree with people. If you have not fallen asleep in Christ and want to know what people who have Near Death Experiences truly experience in Heaven, have a look at my book Behind 90 Minutes in Heaven.

Anonymous said...

...please where can I buy a unicorn?

Anonymous said...

When the book first came out, there were websites quoting people who disputed Piper's descriptions of the car accident, his injuries, and what happened to him. Where did these pages go?

Why does his description so strongly disagree with the process described so clearly in the Bible in 1 Cor 15?