The After Death film comes out this week, and many people are already talking about it. This article isn’t an After Death film review in the sense of being an evaluation of its cinematic aspects. I’m commenting on the stories from the film as well as its general topic: “Scientists, authors, and survivors of near-death experiences discuss the spiritual and scientific dimensions of mortality and the afterlife.”
The film isn’t even out yet, so I haven’t seen it. But, I did watch a “preview” video that features “the world’s foremost experts on near-death experiences” (NDEs) whose stories are told in After Death. I’ll review what the video relays, as it offers a sampling of the film. I’m familiar with many NDE stories, including two featured in the film, as I’ve read Don Piper’s and Mary C. Neal’s books.
Reviewing the Film’s Storytellers
First, I want to say that I believe all of these people are sincere in their experiences, in their motivations, and in their walk with God. I have no reason to believe that they’re just making stuff up. I have no reason to doubt their love for God and desire to honor Him.
As I watched the video about the After Death film, the enthusiasm for witnessing and evangelism touched me. Each storyteller believes that his or her experience can positively inform and encourage people about the love and hope that God provides.
Reviewing the Film’s Stories
Next, I want to review the film’s stories and NDEs in general. To evaluate them and determine their truth, we should wrestle with several questions:
- What are we actually talking about? NDEs or ADEs?
- What does the Bible say about the state of being dead?
- Are after-death experiences in the Bible?
- Are literal NDEs possible?
- What’s the source of literal NDEs?
- What are your paradigms?
- Is the Bible sufficient?
Let’s take a look at each question.
What Are We Actually Talking About? NDEs or ADEs?
The term “near-death experience” implies that the person is near death, not that they’re dead. That difference is huge. The people featured in the After Death film use the terms “near-death experience” and “NDE” to refer to their own experiences, but they all said they had these experiences when they were dead. Then, they say, they came back to life. So, it seems that “NDE” is a misnomer for their experiences.
This could just be an insignificant matter of semantics. But, the difference between “near death” and “dead” is significant both biblically and scientifically.
What Does the Bible Say about the State of Being Dead?
The Bible likens death to sleep. It records zero experiences that people had when they were dead. Instead, it teaches that nothing is going on for people who are dead:
- “In death there is no remembrance of You; in Sheol [the grave] who will give You thanks?” (Psalm 6:5)
- “What profit is there in my death, if I go down to the pit? Will the dust give You thanks? Will it declare Your truth?” (Psalm 30:9)
- “The dead do not praise the Lord, nor do any who go down into silence.” (Psalm 115:17)
- “His breath leaves him, and he returns to the earth; on that very day his plans perish.” (Psalm 146:4)
- “The living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing.” (Ecclesiastes 9:5)
Don Piper believes that, in heaven, he saw people who had preceded him in death. He and other After Death film storytellers talk about worshipping God in heaven when they were dead. In stark contrast, the Bible talks about death as a silent, unconscious state. (The dictionary defines unconsciousness as “lacking awareness and the capacity for sensory perception as if asleep or dead.”)
Are After-Death Experiences in the Bible?
Does the Bible include any accounts of after-death experiences? I can think of two occasions that might look as though they fit into this category. So, let’s take a close look at them.
Moses after Death
“Moses, the servant of the Lord, died there in the land of Moab” (Deuteronomy 34:5). “Jesus took with Him Peter and James and John and led them up a high mountain. … There appeared to them Elijah with Moses. And they were talking with Jesus” (Mark 9:2,4).
Was Moses having an after-death experience? Jude 1:9 sheds light on the matter with this one-of-a-kind account: “Michael the archangel, when contending with the devil in a dispute about the body of Moses, did not dare to pronounce upon him a railing judgment.” It’s also helpful that, in the account of Jesus’s transfiguration, Moses appears with Elijah, whom we know to be alive and in heaven (“Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven” [2 Kings 2:11]). Both men appeared to be in the same state.
Based on what we know about Moses’s experience and the state of death, the best explanation is that God raised Moses and took him to heaven. So, Moses appeared after he had died and was resurrected, but not when he was dead. It’s also notable that he wasn’t a disembodied spirit or soul.
Samuel after Death?
King Saul believed that Samuel prophesied to him when Samuel was dead. Here’s one of the problems with that: “Saul inquired of the Lord, but the Lord did not answer him by dreams, or by lots, or by prophets. Then said Saul to his servants, ‘Seek for me a woman who is a medium, that I may go to her and inquire of her’ (1 Samuel 28:6-7).
If anyone prophesied to Saul, it wasn’t God; it was the devil. That’s why God prohibited people from consulting mediums (see Leviticus 19:31). Samuel died faithful to God, and the Hebrews 11 hall of faith includes him; surely, he wasn’t possessed by the devil after his death. So, this couldn’t have been Samuel.
Why Not Lazarus and Jesus?
The Bible records several resurrections; people died, and God raised them to life again. The deaths and resurrections we have the most information about are those of Lazarus and Jesus. The Bible says nothing about any experiences they had when they were dead.
It’s also notable that there’s no indication that Lazarus or Jesus went to heaven when they died. Jesus did not tell His disciples, “Our friend Lazarus has gone to heaven. But I am going that I may bring him back.” Instead, He said, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep. But I am going that I may awaken him from sleep” (John 11:11). After Jesus rose again, He said, “I have not yet ascended to My Father” (John 20:17). It would seem that, if Lazarus or Jesus had experienced anything at all when they were dead, the Bible would have a record of it. But, that’s not at all how the accounts go.
What about the Fabled Lazarus?
You might be thinking, What about the other Lazarus? Luke 16 records a parable that Jesus told about an unnamed rich man and a poor man named Lazarus. The story says that Lazarus died and “was carried by the angels to Abraham’s presence.” At a glance, it might seem that this teaches that people go to heaven and have experiences when they die. But, that’s not the best explanation for the story based on several reasons, including these:
- This is a parable rather than a literal happening (it doesn’t even make sense as a literal happening).
- The parable’s lesson is that financial status and salvation aren’t connected.
- The death and hell elements of the story are completely inconsistent with the Bible’s teaching on those matters.
Are Literal NDEs Possible?
I hope it’s clear from what the Bible teaches that it’s impossible for people to experience anything when they’re dead. So, perhaps what the After Death film’s storytellers experienced occurred when they were only near death and not dead. In other words, the instances were actual near-death rather than after-death experiences. Now we’re getting closer to something supported by both science and the Bible.
It’s a well-established fact that people can be brought back from the brink of death, and recent science indicates that extraordinary things can occur in the mind when a person is dying. Consider this finding reported in a May 2023 Newsmax article titled “Science Detects ‘Surge of Consciousness’ at Death”: “We now have a pretty good handle for potentially explaining why you see a very bright light, why something is realer than real, why it is possible that somebody could be having an out-of-body experience, why somebody could see or think they saw their relatives, but it’s coming from their own memory.”
We all have information stored in our memory that we don’t recall; we don’t even know it’s there. So, it’s possible for people to have extraordinary cognitive experiences when they’re near death. That could explain at least some so-called NDEs. Based on what we know, we can’t assume that all NDEs are supernatural.
What’s the Source of NDEs?
That being said, some NDEs seem to include elements that are supernatural, such as information that couldn’t possibly come from someone’s memory. While we can’t assume that all NDEs are supernatural, some probably are. But, we can’t assume that all supernatural experiences are from God. The Bible records supernatural events (such as Saul and the medium) that are attributed to the devil rather than God. “Satan disguises himself as an angel of light” (2 Corinthians 11:14).
The After Death film’s storytellers are eager to have us believe that they experienced something supernatural, but (at least in this interview) they don’t acknowledge the possibility that the devil rather than God could be behind their experiences. We must examine and understand all supernatural happenings, and it’s not safe to assume they’re all from God.
So, how can we know where supernatural experiences are coming from? Perhaps the best test is whether or not they’re consistent with what the Bible teaches. If they’re inconsistent with biblical teaching, they must be from the one who seeks to deceive us.
As I mentioned earlier, Don Piper said he saw people in heaven who had died. But, the Bible doesn’t teach that we go to heaven when we die. 1 Thessalonians 4 says that the dead in Christ and the redeemed who are alive when He returns will go to heaven together. Hebrews 11:39-40 says that the redeemed included in the hall of faith “did not receive the promise. For God provided something better for us, so that with us they would be made perfect.” This echoes the 1 Thessalonians passage, which says that all of the redeemed will receive eternal life (immortality) only when Jesus returns.
Next, let’s look at a few things that Dale Black (another man featured in the After Death film) said about death, based on his experience.
“I was a spirit. I had a soul.”
Black said he had this realization during his after-death experience. In contrast, the Bible says that “God is spirit” (John 4:24) and that human beings result from the combination of body and spirit: “The Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living soul” (Genesis 2:7). Body + spirit = soul. So, we aren’t spirits; we are enlivened by God’s spirit. We don’t have souls; we are souls. In the Bible, a soul is simply a living person.
“I used to live in that body.”
Here, Black seems to say that he was disembodied in his after-death experience; he said he saw his body when he looked down. As far as I’m aware, the only bit of scripture that might seem to mention a person without a body is 2 Corinthians 12, in which Paul wrote, “I knew a man in Christ over fourteen years ago — whether in the body or out of the body I cannot tell, God knows — such a one was caught up to the third heaven” (verses 2-3). However, the context isn’t death (either near death or after death); the context is “visions and revelations” (verse 1). Paul was writing about a vision or a revelation that God had given him.
Based on the context of the passage (and the teaching of the whole Bible), perhaps the best way to interpret this is that Paul didn’t know whether he was physically or mentally taken to heaven. Perhaps Paul figured that God could have taken him there bodily or simply in a vision. If that’s the case, it’s interesting that Paul couldn’t make that distinction, which would indicate how powerful the mental experience was; what seemed tangible could have been all in his mind.
“You’re already in eternity.”
Black also made this statement in the video interview. In contrast, 1 Corinthians 15:52-53 says that the redeemed “will put on immortality” “at the last trumpet” (when Jesus returns). Over and over, the Bible talks about eternal life as a contingent and future reality.
“Once the body had died, we were, as Dr. Mary [Neal] just said, not only alive but more alive. You will never die.”
Frankly, this one makes me shudder. Here’s why:
“The Lord God commanded the man, saying, ‘ … You will surely die.’ … The serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not surely die! For God knows that, on the day you eat of it, your eyes will be opened and you will be like God'” (Genesis 2:17,3:4-5).
I’m afraid that what Dale Black and Mary Neal said sounds very much like the lie the devil told Eve. Now, I want to pause here and say that I have no reason to doubt that the After Death film storytellers are sincere Christian people. I think they would be horrified if they thought they were perpetuating the devil’s deception.
The doctrine of soul immortality has been in mainstream Christianity so long, most assume it must come from the Bible. Sadly, historians know more about this than many pastors do. The doctrine came into Christianity in the third and fourth centuries through theologians heavily influenced by Greek philosphers (especially Plato and Pythagoras). The Greeks got the teaching from Egyptian pagans. Keep tracing the concept of the immortal soul back in time, and you’ll end up at the tree of knowledge.
What Are Your Paradigms?
Our paradigms — our frameworks for understanding — are extraordinarily important. They contain lenses through which we see, and they entail premises upon which we build our beliefs. I see at least two paradigms at work here: (1) afterlife vs. death and resurrection, and (2) heaven and hell vs. life and death.
Afterlife vs. Death and Resurrection
The After Death film producers and storytellers appear to have an “immortal soul” paradigm. This paradigm says that, when you die, you don’t die; you go on living in some other place or form (or both). Maybe they don’t use the term “immortal soul,” and they might not believe that we always existed (only that we’ll never stop living once we’re alive). But, they use the term “afterlife,” which indicates that death is actually life. As Black put it, “You will never die.” Jason Pamer, one of the film’s producers, said that God “created the afterlife.”
But, as we’ve seen, the Bible doesn’t teach that there’s an afterlife. Instead, it tells us that the devil planted that idea in Eve’s head. While the Bible doesn’t teach that there’s life after death, it does teach that there’s life after resurrection. The afterlife is the devil’s paradigm; death and resurrection is God’s paradigm.
Heaven and Hell vs. Life and Death
After Black said, “You will never die,” he went on to say, “The only question is where you will go when you die.” Notice how, in that paradigm, our eternal destiny is a matter of location. The implication is that we’ll go to heaven or hell.
The Bible talks an awful lot about our eternal destiny. But, do you know how many times it puts the concepts of heaven and hell together? About four. Do you know how many of those instances are in the context of our eternal destiny? Zero. No passage talks about “going to heaven or hell” when we die or any other time.
A few verses talk about Jesus taking the redeemed to heaven when He returns, and the Bible indicates that they’ll be there for a thousand years before going to the new earth where they’ll spend the remainder of eternity. Many verses talk about people going down to the grave when they die; sometimes the word is translated as “hell.” At times, the context is the second death (the wages of sin) rather than the first death.
So, I’m not saying that the Bible doesn’t talk about heaven and hell. What I’m saying is that it doesn’t talk about them together in the context of eternal destiny. Instead, it talks about life and death. Consider John 3:16 and Romans 6:23, perhaps two of the best-known texts about eternal destiny. These are just the tip of the iceberg. While you won’t find any heaven-and-hell passages about eternal destiny, you’ll find countless life-and-death passages about eternal destiny from Genesis to Revelation.
The devil’s paradigm is all about location: what matters is where you end up — heaven or hell. God’s paradigm is all about status: what matters is how you end up — alive or dead. Once I made this paradigm switch in my own mind, everything came into sharper focus and made far more sense.
Is the Bible Sufficient?
The After Death film producers and storytellers want to inform and comfort people about death and eternity. They’re putting their stories out there because they want to give people hope. I admire and share that desire. Mary C. Neal said, “My heart is for people who are still trying to figure out if there really is a spiritual world, and I can assure you there is.”
Again, I admire and appreciate her heart. But, we cannot and must not use unbiblical teachings in an attempt to inform and encourage others. I think again of the account of Lazarus’s death. When he died, Jesus didn’t try to comfort Lazarus’s sister Martha by saying, “Your brother is in a better place. He’s more alive than ever!” Instead, Jesus said, “‘Your brother will rise again.’ Martha said to Him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day’” (John 11:24). If it were true that Lazarus had simply passed over into heaven, it seems that Jesus and Martha would at least mention it. Instead, their hope was in the resurrection at Jesus’s return.
My heart, too, is for people who are trying to figure out if there’s a God and if there’s hope for the future. But, I find sufficient knowledge and comfort in God’s word. I’ll take Paul’s advice, and leave you with 1 Thessalonians 4:16-18.
“The Lord Himself will descend from heaven. … And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we shall be forever with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words.”