An Episcopal priest is transformed by what he learns about first-hand accounts of heaven.
- Posted on Mar 20, 2013
It might seem odd that a man of the cloth would doubt heaven. Stranger still that he would dismiss accounts of near-death experiences as fevered dreams, hallucinations, neurological phenomena in the right temporal lobe or the last wishful thinking of the dying.
Yet such a man was the Reverend John W. Price, an Episcopal priest. And he wasn’t alone. The aspiring clergy he studied with in seminary didn’t really give heaven much thought. They’d barely touched on the subject in classes.
He was taught about the concept of the eternal soul and the need for salvation. But what was heaven like? Could anyone in the world of the living know? Heaven was an abstraction, a fairly irrelevant one at that. What use was talk of heaven when people struggled so hard with life on earth?
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“I come from a family of engineers,” says Price. “I was a rational materialist.” It was his family’s professional background, he believes, that influenced his early thinking as a priest. Price’s faith was grounded in facts, or as grounded as faith can be in the earthly life of the soul.
Perhaps the skepticism of a priest is more profound than that of a nonbeliever. “I rarely preached about heaven,” Price says. “In fact, I was uncomfortable with the subject.”
Who were we humans, he wondered, to think we could imagine the trappings of eternal life? It seemed so unlikely, so contrary to his deeply held conviction that the barrier between the earthly and the heavenly was impregnable. Death was not a revolving door.
Yet records of near-death experiences (NDEs) abound, going back centuries before Christ. Ninety percent of Americans believe in an afterlife and 15 percent say they have had an NDE, according to a Gallup poll.
Recent books like Heaven Is for Real and Proof of Heaven have become runaway best sellers in the secular marketplace. Millions of people claim to have stood at the threshold of paradise only to be returned to life on earth. Could all this simply be written off as spiritual folklore?
That’s what Price thought as his career in ministry progressed, even if he couldn’t avoid the stories and their central tropes: a tunnel of light or even a being of light, reunion with loved ones, an intense experience of peace and unconditional love more transcendent and all-enveloping than anything imaginable on earth, and then the pronouncement that the time had not yet come and the dying person was returned to life, relieved not so much to be alive again but to have been reassured of a loving, accepting God on the other side of death.
Price struggled to find an evidence-based explanation. Couldn’t these experiences be some sort of collective consciousness, a culturally conditioned way the mind soothes itself at the moment of death, a denial of its finality?
He began to find answers when he picked up Raymond Moody’s classic work, Life After Life. Moody, who coined the phrase near-death experience, meticulously recorded more than 100 cases of people who went through clinical death only to return with strikingly similar accounts of what they believed was heaven.
Moody’s research, and his passion for the truth, impressed Price. If these glimpses of heaven were real, what did they mean? Why would God reveal such a marvelous thing to so few?
Then one story changed everything. Price was serving as a military chaplain when he met a soldier named Alberto, who told him about the mysterious experience that had led him to the National Guard. Alberto had dropped out of school, run away from home and descended into drug addiction.
“Then one night at a party...I overdosed.” It should have killed him. In fact, it did. Momentarily. Alberto said his soul, or at least his nonphysical being, ascended to another dimension, another realm, where he met a man “made of light,” standing with Alberto’s loved ones who had passed away.
The man showed Alberto, scene by scene, how he’d thrown away everything. Then he told Alberto it was not his time. He had killed himself with drugs but would be given another chance, a chance he must not let go to waste because it was God-given.
Alberto awoke to his shocked friends standing around him. “You were dead, man,” said one. “You stopped breathing. You were gone.”
“I never used drugs again,” Alberto told Price. He went back home, back to school, graduated and joined the National Guard.
Price could have easily dismissed it as a drug-induced hallucination. But hallucinations and fantasies did not change people. They did not make a hopeless addict suddenly alter his way of life. Only something as real as an actual encounter with heaven had that transformative power.
Everyone who traveled to that place of shadow and light, of infinite love, returned fearless. They had been forever unburdened of the most primal and universal human fear—the fear of death.
John Price soon became one of the people whose lives were irreversibly altered by an NDE . Over the next few years, other parishioners came to him with their stories. And now Price listened.
He sought out and interviewed hundreds of people who were granted a preview of heaven and the assurance that God was all-loving and all-forgiving, and that death was a kind of birth, a new being-ness, a freeing of the soul.
Many of his fellow clergy still share his early reluctance to discuss or explore the nature of heaven. Yet evidence of heaven, Price tells his colleagues, is all around us in experiences people are passionate about sharing.
If we can’t talk openly about the nature of heaven, what can we be trusted to talk about? Isn’t the most fundamental question of life what happens after we die?
Price has written a compelling book, Revealing Heaven: The Christian Case for Near-Death Experiences. It catalogues many of the NDEs he has studied and recorded.
“These experiences are precious and life-affirming,” Price explains. “In the end, nothing gives more meaning to our lives than what happens when we die.”
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