The reality of death comes calling on everyone. People fear it or try to deny it. Do we have only one life and when we die, we cease to exist? What is the reliable evidence for the existence of an afterlife? What is the biblical perspective on reincarnation, universalism, and annihilationism? What are the exclusivity claims of Christ? If Heaven is real, what’s it like? How will we spend our time there? And what does it mean to see God face to face? Does the consideration of Heaven stand up to intense investigative scrutiny?
Bible Gateway interviewed Lee Strobel (@LeeStrobel) about his book and 5-session video study, The Case for Heaven: A Journalist Investigates Evidence for Life After Death (Zondervan, 2021).
What event in your life caused you to seriously explore the question of whether life continues after death?
Lee Strobel: The impetus for The Case for Heaven goes back 10 years when I almost died. My wife Leslie found me unconscious and called an ambulance. When I awakened in the emergency room, the doctor said, “You’re one step away from a coma, two steps away from dying.” Then I fell unconscious again. I was suffering from hyponatremia, a severe drop in my blood sodium level. I hovered over the border between life and death until the doctors were able to save me.
This turned out to be a very clarifying experience. It caused me to ask how confident I was that Heaven is real. As a Christian, I had faith in the biblical accounts of the afterlife, but as a skeptic I was haunted by the question of whether these accounts are consistent with science, history, and philosophy. I embarked on extensive research that ultimately resulted in my new book.
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Do you believe it’s possible to know with reasonable certainty that there is an afterlife?
Lee Strobel: Yes, I do. The Bible says in 1 John 5:13: “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life” (emphasis added). That means we can know with certainty that when we close our eyes for the last time in this world, we can be confident we’ll open them in the presence of God, if we’re followers of Jesus.
There are good reasons to believe the Bible is reliable and therefore its teachings on the afterlife should be trusted. For instance, we have compelling historical evidence that Jesus proved by his resurrection that he’s the unique Son of God. Therefore, his teachings on the afterlife are definitive. And what does he say about it? He says in John 6:40: “For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.”
Your book talks about two phases of Heaven. What do you mean by that?
Lee Strobel: The apostle Paul said in 2 Corinthians 5:8 that to be absent from body is to be immediately present with Lord. In Luke 23:43, Jesus told repentant criminal on cross: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
That means there are, indeed, two phases to our afterlife. The first stage is the Intermediate State or present heaven. When we die, our soul separates from our physical body and lives on, either with God in paradise or apart from him in Hades. The second stage begins when Jesus returns at end of history and the “new heavens and new earth” appear. This is when we receive our resurrected body, undergo final judgment, and ultimately spend eternity in a very physical place: Heaven or Hell.
In your research, did you find confirmation that our consciousness, or soul, does survive our physical death?
Lee Strobel: Yes, I believe that the phenomenon of Near-Death Experiences (NDE) shows beyond a reasonable doubt that our consciousness does continue to live on after our clinical death. I was skeptical about NDEs at first, but I discovered there are over 900 scholarly articles on the topic published in scientific and medical journals over the last 40 years. It’s a well-researched subject.
What specifically did you discover?
Lee Strobel: I wasn’t particularly interested in cases where people claim they died and went to Heaven and met Jesus, because I can’t corroborate that. But we do have many cases in which there’s powerful corroboration that our consciousness survives death. In other words, people are clinically dead and yet their spirit lives on and they see or hear things they would otherwise be incapable of seeing or hearing.
Lee Strobel: Researcher Kimberly Clark Sharp describes the out-of-body experience of a heart attack victim named Maria. During the time Marie was flat-lined, her spirit drifted through the ceiling and outside the hospital.
When her spirit returned to her body, she said that on the hospital roof there was a man’s tennis shoe, left footed, dark blue, with a wear mark over the little toe, and a shoelace tucked under the heel. Sharp investigated, and sure enough, she found the shoe exactly as Maria described it.
Then there’s the case of Pamela Reynolds, a 35-year-old mother from Atlanta who underwent a rare surgery for a brain aneurysm in 1991. Every drop of blood was drained from her head for the operation. Three clinical tests confirmed her brain had ceased to function, and her heart and breathing had stopped. She was clinically dead. What’s more, they plugged her ears with speakers emitting 100 decibels of noise—that’s like a subway train roaring past. The surgical instruments were covered prior to surgery and her eyes were taped shut.
Yet after her surgery she said she was very much alive the entire time. She said she watched the operation from outside her body. She described going through a tunnel, talking to deceased relatives, standing awe-struck in the very light of God, and being sent back to her body to wake up.
And here’s the corroboration: she correctly described the extremely unusual surgical instruments in minute detail, including the fact that a certain drill had a dent in it. In addition, she accurately remembered a female voice saying during the operation: “We have a problem. Her arteries are too small,” and a male voice responding: “Try the other side.”
Noted Christian philosopher J.P. Moreland said: “It is hard to see how an honest seeker of truth would not be persuaded by this evidence that God, the soul, and Heaven are real.”
Her story is far from unique. One researcher studied 93 patients who made verifiable observations while out of their physical bodies during a NDEs. A remarkable 92% of the observations were completely accurate, while another 6% were almost totally accurate.
In one remarkable study, researchers examined 21 blind people—nearly half of them blind since birth—and most of them said they could actually see during their NDE—describing things they otherwise would not have been able to observe. Said a medical researcher: “This is impossible according to current medical knowledge.”
Are all Near-Death Experiences pleasant?
Lee Strobel: No, almost a quarter of them range from disturbing to terrifying. For example, there’s the case of Howard Storm, an atheist and head of the art department at a secular university. He died and then said he was horribly mauled by demons to where he was reduced to roadkill. He said later: “There has never been a horror movie that can begin to describe their cruelty.”
In midst of the assault, he called out to Jesus and was rescued. When he was revived, he not only renounced his atheism and became a Christian, but he resigned his tenured professorship and became the ordained pastor of a small rural church, where he serves to this day.
Aren’t there alternative explanations to NDEs?
Lee Strobel: I used to think so. But an article in the British medical journal, The Lancet, confirmed that no alternative explanations can fully account for the phenomenon. All other theories “fail to explain the experience of an enhanced consciousness, with lucid thoughts, emotions, memories from earliest childhood, visions of the future, and the possibility of perception from a position outside & above the body.”
And here’s the kicker: The Case for Heaven includes an interview with John Burke, a Christian pastor who studied more than a thousand NDEs over 35 years and concluded that if we look at what actually occurs and not how it’s interpreted, NDEs are consistent with Christian theology.
He told me: “Even though they vary a fair amount, these accounts have a common core—and, incredibly, it’s entirely consistent with what we’re told about the afterlife in the Bible.”
I’m not saying I base my theology of the afterlife on NDEs. I don’t. I take a minimalist approach that says based on what we can corroborate, NDEs prove beyond a reasonable doubt that our consciousness or soul endures after our clinical death.
That’s just one area I explore in The Case for Heaven. I also have two chapters on Hell, and I analyze the claims of reincarnation. In addition, I did the last interview with the great evangelist Luis Palau before he died.
What’s the most memorable thing Luis Palau told you?
Lee Strobel: I’ll never forget him saying: “I can tell you from personal experience that at the end of your life, when all is said and done, you’ll never regret being courageous for Christ.” Frankly, that will stick with me forever.
The Case for Heaven is published by HarperCollins Christian Publishing, Inc., the parent company of Bible Gateway.
Bio: Atheist-turned-Christian Lee Strobel is a former award-winning legal editor of the Chicago Tribune and The New York Times bestselling author of more than 40 books and curricula—including The Case for Christ—that have sold 14 million copies. He was described in The Washington Post as “one of the evangelical community’s most popular apologists.” He currently leads the Lee Strobel Center for Evangelism and Applied Apologetics at Colorado Christian University. Lee and his wife, Leslie, have been married for nearly 50 years. Visit him at LeeStrobel.com.
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