In 90 Minutes in Heaven Don Piper makes a false conclusion about his experience of heaven due to his pre-existing belief as a Christian. In the third chapter of the book he actually tells us that, “I did not see God. Although I knew God was there, I never saw any kind of image or luminous glow to indicate his divine presence…I only saw a bright iridescence.”
Piper clearly tells us that he “did not see God” and that he “only saw a bright iridescence.” This is standard in research of Near Death Experiences (NDEs) as people most commonly see what they call “the Light.” Based on this bright light Piper concludes that God was there, like most people do and 80 percent in my study did as well.
However, while this connection between the Light and God is generally accepted within Near Death Experience (NDE) research, Piper’s conclusion that this light is the God of the Bible is not accepted. And this is where he goes too far in his conclusion and takes the NDE on a personal crusade.
One understandable reason he does this could be the fact that he meets many fellow Christians in heaven. He tells us in chapter two that, “I didn’t see Jesus, but I did see people I had known,” and this is probably where Piper makes his false conclusion.
He explains about the people he met in heaven that, they were to see me and welcome me to heaven and to the fellowship they enjoyed…I realized that they all had contributed to my becoming a Christian or had encouraged me in my growth as a believer…because of their influence I was able to be present with them in heaven.
It is common in the NDE for people to meet loved ones or people who have been of great significance to their lives. Based on this fact from NDE research, it would therefore be reasonable to conclude that due to Piper’s Christian background most of the significant people in his life would also be from a Christian background.
This, however, does not mean that because Piper met people who were Christians in heaven that only Christians go to heaven. As we have seen there is no “fellowship” or special “influence” that is the only guarantee of entry into heaven as it is spiritually neutral.
While the research of NDEs concludes that God is spiritually neutral and heaven is inclusive, Piper’s background is less neutral and inclusive. The facts on Don Piper are that he has been a Christian most of his life and a minister starting out as a youth minister, then education minister, senior adult minister, Baptist Student Ministry director, long-time single adult pastor and senior pastor. And he has been in full-time Christian ministry since 1984 – five years before his NDE and experience of heaven.
If Piper’s conclusion were to be true it would mean that all Christians due to their religious influence would be met by a similar fellowship. But they do not. It would also mean that people of all other religions would either have a surprise encounter with Jesus or all go straight to hell. But this is also not so, as the conclusion that people integrate their pre-existing belief system into their experience is made very clear when we look at cross-cultural studies of NDEs.
Here we find a wide difference in the content of the NDE based on cultural differences. Where a person in a Christian culture sometimes will meet, or claim to have met Jesus, a person in another culture with a different religious background will another religious figure and have a very different experience.
One example is the study of eleven NDEs from Thailand published by Todd Murphey in 1999, where we find that instead of Jesus or a Christian fellowship, it is the Lord Buddha and the Buddhist Lord of Death, Yama or Yamatoot, that people meet.
One testimony explains that, “Finally I came to a temple wall. The Yamatoot took me to a large gate where I saw a monk giving a sermon to a group of elderly men and women. I made the formal gesture of respect to the Monk, and as I did so, I realized that the truth and highest form of help was to be found in The Lord Buddha.”
Here we see many of the specific aspects of Buddhism integrated into the experience through the concepts of a temple wall, a Monk and the Lord Buddha. These contents of the Thai NDE are very clearly specific to the Buddhist culture in Thailand.
Also if we look at how these Thai NDEs are experiencing heaven, we will find that the description of heaven is very different than what we find in the Bible:
The Yamatoot took me up 27 levels. I saw many beautiful things in heaven. There were lovely pavilions in heaven, where jewelry littered the ground. I could not see anyone there. The Yamatoot told me that the people in heaven were arupa [formless] beings, and thus, were invisible. I heard monks chanting the Pali recitation “Shina Bahnchorn” [The Buddha’s Window] the whole time I was in heaven. I had never ordained as a monk, and so, had never learned the “Shin Bahnchorn” during my life. Nevertheless, I heard it constantly as I walked among the heavenly homes of that paradise.
In this testimony we have the experience of the “heavenly homes” as Buddhists believe in multiple levels of heaven and not one heaven like in the Bible. And while Piper tells us in chapter three about the music he heard in heaven, that all the songs where; “praises about Christ’s reign as King of Kings,” here we have instead Buddhist monks chanting a “Pali recitation,” something that most be considered very different from songs praising Jesus.
So, here we clearly see the differences in cultural conditioning and how it is specific to each individual culture. This is also very evident if we e.g. look at aboriginal cultures we find a very different picture of the cultural content.
In one of the Native American NDEs made public of Black Elk from the eighteenth century, we find that after collapsing in his tipi he was raised up into the clouds and had the following vision of:
The circular hoop, the four directions, and the center of the world on an axis stretching from Sky to Earth, numerous neighing, dancing horses, surrounded by lightning and thunder, filled the sky at each direction.
Here we have evidence of clearly defined cultural characteristics, such as the classic Native American Mandala, Earth and Sky, and we even find “dancing horses.” From this evidence and when we look at the cross-cultural contents of NDEs in general, we find that the religious content of the NDE is not universal but unique to each individual culture.
It is based on this that NDE research concludes that each individual integrate their own pre-existing belief system based on their culture into their near death experience. When we look at more than one NDE and the cross-cultural patterns there is absolutely no generally accepted evidence to support that any one religion is “the only way to heaven.”