“But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heavens and a new earth, the home of righteousness,” writes the apostle Peter (2 Peter 3:13; see also Isaiah 65:17, 66:22 and Revelation 21:1-4.). Will God merely “cleanse” the old heavens and earth to make them, in a sense, new again (it would be by fire, see 2:10) or will God start all over with a new act of creation? Lutherans leave this as an “open question”; that is, there is not sufficient information given in the Bible to answer definitively. The operative word here is simply “new”. However God does it, Heaven is understood as a new environment predicated upon a new relationship we share with God through Christ. Peter also refers to it as both a “home” and a place of “righteousness”. We won’t just be visiting. Cleansed in the blood of Christ’s righteousness, we will stay in our peaceful, holy home forever. Are there exceptions? A few. What I’m speaking about are the biblical references of those who went up to Heaven and then came back. But we also will consider what sometimes is referred to as “near death experiences”.
Of the biblically recorded events of those who went to Heaven and came back is the classic of St. Paul in 2 Cor. 12:1-4. Let’s pause to read this account. Paul was given a rare privilege to see Heaven, sometimes referred to in Scripture also as paradise (e.g. Luke 23:43). But he couldn’t describe it. He wasn’t allowed to try. We will have to wait. Paul was given this sight that, along with Christ’s resurrection that he witnessed in the sense of seeing Jesus alive on the road to Damascus, he might be strengthened in his unique mission. There will never be another Paul. Thus the rarity of this blessing. We could add to this list, the prophet Samuel whose spirit may have been conjured up from the place of the dead by the witch of Endor upon Saul’s request, Moses and Elijah who stood next to Jesus upon His transfiguration, Lazarus whom Jesus raised from the dead and John who was caught up in the spirit on the Lord’s Day and given the vision of Revelation which included many glimpses of Heaven where God, the Lamb, the saints and angels reign. Then, of course, is Jesus Himself. So from Scripture, it clearly can and has happened. But it isn’t a common experience and for good reason. Can you imagine having seen Heaven and having to come back to this world? Then also is Jesus’ point given in the account of Lazarus (a different one) and the rich man, both who died and went on to heaven and hell respectively. Let’s read that in Luke 16:19-31.
As to other accounts of those who saw Heaven and came back to speak of it (or write books and make movies of it), by the above precedents we can’t discount that it is possible. However, we must be cautious of the implications that some of the stories include which can undermine the true nature of Heaven and the sole means of being there through the righteousness of Christ. Some, too, can be explained medically as hallucinations while in a coma like state where the brain is still very much busy (e.g. the common tunnel of light people describe could be flashing neurons as the brain is dealing with the potential of death and the sights of loved ones can be memories, even premonitions, consequently triggered). Be that as it may, with so many NDE’s through the years and with stories of meeting people in the next world one never knew existed, we would have to conclude some to be true accounts. I’d like to read an excerpt from an interesting one. From Dr. Eben Alexander, a self-described atheist neurologist who was brain dead (this was not a cardiac event in which the brain is still alive and active) for nearly a week suffering from a rare disease: gram negative E. coli meningitis.