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Interpretation by Imagination

Part 4, Do the Dead Communicate with the Living?

Have Heart: bridging the gulf between Heaven and earth
A Review and Commentary (continued)

Read Part 3: Spontaneous Spiritualism

By Pastor Larry DeBruyn
“Our minds need to be stretched to the other side. I coined a term to illustrate the need to break out of the box and allow God to maximize our view of Heaven: ‘sanctified imagination within the confines of biblical truth’.”
(Steve Berger, Have Heart, p. xxii)

Resembling the Roman Catholic teaching on “the communion of the saints,” the Bergers’ premise that the dead-in-Christ can communicate with the living-in-Christ is based upon their being in union one with another.[50] The Bergers find precedent for such “connectivity” between living and dead in Christ in several biblical texts which they twist together, including Hebrews 12:1 (“Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses”), Ephesians 3:15 (“Of whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named”), and Romans 12:5 (“So we, being many, are one body in Christ, and every one members one of another.”). To the authors of Have Heart: bridging the gulf between Heaven and earth, these Bible verses indicate, “There is one family, one name, one body, and we’re all eternally connected on both sides of the veil.” (Emphasis added, HH, 109) Because the dead and living “in Christ” share this connection, they conclude, “Our loved ones may show up in dreams or visits or other ways (who can limit God’s imagination?)….” (HH, 110)

The Bergers call such visitation phenomena, “God Nods.” (HH, 113-121) The “nods” they record include the apparition of their son Josiah coming via dreams to a friend and his sister, a visit to another sister, and Pastor Berger’s sight of “a huge white crane” which visited the family pond one morning. A few days after his son’s death, Pastor Steve had prayed for a sign. Then, for the first time since moving to their home, a magnificent white crane appeared in the pond. Later, Steve learned that Josiah had been learning a type of martial arts called White Crane from his Children’s Pastor.[51] (HH, 115-121) We turn now to some of the biblical passages the Bergers employ to demonstrate that the dead can be aware of and present with the living.

Shock and Awe!—Saul, the Witch and Samuel
To support the dead appearing to the living, Have Heart employs the incident when, in violation of both God’s (Deuteronomy 18:10-11) and his own law (1 Samuel 28:3, 9), Saul visited a witch at the town of Endor (1 Samuel 28:3-25). (HH, 95-96) Upon that visit, and to both his and the witch’s shock, Samuel appeared. “It was Samuel coming from Heaven… Samuel showed up,” they write. (HH, 96) As Saul’s biographer in 1 Samuel indicates, this incident confirms and caps the earlier words Samuel uttered to the disobedient king, “rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft” (1 Samuel 15:23).

Yet, as the chapter title indicates, the Bergers employ this incident to show of deceased saints that, “They are Aware and Present.” (HH, 93-104) That dead persons, both saved and unsaved, are alive is not in question (See Luke 23:43.). Neither are the issues of whether they are active (See Revelation 7:9-12.) or aware (See Luke 16:19-31; John 8:58.). As the book points out, the state of the dead in Heaven involves all of the aforementioned.[52] (HH, 51, 54, 92, 95, 98, 102) But, as will be shown, whether the dead are aware of and present among the living is a matter of an altogether different sort.

Earlier in the book, the authors opine that Christians commonly “imagine” the saints in heaven to be “resting in peace instead of participating in God’s kingdom work.” (HH, 92) Apparently, their view of “kingdom work” includes the dead not only being active in Heaven but also active and taking mission trips to earth. The Bergers support this theory from Samuel’s manifested presence to Saul; this despite the prophet’s expressed annoyance with the king, “Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?” (1 Samuel 28:15). Samuel, it appears from his rebuke of Saul, was more at rest and not as “present” as Have Heart supposes.

To substantiate their belief in manifested presences of the dead like that which Samuel made to Saul, the authors refer to the research of hospice chaplain and psychotherapist Dianne Arcangel and her book, Afterlife Encounters: Ordinary People, Extraordinary Experiences (mentioned previously in this review).[53] (HH, 94) They state their agreement with the research in her book which they think agrees with the Bible. In affirming their belief in continuing presences of the dead, the Bergers protest that they’re “not talking about channeling, séances, or mediums trying to contact the dead,” and that “Deuteronomy 18:10 forbids seeking those types of encounters.” (HH, 94-95) Yet inconsistently, perhaps disingenuously, they illustrate their belief in ongoing presences of the dead by referring to Saul’s unlawful visit to a witch!

By any Old or New Testament standard, Samuel’s coming from the dead to Saul was exceptional, not normal. In the prophet’s coming, it can be noted that the protocol of a séance was not followed. Samuel did not communicate with Saul through the witch. In a séance-turned-sermon, Samuel addressed the king directly. God’s prophets do not employ mediums! In contrast to the comfort sought by those seeking to contact those who have entered the afterlife, and in the face of Saul’s wanton disobedience, Samuel offered no comfort or hope for Saul. Rather, Samuel announced to Saul that the Lord had departed from him, that he was being dethroned by David, that his armies would be defeated by the Philistines, and that both he and his sons would die the next day—not exactly consoling news for the king (1 Samuel 28:16-19). This contrasts to Arcangel’s statement in which she tells people, “Qualified mediums can benefit the bereaved population. They provide evidence for survival of bodily death, which reduces anxiety.”[54]

Neither did Samuel share anything specific about the afterlife with the king. In fact, Samuel’s message is way out of sync with what many believe postmortem presences of the dead have to offer the living, namely, that of communicating to and comforting them about the afterlife. As the French theologian Dr. René Pache (1904-1979) observed from Scripture: “None of those raised in either Old Testament or New Testament times recounted a thing, as far as we know, about the experience of going through death into the abode of the dead.”[55]

No matter how much we might wish it were otherwise, Samuel’s unique appearance to Saul gives no biblical precedent for imagining the dead are present with the living. Indeed, as the Preacher in Ecclesiastes informs us, the dead “no longer have a share in all that is done under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 9:6, NASB).

The Crowd in the Clouds
In the chapter “Connected” (HH, 105-112), and to establish that the dead remain present with the living, Have Heart employs the opening line of Hebrews 12: “Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses…” (Hebrews 12:1). The Bergers interpret these “witnesses” as those who are deceased, and therefore are “universal companions” with saints alive on earth. (HH, 107) The Bergers say that these witnesses are “alive, active, and aware,” and that those in Heaven become “onlookers” of those on earth. (HH, 107) Earth below becomes theater above as these heavenly inhabitants watch how the lives of their loved ones are playing out on earth. But based upon Hebrews 12, this scenario is implausible.

First, the conjunction “wherefore” ought to be noted. The inferential conjunction connects chapter 12 to chapter 11. The “witnesses” therefore refer to those Old Testament persons who exemplified what it means to live by faith in chapter 11 (This chapter might be called “The Hall of Faith” chapter.). Faith is “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Emphasis added, Hebrews 11:1). By drawing upon the example of these “witnesses,” the author of Hebrews encourages his readers to be faithful to the Lord, no matter what the cost. The heavenly faithful serve as models to, not spectators of, believers on earth.

Second, the word “witnesses” means martyrs (Greek, martus). Had the author of Hebrews meant the dead are spectating our lives, he might have stated that we are surrounded by a great cloud of eyewitnesses (Greek, epoptes), as for example, when Peter and two other apostles personally witnessed Jesus’ transfiguration (2 Peter 1:16; See Luke 1:2); or that we are surrounded by a great cloud of onlookers (Greek, blemma), as when Lot lived amongst the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah and saw and heard the “the filthy conversation of the wicked” (2 Peter 2:7-8); or that we are surrounded by a great cloud of spectators (a nominal form of Greek verb, theoreo, from which the English word theater derives), as when Peter observed the grave clothes of the resurrected Christ in the empty tomb (John 20:6).[56] But instead, the author uses the word “martus.”

Third, the phrase in Hebrews reads: we are surrounded by “a great cloud of witnesses.” We note the plural witnesses. Though they are many, they are corporate. Together, they form a singular cloud-crowd.

Fourth, there’s a world of difference between those in heaven having visage of brethren on earth and making visits to them. Even if it is conceded that saints in heaven might be able to observe their brethren on earth, the crowd of “spectators” would be limited to the names in chapter 11.[57] That they are “witnesses” does not suggest that individuals might separate themselves from the grandstand above to visit the playing field below. Based upon the context of the passage in which “witnesses” occurs, theologian W.H. Griffith Thomas (1861-1924) cautioned,

It has been tempting to many writers to speak of our race being run in an arena surrounded by spectators, as though those who have passed on before are still interested in our welfare. But, however attractive the idea, it is impossible to derive it from this passage.[58]

Missions for the Master
Scripture records how Moses and Elijah appeared to the disciples and talked with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-13). In the sixth chapter of their book about the dead (“They are active”), the Bergers ask, “So do saints in Heaven go on invisible missions to earth?” (HH, 90) Yes, they do, say the authors as they employ the dreams and reports of others along with Matthew’s record of Moses and Elijah’s appearing in support. But reports and dreams are what they claim to be—personal experiences and, absent confirmation by two or three witnesses, are not verifiable. Note in the Gospel record that three disciples—Peter, James and John—witnessed Moses and Elijah’s coming to Jesus (2 Corinthians 13:1, “In the mouth of two or three witnesses shall every word be established.”).

While Moses and Elijah “appeared” to the three disciples, they came and spoke only to Jesus (Matthew 17:3, “And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with Him,” NASB). Their stay on the mount was not prolonged (Matthew 17:8, “And when they had lifted up their eyes, they saw no man, save Jesus only.”). Furthermore, Moses and Elijah never appeared to the disciples or spoke to Jesus again. For this reason, Christians need to be careful of making a rule out of an exception, of setting a spiritual precedent out of a single biblical incident.

By their coming, Moses (the typical representative of the Law) and Elijah (the eschatological representative of the Prophets) glorified Jesus Christ! Their appearing bore witness to Jesus’ coming resurrection (Matthew 17:9) even as it gave the disciples a foretaste of their coming glorification (John 17:24). While in some respects the appearing of Moses and Elijah might have been for the disciples, it was to the Lord. Jesus was the center attraction. If the Lord of Glory had not been present, then Moses and Elijah would not have come (See Malachi 4:4-6; Matthew 17:10.).

Did Abraham Watch Jesus?
Much of what the Bergers say in the Introduction and first six chapters of Have Heart peaks in chapter seven. Of the dead in Christ, the chapter title tells readers, They are aware and present. (HH, 93-104) To support this chapter’s message, the authors preface it with Jesus’ statement to Jewish leaders who resisted Him even as they gloried in their descent from Abraham. Jesus told His enemies, “Your father Abraham rejoiced to [in order that he that he might, NASB margin] see my day: and he saw it, and was glad” (John 8:56).[59] (HH, 93) From this biblical verse, the Bergers deduce that just as Abraham observed Jesus’ ministry on earth, so also others in Heaven are aware of and present with their loved ones on earth. But what does the biblical record actually say?

Among the Pharisees, controversy erupted over Jesus’ statement, “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12). For making such a bold assertion, Jesus’ enemies charged Him perjury, denied His heavenly origin, slandered Him as a Samaritan, accused Him of demon possession, and wanted to stone Him (John 8:13-14, 23, 41, 48, 59). To refute the charge that He bore false witness, Jesus verified He was “the light of the world” by calling upon two witnesses: His Father and Abraham. If Abraham had rejoiced that he might see Jesus’ day, then why didn’t they?

But according to John’s Gospel, Abraham was not an ongoing spectator of Jesus’ life. If Abraham had been, we might have expected John’s record of Jesus’ statement to read, Abraham rejoices to see my day; he sees it and is glad (present tense), or Abraham was rejoicing to see my day; he was seeing it and was glad (imperfect tense). But John records the verbs in the aorist tense (rejoiced… saw… was glad…). As time markers, the aorist tense is “like taking a snapshot of the action while the imperfect [tense] (like the present [tense]) takes a motion picture, portraying the action as it unfolds.”[60] What Abraham saw and rejoiced in was completed when in his lifetime he saw it. Respected scholar D.A. Carson comments that, “Some scholars… propose that John 8:56 means Abraham was already in paradise, seeing Jesus in his ministry….” But he adds, “There is no biblical sanction for this perspective….”[61] Furthermore, it can be noted that the Jews understood Jesus’ claim to be that He saw Abraham, and not vice versa (John 8:57-58).

So the question arises, what was involved in Abraham seeing and rejoicing in the day of Jesus Christ? Hebrews states that, along with other Patriarchs of the faith, Abraham saw the promise of Christ from a distance before he died (Hebrews 11:13). Their faith looked forward. At the time Abraham saw and rejoiced in Christ, it was not up close and personal, but foreshadowing. Abraham’s sight of and rejoicing in Jesus’ day was premised upon God’s promise of a seed (Genesis 12:3, “in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed”) and a son, that even though both he and Sarah were beyond their child bearing years, their progeny would some day bless to the world (Genesis 17:16; 18:10; Romans 4:19-25). Perhaps Abraham’s sight of and rejoicing in Jesus’ day culminated when, as he was prepared to sacrifice Isaac, God intervened and provided a lamb in his son’s stead (Genesis 22:13-18).[62] But in all of this, Jesus’ statement about Abraham does not support the idea that in some ever-present way he was spectating and rejoicing over Jesus’ life.

A Great Gulf Fixed
As is perhaps being alluded to in Have Heart’s subtitle (bridging the gulf between Heaven and earth) (Emphasis added), in His revelation of The Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31), Jesus mentions “a great gulf” which separated Hades and Heaven in the afterlife. The Old Testament deceased lived in parallel, but separate realities.[63] The gulf Jesus revealed between the existences of Hades and Heaven was impassible, was “locked down.” But as the book’s subtitle implies, the gulf is not “fixed” between earth and Heaven. The Bergers believe that souls located in Heaven can visit loved ones and friends on earth; that a spiritual freeway runs between the two realities, one above and the other below.

It can be noted that the New Spiritualists of the New Age believe that there are no separate existences of Heaven on the one hand and creation on the other, that the reality of “whatever is” is one and therefore, that God and humanity are not distinct, but integrated.[64] But according to the Bible, this is not so! Throughout the Gospel of John as well as the rest of Scripture, the two realities of Heaven above and creation below are disintegrated and find integration only in the incarnation of the Lord Jesus Christ (John 1:3; 3:31; 8:23; 19:11).

Thus, one key aspect of Jesus’ teaching must be reckoned with by those who believe that the gulf between Heaven and earth can be bridged by the Christian dead possessing “visitation rights” to loved ones on earth. Would Father Abraham allow Lazarus to leave Paradise to visit the Rich Man’s five brothers on earth and warn them of the peril awaiting them in the reality of the afterlife? Read the answer: “They [the Rich Man’s five brothers] have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.”(Luke 16:25). Then the Rich Man remonstrates to Abraham: “Nay, father Abraham: but if one went unto them from the dead, they will repent,” to which Abraham then finalizes his verdict that a visit will not be allowed by Lazarus to the Rich Man’s five brothers. He said to the Rich Man: “If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead” (Luke 16:27-31). From this dialog, what is to be learned from Jesus’ revelation about the afterlife?

First, the alive in Heaven do not make “up close and personal” visitations to earth. Lazarus was not allowed to make such a visit, even with the peril of the destiny of the Rich Man’s brothers weighing in the balance. Of this incident, Ron Rhodes writes: “The dead and the living could not contact each other. A visitation to earth (in this case to warn five brothers) was not an option.”[65]

Second, only the Word of God, the Scriptures and the Savior, bridge the gulf between the realities of Heaven and earth. In matters of life and death, either we take God at His Word or we do not. Abraham told the Rich Man: “They [your five brothers] have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them….” (Luke 16:29). In matters regarding the afterlife, either God’s Word is sufficient or it is not. Isaiah framed the issue like this:

And when they shall say unto you, Seek unto them that have familiar spirits, and unto wizards that peep, and that mutter: should not a people seek unto their God? for the living to the dead? To the law and to the testimony: if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them.” (Isaiah 8:19-20)

Third, if in His revelation regarding the afterlife Abraham had visited the Rich Man’s five brothers, Jesus would have opened a Pandora’s Box for the cult of spiritualism to flourish (Contra Deuteronomy 18:9-14.). Satan and his hosts want the box open. But in this revelation about the afterlife, Jesus Christ made sure the box stayed shut. In His revelation regarding the afterlife, Jesus didn’t break out of the box, did He?

Fourth, the Bergers’ book may imply a kind of universalism. Only Jesus Christ bridges the gulf between Heaven and earth. A “medium” cannot become the Mediator (1 Timothy 2:5). Only Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life. Anticipation of visitations from “beyond” by any other person is a sideshow and distracts people from the One who is the only true Bridge. To hope the deceased, whether saved or unsaved or in whatever form, whether material or ethereal, will visit us is an anticipation that is fraught with spiritual peril.

“None of those raised in either Old Testament or New Testament times recounted a thing, as far as we know, about the experience of going through death into the abode of the dead. Our curiosity could well make us want to question them about it, but God has not permitted this. In the whole realm of the future life, the Scriptures, in their sober restraint, have to satisfy us.”
Dr. René Pache[66]

Stay tuned for Part 5 . . . .

Endnotes (continued):
50. The doctrine of the communion of the saints derives from a later version of the Apostle’s Creed (circa fifth century) which in its Western expression reads, “I believe in… the Holy Catholic Church, the communion of the saints….” The earlier Eastern version, which it is claimed originated from the apostlic era, reads: “I believe in… The holy church.” See Henry Bettenson and Chris Maundet, Editors, Documents of the Christian Church (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, Third Edition, 1999): 26. Legitimately, the later version of the creed denotes the union of all believers in Christ, living and dead, as it stresses “their common life in Christ and their sharing of all the blessings of God.” See Walter A. Elwell, Editor, “Communion of Saints, The,” Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1984): 257. Illegitimately, the unbiblical practice of praying for the dead or the novel applications of “connectivity” taught in Have Heart cannot be extracted from even the creed’s later version.
51. As to the significance of the White Crane, it is noted that, “Since ancient times, because of the Birds connection to the sky, they have been thought of as a supernatural link between the heavens and the earth.” See “Birds as A Spiritual Symbol of The Divine,” Squidoo (http://www.squidoo.com/divine-birds). As to the place of the White Crane in Chinese spirituality, “The Chinese believed that spirits and immortals rode about on cranes and that they conveyed departed souls to the heavens. Heavenly Cranes (tian-he) and Blessed Cranes (xian-he) were symbols of wisdom. Their powerful wings were said to convey people to higher levels of consciousness.” Emphasis added, see Kirsty Sloman, “The Symbolic Bird of China,” White Crane Martial Arts (http://www.whitecranemartialarts.co.uk/wcrane/?p=1325). As to the place of cranes in the martial arts, “The crane is a very special bird. Our whole system is an embodiment of this creature whose movements have provided inspiration for a whole series of fighting techniques that are designed to swiftly take out an opponent.” Ibid.
In all of this spiritual symbolism, the words of Jeremiah might be considered: “Yea, the stork in the heaven knoweth her appointed times; and the turtle and the crane and the swallow observe the time of their coming; but my people know not the judgment of the Lord” (Jeremiah 8:7).
52. The Bible does not support the doctrine of soul sleep.
53. Arcangel, Afterlife Encounters.
54. Ibid. 200.
55. Pache, Future Life, 194.
56. In all, Vine lists eleven categories for the verb “see.” Witness (Greek, martus) is not among them. See W.E. Vine, Merril F. Unger, William White, Jr., An Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1984): 1009-1010.
57. Based upon a few usages in the New Testament where the word martus can mean eyewitness (Hebrews 10:28; 1 Timothy 6:12; 2 Timothy 2:2)1), Australian evangelical Leon Morris (1914-2006) stated that “the idea of ‘spectator’ is hard to eliminate….” He concludes: “All in all, it seems that the author includes the idea here that the heroes of the faith are aware of what we are doing as we maintain the struggle in our age that they had in theirs. It is something like a relay race where those who have completed their run watch their successors.” See Leon Morris, Hebrews: Bible Study Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1983): 119-120.
58. W.H. Griffith Thomas, Hebrews: A Devotional Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, n.d.): 157.
59. The infinitive phrase “to see my glory” (iva + subjunctive) explains why Abraham rejoiced. See Daniel B. Wallace, The Basics of New Testament Syntax: An Intermediate Greek Grammar (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 2000): 206.
60. Ibid., 239.
61. D.A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991): 357.
62. To this reviewer, there are at least two lessons to be learned from this incident in Abraham’s life. First, human sacrifice, as commonly practiced among the ancients, was not an acceptable approach to God. Second, Abraham (as well as those who by faith are Abraham’s children), are to look to God’s Lamb as the one true and necessary sacrifice for sin. As John the Baptist exclaimed: “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29).
63. By saying this I do not affirm the two compartment theory. In my estimation, “Abraham’s bosom” (Luke 16:22) was a synonym for Paradise, the Jewish designation for Heaven (2 Corinthians 12:4). Jesus told the thief being crucified on a cross next to His, “Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43, NASB).
64. One can note the New Spirituality website by Allan, Bridging Heaven and Earth: an International Television Format of Awakening. See: http://www.heaventoearth.com/home.html. The website contains these lines: “We are all made of love, God is love, and We are God.” See: http://www.heaventoearth.com.
65. Ron Rhodes, The Truth Behind Ghosts, Mediums and Psychic Phenomena (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 2006): 76.
66. Pache, Future Life, 194.