Death, heaven and the afterlife aren’t familiar things to us even as we all face them sooner or later. Jim Garlow, pastor of Skyline Church in southern California, has written two books on the topics (see insert) and still finds the topics mystifying. A recent motion picture, Afterlife, shed no more light on the topic: “It failed to tell us anything about the afterlife, except that three people believe it exists.”
Garlow has a lot more to say about the topic, though he acknowledges he never had a near death experience (NDE) or a supernatural experience about the afterlife. “Think of the most wonderful things about this earth? What are they? Think about the most negative things about this earth? What are they? Heaven will be all the great things here — but more. Heaven will have none of the negative and painful components of this broken earth,” he says.
He got involved with the topic only because an acquisitions editor asked him to write the first book. Once he began the research, he says he became highly fascinated with what he was learning.
You’ve gotten some attention from the two books you’ve written (with Keith Wall) on the afterlife. Do you have any remembrances as a youngster of death and funerals in your family?
There were five children (two girls, three boys) in my family, but my sister Janie died at age one and my brother Bob was killed in a plane crash at age 19. With Janie’s death occurring before I was born, I only saw pictures. I often looked at the picture of her body in a casket and wondered about death. I was eight years older than Bob. His death was profoundly painful and marked me significantly. I sorted out much of my personal theology in the months following his passing.
What is your life like? Do you ever have issues about humility and tenderness in your high-paced life?
I pastor a wonderful church, but it was the defendant in a six year, costly, painful construction defect lawsuit as a result of our being required by the state to widen a four lane freeway in front of our property. My wife and I have four adopted children, one with special needs.
My wife is fighting an extremely aggressive form of cancer now — for the third time in three years. These situations have taken a toll and have stretched me “beyond,” and forced me to run to God each day.
What are key points about the hereafter/afterlife that Christians should understand?
- God’s Word is really true.
- Heaven and hell are for real.
- We are too attached here.
- We lack an eternal perspective.
- Heaven is breathtaking.
What gets in the way for most people about heaven and the hereafter?
Existentialism — simply too consumed with the here and now. And ignorance — simply not knowing how remarkable heaven is.
You’ve been studying the afterlife for three years. What can Christians be sure of about the hereafter?
Heaven and hell are truly real places. Spend your life on those things that will matter a million years from now.
Is there a common theme in near-death experiences that should comfort Christians?
Contrary to secular reports, not all NDEs are positive. There are some that experience hell.
Secularists try to deny this. Dr. Maurice Rawlings, a cardiologist involved in many resuscitations, has noted that those who experience hell in their NDE are only able to recall the details for the first few days. Most interviews of those with NDE’s take place a considerable later time, thus the accounts of hell are not reported.
Secondly, those who are able to recall the hellish NDE do not want to talk about it. That would be like saying, “I got a ‘F’ in life!” People tend not to broadcast that. On the contrary, those with heaven NDE report breathtaking accounts with persons they knew and loved, and a world that defies description.
Furthermore, those who have seen into heaven cannot be talked out of their experience. They are totally convinced that it is for real.
There is also the dark side of the spiritual world — demonic activity. What should we know about demons?
Most people in America — around 86 percent — believe in God. A somewhat smaller percentage believe in a devil. Even a smaller percentage believe in demons. And I suspect a smaller percentage believe that demons exist today.
Since our source of true information about God is the Bible, it makes sense to believe what it says about the devil and about demons as well:
- Demons do exist.
- We should know something about them and be able to recognize them.
- We should know how — like the earliest followers of Christ — to cast them out.
- It is not theologically or intellectually ignorant to believe the above three points.
- It is biblically and theologically dishonest to deny points 1, 2 and 3.
Have any of your own beliefs and assumptions about the afterlife changed as a result of writing the two books?
Yes. A “tug” or “pull” towards heaven, and a vastly reduced fear of death.
What should people believe about heaven and hell as actual places?
Place or state, heaven is awesome and hell is horrible. In all candor, I think heaven is a place. Quite likely heaven is “here” (on earth) — in a different dimension — as part of this earth, that will eventually be a “new heaven and a new earth.”
There is a large industry on demons, witchcraft, WICCA, psychics, divination, and the like, especially among young people. What should we believe about any of this?
Ignore the world’s teaching on this topic as it involves so much hype, sensationalism and drama. Pour over what Jesus and his followers said and did about demonic affliction.
Who was the pastor of your youth and what is your conversion story?
I grew up in a tiny country church in North Central Kansas — near Ames (pop. 40). It was a small but spiritually vigorous and energizing church, and a wonderful place to grow and develop. Our tiny church produced 39 pastors and pastors’ spouses. I am #36 of that group in its 100 year history. People demonstrated deep love for each other and great passion for Christ. My high school and college pastor was Duane Seitz, who first made me aware of the joy of understanding the Greek language behind the English text of the Bible.
On a different tact, a year ago you signed on as chairman of Renewing American Leadership (ReAL) that was organized by former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. What does being the “public face” of ReAL mean?
Our desire is to re-acknowledge the discussion of God in public discourse. Another goal is to educate people that “American exceptionalism” is not a braggadocios claim of “aren’t we better than anyone else,” as it has nothing to do with some form of ethnic or national superiority.
“American exceptionalism” is the historical recognition that our sacred documents — the Declaration of Independence, along with the US Constitution — are the only, or nearly the only, national founding documents in the world that acknowledge that all authority comes from God, which is given to “We the People” who temporarily loan it to elected officials. Other nations do not have that as a foundational legal principle. This principle is an exception. And it is American. That is the meaning of “American exceptionalism.”
Briefly, what do you hope to do through ReAL with your participation?
- Defend freedoms which we are losing.
- Defend the family which is being destroyed.
- Defend free enterprise which, when properly defined — contrary to the clamor of some in the elite academicoligarchy — is a truly biblical principle.
Is economic freedom important in a religious sense? Yes! It is rare that one finds, long term, a nation where there is religious freedom and economic oppression. It is rare when one finds, long term, a nation that has economic freedom and religious oppression. Many are unaware that religious freedom and economic liberty go hand in hand. Lose one, lose the other.
Where do you draw the line between speaking faith from the pulpit, and involvement in partisan, political endeavors?
Some people use a translation of the Bible which states the Great Commission as follows: “Go ye into all the world — except politics. Or entertainment. Or media. Or education.” My Bible states “Go ye into all the world.” And that includes exalting the name of Jesus in the political arenas.
Fortunately, many pastors are willing to stand up and be counted. Regretfully, some won’t and don’t and that is why our nation is in the condition it is in today — spiritual leaders who will are neither biblical nor leaders.
Pastors who shy away from being “political” — and that is the way it is phrased — develop a casuistry for being silent. They claim they should not be involved in “political” things when the real problem is spineless wimpishness. They know if they speak out on biblical-social-cultural issues (and they are truly biblical), it will cost them popularity — with those inside and outside the church. “Nickels, noses and numbers” have consumed us as pastors. We are now self-censored, muzzled pastors.
The clergy of years past have thundered truth from the pulpits. Too many pastors are afraid to speak out for those being killed in the womb, or afraid to speak out for something as basic as “one man-one woman” marriage because someone will accuse them of “hate-mongering” or being “intolerant.”
I am part of a small denomination — the Wesleyan Church — that was birthed for the purpose of radical abolitionism, freeing the slaves, and which stood for a woman’s right to vote, as the first ever conference for that right was held in a Wesleyan Church in Seneca Falls, New York in 1848.
I am glad that many preachers from the 1800s did not shy away from the “political” issues of slavery or women’s rights. Yes, they were roundly criticized for speaking out. In fact, some were attacked for speaking out. But history has treated them well, knowing they were on the side of eternal truths.
What about today, and how history will regard pastors?
Someday there will be tours of America’s abortuaries — the killing centers — just like we now tour the concentration camps of Germany. And people will wonder, “Where was the church when 50 million babies were being ripped to pieces?”
We don’t need to be partisan because our hope and salvation is not in a political party. But we can be principle-driven — speaking out strongly on biblical issues that have clear cultural impact and national impact.
Given the outcome of the midterm elections, in what ways might you be encouraged, and what is the agenda of ReAL in the coming two years?
Although the voters elected Republicans overwhelmingly, this cannot and should not be regarded as an affirmation of the party. It is not.
The voters affirmed issues. Nearly 90 percent of the freshmen Congresspersons are pro-life and pro-marriage. Almost all of them understand the immorality of our current debt, and yes, that is a biblical issue. Almost all of them understand the oppressive taxation that is crushing people, and yes, that is a biblical issue.
If I could, I would give to every pastor in America a free copy — assuming they would read it — of Jay Richard’s book, Money, Greed and God, which outlines the biblical underpinnings of economic philosophy as applied to civil governance. The book is a relatively easy and fun read about an otherwise boring and complex topic. Pastors would find enough sermon material in that book to last a year.
Why do other sane persons — our Congresspersons — insanely raise the debt and crush us with layered taxation? The reason that Congress has passed horrible economic laws is because few Congresspersons are under weekly biblical teaching in a local church. And of those that are, what percentage of those ever hear a sermon on what the Bible says about national economic issues?
It is appalling that the house of worship, which should be their primary source of biblical truth, is so devoid of biblical truth when it applies to civil governance and national issues. The Bible has much to say about the topic. And so should pastors.
James L. Garlow and Keith Wall wrote Heaven and the Afterlife (Baker Publishing), above, followed by Encountering Heaven and the Afterlife, which shares the real-life experiences of others with the topic.