NDE and God's Goodness
NDE – Near Death Experiences. They have become very popular among Christians wanting to prove that people live on after death as so many intently want to believe. The stories that people relay after experiencing close encounters with death appear to reinforce this false belief first purported by Satan the snake and very much in vogue today.
There is a story in the Bible that seems full of NDE's. Time after time throughout the story people – even animals and plants come face to face with death. It is the story of Jonah, the famous fish man who took the first amphibious submarine ride. First the ship and crew he employed to help him escape from God's call in his life nearly sank during an angry storm until they relented to Jonah's suggestion to throw him overboard to save themselves. Upon taking him up on his suggestion and sacrificing him to the sea, the storm miraculously stopped almost instantly affirming Jonah's version of why it had happened to begin with. The shipmates were so impressed by this Near Death Experience that they eagerly worshiped this amazingly powerful God through sacrifices and vows.
Meanwhile out in the ocean Jonah was having his own Near Death Experience. I am sure he fully expected to simply die by drowning instead of escaping to Tarshish as was his original intent; but God had different plans both for him and for everyone who would hear about him throughout history. A massive sea creature came at God's bidding and took on Jonah as personal cargo to transport him in the right direction while Jonah had some quiet time of his own in isolation to rethink his relationship with God and have an unexpected opportunity to repent.
After three days of extreme discomfort and severe indigestion (God made Jonah totally indigestible to give him time to think), the fish heard instructions from God get find relief by barfing up Jonah on the nearest beach before Jonah became his own undoing. Hopefully the fish upon being relieved of his unfortunate meal found his own NDE at an end and was able to return to a normal life back out in the open sea.
I am sure that the fishermen and sun-bathers all along the beach were stunned at seeing a bleached, sea-weed covered Jew suddenly projected from the mouth of a huge fish onto the sand and still alive. Whether they offered to help him clean up, give him fresh water and food or just stared in superstitious amazement we are not told, but likely the story of this mythical-like experience reached his destination before Jonah did. By the time he arrived his NDE story likely gave great impetus to his own message from God against the mighty, wicked capital city of the Assyrians when he began preaching to them about their impending doom. Now the most haughty, cruel people on earth had to contemplate their own impending Near Death Experience as they heard that they only had 40 days left to consider how to relate to the words of Jonah.
Acting uncharacteristically but with amazing cooperation and humility, the whole city repented in hopes of avoiding the threatened consequences of their own wickedness. And true to their intuition that God might be persuaded to change His mind if they turned to Him instead of defying Him, they too were able to avoid death as they experienced the grace that is always found in every NDE. By taking seriously the warnings of Jonah, the prophet of the mighty God of the universe, and throwing themselves on His mercy (not completely unlike Jonah's toss into the sea), they found that this same God was eager to save anyone who would believe in His love and compassion and mercy.
But Jonah, in spite of his own recent survival apparently had not repented nearly as much as the people he was hoping to watch being executed. Jonah, like too many of us, had very immature views of God and deep prejudices and ideas of counterfeit justice and cravings for vengeance. He was so intent on watching the imminent demise of his enemies that when God chose to save them instead of frying them, he became very angry with God for ruining his own reputation as a prophet. He felt that God's apparent unfaithfulness by not fulfilling His threats against Jonah's arch enemies was inconsistent and threatened Jonah's own career path. Clearly Jonah was more intent on preserving his own reputation and belief system than advancing God's. As Jonah sat outside the city in the heat waiting for the city to burn without results, he sulked that his own agenda had been set aside for the sake of God's reputation and he didn't like it at all.
God tried to reason with Jonah and help him to view circumstances from a higher perspective but with little apparent success. He gave Jonah a little parable of sorts by shading him generously from the scorching sun with a miracle-grow plant that matured overnight only to be followed by a sabotaging worm that ruined Jonah's only relief. God hoped to help Jonah see things from God's perspective and to come to share in His compassion for things more important than his own comfort and reputation. The book does not tell us whether Jonah ever got the point or not, but since it seems likely that Jonah may have written the story we can only hope that at some point it began to soak in and that Jonah too came to repentance and began to see things with a new heart.
The only thing in this story that ended up dying was the miracle-grow plant that Jonah had no part in cultivating to start with and that was simply a prop for God's dialog with him. Nearly everyone else in this story seemed to encounter a close call with death including the possibly beached whale which we hope made it back into the water. But far from serving to reinforce a lie of the enemy like what they are used for today, these Near Death Encounters were all reported to help us to come to see that God is radically different than what humans make Him out to be most of the time.
Even Jonah who already had an advanced knowledge of God from being a prophet of God's chosen people on earth admitted that he knew God was gracious, forgiving and compassionate. Jonah claimed that these facts were the very reasons justifying his rebellion and his flight in the opposite direction in the first place. He complained that God was not fair in arresting him and sending him back where he was called to go in the beginning. Jonah's logic is one of the most stunning statements I find in the Old Testament where a person is so upset with God's goodness that he appears to view it as a fault.
Yet how many today view the truth about God's goodness as something to be denied, something to be argued against, something to be diluted with teachings influenced by ideas about so-called justice. How insistent are we today in claiming that God cannot be right unless He is willing to resort to using our ideas of justice and resort to force, intimidation and threats like we do to bring about conformity and obedience. How deeply infected our thinking is from the many lies of the enemy who has convinced us that God uses methods of the kingdom of darkness to accomplish righteousness.
The more I learn about God's goodness and consistency and love, the more amazed I am of how deep our own illogic and resistance is to believing the truth about Him. Jonah appears ridiculous in his illogical excuse for his behavior by blaming God for being too good to His enemies. Yet if we take the clear teachings of Jesus seriously – the One who is the clearest revelation of God ever demonstrated to the universe – we will be confronted with the same discomforting truth that many of our own religious beliefs are just as ludicrous and are very similar to the objections of Jonah.
Why is that that we are so intent on shaping God into our image instead of letting Him define Himself and reveal Himself to us without our trying to modify Him all the time? Our fallen natures constantly follow Satan's agenda to tweak the truth about God into something different than what God really is. Thus we all need to come to the same sort of repentance that Jonah had to face, a repentance of turning away from our favored ideas about what God should be like toward our enemies, our ideas about a God who is both good and evil, our preferred ideas about a God who is partial toward those whom He has chosen as His own while wanting Him to treat all others with the same prejudices and hatred that we feel towards them.
We claim to believe in a God of grace and mercy, but we want there to be limits to His mercy when it comes to those who are wicked and who make our lives miserable. We want grace and forgiveness and kindness for ourselves but are not so eager to have Him do the same for those who persecute us or are very different than us. Why is it that we are so reluctant to allow God to be fully good, to be purely love, fully compassionate and forgiving without any exceptions? Why are we afraid to question our own deeply entrenched beliefs about what God should be like while eager to attack anyone who suggests that God just might be far better than we have allowed ourselves to believe?
Today, Near Death Experiences are being used by the enemy to further promote lies about God and about how He relates to us. We can get exercised and upset and try to counter these reports by trying to explain them away or discount them. But maybe the real problem is much deeper than simply trying to find better arguments to sustain our preferred doctrines. Maybe the problem is that some of our own fundamental assumptions about God are more in line with the world's views about God than with the truth as it is in Jesus. Maybe we are more like Jonah in our own illogic than we are willing to admit.
Jonah was not happy that God saved the city. Jonah became angry. He complained to the LORD and said, "LORD, I knew this would happen! I was in my own country, and you told me to come here. At that time I knew that you would forgive the people of this evil city, so I decided to run away to Tarshish. I knew that you are a kind God. I knew that you show mercy and don't want to punish people. I knew that you are kind, and if these people stopped sinning, you would change your plans to destroy them. So now, LORD, just kill me. It is better for me to die than to live." Then the LORD said, "Do you think it is right for you to be angry?" (Jonah 4:1-4 ERV)
I find myself very amused while reading this tantrum by Jonah – until I suddenly feel the conviction that I am not really that much different myself. Then the tears begin to form as I feel my own vulnerability and remember how very easy it is for me to protest and feel resentful when God treats my protagonists with kindness while allowing me to suffer at their hands. Then I feel ready to subscribe to a more aggressive god, a god who will do things more to my liking and who will punish those who sin against me with a vengeance. I suddenly see how similar my own immature beliefs are to those of Jonah and that I have a long ways to go to reflect the humility and meekness demonstrated by Jesus.