Do the Dead Communicate with the Living?
[Steve and Sarah Berger, Have Heart: bridging the gulf between heaven and earth (Franklin, TN: Grace Chapel, Inc., 2010) xxiv + 144 pages + Endnotes.]
(Have Heart, p. xxii)
The story of Have Heart was born out of immense personal and family tragedy. In August of 2009, weeks before he was to matriculate at the University of Tennessee, Pastor Steve and Sarah Berger’s nineteen-year old son Josiah was fatally injured in a one car accident. Have Heart relates how the parents, family and friends are coping with his death, an ongoing story intended to comfort others who have or are facing similar life tragedies. As the book’s subtitle indicates, one aspect of “bridging the gulf between heaven and earth” involves reports that after he died, Josiah communicated with family and friends from Heaven.
This book is one of the latest among popular books being published for evangelical audiences on the subject of the afterlife involving visitations to and from Heaven and the connection between the living and the dead. Of this genre, this book is one of the most emotionally charged books, and exemplifies how gut-wrenching stories can shut down rational thinking. As the high-intensity story captivates the reader into a feelings-driven state, the book’s contents subtly facilitate a change in worldview as it suggests novel interpretations of Scripture.
Previously, I reviewed a book in this same genre, The Shack by Wm. Paul Young, which evoked similarly strong emotions with its storyline, subtly disarming readers, thereby enabling the author to introduce new concepts about the nature of God, the Trinity, salvation, spirituality and the cosmic reality in which we live, move and have our being.
Do the Dead Visit the Living?
Among other experiences which contribute to Have Heart’s story line, the book recounts a visitation from the dead. One evening at a service set aside for a prayer and worship at Grace Chapel, a guest worship leader played the song, “It’s Gonna Be Worth It.” “The song really touched me and took me to a deeper place with the Lord,” related Jim Sterling, the Executive Pastor at the church. In his heart and mind, he remembered how in the aftermath of Josiah’s accident he, along with many others at the hospital, wrestled with God in prayer. With Josiah’s life hanging in the balance, he prayed, “God, this better be worth it.” So stimulated by the song he was hearing, Pastor Jim asked God, “Lord, is it worth it?” Then, according to Pastor Jim’s account, something amazing happened. “The next thing I knew,” relates “Mr. Jim” (as Josiah affectionately called him), “Josiah came into the sanctuary.” He continues to describe his coming:
In the aftermath of Josiah’s “appearing,” the Bergers relate how they informed the guest worship leader, Rita Springer, about Josiah’s visit with “Mr. Jim” that evening. She then told the Bergers about the prayer request she made to God before the service. “Father, could Siah [Josiah] come worship with us tonight?” (HH, 101) God seemingly granted her request. Regarding the implications of this reported incident and others like it, the Bergers reach the novel theological conclusion, “Yes, the residents of Heaven are personally present, they are aware, and they are near!” (HH, 100-101)
From this paranormal occurrence, and similar ones recorded in the book, necessary questions arise:
- Can the dead communicate with the living?
- To what degree do such reports ascribe a normalcy to necromancy?
- Are the Bergers’ laying the theological groundwork for an evangelical acceptance of necromancy?
Have Heart’s story line is that, by various forms of communication, the dead do bridge the gulf between Heaven and earth because those in Heaven are aware of and present with loved ones and friends on earth. This new understanding obviously has great appeal to those who are grieving for the loss of loved ones and who therefore desire continuing communication from them. Thus, for the bereaved, the book’s appeal lies in the possibility of receiving communications from those loved ones who have passed from this world into Heaven.
Note: Have Heart contains no mention of Hell. That the book is written for Christians may account for the omission. Yet, Jesus warned that not all who name His name are going to be with Him in Heaven (Matthew 7:21-23). That Hell is not mentioned might be accounted of for reason of belief in salvific universalism (there is no Hell and that ultimately, everyone is going to Heaven) emerging amongst contemporary evangelicals (as in Wm. Paul Young’s book, The Shack, or as in Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins). The exclusion of any discussion of the condition of unchristian loved ones in the afterlife manifests indifference to the eternal plight of the unsaved (Contra Luke 16:27-28.).
The Book in Brief
In the Bergers’ words, belief in receiving such communication with the dead draws upon a “sanctified imagination within the confines of biblical truth.” (HH, xxii) On this basis, the authors hypothesize that the dead in Heaven are able to present themselves to loved ones on earth. As I see it, the book’s essential argument goes like this:
There used to be a sign commonly posted along America’s highways which read, “Prepare to Meet Thy God.” How tenuous life can be, for all of us, including the life of this author. But on that summer evening in 2009, life was especially tenuous for Josiah Berger when he was involved in a single car accident on his way to meet friends at a familiar burger joint. When they received the call from the Vanderbilt Medical Center, Pastor Steve and Sarah Berger sensed the news was not good. Medical reports indicated that nineteen-year-old Josiah suffered severe injury to his brain. Amidst an outpouring of concern and love from friends, for three days the family prayed the “Lazarus prayer,” that the Lord would resurrect their son back to life. But in God’s perfect providence, that was not to happen.
Had he lived, Josiah intended that the word “Have” would have been tattooed over his heart. So as part of their son’s legacy, the Bergers hope the message in their book Have Heart will help the grief stricken not to “lose heart” (2 Corinthians 4:16, NASB, NIV, NKJV), as well as “stretch” the minds of Christians “to the other side.” (HH, xxii) However, such emotional mind-stretching can lead to adopting unbiblical beliefs about the afterlife, one of which is that for the living, contact with the dead is both desirable and possible.
Have Heart is a compelling and emotive account written with the hope that others beset by similar losses in life would be helped. (HH, xiii.) Because the Bergers’ story arouses intense sympathy in readers as they identify with their loss, it becomes difficult to disengage one’s feelings from their teachings about the afterlife. When the authors employ their “sanctified imagination within the confines of biblical truth,” important issues are raised about postmortem existence. The authors believe that breaking away from traditional “in box thinking” about the afterlife gives God an opportunity “to maximize our view of Heaven.” (HH, xxii) But in breaking out of the box, Christian readers must beware lest they will also break away from the Bible.
Heaven’s “Exciting Realities”
Have Heart speaks about the “exciting realities” of Heaven, “its inhabitants, and its activity.” (HH, xvii) The authors state that “the church doesn’t know how to deal with death.” (HH, xviii) Having officiated at hundreds of funerals over a lifetime of ministry, I agree with the authors’ point. For Christians and their believing loved ones, any funeral involves an emotive mix of solemnity and celebration. The “sting of death is sin” even as “to die is gain” (1 Corinthians 15:56; Philippians 1:21). Nevertheless, “It’s time,” say the authors, that “believers become heavenly minded” and know that the saints are “alive, active, and aware” in Heaven. (HH, xviii, 51, 54, 92, 95, 98, 102) But they take this knowledge a step further as they delve deep into their and others’ experience.
Heaven and Earth—Bridging the Gulf
The Bergers quote the words of Philips Brooks (1835-1893), which are found in the introduction of Rebecca Ruth Springer’s (1832-1904) book My Dream of Heaven, which narrates her dreams and experiences of visiting Heaven. A Methodist all her life, Springer wrote the book in the aftermath of the Civil War (1861-1865). In this war, which saw 620,000 soldiers and countless other civilians die, concern about the afterlife heightened. An ill woman most of her adult life, it was not unnatural that Springer shared this concern too. Brooks’ words form the foundation of Have Heart’s message. As the following quote reveals, the well-known liberal clergyman questioned the gulf between the living and the dead:
The Bergers intend for Have Heart to stimulate the church’s thinking beyond the grave so that Christians will become “heavenly minded” (Colossians 3:1-2)—to feel the “connectivity” between the Body of Christ on earth and in Heaven. In this connected state and as the subtitle suggests (bridging the gulf between heaven and earth), it can be expected that loved ones in Heaven will visit loved ones on earth, telling them about the glorious afterlife they’re experiencing. The book’s subtitle alludes to the “great gulf fixed” which Jesus said separated Lazarus and the Rich Man in the afterlife (Luke 16:26). Though that gulf Jesus alluded to separated Heaven and Hades, the gulf Have Heart desires to bridge is between Heaven and earth, between the afterlife and this life. How do the Bergers describe bridging this gulf?
“Connectivity”—A Two Way Street
This way of connecting the living and the dead is also popular in contemporary culture. George Noory, host of Coast to Coast AM, and Rosemary Ellen Guiley, author of Harper’s Encyclopedia of Mystical & Paranormal Experience, have co-authored a book, Talking to the Dead. Indicating how the culture views the afterlife, they state:
According to Noory and Guiley, an experiential superhighway runs between Heaven and earth in both directions. But does it?
One Direction—Earth to Heaven in “The Shack”
It should be noted how the bestselling book The Shack taps into this “connectivity” with “the other side.” In this religious allegory, Mack, the novel’s main character, encounters his dead father from whom he had been estranged on earth. In another incident (the earthly shack below having morphed into a heavenly resort above), Mack is also given a vision of Missy, his little daughter who had been abducted, violated and killed by an intruder while the family was on a camping trip (Mack’s great sadness). Though his vision of her is “one way”—like a one-way mirror of an interrogation room, he sees her, but she doesn’t see him—Mack observes Missy frolicking in heaven with other children. The beautiful judge Sophia tells Mack, “She (Missy) knows that you are here, but she cannot see you. From her side, she is looking at the beautiful waterfall and nothing more. But she knows you are behind it.”
Numbers of Christian leaders and pastors endorsed The Shack, one being Pastor Steve Berger of Grace Chapel of suburban Nashville, Tennessee, the author of Have Heart and father of Josiah. It is apparent that The Shack impacted his thinking about life and death for he lauded that religious book as follows:
Like freeways, endorsements usually run both ways too, and to this point we note that the author of The Shack also endorsed Steve and Sarah Berger’s new book, Have Heart: bridging the gulf between heaven and earth. Of their book, Paul Young offers the following recommendation: “Framed within the most intimate of loses, this book allows its readers to peek into life-and-death perspectives of those who follow Jesus.” It should also be noted that Pastor Greg Laurie, Harvest Christian Fellowship; Chuck Missler, Koinonia Institute; Wm. Paul Young, author of The Shack; and James Robison, LIFE Outreach International, all endorsed the Bergers’ book.
The Other Direction—Heaven to Earth in “Have Heart”
Have Heart opens the possibility that those who have gone on to Heaven will be visiting loved ones on earth. And playing with the emotions and feelings of readers like The Shack, it draws readers into the story at a heart-felt level.
From my pastoral perspective, Have Heart tells a story that will appeal to many who have experienced the tragic death of a loved one. As the Apostle put it and the Bergers believe, to die is gain (Philippians 1:21). The memorial service to Josiah bore testimony that for Christians death is victory, not defeat (1 Corinthians 15:51-57). Admirably, and unbeknownst to his parents, Josiah willed that his vital organs be donated to others in the eventuality of his death. By his death, Josiah gave life. Despite these positive examples amidst a heart rending story, Have Heart contains matters that ought to concern Christian readers; that is, if Scripture is our sole guide in matters of the afterlife.
The Bergers dutifully remind their readers: “Remember, anything we think God is saying or revealing [through personal experiences] must line up with the Word and the nature, character, and will of God.” (HH, 44) But the book contains material which does not agree with this assertion.
Because of the sympathy aroused in readers as they identify with the Bergers’ loss (I even speak of my experience while reading the book), it becomes very difficult to orient one’s emotions to the Word of God. Nevertheless, there are matters in Have Heart that do not line up with Scripture. In brief, I do not see that the Word of God supports the notion that postmortem, persons in heaven come back—whether in the body or out of the body, no one really knows—to visit loved ones and friends on earth. (HH, 97-104, 109-112, and 114-115) In saying this, I realize that I am opening myself up for criticism of not “having heart,” of not accepting how the Bergers are coping with their loss, of being categorized as a minimalist, or of even being under Satan’s influence. (HH, 108) Indeed, to examine this book’s contents from an objective, biblical perspective opens one up to the criticism of being unsympathetic and uncaring, perhaps even cruel, to those who are bereaved.
In contradiction to the claim that loved ones, whether they are Christians or not, make postmortem presences or appearances, intuitive or actual, to loved ones or friends on earth, the following biblical and theological evaluation is offered. In doing so, biblical texts used by the authors to substantiate the claim that the dead in Heaven are aware of and present with the living on earth must be evaluated. But before dealing with specific texts appearing in Have Heart, the modern and ancient contexts of the issue of visitations from the dead should be compared.
Being born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the Word of God, which liveth and abideth for ever. For all flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of grass. The grass withereth, and the flower thereof falleth away: But the Word of the Lord endureth for ever. And this is the Word which by the Gospel is preached unto you. (1 Peter 1:23-25)
1. Pastor Larry DeBruyn, Unshackled: Breaking Away from Seductive Spirituality (Indianapolis, IN: Moeller Printing Company, Inc., 2009). The book is available through, Discernment Ministries, P.O. Box 520, Canton, Texas 75103-0520. Telephone: (903) 567-6423.
2. Steve and Sarah Berger, Have Heart: bridging the gulf between heaven and earth (Franklin, TN: Grace Chapel, Inc., 2010): 99-100. Subsequently in the review, quotations from or allusions to Have Heart will be documented as follows: (HH, page numbers).
3. See Pastor Larry DeBruyn, “Love Loses, The Quantum Spirituality of Rob Bell: A Review of ‘Love Wins’,” Guarding His Flock Ministries, (http://guardinghisflock.com/2011/05/09/love-loses/#more-1774). James B. De Young, “Lost at the Back of The Shack: A Torrent of Universalism,” February, 2008 (http://www.ericbarger.com/back_of_the_shack_deyoung.pdf).
4. On November 9, 2006, I caught a vicious flu while on a teaching mission in Hungary. Dehydration caused blood clots to form and I suffered a major coronary infarction. On a one and one half hour ride to a public hospital in Budapest, my heart had to be defibrillated seven times. By God’s sovereign intervention I survived. But, because my heart attack occurred the “old way” without the administration of needed medications I developed Dressler’s Syndrome (the accumulation of excess fluids around the heart and lungs which constricts breathing). This required seven subsequent hospitalizations upon returning to the United States. On two of those hospitalizations, my life was also endangered.
5. Unless otherwise noted, scriptural citations will be taken from the King James Version of the Holy Bible. In reference to Philippians 1:21, we note the verb in italics. Christ’s resurrection life is so current within Christians that, life Christ, die gain!
6. Emphasis added, Philips Brooks cited by Rebecca Ruter Springer, My Dream of Heaven: Intra Muros (United Kingdom: White Crow Books, 2010): 8.
7. George Noory and Rosemary Ellen Guiley, Talking to the Dead (New York, NY: Tom Doherty Associates, LLC, 2011): 15.
8. Wm. Paul Young, The Shack: Where Tragedy Confronts Eternity (Los Angeles, CA: Windblown Media, 2007): 7-8, 214-216. With the help of Sarayu (the Spirit), Mack and his “mean-alcoholic-cussing-church-elder” father were reconciled in Heaven.
9. Ibid. emphasis added, 167.
10. Ibid. Front Matters, “What Others are Saying about The Shack.”
11. Berger, Have Heart, Front Matters.
12. Ibid. ii.
13. On this point, I note that I watched and listened to Josiah’s moving memorial service presided over by his father and others (“Josiah David Berger Celebration,” Pastor Steve Berger, August 18, 2009 Grace Chapel, Leipers Fork, TN). Online: http://gracechapel.net/teaching/index.html?p=detail&id=205.
14. Berger opines: "I (Steve) believe satanic attack has so infiltrated the church that there are even some believers today who want to minimize Heaven’s unlimited glory. Why try to minimize anything about Heaven or its inhabitants when everything about heaven is maximized?” See Have Heart, 108.