Former newspaper reporter Lee Strobel hopes to see his dog — and have a byline — in heaven.
The 69-year-old bestselling author next week will release “The Case for Heaven,” a book that makes the evangelical Christian case for an afterlife while citing those who have had near-death experiences. He also will tell the story of his own brush with eternity.
Mr. Strobel was at one time an atheist, but his life changed after his wife, Leslie, became a Christian believer and challenged his complacency. Now, he has a string of books and videos defending the faith. Each attacks its subject with the same dogged approach that marked his news reporting.
“The Case for Heaven,” which is expected to launch at a reception at the Museum of the Bible in the District of Columbia, may be his last book.
“I just don’t know. I don’t have anything that I feel particularly persuaded to write about at this point,” he told The Washington Times.
He said his new book is personal. Ten years ago, “my wife found me unconscious on the bedroom floor [and] called an ambulance. I woke up in the emergency room. The doctor looked down at me and said, ‘You’re one step away from a coma and two steps away from dying.’ And then I fell unconscious again. I was kind of hovering between life and death.”
The diagnosis was hyponatremia, an abrupt drop in the blood’s level of sodium, Mr. Strobel said. In his case, it caused his brain cells to take in moisture and the brain to expand. “And, of course,” he added, “there’s no room to [do] that in your skull.”
The disease caused hallucinations, which but for his wife’s intervention and quick medical treatment would have been followed by seizures and death, he said.
“That’s a very clarifying experience, to be close to death that way,” Mr. Strobel said. “As a Christian, I know, biblically, that when I close my eyes in this world, I’ll open them in the next and [be in] God’s presence. But I’m a journalist with a law background. So I tend still to be a skeptic about some things and, and I thought, ‘How do I know that that’s really consistent with science and with, with reason and with rationality?’”
That question took on added urgency during the COVID-19 pandemic, Mr. Strobel said.
His elder brother, Ray, “died right at the beginning of the pandemic,” he said. “They said, ‘Oh, he died of the flu,’ and we know that COVID was circulating there during that time. … I believe it was COVID.”
Mr. Strobel noted that 29% of Americans had a family member or friend who died of COVID-19, “so you’ve got a lot of people who are thinking about death.”
His quest for answers led him to interviews with experts such as Sharon Dirckx, who earned a doctorate in brain imaging from the University of Cambridge, New Testament scholar Scott McKnight and philosopher Paul Copan.
Perhaps his most emotional encounter was with Luis Palau, the Argentine evangelist once dubbed “the Billy Graham of South America.”
With a 65-year evangelistic outreach, Palau presented the Christian message to more than 1 billion people via radio, television, print and live events. The interview with Mr. Strobel turned out to be Palau’s last before his death in March.
“He knew he was dying. He had stage four lung cancer and was on the verge of dying,” Mr. Strobel said. “I flew out to Portland because I wanted to interview someone who was about to go to heaven. I sat down with him and his wife, Pat, and spent the day and, and it was a very poignant time. He told me he’s not afraid of dying. He said, ‘I really believe that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.’”
Palau, whom the author described as “my hero, but also a friend,” was “a little ticked off” at not having left for heaven just yet “because I’m ready to go,” Mr. Stobel said.
The evangelist said something Mr. Strobel still remembers: “I can tell you from personal experience that, at the end of your life, when all is said and done, you’ll never regret being courageous for Christ.”
“And that really registered with me because what he was really saying, you know, take a risk, you know, we have a great message of if heaven is real, if this is true, this is the greatest bit of news on the planet,” the author said.
The book discusses the specifics of life in eternity, such as whether married couples will remain married (yes, but no childbearing), whether pets will join the deceased (Mr. Strobel hopes for a reunion with Nikki, a giant poodle) and whether those who make it to life eternal will have occupations or just loll around plucking harps forever.
“I love what I do,” Mr. Strobel said of his journalism, which earned him a Pulitzer Prize nomination as the Chicago Tribune’s legal reporter. “I would love to be able to continue to do what I do in some way, without the impediments, without the shortcomings, without the problems, but to be able to continue to write and continue to grow creatively. I think that’s got to be part of what eternity will be like. Otherwise, it’s [going to] get pretty boring after a million years.”
R.T. Mullins, a senior research fellow at the University of Helsinki’s Collegium for Advanced Studies, said interest in the afterlife spans world religions, even those that don’t acknowledge a deity.
“I think it’s a very natural human desire to have a life that keeps going and going and going,” Mr. Mullins said in an interview. The scholar acknowledged that some opposing views can trigger harsh responses.
“When I meet, for instance, a bishop in Sweden who tells me, ‘No, no, no, no, you really don’t want that. What you really want is just for God to remember you forever.’ I’m like, ‘No, screw that. I want life after death. I want what Jesus promised me … and if you’re not making good on that, then why would I follow?’”
Dr. Andrew Newberg, a physician and author of “How God Changes Your Brain,” said the desire to seek heaven and the afterlife may be a design feature of the human brain.
“Our brain is designed in certain ways. It functions in certain ways that really enables or facilitates our ability to have religious and spiritual experiences and beliefs,” said Dr. Newberg, director of research at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital’s Marcus Institute of Integrative Health in Philadelphia.