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May 09, 2011

“Heaven Is for Real,” “90 Minutes in Heaven,” and other books about visits to Heaven or Hell

Update: You can find my blog on the Heaven Is for Real movie here.

Heaven Is For Real

In the past few months, I have been repeatedly asked about the phenomenally popular book Heaven Is for Real. This book was again number 1 on the May 8 New York Times bestseller’s list. It has already sold something like four million copies, and it’s not slowing down.

Truthfully, I didn’t want to say anything about this book. But after being asked about it again and again on Facebook and in emails and at a conference, I’ve decided I need to say something. People tell me, “Since you wrote the book Heaven, we want to know what you think.” Well, that doesn’t make me an expert on people’s claims of after-death or near-death experiences, but for what it’s worth I’ll share my thoughts. I will also address other Christian books that claim to record actual experiences of going to Heaven or to Hell. Consequently, this will be an unusually long blog, article-length.

Heaven Is for Real is written by an evangelical pastor, Todd Burpo, and tells of his then four-year-old son Colton, who survived emergency surgery and later told his family that he went to Heaven. Colton described seeing Jesus and meeting his miscarried sister and his great-grandfather, who died before he was born.

Honestly, it’s difficult for me to know what to say. I found the book interesting. Todd and Colton appear to be sincere. Parts of the book seemed quite plausible; parts of it raised questions. Some of the words that Colton supposedly spoke as a four-year-old seem more like words an adult would speak, but perhaps that’s due to his father’s memories as he tried to reconstruct his son’s words from years earlier.  More seriously, I was concerned about Colton’s claim that people in Heaven have wings (he says he too had wings while there), and other details that fit popular lore about Heaven, but don’t fit Scripture. In the Bible, some angels are portrayed as having wings, most are not. But never is any human being in Heaven or anywhere else said to have wings. Some beings in Heaven, according to Colton, have halos. But that’s not in the Bible. It’s from popular art in the Greek and Roman era and more recently in the Christian art of the Middle Ages. And of course we see it in our popular culture depictions of heaven, including cartoons.

These things suggested to me that perhaps this child has seen and heard things about Heaven that worked their way into his imagining Heaven, as opposed to coming from an actual experience in Heaven.  His father says Colton had never heard or seen such things, but I think a lot of children have seen much more than their parents realize.

90 Minutes in HeavenOne concern is that I have seen such great excitement among Christians in response to this book, an experiential account that in its very best parts simply confirms what Scripture has said all along. Yes, Heaven is for real, but we already knew that, didn’t we? God’s Word has told us that all along. When there is so much fanfare about accounts that simply confirm what the Bible says, I wonder if we trust the accounts more than the Bible itself. People come to hear Don Piper speak because of his story of being in Heaven, told in 90 Minutes in Heaven. But hopefully Don, as well as Todd Burpo, would be the first to say people shouldn’t need to hear about Don’s experience, or Colton Burpo’s, in order to believe in the Heaven that Scripture reveals. I think many Christians need a better understanding not only of the authority of Scripture, but its sufficiency.  

On the other hand, I understand people’s curiosity about books like this. And I’m deeply grateful that Don Piper and the Burpos uphold the gospel. I don’t presume to know everything that God does. He is capable of surprising us. I certainly do not want to speak against anything that God may have done. In the Bible we’re told that Stephen, Paul and John all saw Heaven, and John and Paul were actually taken there. All three were alive when they saw it. Stephen remarked that he saw Christ in Heaven (Acts 7:56), Paul was hesitant to talk about his experience (2 Cor. 12:1-4), and John relayed his experience in the God-breathed book of Revelation.

While Don Piper and the Burpo family are followers of Jesus, most reports of after-death experiences come from those who are not. I have read many accounts of such experiences in which people who do not know Christ claim to have gone to Heaven, or its outskirts, and were reassured by a “being of light” that all is well with them.

In such cases, I do not believe the being of light they’ve seen is Jesus, since in fact the Bible makes clear that all those who do not know Jesus as their Savior have great reason to fear death, and the Hell that will follow it, if they don’t repent and turn to Him. Scripture says, “Even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light” (2 Cor. 11:15). Obviously, Satan has great vested interests in deceiving unbelievers into thinking that what awaits them after death is a place of serenity rather than of eternal punishment. (In response to someone’s question, I summarized the biblical teaching about Satan.)

As for Heaven Is for Real, I certainly don’t see a false gospel in the Burpo’s account of Heaven. I rejoice that Jesus is portrayed as the only way to God, in keeping with John 14:6 and Acts 4:12. I could have wished for a greater emphasis on confession of sin and repentance, but on major biblical issues I don’t think Heaven Is for Real contradicts Scripture. Yet on some details, such as wings and halos, I’m just…uncomfortable. Still, God uses many things without my permission, and despite my reservations! I emphatically agree with the title: Heaven Is for Real. Not because Colton Burpo or Don Piper say they have been there, but because the Bible says so.

I’ve met Don Piper, author of the book 90 Minutes in Heaven, which paved the way for Heaven Is for Real. I was on a panel about Heaven with Don Piper, J.I. Packer and Sam Storms. Don was a Southern Baptist pastor, and is a nice guy who believes and affirms Christ and the Bible. I saw nothing in his book that contradicted Scripture. I like Don, just as I would no doubt like the Burpo family. I don’t question his sincerity. But can I say for sure that he went to Heaven? Or that Colton Burpo went to Heaven? No. I can’t. But I also can’t confidently say that they did not. I can say for sure that there is a final judgment spoken of in Hebrews 9:27-28, and that in the ultimate biblical sense of “death,” people do not die and come back to life before the judgment. If God wants to make exceptions He can, and if he wants to give people glimpses of Heaven in a near death experience He can. But there is reason for skepticism on our part when someone makes this claim.

Divine Revelation of HellSometimes there is reason for rejecting the account even when it is made by a professing Christian. I remember reading Mary Baxter’s bestselling book of being taken to Hell (after her very successful first book about being taken to Heaven, it seemed interesting that not only the publishers but God came through with a sequel). T. L. Lowery wrote the foreword to Mrs. Baxter’s book, A Divine Revelation of Heaven. In it, he says, “The inspired writings of Mary Kathryn Baxter are divinely anointed by God.” Mrs. Baxter says, “The Spirit of the living God revealed to me everything I am telling you.”

I resist such lavish claims that put someone’s book on a level with Scripture itself. This is a major red flag that to me actually discredits books. Mrs. Baxter says in her book that Jesus told her Hell is shaped like a woman’s body and resides in the center of the earth. It is occupied by snakes and rats. She speaks of “demons taking turns poking a soul with spears.” One room in Hell is called the “fun center” where there are special torments for mediums and witches. Obviously, there is no mention of any of these things in Scripture. In Baxter’s book, Satan and demons are portrayed as ruling and torturing people in Hell, whereas the Bible says they will not go to Hell until after the judgment, and they will not go to punish anyone, but to be punished by God.

Mary Baxter claims that Jesus twice abandoned her in Hell, even though He has promised that Christ experienced Hell on the cross so we wouldn’t have to, and He will never leave us or forsake us. She says it was revealed to her that God always wants to heal every Christian. But Scripture tells of many instances showing this is not so, including the example of Paul, where God did not heal him of his thorn in the flesh, but rather told the apostle that His grace is sufficient. Mrs. Baxter says people are not healed only because of their unbelief. That, apparently, would include Paul, Timothy, and a host of others mentioned in the Bible, who were sick but not healed. (Several health and wealth gospel proponents like Baxter have told of God showing them rooms of spare body parts in Heaven, awaiting distribution to all on earth who have enough faith to be healed; never mind that Scripture itself says no such thing.)

There are other claimed first hand accounts of Heaven and Hell I haven’t read, including 23 Minutes in Hell. I am told that it’s generally true to Scripture, but it also portrays demons punishing people in Hell, a picture that I find troubling and unbiblical, since the Bible makes clear it is God who punishes both demons and people in Hell.

BibleWhile I am not the judge of who has really been to Heaven or Hell, I emphatically believe every near-death (or supposed “after-death”) experience must be evaluated in light of God’s Word. Where the experience contradicts the revealed Word of God, the Word must be accepted over the experience. For the Christian, there simply is no other option. We dare not start basing our beliefs on people’s memories of their personal experiences.

I suspect the phenomenal success of Heaven Is for Real will tempt people to use their imaginations in telling stories about visiting Heaven. Some will be deceptive, others will exaggerate, still others may take images from a drug-induced state on a hospital bed and by power of suggestion may convince themselves that various images in their heads were actual experiences of Heaven. The financial success of 90 Minutes in Heaven and Heaven Is for Real will inevitably invite others to come forward who are willing to either deliberately mislead others or convince themselves of something that was not a true experience of  Heaven.  

Tim Challies, a good and biblical thinker, has major reservations about Heaven Is for Real. Tim calls it like he sees it, and I believe his review is worth reading, especially as a counterbalance to the way so many Christians are quick to believe people’s accounts of after-death experiences. Tim’s skepticism about the book is more definite than mine is. However, Tim and I are in 100% agreement about the danger of Christians basing any theology on such books, rather than solely on God’s Word.

Acts 17:11 tells us that the Bereans searched the Scriptures daily "to see if what Paul said was true." Now, if ever in human history you were going to assume that another person's words were true, not finding it necessary to double-check against the Scriptures, surely it would be with the Apostle Paul. Yet the Bereans were commended for carefully scrutinizing Paul's words in light of Scripture. If Paul's words needed to fall under the judgment of God's Word, obviously mine do, and Don Piper’s do, and Todd and Colton Burpo’s do.

I do believe that something is seriously wrong if people take more time to contemplate and discuss Colton Burpo’s account of petting Jesus' rainbow-colored horse, or of Jesus wearing a crown with a pink diamond, than they do studying what the Bible actually says about Heaven. The back cover of the book says "Heaven Is for Real will forever change the way you think of eternity.” I would say, “Seek to let the Bible alone change the way you think of eternity.”

Heaven: Your Real HomeI hope people will study the Scriptures first, then secondly read biblically-based books on the subject of Heaven. I would feel like an opportunist recommending my book Heaven. So instead I’ll recommend Joni Eareckson Tada’s book Heaven: Your Real Home, which I told her was my very favorite. Graciously, Joni told me that mine was her favorite. So there you go, we are each other’s endorsers, but I am certainly the greater beneficiary of hers than she is of mine! And the fact that I mentioned this certainly does make me an opportunist after all, doesn’t it? So does the probability that people who work on EPM staff will link to my Heaven book in this blog, and I will do nothing to stop them. :)

If it’s any consolation, I sought to base the Heaven book solidly on Scripture, and then make clear when I was speculating. I always attempted to base that speculation on biblical grounds. I am no doubt mistaken on some points. But I hope that my attempt to honor Scripture as absolute authority, and the fact that I make no money from the book, will at least provide some counterbalance.  

By the way, I first wrote about Heaven in my novel Deadline in 1993, back before it was cool to do so. :) Of course, everything I’ve said about other people’s books applies to mine, despite the fact that I make no claim to having seen or been to Heaven (in fact I make the explicit statement that I haven’t). Don’t base your theology of Heaven on my books except where you believe they line up with Scripture, which makes the Bible the authority, not me. And while curiosity is understandable, don’t base your theology of Heaven on any book that tells of someone’s personal experience and memories, no matter how sincere they may be.

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