“And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, to send
him to my father’s house— for I have five brothers—so that he may warn
them, lest they also come into this place of torment.’ But Abraham said,
‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ And he said,
‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they
will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the
Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the
dead.’”(Luke 16:27-31 ESV)
Stories describing a person’s a journey into the beauties of heaven and their subsequent return to earth are nothing new. Whether it be simply a “light” or an extravagant description of the pearly gates, many have spoken of dying just long enough to taste the splendor of heaven but then were brought back to life, left to share with others the wonder of their experience. Over the past few years this kind of storytelling has seen incredible commercial success and due to that popularity, not surprisingly, more and more books were marketed about personal experiences with heaven. Perhaps the most famous of these is the story of Colton, a 4 year old who apparently visited heaven while on the operating table with a burst appendix. The book was written by Colton’s father, pastor Todd Burpo, some six or seven years after the operating table phenomenon. It recounts how Colton, in bits and pieces, explained to his parents how he visited heaven as a 4 year old.
Of all the thousands upon thousands of positive, edifying, important books Christians should be reading, “Heaven Is For Real” and their counterparts fall to the bottom part of the list. It isn’t because their message is in conflict with the Church or that we might find ourselves in danger of embracing a faulty worldview. Nevertheless, these kinds of books just simply have nothing to offer, and most of them present their nothingness in a rather shoddy fashion, making their success say more about the ones purchasing the books than the ones writing them.
Let me admit from the outset that critiquing a book like “Heaven Is For Real” inherently comes with a certain kind of difficulty. That difficulty is best expressed by the concept of, “who are you to dismiss someone’s experience?” I understand the sensitivity of such a task and I write this article, I hope, with a gracious hand, not intending to demean the ones who have shared their experiences but determined to think biblically about their story. So to that end, let me describe a couple of areas that concern me.
First is the philosophy that a person’s experience with God is out of reach for other Christians to discern and evaluate. Yes, we must be careful as we all know that God works and speaks individually with His children. He is God, He can do whatever He wants. However, what God will never do is something that falls outside His own revelation about Himself in Scripture. This is true throught many issues in church life. I find it fascinating that the main argument for women serving in pastoral roles is that God called them to do it. And if God called them, who am I to question that? Fine. God called me to shoot a man because he looked at me funny. We instantly dismiss such an outrageous suggestion. But why? At the end of day, you are making a judgment call on my personal experience with God based on the content of my experience. Following the “who are you to question my experience with God” to its logical conclusion is simply untenable and we all know it. It’s just when the subject matter is more sensitive that we feel like we don’t have the right to discern a person’s experience through the lens of Scripture. So, before a person can tell me that God “called” them or “placed” them somewhere, whether it be pastoring a church or experiencing a glimpse of heaven, that person should first be able to support their experience in Scripture. (for what it’s worth, I have respect for women who make a rational, intelligent, Scriptural defense for their pastorate and do not lean on the “I was called” argument alone. Up to this point I am not persuaded by their arguments and I believe they are misinterpreting Scripture, but I am nevertheless grateful for their turning to the Bible to support their position).
The Bible tells of very few people who were graced with a vision of heaven; the apostles Paul and John are the two biggies (you could also say Isaiah and Stephen). In Paul’s experience, he was forbidden to tell of what he had seen (2 Corinthians 12:4). In John’s experience, his vision was concluded by the warning that anything in addition to his words would be met with plagues from God (Revelation 22:18). These experiences of Paul and John’s vision of heaven should not be considered normative. What the Bible affirms is that every person is appointed to die once. . .and after that is judgment (Hebrews 9:27). When folks “die” on the operating table or elsewhere, and we all know people who “flatlined” and returned, they do not experience a second death, etc. That was not their appointed time to die and from God’s perspective, they have not died. Remember when Jesus tells the people around Jairus’ daughter that she was only sleeping and not dead? (Mark 5:38-39). Her time to die from God’s perspective had not yet come. The Bible teaches that when death comes, so does judgement. So, not only is Scripture empty of support for a “coming and going” from heaven scenario, it denies the possibility.
Second, and perhaps even more troubling, is the motivation of the authors writing these book and the reaction of Christian folks reading them. People are buying these kinds of books, primarily Christian people, so that they can be confident of their hope of heaven. I actually read a review from one reader that said, “I always had doubts, but after reading this story I knew heaven was real.” At this point I have to give a nod to my Moderate leaning colleagues who decry the battle for the Bible’s inerrancy. Make no mistake, it is a battle I am willing and determined to fight, but if we go to war for the Bible’s inerrancy in its teaching but do not follow through with the sufficiency of what it teaches, then inerrancy is pointless, and I think this is what drives Moderates crazy. In the Sherlock Holmes story “The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist”, Holmes sends Watson to check into the story of one of the clients, hoping to discover more clues for his case. Unfortunately, and in a rather humorous portion of the story, Holmes chides Watson for his inability to uncover anything helpful to the solution of the crime. Holmes says, “What have we gained by your expedition? The knowledge that the girl’s story is true. I never doubted it.” And amen. If Christians are needing to read the testimony of a 4 year old in order to believe the truths proclaimed in Scripture, then whatever “relief” they find within the pages of such a book will be short-lived and ultimately harmful (read Luke 16 at the top of this article again). There will always be a consistent nagging for the next “something” to fill the void left by their unwillingness to trust Christ in His Word, the sufficiency of Scripture.
Thus, the only compelling reason I can come up with to read “Heaven Is For Real” and the sort is for curiosity’s sake alone. Just be careful. Curiosity left unguarded can lead down paths of thought we never thought possible. Only Scripture can and must shape how we think of heaven, our future dwelling place.
I can give you a list of 200 books you should read before “Heaven Is For Real.” Email me before you spend your money.