First, a disclaimer: I have never been to heaven. But I plan to go, very soon, and I expect heaven to be spectacular. In heaven I will see the face of God. And don’t expect me to come back. No way…
Second, two convictions: I believe heaven is the goal, heaven is the purpose of my life, the greatest good that comes from being saved from my sins. Heaven is not a booby prize for dead Christians, a concession rendered because our seventy or eighty years have come and gone (Psalm 90:10). Heaven is what I am made for. Heaven is my true and lasting home. Heaven is the “better country” where every chapter is better than the one that came before. When I get to this better country, I will agree with one of the characters in C. S. Lewis’ The Last Battlewho exults,
I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now. The reason why we loved the old Narnia so much is because it sometimes looked a little like this.
Furthermore, I am convinced that heaven is not my default destination. By nature I am a man deserving the wrath of God. Were it not for God making me alive even when I was dead in my sins, I would spend eternity in hell, not heaven.
Have you read or heard of the book Heaven is For Real? Probably. The book was written by Todd Burpo, a pastor, who claims his four-year-old son died, or sort of died, while in surgery, went to heaven for an unknown period of time, and came back to life talking about his experiences. Six years later Pastor Burpo wrote about his son’s sojourn in heaven. The rest is publishing history. Heaven is For Real is the best-selling evangelical book of the past decade.
In mid-April the film version of Burpo’s book was released and was the highest grossing movie during its first weekend, taking in a cool $21.5 million. The film’s commercial success is but the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Christian publishing houses in recent years have discovered a windfall in publishing books purporting to give real life accounts of the experience of people who died, went to heaven, and returned to earth to write about it. Consider just some recent titles: My Journey to Heaven: What I Saw and How It Changed My Life, by Marvin J. Besteman; Flight to Heaven: A Plane Crash…A Lone Survivor…A Journey to Heaven—and Back, by Dale Black; To Heaven and Back: A Doctor’s Extraordinary Account of Her Death, Heaven, Angels, and Life Again: A True Story, by Mary Neal; 90 Minutes in Heaven: A True Story of Death and Life, by Don Piper; Nine Days In Heaven, by Dennis Prince… etc.
I have three friendly concerns about this publishing bonanza:
First, these accounts aren’t true. I know what you are thinking, How do you know, Reed, these testimonies aren’t true? Because the Bible tells me so. The writer of the book of Proverbs asks, Who has ascended into heaven and come down?(30:4). The answer? No one. Jesus said, No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man(John 3:13). Our Lord clearly states that he is the only man who has been to heaven and come to earth to talk about it. What about Paul? Yes, the Apostle had a vision of heaven, so intense that he didn’t even know if it was in the body or out of the body. Paul “heard things that cannot be told…” So he doesn’t tell us. Paul’s whole visionary experience of heaven is wrapped up in three short verses (2 Corinthians 12:2-4)!
There is simply nothing in the Bible that remotely implies God takes some of us to heaven for a short time and sends us back to speak of our experiences. Instead the Bible teaches that we live and die once, facing the judgment of God, either to eternal life with Jesus or to eternal damnation in hell (Hebrews 9:27-28). As evangelical blogger Tim Challies writes, To allow a man (or a boy) to experience heaven and then to bring him back would not be grace but cruelty.
Second, these books, more than likely, detract from the glory of Christ. Heaven is where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. We are to seek the things above by meditating on Christ and his glories. Consider, the apostle John. He sees but a glimpse of the exalted Christ and falls down as though dead! (Revelation 1:17) This is not the reported experience of those claiming to have made a brief heavenly sojourn. Instead we read of flying around heaven with wings, seeing that people in heaven have halos and meeting siblings we didn’t know we had. The Bible never depicts these things. Rather, the portrait painted of heaven in the Bible is a portrait of the glory of God!
In all the Bible only four people record their visions of heaven: Isaiah, Ezekiel, Paul and John (yes, Stephen got a glimpse and also Micah). As Phil Johnson writes,
The biblical authors are all fixated on God’s glory, which defines heaven and illuminates everything there. They are overwhelmed, chagrined, petrified, and put to silence by the sheer majesty of God’s holiness. Notably missing from all the biblical accounts are the frivolous features and juvenile attractions that seem to dominate every account of heaven currently on the bestseller lists.
Finally, these books are too successful, too popular. Sales figures testify that we aren’t content with God’s inspired descriptions of heaven as recorded in the Bible. We’ve been there, done that already. Instead, we gobble up these tomes of heavenly junk food and find we have no appetite left for the real thing. I don’t want to be a curmudgeon implying that this increasingly popular genre of Christian literature is “a tool of the devil.” Nor do I mean to imply God can’t use these books to bring people to himself. But our fascination with what Tim Challies calls “heaven tourism” troubles me. I am concerned because our hunger for these fictional accounts, purported to be real heavenly visitations, apparently are more interesting to us than what the Bible itself says about heaven.
Travelling to heaven and back is where it’s at today. Don Piper spent ninety minutes there and sold four million copies of his account. Colton Burpo doesn’t know how long he was there, but his travel diary has surpassed 6 million copies sold, with a kids’ edition accounting for another half million. Bill Wiese obviously booked his trip on the wrong website and found himself in hell, which did, well, hellish things to his sales figures. Still, 23 Minutes in Hellsold better than if he had described a journey to, say, Detroit, and he even saw his book hit the best-seller lists for a few weeks. There have been others as well, and together they have established afterlife travel journals as a whole new genre in Christian publishing—a genre that is selling like hotcakes…
Jonathan Edwards, the great eighteenth-century preacher, thought and taught much on heaven. He saw heaven as the destination of every believer and taught that we should spend all our lives preparing to enjoy heaven to the fullest. Edwards writes, It becomes us to spend this life only as a journey toward heaven…to which we should subordinate all other concerns of life. Why should we labor for or set our hearts on anything else, but that which is our proper and true happiness? Heaven is for real. Really! But not because Todd Burpo says so. Rather because the Bible says so. Read the book, I mean, the book called the Bible. It’s better than the movie by far.