Discernment lesson: books where people are given tours of heaven and hell

There have been a spate of books lately in which the author shares his or her trip to heaven or hell, as the case may be. The three I’d like to address are the following:

Heaven is for Real, published 2010

23 minutes in Hell, in 2006

90 minutes in Heaven, 2004

The most recent is Todd Burpo’s Heaven is for Real, which was a surprise, phenomenal bestseller. The following article is from NY Times this past March:

“Colton’s father, Todd, has turned the boy’s experience into a 163-page book, “Heaven Is for Real,” which has become a sleeper paperback hit of the winter, dominating best-seller lists and selling hundreds of thousands of copies. Thomas Nelson, the book’s publisher, said it had broken company sales records. The publisher, based in Nashville, began with an initial print run of 40,000 copies. Since the book came out in November, it has gone back to press 22 times, with more than 1.5 million copies in print. On the New York Times best-seller list for paperback nonfiction last Sunday, “Heaven Is for Real” was No. 1. The book remains in the top spot this coming Sunday.”

Why is this, one wonders? The answer, for this company at least is answered later in the NY Times article:

“We all are perhaps desperate to know what is on the other side of the veil after we die,” Vice-President of the Publishing Company) Mr. Baugher said, adding that his initial skepticism about the Burpo family’s story was short-lived.”

We all wonder about the other side. We are intensely curious, I think we all need to be honest about that. When a book comes out that purports to have special information, insider stuff, a sneak peek, people flock to it … as evidenced by the statistics shared by the Nelson Publishing company about the Burpo book.

Don Piper experienced a terrible accident and it was while he was trapped in the car that he said he visited heaven. Although the title says ’90 minutes in heaven’ he never actually visited heaven. He was only ever standing on the outside of the pearly gates. He never entered. Todd Burpo is the father of the boy who said he visited heaven. Colton was just turned four years old when his appendix burst and he lay on the operating table, unconscious and under anesthetic.  As Colton recovered from his medical ordeal, over a period of months, he revealed tiny details of his trip to heaven and after 6 or 7 years, his pastor father wrote the book.

BIll Wiese was just sleeping and was inexplicably transported to hell by Jesus. Jesus gave Wiese a tour of the place and sent him back topside 23 minutes later with a message that “I am coming very, very soon.”

I don’t want to diminish anyone’s terrible medical tragedy or be insensitive if anyone has mental problems, demonic dreams, or just plain seeks attention in this bizarre manner. There is no doubt that for Piper and Wiese that whatever they experienced changed their lives. They are constantly sharing their testimony, witnessing, and evangelizing. But was what they experienced from God? Or not? And how should we as Christian readers respond?

My opinion is that what they experienced was not from God. I personally do not believe that Jesus is in the business of giving personal tours of heaven or hell. We do know that Ezekiel, Isaiah, Paul and John saw the heavenly things. But once the bible was completed, I believe that is all that Jesus has to say on the subjects. We read in the bible that we die once and then the judgment. (Hebrews 9:27). I could go point-by-point on the things in these books that are unscriptural, but I want to be more general than that. The title, for example, “Heaven is for Real.” Do we really need a book dictated by a four year old to tell us that heaven is real? The title 90 minutes in Heaven, for example, is disingenuous. He did not enter heaven. The bible says that when we are absent with the body, we are present with the Lord. (2 Cor 5:8). The bible does not say “absent from the body you will hang around the entrance to heaven for 90 minutes only to be turned back without seeing Jesus.”

I am a bible believer. I am a big fan of the bible, besides. It is the revealed word of God, generously given to us from on high, by His grace and intellect. He crafted that Word over 1500 years and the writers went through great pains to put to paper the Spirit-inspired words for future generations to be blessed by. And at that, it may be opened occasionally at a church, IF the pastor actually preaches from a bible and encourages his flock to bring one and open it during the sermon. More usually, the book gets tossed in the back of the car, to become sun-faded and ignored.

But when a four year old awakens from a drug-induced operation, and drops details of his visit to heaven, over a period of months, that his father fills in the details of, people buy the book by the millions. SAD!

The bible tells us all we need to know about heaven, AND hell. The bible. It should be all we need to have hope in the future promise of heaven. His Word is impeccable, solid, and sure. Christian Book reviewer Tim Challies has a good review of these books here. He also addresses the underlying reluctance and guilt we have to reject such books: saying, ‘who are we to dismiss another’s experience?’

Challies said: “If you struggle believing what the Bible says, but learn to find security in the testimony of a toddler, well, I feel sorry for you. And I do not mean this in a condescending way. If God’s Word is not sufficient for you, if the testimony of his Spirit, given to believers, is not enough for you, you will not find any true hope in the unproven tales of a child. This hope may last for a moment, but it will not sustain you, it will not bless you, in those times when hope is waning and times are hard. So reject this book. Do not read it. Do not believe it. And do not feel guilty doing so.”

This reviewer endured a traumatic medical trauma as well but questions the legitimacy of those who have such experiences while under the influence of medications. She wrote in part, “I wasn’t planning to read the book, because I’m skeptical about it, but maybe I should … and maybe I’ll be won over like you were. The reason I should read it is because people are asking whether my experience of almost dying matches any of it. After receiving severe injuries in an accident, I spent about 48 hours hovering between life and death. I have some foggy memories that I could wrap in Heaven language, but I don’t feel comfortable doing so. My body was in a traumatic situation and I was heavily medicated … so why would I trust anything I thought/saw/experienced at that time? While I realize the book brings comfort to the family (and many others) my biggest doubts are with the certainty placed in a 4-year old, especially while in a traumatic situation. (plus, when else do we base major beliefs on what a 4-year old says?) Also all the experiences I’ve heard he had confirmed what the family already believed. What if he had ‘come back’ with new information that would have challenged what they believe or cost them something, such as: if he had said Jesus really does want them to sell everything and give all to the poor?”

What we should feel guilty about is not rejecting another’s extra-biblical revelation of heaven or hell, but of  rejecting God’s word in favor of man-made experiences. This is all too common of a problem today, substituting a personal experience for God’s Word. We cannot make a theology out of what we experience. We are sinners and therefore flawed. We see through a glass darkly. But God sees all things perfectly, and He has told us how heaven is and what hell is like.

Pastor Reid Ferguson wrote about Burpo’s book, “So, if you have read the book, and have found your “faith” bolstered by it or your soul encouraged by it, my question to you is – Why? Why not the Bible? Why this story – and not the authoritative one? What does this say about your own attitude toward Scripture? What does it say about your understanding of Scripture? What does it say about your approach to truth – and how it is found, discerned and processed? Why does this strike a chord with you God’s own Word to you does not?”

Good questions. If you would like to read some secular books that are biblically based that illustrate heaven, I recommend Heaven by Randy Alcorn, and also Alcorn’s “We Shall See God: Charles Spurgeon’s Classic Devotional Thoughts on Heaven” which is a compilation of Charles Spurgeon’s sermons on heaven, lightly edited and with an introduction to each sermon by Alcorn.

Be discerning, people, and READ THE BIBLE!