Truth & Orthodoxy

Claims of “To Heaven & Back” Experiences: How do we respond?

Note: I’ve never really stepped into the realm of online debates and discussions, but since a small one started on my Facebook yesterday, I decided to respond here for the sake of having better control over format and readability. I don’t intend to be using my blog in this way much in the future, but I am hoping that this can edify our faith regarding a topic that is relevant right now in the broader evangelical world.

Edit: Comments are welcome and will be sent directly to me through the site and I will respond to them via email if you leave yours (though it make take time!), but I won’t be posting them publicly because I’d rather not start a public debate here.

Yesterday, I posted a link to this video by David Platt, where he argues why we should not believe accounts of people that have claimed to gone to heaven and returned back. I believe it is worth watching and though a friend pointed out that we may disagree about his implication that many people are writing these books for the sake of money, I agree with everything else he says.

In response to this video, a friend posted this question: “What if God chooses to reveal certain things to some people? The kid might not have his theology correct, but does that mean everything he saw or envisioned was false, and therefore not to be believed?”

The following is a combination of what I wrote and in addition, my newly written response to some of the things that came up as others wrote on my Facebook wall.

1. We need to test these claimed experiences against the Word of God.

As Christians, we believe in the authority of the Word of God in all of life. People in all types of religions and beliefs have had near death experiences– What about those who claim that there is nothing because that’s what they saw? Or if someone says that they went to heaven apart from knowing Christ? Or if someone said they went to heaven and saw Jesus standing among other gods? We would reject those claims because they are antithetical to what we know is true as revealed in the word of God. If the Scriptures are true, then it has final say over my view of reality, understanding of right vs. wrong, and even the interpretation of my own (and dare I say, others’) experiences. Just because a kid may seem to know things that had to be shown to him by someone else doesn’t mean it’s from God and doesn’t serve as proof of the accuracy of the vision, so our first instinct no matter what is that we need to test the claims against the Scriptures.

The problem as I see it with our reception of such near-death accounts that are popular in the evangelical circle is that we are often quick to accept and even promote them because they seem to be affirming some of the things we believe (heaven and the existence of Jesus namely) but are slower to really test the other claims against the word of God. In some ways, it’s inconsistent. Often, we are willing to explain away or reject a non-Christian’s interpretation of their own subjective experience (e.g. of whats right or wrong) but believe or ask others to believe the experience of these people who say they are Christian. More than that, it’s potentially dangerous because so many Christians are willing to trust these accounts because they are labeled “Christian”. 

2. I don’t think there is a firm neutral or middle ground in these cases. 

Though it is tempting to take a stance of “maybe it’s a mixture of truth and fiction” I don’t think that practically speaking, these books are leading Christians to say “maybe it’s from God, but kind of off in some parts, so let’s just take the parts we KNOW are true from Scripture, and then leave the rest.” Most people want to read these books and are drawn to them not in order to be reminded of what they know to be true (that God is Triune, that Jesus is worshipped, that there are heavenly beings, etc.) because if so, they could just read the Bible. And they don’t just want to know what someone else thinks heaven might be like. The appeal of these books is their claim to know something about what God hasn’t chosen to reveal to us already in his Word– knowledge beyond what we’ve been already given that will give us some sort of certainty regarding or picture of life after death.

The authors, selling these books as non-fiction, are asking the reader to believe that what happened was a 100% true event. They are making claims about reality and about an actual experience of heaven. They’re not just saying “here are my own thoughts/dreams/desires about what heaven would be like.” Rather, they are written with a purpose and in a way that seeks to convince the readers of the veracity of their claims.  That’s why such an important part of these accounts is access to knowledge that would be unknowable if they didn’t really go to heaven.

Because these books aren’t just written as a series of thoughts that distinguish what is written about with authority from Scripture vs. what may be true, but with an intention of being taken wholly as real and reliable experiences, taking the middle ground of “let’s just take some and leave some,” to me, isn’t really an option. Yes, we can affirm that there may be some truth in them because some parts align with Scripture and we can say we agree with some parts and disagree with others. But I believe that in assessing the whole of the accounts, such claims are either true — these are actual accurate depictions of heaven and these people actually went to heaven as they claimed– or they are fiction– they didn’t go to heaven and their claim to authority about such things are unfounded and not to be trusted.

3. Scripture is not silent: Why I doubt these to-heaven-and-back experiences to the point of rejecting them personally.

a) I do not think there is a Biblical basis for believing there is a possibility to enter heaven and return, but rather strong evidence against it.

John MacArthur writes:

There is simply no reason to believe anyone who claims to have gone to heaven and returned. John 3:13 says, “No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.” And John 1:18 says, “No one has seen God at any time.”

Four biblical authors had visions of heaven—not near-death experiences. Isaiah and Ezekiel (Old Testament prophets) and Paul and John (New Testament apostles) all had such visions. Two other biblical figures—Micaiah and Stephen—got glimpses of heaven, but what they saw is merely mentioned, not described (2 Chronicles 18:18Acts 7:55).

Hebrews 9:27 also says it is appointed for a man to die once and after that to face judgment and Tim Challies references this, writing:

It is for man to die once and then the resurrection. To allow a man (or a boy) to experience heaven and then to bring him back would not be grace but cruelty. The only biblical example we have of a man being caught up to heaven is Paul and it’s very interesting that he was forbidden to tell anything about it. And the reason he even mentioned this experience was not to offer encouragement that heaven exists, but to serve as a part of his “gospel boasting.” He saw heaven and was told to say nothing about it. This was a unique experience in a unique time and for a unique reason.

We live in a narcissistic culture, and it shows in these accounts of people who claim they’ve been to heaven. They sound as if they viewed paradise in a mirror, keeping themselves in the foreground. They say comparatively little about God or His glory. But the glory of God is what the Bible says fills, illuminates, and defines heaven. Instead, the authors of these stories seem obsessed with details like how good they felt—how peaceful, how happy, how comforted they were; how they received privileges and accolades; how fun and enlightening their experience was; and how many things they think they now understand perfectly that could never be gleaned from Scripture alone. In short, they glorify self while barely noticing God’s glory. They highlight everything but what’s truly important about heaven.

It is quite true that heaven is a place of perfect bliss—devoid of all sorrow and sin, full of exultation and enjoyment—a place where grace and peace reign totally unchallenged. Heaven is where every true treasure and every eternal reward is laid up for the redeemed. Anyone whose destiny is heaven will certainly experience more joy and honor there than the fallen mind is capable of comprehending—infinitely more than any fallen creature deserves. But if you actually saw heaven and lived to tell about it, those things are not what would capture your heart and imagination.

You would be preoccupied instead with the majesty and grace of the One whose glory fills the place.

Here is where I would have to personally reject the descriptions given of heaven in such accounts because they are just too different from the picture given in Scripture to be believable. I remember a preacher saying something like how he heard someone say at a funeral that the man who had passed away was in heaven, on a couch, sipping beer, and watching football on TV with Jesus. What if someone said they went to heaven and that’s what everyone will be doing? Does Scripture say there is no football or TV or beer in heaven? No, not exactly… and I don’t have the authority of Scripture to say that this scenario is completely impossible throughout all of eternity, but I think here I would say that it is reasonable to reject such an experience of heaven because this is not what heaven is all about. In the same way, I think that we can with reasonableness, personally reject many of the descriptions of heaven that merely reflect the enjoyment of all the things we enjoyed here on earth apart from God. Is it impossible that there are happy reunions, flying, wings, beer, tv, etc.? No and truly, I don’t know. But if the account is filled with such details rather than with God’s glory, then the picture as a whole opposes that which is given in Scripture enough in terms of the overwhelming focus and experience that I think I have good grounds to believe that person  did not truly see heaven.

3. Why I think that such accounts are more hurtful than helpful

I do not believe such accounts encourage us to deeper faith in God and the sufficiency of the Scriptures, but rather tends to turn people toward subjective extra-biblical experiences.

As Christians, we believe that God has given us all that we need for our knowledge of God and for living a life pleasing to him through the Scriptures. This, in theological terms, is what Protestants explain as  doctrine concerning the sufficiency of Scripture  We believe that there are secret things that belong to God, but the things that are necessary for our living a life of obedience to Christ have already been revealed in his word. (Deut. 29:29) This gives us tremendous assurance and hope and gratitude. We are assured that we stand on solid ground and that there is a light to our path readily given to us. We are assured because we don’t just take in and believe whatever other people tell us about God, but can test it against Scripture to see if what they say is actually true(Acts 17:11). Christians in history have fought hard and died for daring to make such a claim (e.g. Protestant reformation and objecting Papal authority).

Here is a quote from the article above in a podcast by John Piper:
God’s beef with necromancy is that it belittles the sufficiency of his communication. Why would you inquire of the dead to find out what you want to know instead of inquiring of me? And if they say: Well, I have inquired of you and you didn’t tell me what I want to know. He would say: Well, that is your problem. I have told you what you need to know. You don’t need to know about such and such if I haven’t told you. And, in fact, if you go trying to inquire about such and such that I haven’t told you, you are dishonoring me. So that is the nature of the argument. And, therefore, I think the prohibition of séances and necromancy applies to this kind of thing and people ought to stop writing those books.
It’s not that I don’t believe that God can grant visions and dreams– I know of people and have at least one friend who have experienced visions of Christ before they knew him. But these visions of him brought them to seek out the truth of God as revealed in the word of God. They did not add any new insight into what God has chosen to be silent about in Scripture.  The fact that many Christians are reading these books for the purpose of affirming their faith shows the way our hearts are prone to turn to the subjective experiences of ourselves or others rather than standing on the unchangeable gift of the trustworthy word of God for our confidence and encouragement. Additionally, it  shows our natural human desire to try to go beyond what has been written that God specifically prohibits us from doing (1 Cor. 4:6). Again, it’s not that I don’t think it’s important for us to personally experience the work of God in our lives or to hear and be encouraged about it in the lives of others, but so often it comes out of our hearts’ unbelief that God has already given us all we need to be sure about our eternity if we are in Christ and God has, in love, granted us all we need to know about it in his Scriptures.

• I have reservations about whether these stories are in general profitable for faith and the Christian life in the long run. 

In Luke 16:19-31, Jesus tells a parable of the rich man and Lazarus. The rich man, having gone to hell wants to warn his brothers about his torment and Jesus says “If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.” Writing about this, Todd Burpo says,

At the same time, in his parable of the rich man and Lazarus, Jesus suggests that stories from the afterlife are of no spiritual value. Moses and the prophets offer all the spiritual proof anyone needs. And as Jesus told Thomas, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29).

Jesus says that we are blessed in not seeing and still believing. These accounts often ask us to believe because this other person has seen. This confidence is not one that I believe is helpful in the long run to  keep us standing when trials and questions come. I know of people who have seen visions of Jesus, had great supernatural experiences, but have still walked away from God. If the promises and word of God (e.g. the prophets and Moses) are not enough, I don’t believe that mystical experiences of heaven or the accounts of them will produce true faith.

• The way it represents us as Christians to non-Christians. 

I understand that much of our excitement about heaven-and-back accounts comes from a desire to be able to show to our non-Christian friends and family that yes, our faith is true and not made up. This is my own take and opinion, but I fear that these accounts in many ways actually prove to discredit us in making us seem impressionable and naiive. Some of the descriptions of heaven are so trite and confirming of the way the Christian heaven is misrepresented in media and in cartoons or movies that I would feel embarrassed offering such a description to a friend. And to me, rather than convince people of the validity of Scripture through these experiences, I feel like the non-critical consumption of such materials by Christians perpetuates the stereotype others have of us as gullible, ready to believe anything that makes us feel better, etc.

Even worse, I fear that these man-centered accounts misrepresent Christianity and the message of the gospel itself. If heaven is about all these great benefits and not centered on the glory of Christ and if it is presented this way to the world, it affects the way we present the gospel. Though we may emphasize that believing in Christ is not about getting a “ticket to heaven,” it makes sense that so many would see it this way: Christ as a means toward a goal, and not God as the goal and object of worship for all eternity and us fulfilling our purposes through worshipping and enjoying him forever.

The perpetuation of a culture-saturated, unbiblical understanding of God and heaven.

This was already addressed in my third point above in terms of John MacArthur talking about our narcissistic culture. But in addition to this, one quote I heard during one of John Piper’s messages a long time ago and still remember is that Jesus didn’t come to fulfill all the desires we had before we were Christians, but to change our desires. I think that in the end, the problem with so many of these portrayals of heaven is that they are exactly what most people would want heaven to be–whether or not they worship and believe in God– except with Jesus somehow thrown in there.

Yes, there is a longing in all of our hearts for the world made right– no more war, sadness, fear, death, or pain. And yes, it is comforting to know that and to look forward to that. Yes, death is grievous to us while we are on this earth and we have a deep sense of the fact that this world just isn’t the way it’s supposed to be, and every time we go to a funeral we are reminded of the sting of death and how the world is fallen and how this amount of grief did not exist before the fall. And we take heart and comfort that those who have trusted in Jesus are now with him forever even though they are no longer with us. There are desires in the hearts of all people that point us to the fact that we were all  made for eternity. The Christian faith gives us confidence that no other worldview can in terms of the peace, purpose, security, and love that we long for is promised to us through Christ and our eternity is secure in him.

But. But what does it say about our understanding of heaven that someone who doesn’t believe in Jesus, who doesn’t desire to worship God, who rejects the necessity of the cross of Christ would find it appealing? The vision of heaven given in Scripture is so much about the worship of Christ, the glory in the redemption purchased for us through his death, the holiness of God– God himself– that it doesn’t make sense apart from our loving and trusting and worshipping the God of the Bible in this life why we would want it at all (Is. 6, Rev. 4-5Rev. 7:9-17 ). This is why as we grow as Christians to love him more and more, we realize more that heaven becomes desirable for us not because of the good things we’ll get to enjoy there, but because we will be with the Lord forever (2 Cor. 5:8, Phil. 1:23).

It’s about Who you’re with

I remember growing up, a friend always quoted his older brother who said “it’s not about what you’re doing but who you’re with.” (Or maybe it was “it’s not about where you are,” I don’t quite remember.) In seminary, one of my professors in talking about eternity, mentioned that when a man proposes to his girlfriend, the first thing that comes out of her mouth is not “where are we going to live?” because what matters most at that moment is not so much the details of what’s going to happen for the rest of their lives, but who she is marrying. It’s an imperfect analogy, but in many ways this is the same thing with our understanding of eternity. There are some details regarding what heaven as well as the new heavens and new earth which are given to us for our edification and encouragement in Scripture, but overwhelmingly what is to matter most to us is not so much the details of what exactly heaven will be like, but how we will be with our glorious Lord and Savior — how we have been rescued out of darkness and into his marvelous light, how we have been enabled by his saving work to see his worth and value, how he who knew no sin was made to be sin for us and will bear the scars of the cross for eternity and how it will take eternity and then some to fathom the riches of his grace that he has in store for those of us who believe.

So, this Good Friday and Easter, may we be ever captivated by the glories of the cross of Jesus Christ and the reality of his resurrection. He who we know came down from heaven,  revealed to us the Father, and suffered and died that we would be able to be with him. His resurrection is part of, if not the greatest proof given in Scripture of the reality of what is in store for us in our futures! (1 Cor. 15) And may we be able to say ultimately, it’s about Who I’m going to be with– and that’s enough for me.

Resources:

 Are Visits To Heaven For Real- John MacArthur

Book Review of Heaven Is For Real- Tim Challies

We Don’t Have to Read the Book or See the Movie to Know Heaven Is Real- Nancy Guthrie

How Real Is the Book ‘Heaven Is for Real’?  (podcast) – John Piper

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