Heaven Is For Real: A Look Into Modern Tales Of The After-Life

I wanted to make a comment on Todd Burpo's Heaven is for Real, a book written in 2010 by a pastor who's son apparently took a trip to heaven during an appendix operation. Sequentially, the book has also just been made into a film that came out this last week.

A number of people I know are currently reading the book (before they plan to go see the film), a book which I looked through back when it was first published. But what I found from this book was not what I expected. Mind you I am no stranger to these type of "death/afterlife experience" stories. There are actually quite a few of them out there.

I Saw Heaven was a popular book published in the late 90s, then came a slue of other books: Ninety Minutes in Heaven, The Boy who Came Back from Heaven, Twenty-Three Minutes in Hell, and of course my topic today, Heaven is for Real.

All of these books had a few things in common after their publication: they all topped best-seller lists, Christians of all denominations, creeds, and sects ate them up like a Baptist potluck, and they are continually handed out as an "I told you so" to skeptics. Oh and I missed one, they all directly contradict the Bible...

Now it is not my place to question anyone's personal experience, that would not be fair of me. However, when we're on the subject of something like the afterlife, and the descriptions and subject matter is supposedly written by believers, then we do have a litmus test by which to mark that standard.

I'm not going to summarize the book, there are plenty of other places where you can find that, plus I would encourage you to read the book and come to your own conclusions about the subject matter. What I merely want to do is pin-point the areas where the Bible directly talks about this subject, because it does.

What does the Bible say About Near Death Experiences / People Coming back from the Dead?

"No one has ascended into heaven except He who descended from heaven, the Son of Man." 
- John 3:13

The main problem I have with "I traveled to the afterlife; this is what it is like" stories is that there is no reason to believe anyone who claims to have gone to heaven has returned. We can see that John 3:13 clearly states that no one has ascended into heaven, but in reality that can be reasoned around if you truly want to, "did these people ascend? Or were they just given a glimpse/vision?" John doesn't leave the discussion there though, in chapter one (vs. 18) we read: "No one has seen God" a fact I talk about at length in my Jesus in Hebrew Scripture series. That's problematic for a great deal of these stories have descriptions of God the Father, initiating the idea that He was seen by them.

Not only this but we have the testament of four biblical authors who had visions of heaven. The Old Testament prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel, as well as John and Paul in the New Testament. Micaiah and Stephen were also said to have glimpses of heaven but only in mention and not description.

Out of that group, only three of these men wrote down what they saw and the details of the afterlife were quite short and to the point (Isaiah 6:1-4; Ezekiel 1:1-28; Revelation 4:1-6:17). The conjoining theme in all of these accounts was simple: the focus was on the glory of God. They were all struck with their overwhelming sinfulness being in the mere shadow of God's presence.

No mundane aesthetic features about rainbow horses, or lengthy tails of seeing lost loved ones, playing games or singing with angels. Simply the presence of God's goodness and the weight of man's sinfulness was so powerful that nothing else truly mattered.

In fact, Paul gave no actual description of heaven because he was forbade to, declaring that it would be unlawful for him to do so. The fanciful stories of people going to heaven and returning with detail and description are quite contrary to what we find described in scripture itself.

In fact, many people in the Bible were brought back from the dead. Elijah resurrected the son of Zarephath's widow in 1 Kings 17, Elisha raised the son of the great Shunammite woman in 2 Kings 4. Jesus Himself raised the widow's son at Nain as he was being carried off to be buried in Luke 7, Jairus' daughter recorded in Luke 8 and Mark 5, and then Lazarus in John 11. Did any of these people run around telling others about their amazing experiences of traveling to the here-after? Not that we know of anyways.

It is also interesting to note a contextual fact about the 1 century Jewish context that Jesus' resurrections took place within. Culturally in classical Judaism it was believed that the spirit of a person stayed with, or hovered around the body for three days. On the third the spirit of the recently deceased person would leave for Sheol, the Hebrew afterlife.

This is key when we read stories like that of the raising of Lazarus for the simple fact that it had been a number of days since Lazarus had passed. In verse 39 Jesus asks for the stone to be removed from the tomb, to which He gets the response "by this time there is a bad odor for he has been there for four days." Four days in the tomb, culturally the Jews would have recognized that his spirit would have left the body. The significance of Lazarus' resurrection was pin-pointed by the fact that he was believed to be dead beyond a doubt.

This is true also for Jesus' resurrection. Three days in the tomb, during that third day Jesus' spirit was believed to have been gone. The apex of the truth was that not only was He no longer dead, but that unlike everyone else who'd been raised so far, He did it by Himself.

But in reality, that's a post-Easter side note from the original topic...

What does the Bible say About The Afterlife?

A great deal of our society's recent obsession with the afterlife, heaven, hell, angels, etc. comes from curiosity. Most of the images we associate with it (heaven being on clouds, angels being femininely-winged creatures, demons having horns, and the dead possessing halos) comes from the Middle Ages and not from the Bible. The problem is I do not think this concentration on the here-after is something we as Christians should create a mindset towards. 

Any reliance that downplays our total reliance on scripture towards these types of things is underpinned with dangers. The Bible never indulges this pursuit of trying to figure out what happens next. In the times of the prophets every attempt to communicate with the dead was put on the same level as sacrificing infants to false gods (Deuteronomy 18:10-1).

Likewise our ideas biblically about the afterlife developed with succession as scripture was revealed. Little is said in the Hebrew scriptures about the disposition of souls after death. In Jesus day there were classical Jewish philosophical writings dealing with Sheol (the afterlife) to which Jesus Himself touches on when He tells the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. The thinking was that Sheol in the Hebrew translated into Gehenna or Hades in the Greek.

The Jewish mindset was that the afterlife was divided within Hades: Abraham's bosom, where the righteous went, and Gehenna, the place of torment where the unrighteous went. This is explained in the parable Jesus tells.

The New Testament starts to add onto the mindset and understanding of the afterlife in this way but all in all the concentration is on God, not on our own experience or wondering of such things. What I do think is critical to understand about such a revelation, especially in context of the Lazarus parable, are these verses:

"He answered, 'then I beg you father, send Lazarus to my father's house, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.'
"Abraham replied, ' They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.'
"No, father Abraham," he said, "but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.'
"He said to him, 'If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises form the dead."

- Luke 16:26-31

Never as a believer give a book like "Heaven is for Real" as a "told you so" apologetic or evangelistic tool. It simply wont work, don't believe me? Read Abraham's response again in Luke 16.

Now I am not saying that it is wrong for Christians to fix their hearts on heaven. Scripture rightly asks us to create such a perspective:

"If then you were raised with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God. Set your mind on things above not on things on earth."  - Colossians 3:1-2

"While we do not look at the things which are seen but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal." - 2 Corinthians 4:18

"For our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ." - Philippians 3:20

These contextual mindsets should be the foundation of our faith, no doubt! We acknowledge that we who possess biblical faith and a God-oriented mindset will always be strangers and pilgrims on this earth as we read in Hebrews 11. However, we need to be careful not to obsess over these things.

It is far to easy to get side-tracked with these types of things, whether that be fantastic stories of trips to heaven, end of the world apocalyptic theories, or occultism, it is far too easy to get side-tracked from what is important.

I tried very hard when writing this to not get side-tracked on the details of the books that are given about the supposed heaven experiences. Because I could simply go through chapter-by-chapter with the descriptions given and show the rudimentary far-reaching connections with the Bible that they try to make. I find a great many descriptions given by Colton (recorded by his father) in "Heaven is for Real" directly contrary to descriptions in Scripture, but I did not want this post to be a page-by-page book critique.

If the inspired biblical truth God provides us with is the only reliable knowledge about heaven we have (which it is) than we need only to weigh these types of ideas against it. My worry is that these types of stories, tales, and novels often work to supersede the truth we are given in God's word for some people. The reliance on the consistent testimony of scripture is replaced by one's experiential emotions.

We should test our experiential relevance against divine scripture, not the other way around. And once again it is not my place to question anyone's personal experience. But when we're on the subject of something like the afterlife, and the descriptions and subject matter is supposedly written by believers, then we do have a way to discern and ascertain truth.We are not left wandering for answers.

If you are a person who wrestles with believing what the Bible says, but learn to find security and spiritual grounding in the testimony of a toddler then I feel for you. And I do not mean that in any sort of condescending or sarcastic way. But I wrote this to give you assurance that God's Word is sufficient.

If the testimony of the Spirit given to His people is not enough to believe in, then you will not find any true hope in the tales of a 4 year old. That is not the sort of foundation that you should build your understanding, and definitely not your grounding on where you are going after you die.

So do not worry if you did not read the book, do not feel bad if you did (do) not see the movie, and don't feel guilty about either.

"Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, scorning the shame, and sat down at the right had of the throne of God." - Hebrews 12:2


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