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What The Bible Says About the Heaven Books
June 19, 2012
After writing about this new genre of I went to heaven books, I received many comments and emails asking me about biblical examples of those who glimpsed heaven—John in the book of Revelation, Paul in 2 Corinthians, Isaiah in his prophecy. I will address this briefly today.
There are several themes in today’s “I went to heaven” books:
- Each of the people experienced heaven after dying a natural death. In every case, the soul had left the body so the person was clinically and spiritually dead.
- After the experience of heaven, each of the people was restored to life so that the soul returned to the body and the body was no longer clinically or spiritually dead.
- Each of the people describes as much as they can remember and does so in order to offer encouragement and in order to validate what the Bible says.
There is no biblical precedent for experiences of this kind. Let me look to each of the biblical passages.
The Revelation is unique in being New Testament apocalyptic literature. This genre is prophetic, meaning that it is inspired by God in order to show what will take place in the end times, tying together past, present and future. Here is how John introduces his experience:
The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants the things that must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, who bore witness to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw. (Revelation 1:1-2)
God gave Jesus Christ a revelation which he in turn made known to John through an intermediary. John says that he was in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day when he experienced some kind of a vision (Revelation 1:10). He was fully alive and consious when this vision was given to him. The purpose was not to speak of heaven or to validate heaven, but to speak of events that will soon take place.
It is important to note how he closes the book: “I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book” (Revelation 22:18-19). John makes it clear that the final words of Revelation mark the closing of the canon—the closing of God’s revelation through Scripture. A certain kind of revelation came to a close after John’s vision of the things that would soon take place. Equating John’s experience—an Apostle receiving an inerrant, canonical vision from God himself—with Colton Burpo’s, is to compare apples to battleships.
2 Corinthians 12
In 2 Corinthians 12, Paul mentions someone he knows who was caught up to the third heaven, either in body or in a kind of vision. We presume that Paul was the one who had this experience, though it’s possible that it was told to him by another person. Here is his account:
I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows. And I know that this man was caught up into paradise—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows—and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter. On behalf of this man I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses… (2 Corinthians 12:1-5 ESV)
There are several things that make this account completely different from today’s celestial tourism. First, Paul says that he does not know whether his experience was a vision or something that happened bodily; celestial tourists all declare that they actually, fully experienced heaven. Second, Paul says that he was forbidden to discuss what he saw and what he experienced; these books all describe everything the authors can remember. Third, Paul did not die; these tourists were all dead. Fourth, Paul shares this in a unique and specific context—the context of boasting in the gospel; none of these modern authors are boasting in the gospel in their accounts. In fact, they are preaching an inadequate gospel at best (Heaven Is For Real) and a false gospel at worst (To Heaven and Back).
Paul’s experience shows that the Lord chose to give at least one person an experience of heaven—we don’t know how or why—but this in no way makes such an experience normative or gives us any indication that we ought to expect the same today. Even then, it would suggest that if we do have such an experience, the humble and godly reaction is to keep it between ourselves and the Lord. 2 Corinthians 12 does more to invalidate these books than to support them.
In Isaiah 6, the prophet Isaiah receives a revelation of the Lord. There is no indication that Isaiah actually went to heaven and certainly he did not die and go to heaven; rather, he received a vision in which he caught a glimpse of God. The Bible contains a few occasions in which God chose to take on some form of visibility so that people were able to see something of the God who has no form and no body. Isaiah describes one of those times.
Isaiah’s experience came at a unique time in Israel’s history and a unique time in redemptive history. It was not intended to convince us of the existence of heaven but, rather, to point forward to the atoning work of Jesus Christ. Isaiah was not the Minister of Hope—far from it if you keep reading the book!—but a prophet sent to proclaim God’s judgment and, eventually, his mercy. To compare the prophet Isaiah to Don Piper is to make a significant category error. One man saw a glimpse of God and could only cry of his sinfulness before experiencing the Lord’s atoning work and writing down infallible, inerrant revelation of God; another man saw pearlescent gates and dead relatives and wrote a book full of theological imprecisions.
Raised from the Dead
The Bible contains many examples of the dead being miraculously raised to life: the Shunammite’s son in 2 Kings 4, Lazarus in John 11-12, Dorcas in Acts 9, and so on. One notable aspect to these stories is the complete lack of accounts of what these people experienced while they were dead. The Bible does not tell us what happened to their souls in that time between death and life. The Lord, in his wisdom, decided not to make it known. Did Lazarus go to heaven for a few days while waiting for Jesus to raise him? We simply do not know. While these stories do tell us that God may at times see fit to raise people from the dead, they certainly do not lend credence to the heavenly experiences of those who claim to have died in recent days.
So what did Don Piper and these other authors experience? And what about the many people who can attest that they experienced something while they were clinically dead or otherwise near death? I don’t know. Some are liars, some are sincere, I am sure. Some have had a Near Death Experience, whatever a Near Death Experience is. We need to be very cautious because the fact is that Satan is capable of manufacturing experiences; I’m sure it is well within his power to convince people of an experience, to give them a kind of assurance that what they have experienced is real. The more variance there is between a person’s experience and God’s Word, the more we are obligated to doubt that experience.
What I can say with confidence is that I am under no obligation to trust in the validity of such experiences and neither am I under any obligation to change the way I live or to change what I believe on the basis of them. What I know of heaven through the Bible is infinitely more precious to me than anything I may learn from another man’s experience.