A short time ago I launched a new Sunday series called “The Bestsellers.” The Evangelical Christian Publishers Association tracks sales of Christian books, and awards the Platinum Book Award for books whose sales exceed one million, and the Diamond Book Award for sales exceeding ten million. In this series I will look at the history and impact of some of the Christian books that have sold more than a million copies—no small feat when the average Christian books sells only a few thousand. We will encounter books by a cast of characters ranging from Joshua Harris, Randy Alcorn and David Platt all the way to Joel Osteen, Bruce Wilkinson and William Young. So far we have looked at three titles that were awarded Platinum status in 2005; today we advance to 2007 and a surprise bestseller.
90 Minutes in Heaven by Don Piper
It is not often that a book races to the top of the bestseller charts and opens up the way for a whole new genre of Christian literature. But such is the case with Don Piper’s 90 Minutes in Heaven, a book that spurred an entire genre of what I refer to as “Heaven Tourism” books.
Don Piper was involved in radio and television ministry when he determined that he had been called to be a pastor. In 1985 he was ordained as a Baptist minister and was soon serving in Houston as a minister of education and single adults. It was shortly thereafter, in 1989, that he had an experience that would forever change his life and ministry. Fifteen years later, in 2004, he would team with Cecil Murphey and Baker Publishers to release 90 Minutes in Heaven, the book in which he described his experience.
On January 18, 1989, Piper was driving through rural Texas, returning from a Christian conference that had ended a little bit earlier than expected. As he was crossing a long bridge with water on either side, an 18-wheeler owned by the Texas Department of Corrections swerved over the center line and hit his Ford Escort head-on. Piper was killed instantly. The steering wheel impaled his chest and the roof collapsed on his head. Emergency medical technicians responded and pronounced him dead, laying him on the road and covering his body with a tarp.
Dick Onarecker and his wife Anita had been at that same conference and were driving the same route. They pulled up to the scene shortly after the EMTs had declared Piper dead. Onarecker later said, “The Lord just impressed on me very emphatically very urgently that I was to pray for him.” Ninety minutes after his accident, Piper awoke to hear that pastor praying and singing.
It was what happened in those ninety minutes that became the subject of his book. Piper claimed he was immediately transported to heaven. There he saw people he knew and loved—relatives, teachers who had gone on to glory years before, and friends who had died in high school. Each of these people was the age they had been when they died. They were joyful and welcoming and were there to help him through the gates of heaven. Ahead of him was a gate that looked as if it had been carved from a giant pearl. The streets were made of gold and beyond the gate was a light too bright to imagine and the sound of an angel choir. “In all honesty,” he said, “as awesome as the sight was, the sound was more amazing. I heard literally thousands of praise songs. They were all praise songs. I really couldn’t see anything. I was so preoccupied with the people around me, I couldn’t see anything. But you could sense this hum of wings hovering all about you, like you were being ministered to by angels, and they were observing this whole episode.”
And then he heard the sound of Onarecker singing “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” and realized he was joining in. He was alive and was quickly transported to Herman Hospital in Houston where doctors found that his body had been completely shattered. He would have to live with chronic pain and endure an excruciating recovery that required some thirty-four medical procedures. The book documents his time in heaven in about fifteen pages and the context and recovery in about one hundred and eighty.