We know of three people, from Scripture, who were privileged to see heaven. All of these men, Stephen and the Apostles Paul and John, were alive when they were given a glimpse of the wonders of heaven. Don Piper, a Baptist pastor, claims to be a fourth, though unlike the other three, he first had to die. Returning home from a conference, Piper’s car was crushed under the wheels of a truck. Medical personnel declared him dead at the scene of the accident. But ninety minutes after this accident, a pastor, waiting at the scene, was told by God to pray for the dead man. He did so, and Piper immediately returned to life. For the 90 minutes that his body lay lifeless inside the car, Piper claims to have been in heaven. He now carries with him memories of paradise and in 90 Minutes in Heaven, a book which has sold over 500,000 copies, he seeks to encourage other Christians with a description of our eternal home. “Because I was able to experience heaven,” he says, “I was able to prepare [friends] for it. And now I am preparing you.”
The title may be deceptive. One might assume, from the title, that a significant portion of the book is dedicated to describing heaven. The reality is that the author’s time in heaven comprises only 15 pages of this 205-page book. A further seven pages, appended to the end of the book, engage very briefly and unsatisfactorily with the “why questions.” The bulk of the book describes Piper’s accident, rescue and convalescence with some attention to the ministry opportunities that have arisen since his time in heaven. The book is, in reality, a biographical sketch of Don Piper and a lengthy description of the trials he faced as he recovered from devastating bodily injuries. Following the description of heaven, there is little further reflection on paradise. There is little attempt to describe how the author’s life and perspective on Scripture have changed because of his experience. There is little interaction with the Bible. There is little gospel.
Piper’s description of heaven left me cold. I was dismayed to find that his heaven seems largely man-centered. In fact, if you were to ask your unbelieving friends and neighbors to describe heaven, they would probably create a place very much like this. Piper did not see Jesus, nor did he see God, though, to be fair, he saw only the “outskirts” and did not pass through the gates. Despite this, he was exceedingly joyful and feels that he experienced the very joys of paradise. For ninety minutes he walked through heaven, greeted by those he knew in this life, all of whom were (quite conveniently), the same age they were when he had last known them. As I read this description of heaven I thought immediately of a quote from John Piper’s book God is the Gospel. He asks:
The critical question for our generation–and for every generation–is this: If you could have heaven, with no sickness, and with all the friends you ever had on earth, and all the food you ever liked, and all the leisure activities you ever enjoyed, and all the natural beauties you ever say, all the physical pleasures you ever tasted, and no human conflict or any natural disasters, could you be satisfied with heaven, if Christ was not there?
From the descriptions in 90 Minutes in Heaven we would would have to respond, “yes!” It seems that Don Piper’s heaven is a heaven where we are fulfilled without Christ. Piper’s heaven was a place of reunion with loved ones, a place of beautiful music and a place of literal pearl (or “pearlescent”) gates and literal streets of gold. It is a heaven that can be so easily described to a human mind using mere human words, as if it had originated in a human mind. Piper is able to describe it in some detail, but what he presents is surely far too human to be heaven.
A further troubling aspect of the book is a clear lack of theological precision. For example, Piper continually describes miracles that surrounded his rescue and recovery, yet these are often not the type of events that theologians would classify as being miraculous. They may have shown God’s grace and power, but they were not, strictly speaking, miracles. He also uses his experience to minister to people who lack assurance of their faith. But what true, lasting assurance can we find in the dubious experiences of another mere human? Our assurance is to be in God and His promises through Scripture, not in man.
I do believe Don Piper is a sincere man and one who loves God. He seems to sincerely believe that he experienced heaven and has been called by God to share his experience with others. But I do not believe that he did see heaven. I cannot say what his experience was, whether it was purely psychological or whether it was even some type of demonic deception. What I do know is that the Scriptures are wholly sufficient for believers. We do not need to see or experience heaven in this life. Nor should we desire Don Piper’s heaven.
I see no reason to believe that God wants us to know more about heaven than He has revealed to us in His Word. As the old hymn asks, “What more can he say than to you he has said?” God surely desires that we desire heaven, but only if we desire heaven primarily so we can be with the Savior. This is the heaven which we glimpse only dimly in Scripture, but which we await with eager expectation. It is most certainly not Piper’s 90-minute heaven.