This week the visit to heaven genre of books has gained a lot of attention. Alex Malarkey, the central figure in the story of The Boy who Came Back from Heaven, wrote an open letter to publishers, retailers, marketers and buyers in which he recanted the tale of his journey to heaven and apologized for his part in propagating the book. On the other end of the spectrum is the recent announcement that Don Piper’s book 90 Minutes in Heaven is going to be made into a movie.
Near death experiences are nothing new, nor is it novel to write a book about one’s experience with the afterlife. These kinds of things have been popular in America for decades, and cycles of such experiences and popularization of subsequent tales can be traced back much farther. What is a person supposed to think about these stories? How should one respond to a pastor’s claims to have visited heaven? How should a child’s claims of seeing heaven be evaluated?
The question of whether or not the person experienced something is neither here nor there. A person’s experience, especially experience in the middle of a traumatic situation, does not define truth. The person may have seen something and experienced something. His perceptions do not define reality. Truth is defined and evaluated by the Bible. (For a powerful illustration of this, consider Peter’s comparison of his experience and the reliability of the Bible in 2 Peter 1:16-21.)
The Bible tells of nine people, other than Jesus, who died and were restored to life. Not one of these individuals gives a single detail about what they saw. Not one single word is recorded about what these people experienced after their death. That should tells us a lot about the validity of the modern stories of heavenly visits.
The most significant example of one who went to heaven and returned is the Apostle Paul. Paul is a very informative example because he was the apostle who penned the largest portion of the New Testament. More than any other man, Paul was responsible for the growth of the Christian church. He taught the church things that had not been understood before. By the power of the Holy Spirit Paul led the church into new and uncharted territory. If anyone was to have an experience of heaven and tell the church about it, Paul would be the one we would expect to give a powerful and authoritative account of his experiences. The entirety of what Paul said about his heavenly experience can be read in a few seconds, “How that he was caught up into paradise, and heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter.” (2 Corinthians 12:4) Out of thirteen books written by Paul, he mentions his visit to heaven only one time. Paul only mentions the event because circumstances forced him to do so. He did not return from heaven and write a book all about it. He did not go on tour proclaiming the glories of what he saw. Paul returned from heaven and the only thing he ever said about it was that he could not say anything about it. The consistent response of those in the Bible who went to heaven looks nothing like the modern day practice.
These visits should be viewed with deep suspicion. The people involved do not respond as those in the Bible did. The details given in the books disagree widely from author to author and disagree significantly with what the Bible tells about heaven. These kinds of books elevate the experiences of individuals to an importance equal, or nearly so, to the truths of the Bible. Instead of relying only on the Word of God for instruction on heavenly things, many people are being turned aside to follow fanciful tales. We would all love to know more about what is and what will be, but speculation and imaginations offer nothing profitable. The Bible is enough and can be trusted to teach everything necessary for reaching heaven and living a life pleasing to God.