When I did the unusual recently and paid for my gas inside the service station instead of at the pump, the young lady who took my money was reading a book entitled Heaven is for Real. I took the opportunity to ask her what she thought about the book.
Heaven is for Real is one of the recent New York Times best-sellers. The part-time pastor who wrote the book, and Thomas Nelson the publisher, have made a great deal of money on the story. In 2011 it broke all of Nelson’s sales records with 3.4 million copies in print.
The story is of Colton Burpo, three-year-old son of the pastor-author of the book. When Colton was almost four, his appendix ruptured. He claims that, during his surgery, he went to heaven, where he saw astonishing revelations. He met his sister who had died before birth as a result of a miscarriage, and his grandfather, who died before Colton was born. He petted Jesus’ rainbow-colored horse, listened to angels singing “Jesus loves me” to him, saw Jesus’ crucifixion wounds, and noticed that Jesus had a pink diamond in His crown and that everyone except Jesus had wings. And God was “really, really big.”
Nothing new under the sun
It is not surprising that someone claims that he’s been to heaven and back, reporting in detail what he has seen. What is sad is that there are always gullible people who make greedy publishers and sensationalist authors rich.
The Burpos follow in the footsteps of many before them, including another modern bestselling author, Don Piper (not to be confused with John Piper). Piper’s book, 90 Minutes in Heaven, published by an arm of Baker, also sold millions. His story made him so popular that television and radio hosts, including Sean Hannity, rushed for interviews. The late D. James Kennedy elevated its popularity when he endorsed it. Pastor Piper was “killed” in a car wreck and “resurrected” ninety minutes later. He now has an entire ministry to tell people about heaven based on his experience.
Claims of being in heaven have been made for centuries. Some readers may recognize the name Emmanuel Swedenborg, who claimed (in the 1700s) to have made frequent trips to heaven. Older folks may remember Betty Malz and her (1970s) My Glimpse of Eternity. In the 1990s, Betty Eadie’s tour of heaven was so intriguing that Oprah Winfrey publicized it. And my local newspaper recently included an obituary that said, “This isn’t the first time Marv has been in Heaven. His book ‘My Journey to Heaven’ comes out September 2012 . . .”
On what do you base your faith?
Along with all the people of God, I look forward to heaven with a hope that, although not eager enough and not nearly spiritual enough, grows as I become older. The child of God ought to meditate on heaven regularly. Setting one’s affections on things above must include anticipating what God has in store for those who love Him. One old church father advised that the believer take twenty minutes every day to think of the city that has foundations (Heb. 11:10). With the hope of believers being directed so strongly today to an earthly kingdom, who talks about heaven any longer?
But the child of God bases his hope of heaven and knowledge of what heaven is like on Scripture, and not on the experiences of those who claim to have died and come back.
Yes, there are other follies involved in believing the stories. Many include silly experiences—Colton petting Jesus’ multicolored horse, seeing Jesus’ green eyes, or observing the size of saints wings, or “Marv” reported arguing with Saint Peter. Some reports contradict others: “Jesus’ eyes were green.” “No, they were blue.” Others are just plain wicked. One said, “Imagine eating all you want without gaining any weight! There will be incredible banquets at the Lord’s table.” I once went to a funeral home to visit the family of a boy whose hand I was holding as he died from his friend’s shotgun blast. The family’s comfort was that their son and brother was enjoying the best fishing and hunting he’d ever known. A classmate of mine at a Christian college once assured me, with all seriousness, that she would be taking her favorite tennis racquet to heaven.
Worse, these hopes of heaven are carnal, not godly. What mention is there of God, His glory, the beauty of His Christ, or the value of His blood? I read, in these books, of no church surrounding God’s throne, exclaiming praise to Him for His grace that brought them there, for His wisdom in creating the (new) heaven and earth, for His righteousness in destroying all of His and our enemies, or for His perfectly wise providence that directed even the evils of wicked men for our eternal glory? Just, “What will we wear in heaven? Will we be married there? Can people in heaven see me on earth?”
Worst of all, these hopes of heaven are based on alleged experience rather than on God’s inspired Word. These stories are bad enough for what they teach about heaven. They are very bad on account of their assumptions: we learn about heaven from experience instead of God’s Word.
Sola Scriptura . . . Here, Too
A believer who hopes in heaven must go “to the law and to the testimony” (Is. 8:20) to learn. “Faith [in what heaven is] cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Rom. 10:17). Even Peter, who had a genuine experience of the glory of Jesus Christ, assured us that the “more sure word of prophecy” is Holy Scripture (II Pet. 1:19; the ESV’s translation is helpful: “And we have something more sure, the prophetic word, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place.”). And when Paul testifies that he was given a vision of heaven, he tells nothing of the experience except that it was not lawful for him to utter it. He certainly does not boast in it, as the sensationalists do today, but humbles himself by relating his “thorn in the flesh” that God sent lest his vision exalt him above measure (II Cor. 12).
What the believer may know about heaven is recorded in Holy Scripture. We could do worse than read Jonathan Edwards’ sermon—a fine exposition of Scripture—“Heaven, A World of Love.” Better would be to search the Scriptures from beginning to end. Ask your pastor to preach on heaven. He will not tell you of his experiences, but you will learn more from a good series of sermons on Revelation 21 than from all the experiences of Colton, Don, Betty, and Marv put together.
The church has always been tempted to judge by experience rather than by Scripture. But we are not mystics. We must learn, in every generation, the scriptural truth confessed in the Netherlands Confession, Article 7, whose title is: “The Sufficiency of the Holy Scriptures to be the only rule of faith.” There the church confesses that “those Holy Scriptures fully contain the will of God, and that whatsoever man ought to believe . . . is sufficiently taught therein.” To inform yourself about heaven from a man’s experience is to deny the sufficiency of Scripture. The “doctrine thereof [of the 66 books of Scripture] is most perfect and complete in all respects.”
A Good Remedy
Are Reformed Christians among us tempted to read these sensationalist books? If so, we pastors may examine ourselves to see whether we have been faithful to the sheep to prepare them for heaven.
First, (we) pastors should preach more about heaven. If I were in the pastorate again I would give serious consideration to such a series.
Then, our children in catechism need thorough instruction on the eternal state. The catechism books are not lacking in reference to heaven, and a good teacher will not want to miss the opportunity to teach even Old Testament History with heaven in view. And when Essentials comes to a conclusion, we teachers will pray that we end well by doing justice to the last three lessons, “The Death of Believers,” “The Second Coming of the Lord,” and “The Eternal State.” At two weeks per lesson, six weeks could yield at least one concentrated lesson on these last questions and answers of the book: “What is the blessedness of the new heavens and the new earth? To dwell without sin in the blessedness of God’s everlasting covenant of grace. Revelation 21.” Or, “What will be the reward for the people of God? Everlasting life and glory in the presence of God in heavenly perfection.” Or, “Will the present world be destroyed? Yes, we expect a new heaven and a new earth in which righteousness will dwell.”
Marvelous opportunities present themselves also at funerals. I wonder whether we ministers are too afraid of the dangers in funeral sermons that we fail to hold before the people of God the glory that their now-deceased loved one is enjoying. Heaven. Heaven! Heavenly glory into all eternity! God—our covenant friend—awaits all who hope in Christ’s coming.
If I do not think of heaven enough, however, I do not blame my pastor for whatever failures there may be in his sermons or my catechism instruction when I was a boy. My failure is that I do not love God deeply enough. I do not hate sin passionately enough. And I love this earth far too much. I have not taken up my cross actively enough, or followed Christ closely enough, or denied myself. I have not mortified my earthly desires enough, or quickened the new man enough. I do not meditate on heaven. Twenty minutes every day? Hardly two. I like it here.
But then God makes my burden great and thwarts my desire (Psalter #174). He leads me through pain and trouble and humbles my pride. He teaches me that I’m a pilgrim here and must seek another city. He holds before me the spiritual joy of salvation. And in the end He leads to liberty and guides to wealth—the wealth found in God’s house, where I give to Him the life He blesses.
The believer’s confession when he thinks biblically about heaven is this: when all this weary night is past, and I awake with God to view the glories that abide (His glories!), then, then I will be satisfied.
Heaven is real. The book you need in order to learn about it is Holy Scripture.
And that’s what I tried, carefully, to tell the girl behind the counter when she took my money for gas.