Pastor Scott Frady
Over the last few years, several popular books have come out which have made me feel a little uncomfortable, and not in a good way. These are books which focus on the afterlife through the experiences of those who are supposed to have seen heaven or hell. Now these kinds of books have been around for years but in recent years these books have been capturing the imagination of a wider audience in the American church. The most popular of these books has been Heaven is for Real. This book chronicles the experiences of little Colton Burpo, the son of a pastor who has vivid recollections of the afterlife after he comes back from a near-death experience.
Now this article is not a review of this book. I believe Tim Challies does an excellent job reviewing the book (http://www.challies.com/book-reviews/heaven-is-for-real) so I won’t repeat his work here. And I know I am a little late to the game, since the book has been out for a couple of years, but my concern is pastoral and, having heard of some in church life who have recently read this book, I began to think more carefully about a response. I’m ok being irrelevant to the current hot topics of evangelism if I can address this topic in a way that will be helpful to even one person who may have read these kinds of books.
So what is the problem with Heaven is for Real? I believe that the book is harmful for two reasons which are closely related to each other. First, Heaven is for Real feeds our desire to uphold the sufficiency of personal experience over the sufficiency of Scripture. Now I am not saying that Colton’s experiences are false. I don’t know whether what he says happened truly took place (I have my doubts for many of the reasons cited in the Challies review). Nor do I know whether the experiences of Don Piper or Bill Wiese or others are true. But whether there experiences are true or not is not the real issue. The issue is the elevation of their experiences to the level of Scripture. When someone says to me, “That story taught me so much about heaven!” I get alarmed. We just can’t take the personal experiences of people in our day and let them supplement and even replace the Scriptures. God has given us in the Bible all the revelation of heaven he desired us to have. This revelation is absolutely trustworthy. I am concerned about a Christian culture that needs the visions of a four-year old to be excited about heaven. It tells me that either we haven’t been reading our Bibles enough or what we have been reading has not sufficiently penetrated our hearts to generate the excitement which should accompany reading about heaven in the Scriptures. We have the Word of God, inspired, authoritative, and sufficient. As the old hymn says, “How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord, is laid for your faith in His excellent Word. What more can He say, than to you He hath said? To you who, for refuge, to Jesus hath fled.” The Word of God shouts that heaven is for real. The rage over Heaven is for Real is really just an indicator of how we elevate personal experience over the authority and sufficiency of Scripture. And of course, this has consequences which are far worse than reading a book. When I elevate personal experience over Scripture, I am really free to do whatever I want, because my controlling authority is my own experience. This is one of the ways Christians end up doing outrageous things the Bible would never sanction.
The second ugly thing Heaven is for Real teaches us is that we have a craving for the dramatic and a disdain for the ordinary. There is a sense in which our craving for the dramatic is probably part of the image of God in us, in that we long for perfection and blessing and glory, but our fallen nature often twists and perverts this good desire. We are awash in a Christian culture which celebrates the flashy, the flamboyant, the celebrity and the apparently spectacular while ignoring the biblical truth that the Christian life is not characterized by these things. Many Christians read Heaven is for Real looking for affirmation. But what they are looking for is not affirmation that God is real or that the Bible is true, what they are looking for is affirmation that God is as spectacular as an iPad or the Super Bowl. Now of course, God is infinitely more spectacular than any of those things, but He doesn’t reveal His glory with trumpet blasts and flashy lights. There is a Day coming when He will go public like that (1 Thess. 4:13-18) but for now He declares His glory as Creator, Sustainer and Redeemer. His present glory is so broad and deep that sometimes we lose sight of it, but it finds its focus in the coming of the Son of God. In Jesus, we see God incarnate, His glory revealed. But in His ministry, what do we see? Humility, service, self-giving love, spiritual power through the preached word, works and miracles which point to the reality of the message. No book tours, no bluster, no competing with the world system for cultural influence. Just the way of suffering that leads to glory.
We don’t like to think this way about the Christian life. We don’t like the thought of taking up our cross daily and plodding along in simple faithfulness to our Suffering Servant and Risen King. How little pilgrim language do we hear in our sermons? We like to think of the Christian life as an unbroken string of miracles leading to greater and greater prosperity and an unending panorama of mountaintop experiences. If large numbers of professing Christians didn’t think of Christian living in this way, Benny Hinn would be out of a job by morning. But he won’t be, and Heaven is for Real will not be the last book to plug in to our insatiable desire for mountaintop moments which, in the ultimate religious perversion, we can use to justify our independence from God’s authority.