Full disclosure before you read: I have not read or seen Heaven is for Real, and I probably will not in the future.
Today, the feature film Heaven is for Real hits theaters across the country and it will, no doubt, make a box-office splash. The film is based on the book of the same title—a book which is the #1 selling so-called “Christian” book of the past decade. Everyone, including Evangelicals, are going ga-ga over this movie. “Finally,” some think, “something’s gaining traction that shows heaven and God are real!”
No, it is not evidence. This is not good for the church or the culture.
Heaven is for Real (and books and movies like it) are not helpful. They are harmful and discourage people from trusting God’s word in Scripture. Now, hear me on this: I am not saying that these people know they are portraying a fanciful account as reality. They very well may have seen or experienced something. I can’t say one way or the other on that. But what I do know is that they have not died and been to (the real) heaven (or hell) and come back to tell about it.
How can I say this?! Isn’t their experience valid? Who could deny an experience? If Christians are going to uphold the authority and sufficiency of Scripture, then we must validate our experiences based on Scripture, not validate Scripture (or add to it) based on our experience. Scripture is an objective standard outside of me. Everything must be judged by it, not the other way around.
The question is then, does the Bible have anything to say about this? There’s not much, honestly, about near death experiences and trips to heaven, but what it does say is incredibly insightful. Let’s start with the Man who came from heaven.
Jesus said, “If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man” (John 3:12-13). Jesus is speaking with Nicodemus, describing what it means to be born again, and he uses an earthly illustration to describe a heavenly reality (i.e. the work of the Spirit in the new birth is like wind, which you can’t see or hear). But Nicodemus doesn’t get it. In saying, “No one has ascended into heaven…,” Jesus’ point is that while Nicodemus doesn’t comprehend heavenly things, Jesus does, because he has a unique qualification to speak on heaven. Theologian D.A. Carson comments, “Jesus insists that no-one has ascended to heaven in such a way as to return to talk about heavenly things…But Jesus can speak of heavenly things, not because he ascended to heaven from a home on earth and then descended to tell others of his experiences, but because heaven was his home in the first place” (The Gospel According to John, 200-201). Jesus has authority to talk about heaven. We do not.
There’s another place where Jesus speaks to this issue. In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31, he says that the testimony of people who have come back from the dead is useless. In the parable, the rich man begged Abraham to send the deceased Lazarus to his family’s house, for he reasoned, “If someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent” (v. 30). But Abraham responded, “If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead” (v. 31). This is an secondary point in Jesus’ parable, but it’s still a point: if someone neglects the testimony of the prophets in Scripture, then the testimony of a dead man is pointless.
In the rest of the Bible, there are only four men who were given glimpses of heaven: two prophets, Isaiah, Ezekiel, and two apostles, Paul and John. Here’s a glance at what they saw and heard:
- Isaiah sees the Lord on his throne, hears a voice that shook “the foundations of the thresholds” (Is. 1:4), and his conclusion is, “Woe is me! For I am lost!” (Is. 6:1-7). (John later notes in his Gospel that Isaiah saw Jesus’ glory; see John 12:41).
- Ezekiel sees a vision of heaven (Ezek. 1:1), and sees “awe-inspiring crystal” (1:22) and fire and brightness all around (1:27), and he hears the terrible “sound of the Almighty, a sound of tumult like the sound of an army” (1:24). He concludes, “Such was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the LORD” (1:28b).
- Paul is given a glimpse of heaven in a vision and he uses massive space to tell of it—three verses (2 Cor. 12:2-4). Hesitating to boast of his experience, he writes in third person: “And he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter” (12:4). Paul later says, “To keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited.” (Notice that Paul was given a messenger of Satan for humility, not a book and movie deal.)
- John was “in the Spirit on the Lord’s day” (Rev. 1:10) and upon seeing Jesus he “fell at his feet as though dead” (1:17). In chapters 4-6, John sees a vision of Jesus on the throne, and all he sees and hears is glorious singing to the One who lives forever and ever (4:8-11; 5:9-14). John’s vision is radically centered on Christ, the Lamb who was slain and is now “worthy to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing” (5:5-6, 12).
There is extreme consistency in these accounts, and several similar themes arise. Let me mention four main themes. First, each of these men saw visions of heaven. They did not have near death experiences in which they went to heaven and were brought back to earth. (Sidebar: One could argue that for God to actually take someone to heaven (as in a near death experience) and then send them back to earth would be quite a cruel thing.) Second, these men labor to describe what they saw—Ezekiel and John reach to the boundaries of their vocabulary to paint the scene; Isaiah and Paul labor in that they are nearly left speechless (Paul, as I mentioned, is essentially told not to say anything about what he saw). Third, each of them express a sober and appropriate sense of awe, fear, and unworthiness because of the vision. Fourth, they are all fixated on God’s glory, holiness, or majesty—not family members, beautiful landscapes, or other incidentals. As John points out at the end of the Bible story, Jesus and his glory is the main focus. Heaven is, to be sure, Christocentric. If it weren’t, then it would not be heaven.
Books and films about near death experiences and trips to heaven are nothing like these visions. In fact, as one author noted, the books themselves do not even agree with each other on the details of heaven. These type of stories fail to draw people into adoring the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. Instead, they draw people into conjecture, speculation, and exalting subjective experience and away from trusting the Scriptures. If you want to know if heaven is for real, then put down the popular book you picked up at the bookstore and read what God has written in his word. Heaven is real, and it is glorious—much more glorious than any so-called near death experience makes it out to be.
In the next few days, I hope to write a follow-up post about how the Bible describes heaven and, more importantly, how we can know if we are going there.