This article was originally written for the “Ask Pastor Jake” column of Hometown Journey Magazine.
Am I excited to see the movie “Heaven Is For Real?”
No. I’m not excited about it, and I’m not going to see it. I didn’t read the book either, and I don’t intend to. Why? Because I want to obey and honor the Bible.
Accounts of visits to heaven have been around for a long time. Before Burpo’s Heaven Is For Real was Don Piper’s 90 Minutes in Heaven. Many came before that one, and there’s no doubt in my mind that many more will follow. I do not doubt the sincerity of these authors, but I don’t trust them more than I trust the Bible.
At the risk of coming across like a stick in the mud, I’ll lay out very clearly why I am not only skeptical about near-death experiences like those Heaven Is For Real, but why I find them to be dangerous.
First, the Bible makes it very clear that people do not actually go heaven and return to describe it. John 3:13 says, “No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man [Jesus].” While some of the Old Testament prophets and New Testament apostles and church leaders had visions of heaven, none went there and returned to talk about it (2 Chronicles 18:18; Isaiah 6:1–4; Ezekiel 1, 10; Acts 7:55; Revelation 4–6).
While the Bible does record accounts of individuals who died and were brought back to life, not one of them ever describes what he saw on the other side. Consider, for example, Lazarus, the dear friend of the Lord Jesus who was dead and in the tomb for four days. While John devotes a great amount of space to the account of his resurrection, not one word is given to an explanation of what he experienced during those four days.
Second, the Bible clearly says that visions of heaven, if extraordinarily experienced, cannot be expressed and should not be discussed. In 2 Corinthians 12:1–4, Paul writes about himself in the third person (using “he” to report a personal experience he’d had), saying, “I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God know. And I know a man who was caught up into paradise…”
Here Paul describes how God gave him “visions and revelations” (12:1) of the “third heaven,” which was a way of describing in Paul’s day the realm where God dwells. Paul was unsure of whether he visited this “third heaven” or “Paradise” bodily or only in a vision. Yet what does Paul report about this trip into the presence of God? He says he “heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter” (12:4).
If the Apostle Paul, who wrote the majority of the New Testament, said under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit in 2 Corinthians 12:4 that what is seen and heard in a visit to heaven “cannot be told” and “may not be uttered,” then I am going to believe him over anyone else, every time.
Third, the Bible severely warns against attempts to communicate with the dead. In the Old Testament, those who tried to send and receive messages to the dead were condemned along with those who practice witchcraft and offer child sacrifices to idols (Deuteronomy 18:10–12; Leviticus 20:27). In my pastoral experience, many people who get wrapped up in these tales are suffering grief from the loss of a loved one. Several have started talking to their deceased relatives. I find this terribly troubling.
I’ve spoken with people who share remarkable “signs” they believe came from their deceased loved one to authentic their experiences. But the Bible says that people don’t come back to send messages or walk in this realm with those left behind. How, then, do we explain these “signs?” Demons are real, and one thing we know for sure about them is that they are deceptive (1 Timothy 4:1) and disguise themselves as servants of good (2 Corinthians 11:14–15). Satan will use even warm, happy memories of lost loved ones to distract us from the glory of God and keep us from being comforted by the Lord Jesus.
This brings up another problem with these accounts. Often the focus of these reported trips to heaven is a reunion with loved ones or warnings for those left behind. While I do believe that we will be reunited with all who are in Christ by faith, these will not be the focal point of heaven. God’s glory, manifested in perfect beauty, will be at the center.
Fourth, listening to accounts of heaven outside of the Bible undermines Scripture’s authority. When Jesus told the story of the rich man and Lazarus, both of whom had died, he makes an amazing point. When the rich man asks Abraham to send a Lazarus back from the dead to warn the rich man’s brothers of the judgment to come, Abraham says, “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them” (Luke 16:29).
“Moses and the Prophets” was how at that time the Jewish people referred to the Old Testament Scriptures. At this response, the rich man begins to argue with Abraham: “No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent” (16:30). Don’t miss the critical truth taught next: “He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead’” (16:31). If they won’t believe the Bible, then a first–hand report from the other side won’t help.
Peter makes an incredible statement about the Bible in his second epistle. After describing his experience on the Mount of Transfiguration—where he not only saw the heavenly glory of Jesus manifested, but also saw the spirits of Moses and Elijah and audibly heard the voice of God from heaven—Peter writes, “And we have the prophetic word [Scripture] more fully confirmed…” This prophetic word is better because “no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation” (2 Peter 1:19–20).
Did you get that? Peter says that having the Bible is more certain and secure than visibly seeing the glorified Christ, seeing the spirits two Old Testament prophets, and audibly hearing from God. Do you trust the Bible this much? If your faith is in need of a modern-day book or movie in addition to the time-test, inerrant Word of God, then there’s a problem with your faith.
Fifth, going beyond what the Bible teaches about heaven directly contradicts the Bible’s teaching and leads to spiritual pride. This is related to the last point, but needs to be distinguished for emphasis. In 1 Corinthians 4:6, we read that we are “not to go beyond what is written, that none of you may be puffed up in favor of one against another.” Could Scripture be any clearer than this? Don’t go beyond what is written! There is plenty on the pages of the Bible to devote a lifetime to learning the things of God; why turn anywhere else?
The effect of extra-biblical revelations or teachings is division and pride. We can begin to think that the person with the extra knowledge is more spiritual, or that those who disagree are less spiritual. We can get puffed up, finding ourselves closed off to biblical truths that contradict the “revelations” we’ve begun to trust.
Finally, the Bible says plenty about heaven (and hell) apart from these extra-biblical testimonies. Are all our questions about the afterlife answered in Scripture? Not even close. But that’s part of living by faith. In Christ, we are citizens of heaven presently (Philippians 3:20). We are to live in this world looking to eternal things (2 Corinthians 4:8) and seeking and setting our minds on heavenly things (Colossians 3:1–2). This is accomplished all through the work of Jesus Christ, who died to make a way for us to be forgiven and go to heaven when we die.
So study and mediate on what we know of heaven from the Bible: it’s a place where we will be with Jesus (John 14:1–6); it’s a place of communion with the saints, reigning with Christ, and resting in him (Matthew 8:11; Luke 16:22; 2 Timothy 2:12; and Hebrews 4:10–11); and it’s an eternal kingdom which is our homeland, a better country (Galatians 4:26; Hebrews 9:15, 11:14–16, 12:22; 1 Peter 1:4; 2 Peter 1:11; Revelation 3:12).
The centerpiece of heaven will be the glory of the risen Lord Jesus (Revelation 22:4). His redemptive work on the cross will be the subject of our singing and worshipful shouts (Revelation 5:9–14, 7:10). Yet even in all his glory, when sin and death are no more, our Lord Jesus will remain our Savior, who serves those he bought with his blood.
For me, that’s the most humbling truth of heaven: as we serve him here on earth we do it in hope of the day we join him in Paradise. Jesus taught, “Stay dressed for action and keep your lamps burning, and be like men who are waiting for their master to come home from the wedding feast, so that they may open the door to him at once when he comes and knocks. Blessed are those servants whom the master finds awake when he comes. Truly, I say to you, he will dress himself for service and have them recline at table, and he will come and serve them.” (Luke 12:35–37)
I don’t think we need to yell at or belittle or shame people who are into Heaven is For Real or anything like it. We should pray that God uses this as an opportunity to share truth and speak of Jesus. But I also don’t think we should encourage people to entertain that which the Bible so clearly discourages. Yes, heaven is for real, but there’s a world of difference between what I get from ninety minutes of heaven in the movie theater and daily, patient trust in the sufficiency of God’s Word to give me hope in my eternal home.