Heaven. The Bible describes Heaven as a place of surpassing beauty where there is no pain, no sorrow, no sickness, no disease, no death. It is where the triune God resides in all of His glory. For those of us who are saved, the redeemed of God through Christ, it is our eternal home. Though none of us look forward to the process of dying, as Christians we enthusiastically answer the question asked by Job, "If a man dies, will he live again?"[i] with a resounding "yes." We look forward to being completely and eternally free of fallen bodies living in a fallen world. But for some people, it seems that Heaven (and occasionally Hell) can't wait.
Though Near Death Experiences (NDEs)[ii] have been reported for hundreds and even thousands of years, the last several decades have seen an explosion of people come forward claiming that they have seen the other side, both Heaven and Hell. Many of these people are not Christian at all.[iii] For the purposes of this article, however, we will focus on some of the more prominent ones claiming to be believers in Christ. I will begin this article by providing an overview of some of the more prominent recent examples and will then offer an evaluation of each. While space does not permit an exhaustive review of each account, some of the more important and theologically pertinent points will examined.
Heaven is for Real – Colton Burpo
When Colton Burpo, now aged 12, was just four years old he suffered from an undiagnosed ruptured appendix and almost died while undergoing surgery. During this NDE[iv], Colton claims that he left his body and went to Heaven. According to his father, Todd Burpo, pastor of Crossroads Wesleyan Church in Imperial, NE, over the next several months and years Colton slowly began to give details of people already deceased and events of which he could not possibly have known. Heaven is for Real , written by Mr. Burpo, is the account of his son's incredible journey.
During his NDE, Colton left his body and saw doctors working on him from above. He also saw the location of his parents and what they were doing while he underwent surgery. Colton says he then went to Heaven. Some of his notable experiences included "sitting beside the Holy Spirit" when his paternal great-grandfather, "Pop," walked up to him. Colton met his sister who died in a miscarriage of whom Colton had never been told. While in heaven, Colton heard the songs "Jesus Loves Me" and "Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho,"[v] saw John the Baptist, many different animals, thousands of colors not known on earth, gates of gold and pearls, describes all of the people (himself included) as having wings and as not showing old age. The boy says that he sat in Jesus' lap and saw "markers" on His hands[vi] and feet, later to be interpreted by Todd to be the nail prints. Asked in 2010 by Gretchen Carlson of Fox News to describe Jesus, Colton reports that He has a "rough but kind face, sea-blue eyes, and a smile that lit up the Heavens"[vii] and describes God as a very big Person Who "can actually fit the entire world into His hands."[viii] Jesus also instructed the angels to sing to him for comfort and even helped him with his homework.[ix] Colton describes not only the physical aspects of people and things in Heaven but was also apparently granted a sneak peek into eschatological events such as Armageddon.[x]
The first thing that needs to be mentioned is that regardless of our position on Colton Burpo's claimed heavenly visitation, we unanimously rejoice that God in His sovereignty spared the life of this young boy. Colton was obviously very sick and was apparently not far from death so we all are grateful that God graciously spared his life. It is upon evaluating Colton's claims, however, in which this unanimity dissolves.
At the time of this writing in late August, 2011, Heaven is for Real has been on the New York Times Bestsellers list for paperback non-fiction for 40 weeks where it currently holds the #1 spot.[xi] From what I hear, there is even talk of a movie based on the book. More will be said on the tremendous success of books in the 'I've been to Heaven' genre later but for now we focus on the biblical evaluation. Many of the details Colton provides us of the other side are not necessarily unbiblical per se, yet certainly are extra-biblical. For example, his description of the thousands of colors not known here on earth, that all in Heaven have a light over their heads and wings, and that there were all kinds of animals everywhere cannot be said to contradict Scripture necessarily, but neither does Scripture validate such descriptions. While many would not see a problem with this, I believe that there is one, or two. Firstly, if young Colton did indeed go to Heaven and see these things, then we can take them to the proverbial bank – the myriads of colors, lights over heads, wings, animals, etc., are all there. This comes dangerously close to violating the warning provided in Revelation 22:18 to not add to "the words of the prophecy of this book." Even if one holds that "this book" refers to the book of Revelation alone, given that the rest of Scripture is just as authoritative as is Revelation, the difficulty is by no means alleviated. If Colton went to Heaven, then his extra-biblical revelations should indeed be authoritative and words have, de facto, been added to the Bible. This is not only a problem with Colton's alleged trip to Heaven but indeed with all who make such claims. Secondly, the Apostle Paul gives clear testimony that all of Scripture is inspired and is wholly sufficient to fully equip us as believers (2 Tim. 3:16). In other words, there simply is no need for such revelations; they are wholly non-profitable. The question then arises, if God wanted for us to know these details of Heaven via Colton Burpo, why did He not just include them for us in His sufficient Word?
Other details Colton relates seem, well, odd. While the Bible does not necessarily negate the possibility of people having wings in Heaven outright, it certainly gives no indication that such is the case. Two orders of angels are described in the Bible as having wings, Cherubim (Ex. 25:20; Ez. 10) and Seraphim (Isaiah 6), but people are never described as such. As cited above, Colton describes God as a very big Person, but asked by Pat Boone in a TBN appearance, Colton describes God as a "huge angel with massive wings (emphasis mine)."[xii] This is decidedly unbiblical. Not only does the Bible give no description of God as having wings, but He most certainly is not an angel; angels are creations of God. God is Spirit who must be worshipped in spirit and in truth (John 4:24). Odd, too, is Colton's description of Jesus helping him with his homework in Heaven. We will never know this side of the veil the full activity of Heaven but clearly it will center around the unhindered, eternal, and full worship of God (Rev. 22:3). That the Alpha and Omega would be helping Colton with something as trivial (given where Colton supposedly was) as homework is, in my opinion, a stretch too far. In doing research for this article, I have watched many, many interviews of Todd and Colton Burpo. In so doing, I could not help but be struck by how so many of Colton's answers seemed very pat and rote. For example, his description of Jesus as having a "rough but kind face, sea-blue eyes and a smile that lit up the Heavens" he has repeated on multiple interviews from TBN to FoxNews to CNN and others verbatim. His answers seem, well, canned. His description of God as being able to "fit the entire world into His hands" also seems a bit suspect. Haven't we heard this song before? Theologically, Todd Burpo made a statement which raised a red flag. On page 149 he wrote, "The Scripture says that as Jesus gave up His spirit (on the cross)…God the Father turned his back. I am convinced that he did that because if he had kept on watching, he couldn't have gone through with it." Scripture does not actually teach this at all[xiii] but even more to the point is that Todd is drawing a theological conclusion that at best is un-provable and at worst is patently unbiblical given that Scripture clearly teaches that Jesus' sacrifice was planned from eternity past (Rev. 13:8). That God might not have "gone through with it" not so subtly implies that His plan of redemption, the absolute focal point of Scripture, was quite a precarious one indeed. Theologically troubling, too, is that while in Heaven Colton says that he was upset because he "did not know what was happening" and so "He (God) used people that, people or things that I liked to calm me down. From there on I felt better."[xiv] That anyone, even if he is a small child, would feel any kind of fear, confusion, or apprehension in the presence of the omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent God in Heaven is doubtful at best.
90 Minutes in Heaven – Don Piper
On January 18, 1989, Don Piper says he died and went to Heaven. The Baptist preacher was returning home to Alvin, TX from a BGCT[xv] conference held on the north shore of Lake Livingston via I-45. On his journey home, Don's Ford Escort collided with an eighteen-wheeler. He was pronounced dead by EMT's on the scene. Fellow pastor and conference attendee Dick Onerecker came upon the accident roughly one hour later and asked personnel on scene if there was anyone there for whom he could pray. He was informed that everyone was ok except for the man in the Escort who was dead. Despite this information and seemingly contrary to all logic, Onerecker reports that God spoke to him and said, "You need to pray for the man in the red car."[xvi] Onerecker reached his hand through the tangled wreckage, touched the body of Don Piper, and began to pray and sing hymns. An hour and a half after the devastating collision, to his and everyone else's shock and disbelief, the dead man began to sing along with him. It was during this 90 minutes, that Don Piper says he went to Heaven.
Piper reports that immediately upon impact he found himself in Heaven and was greeted by a large crowd of people. The first person he recognized was his grandfather Joe Kulbeth who still had his "shock of white hair" and "big banana nose."[xvii] He also met his great-grandmother, Hattie Mann, whose false teeth and slumped back on earth now sparkled and was straight, respectively, in Heaven. Piper was also greeted by friends, former teachers, relatives, all of whom, he says, "spiritually impacted me in some way and helped make me a better disciple."[xviii] Piper describes Heaven as a place of brilliant luminescence yet not such that it was painful to the eyes. There was no darkness at all, no shadows. Everything was of a beauty the magnitude of which simply cannot be described by words. There was music as well, but not, apparently, the kind described by Colton Burpo. Rather, Piper heard music unlike anything he had ever heard on earth. It was music that he not only heard, but experienced. The music permeated his very body and seemed to be thousands of songs all at once and yet they blended in a perfect, glorious symphony. The music included hymns he knew from earth as well as hundreds of songs he had never before heard. Piper is careful to point out that, though he came right up to Heaven, he never actually went inside the walls. He says that he could not see the ends of the massive walls in either direction, nor could he see their top. The gates were not made of pearls, says Piper, but rather were "pearlescent."[xix] Looking through the massive gate Piper describes Heaven as having streets constructed of literal gold and everything was bathed in brilliant, powerful colors. He said he felt "deliriously happy" and then, suddenly, he left Heaven and was joined back to his body in the wreckage of his Ford Escort.
The title of Piper's book, 90 Minutes in Heaven, is a bit misleading because only 7% or so of his book is actually devoted to describing his visit to Heaven. The vast majority of it concerns his excruciating recovery from the collision on I-45. Piper's recovery process was a very lengthy, and an almost incomprehensibly painful journey; a journey which, to an extent, continues to this day. One cannot help but to feel for the guy. As with little Colton Burpo, we all rejoice that God spared Don Piper's life. That having been said, there are several things with Piper's story which should give the biblically informed reader pause.
One thing that struck me was Piper's description of the music. He said that at least part of the heavenly anthem was comprised of songs that he heard while on earth. Carried out to its logical conclusion, this is a troubling statement. Given that Heaven is perfect, the worship in Heaven will also be perfect, pure, wholly pleasing and glorifying to God. It will be inspired – but by inspired I do not mean in an earthly inspirational sense - I mean inspired by God Himself. Perfection comes only from God because only He is perfect. The only worship, then, of the perfect God emanating from His perfect angels and His perfected children within His perfect kingdom must be in and of itself just that - perfect. Though the hymns with which we are all familiar are beautiful and many contain sound doctrine, they are not perfect, nor are they inspired in the fullest sense of the term. I am reminded of the words of Puritan preacher John Bunyan, "The best prayer I ever prayed had enough sin to damn the whole word."[xx] In a similar vein, no matter how beautiful we deem the hymns and songs with which we are familiar on earth, they are certainly not perfect and, therefore, are not worthy of inclusion in the heavenly choir. Also of note is that Piper says the hymns he did not hear were ones such as "The Old Rugged Cross" or "The Nail-Scarred Hand." Writes Piper, "None of the hymns that filled the air were about Jesus' sacrifice or death."[xxi] Yet consider the words of the Apostle John: "Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels around the throne and the living creatures and the elders… saying with a loud voice, 'Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power and riches and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing.'"[xxii] Though we can confidently affirm that these specific songs mentioned by Piper will not be in Heaven for the reason just stated, it is interesting (and more than a little ironic) that what we do know from the Bible of the worship in Heaven is that it, at least in part, will deal with exactly what he claims it does not – the sacrifice and death of Jesus.
Throughout Piper's book and in his interviews there seems to be a lack of theological precision. In a TBN appearance on May 27, 2011, Piper says that one of the people who met him at the gates of Heaven was Mrs. Norris, a lady who took him to church as a child. Said Piper, "Why do you suppose she was there? I'll tell you why she was there, she helped me get there. She deserved to be there."[xxiii] Commendable though Mrs. Norris' actions were, she certainly does not deserve to be in Heaven. That is the entire point of the Gospel: None of us deserves to be there. Another aspect that troubles me about Piper's description of Heaven is one which troubles me about every description of Heaven I have ever read from someone outside of Scripture claiming to have been there: the descriptions of Heaven are so…earthy. Piper writes, "Heaven was many things, but without a doubt, it was the greatest family reunion of all"[xxiv] and gives physical descriptions of how friends and family members looked with their now perfect bodies (more on this later). Says Piper, "If you want to look good, Heaven is where you want to be."[xxv] He spoke of feeling great love but the love he felt seemed to come from the crowd which greeted him and followed him around, not God. Unfortunately it seems that many, if not most, of us professing Christians when discussing Heaven seem to speak in terms of it as being a big "family reunion" at which we will see our friends and loved ones who "have gone on before." While it is true that Heaven will indeed have streets of gold (Rev. 21:21) and that we will indeed be reunited with our loved ones who died in Christ before us, and sickness and disease will not be known there, such things are secondary – at best. The true joy and glory of Heaven is God Himself. He is what makes Heaven Heaven. Speaking of Whom, Piper writes in his book, "I did not see God. Although I knew God was there, I never saw any kind of image or luminous glow to indicate his divine presence."[xxvi] Piper clearly writes that he did not see God. Or did he?
This brings me to one of the more troubling aspects of Don Piper's alleged visit to Heaven. 90 Minutes in Heaven in which Piper states in no uncertain terms that he did not see God because, in his opinion, had he done so he "would never have wanted to return,"[xxvii] was published in 2004. In the years since, the overwhelming popularity of the book has propelled Piper into his current ministry of travelling around the country speaking in churches and various conferences, hosting cruises, doing numerous radio interviews and appearing on many television programs to tell his story. It seems that over the years his story has changed in at least one significant way: he now claims he did see God. On March 29 of this year my wife and I went to see Don Piper speak at First Baptist Church of Bristow, OK. Having read his book, I was quite surprised to hear him say that, in fact, he did see God 'way down the golden road up on a hill on His throne.'[xxviii] This is a huge discrepancy. Wanting to make sure I did not misunderstand, I talked to him after the service and asked him why he said in his book that he did not see God.
Piper: "Really in the distance, yes, in the distance I saw Him. Me: "But in 90 Minutes in Heaven you said, 'I did not see God." Piper: "I'm telling you now that I did." Me: "Ok, so why did you say in the book you didn't?" Piper,"I didn't say I didn't see Him. I, I, I, I was looking from a distance through the gate. You could see the golden street, you could see the buildings, there are mansions, and you could see a hill with a river flowing down the side of it. …It was just so personal to me and so incredibly difficult to describe (that) I just didn't include that. And that's one of the things I did not include. Let me tell you something, I didn't write the book by myself. I had a co-writer who writes. His name is Cec[xxix] Murphy. So, there are probably some things in there that he interpreted differently than I did and that may be one of them."[xxx]
That one could leave out of a book entitled "90 Minutes in Heaven" such a magnanimous privilege as seeing the Alpha and Omega on His throne is incomprehensible. It is not merely a difference in "interpretation." This is a big deal. In fact, it's difficult to imagine anything much bigger than seeing God and equally difficult to imagine leaving such an experience out. This is not just a mere oversight.
23 Minutes in Hell – Bill Weise
On November 23, 1998 at 3:00 am, Bill Weise says that he suddenly found himself hurtling through the air, falling to the ground, and then landed completely naked in a prison cell of rough-hewn stone and thick metal bars.[xxxi] Weise says that the first thing he noticed was the tremendous heat – heat so intense that he could not believe that he was alive. He saw two creatures in the cell with him. They were ten to thirteen feet tall, reptilian in appearance but with a human form, scaly, foul-smelling, foot-long claws, massively powerful with the strength of a thousand men, and were seething with evil and hatred. They spoke to one another in "terrible, blasphemous language…expressing extreme hatred for God."[xxxii] The demons were then joined by two more demons coming into the cell and the four turned their collective hatred and hostility toward Weise and began to torment him. They picked Weise up, threw him against the wall, plunged their claws into his chest, and ripped his flesh. Though his flesh was mangled, no fluids came forth. The pain, the stench, the agonizing thirst and the absolute hopelessness was beyond anything we can imagine here on earth. According to Weise the demons seemed to derive sadistic joy from the pain and horror they were inflicting upon their helpless victim. He pleaded for mercy but none was given. Says Weise "Death penetrated me, but eluded me."[xxxiii]
Weise managed to crawl outside of his cell through an open door where he "heard the screams of an untold multitude of people crying in torment." He saw "a gigantic raging inferno approximately one mile in diameter" and "many people reaching out of the pit of fire, desperately trying to claw their way out. But there was no escape."[xxxiv] The pit was rimmed with various demons and any attempt by the condemned to escape was futile; "Human strength was no match for the demons."[xxxv] Weise later found himself in a cave the walls of which were "covered with thousands of hideous creatures. These demonic creatures were all sizes and shapes. …There were also gigantic rats and huge spiders at least three feet wide and two or three feet high. I also saw snakes and worms, ranging from small to enormously large. I was petrified and could not believe my eyes."[xxxvi] Finally, after 23 minutes of unspeakable horror, Weise says he began to ascend when a burst of brilliant light invaded the tunnel and though he could not see His face, he knew Who it was. "Jesus," said Weise. Jesus replied, "I AM." The horror was over.
The description Weise gives of Hell is exceedingly graphic and disturbing. Many of his descriptions of this place such as the heat and thirst, the palpable darkness, the pain, the hopelessness, and lack of mercy do indeed have ample biblical support. However, though others could be mentioned, there are at least two significant biblical problems with his story which must be examined. One is that in Weise's Hell it seems that the torture and punishment is inflicted upon the lost not by God's wrath in and of itself but rather by the demons and fire. Mary Baxter's A Divine Revelation of Hell also describes hell as being run by Satan and his angels.[xxxvii] This description fails biblically on two counts. One is that contrary to popular perception, Hell is not Satan's playground. Hell is not to Satan as the briar patch is to Brer Rabbit; i.e., where he longs to go and will roam about freely. Satan and the demonic hordes do not want to go to Hell any more than do we. In Matthew 8:28-34 the demons begged Christ to send them into a herd of pigs rather than to what they knew would be their eventual eternal destiny – Hell. Even a brief delay in their sure judgment was welcome. Hell was the last place they wanted to go. In Revelation 20:7-10 the Bible is clear that Satan will be "thrown into the lake of fire and brimstone" and "will be tormented day and night forever and ever." Secondly, it has become commonplace in the evangelical world to describe Hell merely as a place of being eternally separated from God. Says Weise, "The fact that I knew God was kept from my mind."[xxxviii] On TBN he stated, "If you want nothing to do with God, there is a place prepared that has nothing to do with Him (Hell)."[xxxix] It is rare today to hear a preacher expound upon the horrors of Hell. Rather, in an effort to soften the tone so as to not offend the sensibilities of "seekers," Hell, if mentioned at all, is softened to simply being a place eternally devoid of God's presence. To his credit, Weise does not soften the description of Hell – far from it. One would be hard pressed to find a more vivid and disturbing picture of Hell than the one Weise provides. However, he still falls into the same theological error, even if he does so from a completely different direction. The worst thing about Hell is not the eternal absence of God – it is the eternal presence of God. The Apostle Paul states in Romans 5:9 that "we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him (emphasis mine)." God is omnipresent and Hell is His eternal presence in the mode of judgment. Salvation is as much being saved from God as it is being saved to God.
One of the more glaring theological problems with Weise's story is how could he as a professing believer have been taken by Christ to the very place from which Christ died to save him? Weise was very clear to state in his book that this was no dream. He writes, "I landed in what appeared to be a prison cell. …I was completely naked… . This was not a dream – I was actually in this strange place."[xl] We must categorically reject that Jesus took a believer to hell. There is neither biblical support nor logical reason for such a thing to ever happen or even be possible to happen. This is an affront not only to the Gospel message but also to the character of Christ Himself. Since the publication of the book in 2006, blogs and reviews have discussed this theological difficulty and, apparently, Weise has taken notice because his story, like Piper's, has changed over the years. May 27, 2011, on the same TBN program on which Piper appeared, Weise attempts to extricate himself from the theological dilemma: "This was not a near death experience, this was an out-of-body experience that comes under the classification of a vision in the Bible. In 2 Corinthians 12:1-2, Paul when he was caught up into heaven in a vision and he said whether in the body or out of the body he didn't know. The Lord just happened to show me that I left my body. That's the only way a Christian can see hell – in a vision."[xli] Weise seems to make a distinction without a great deal of difference. Even if he now claims it was a vision, he maintains that it was very real, very physical. He experienced real pain, real thirst, real hopelessness and, real abandonment. As Christians, we can and should expect trials, tribulations, persecutions, pain and suffering in this life. However, one thing that the Bible gives us complete assurance that we will never experience is abandonment. Jesus promised us that He will never leave nor forsake us (Heb. 13:5) and as one of His own there is absolutely nothing that can separate us from His love (Rom. 8:35) – not for eternity, not even for 23 minutes.
Thus far we have examined specific, current, and popular accounts of people claiming to have been to Heaven and to Hell. With these specific accounts still in view, we will now look at some of the broader challenges, both logical and biblical, confronting anyone claiming to have made such journeys.
There is a logical problem with these accounts that is so glaring, it is hard to understand why more people do not take note of it; namely, these various accounts often contradict one another. The three individuals examined in this article only scratch the surface of those claiming to have been to the other side. Mary Baxter (who went to both Heaven and Hell), Betty Malz, Roberts Liardon, Jesse Duplantis, Kenneth Hagin, Richard Eby, Todd Bentley, etc. also would have you believe they were given a sneak peek into the afterlife. It takes only a cursory reading of these stories to realize that they all contradict one another – and often even contradict themselves! Colton Burpo reports that everyone in heaven, even God Himself, had wings. Piper saw many people in heaven but they apparently did not have wings. Some report that heaven is completely urban whereas Duplantis[xlii] says he saw homes out in the country. Some saw God on His throne, others did not see Him at all, and some, like Don Piper, can't seem to remember whether they saw Him or not. Some heavenly tourists say that Jesus has brown hair, others say it is blond. Some report Jesus as having a purple sash about his waist, others say it is blue. Benny Hinn claims to see Jesus often and can even describe what He is wearing from day to day. Some, like Colton Burpo, say Jesus' eyes are blue, others say they are brown. The list of contradictions is almost endless. The obvious point is that these accounts cannot all be true. In all likelihood, none of them are. Incidentally, in Rev. 1:14, the apostle John describes Jesus thusly: "His chest was girded with a golden sash. His head and His hair were white like white wool, like snow; and His eyes were like a flame of fire." Let's go with that one.
There are a number of theological issues with all of these accounts. Though with varying degrees of specificity, all who have been to the hereafter and have returned describe people as having physical bodies. They report that the heavenly residents are perfect in every way showing no signs of sickness, disease, arthritis, handicaps, etc. Their glorified bodies are beautiful in appearance and perfect in function. There is only one problem with this: the redeemed in heaven do not yet have their glorified bodies. Now, this statement will likely surprise many readers and, unfortunately, the theological nuances here are too involved to fully address, but suffice it to say that most conservative scholars agree that those presently in Heaven are not yet in possession of their permanent, glorified bodies. In fact, Heaven itself is not yet in its perfected, eternal state as this will not transpire until the events of Revelation 21. At present, Heaven is in its "intermediate" state, if you will, and those there are also in an intermediate state. In Revelation 6:9-11 and 20:4, John saw the "souls of those who had been slain because of the Word of God" and the "souls of those who had been beheaded" respectively. This indicates that they were not in possession of physical bodies but rather in a non-corporeal state. The redeemed will be given glorified bodies at the rapture or Christ's return to earth (Parousia).[xliii] In either case, the reports of people in the intermediate heaven as having their glorified bodies must be rejected.
Another theological problem with the "I've been to Heaven and/or Hell" genre is that it is an attack on the sufficiency of Scripture. Even if an account does not directly contradict the Bible per se (and most do), it certainly does add to it. In these accounts, for example, we learn that hell is 3,700 miles below the surface of the earth, that it is inhabited by ghastly creatures and giant spiders, the pit of fire is shaped like a giant human or maybe it's one mile in diameter (depending on whose account you read) and is ruled by demons – none of which can be found in the Bible. Heaven apparently has suburbs, the flowers turn themselves to watch you as you pass by, the fruit is copper colored, the individual homes are furnished with ball and claw Queen Anne furniture, people have wings or they don't (again, depending on the particular account), souls of babies fly around God on His throne - none of which is biblically supported. All of this information is unbiblical at worst and extra-biblical at best which leads us to the issue of new divine revelation knowledge. Is God giving certain individuals new revelation and speaking to them apart and in addition to the Bible? If any of these accounts are even partly true, then the inescapable conclusion is "yes." Therefore, whatever God reveals to them and says to them (most of these individuals quote God directly) should carry with it the very same authority as any verse of Scripture because God cannot speak less authoritatively on one occasion than He does on another. In other words, God cannot speak to us in the Bible and really, really mean it but when He speaks to individuals outside of the Bible whether in a dream, vision, audible voice, or trip to Heaven still mean it but somehow mean it less so than He did in the Bible. It is illogical. It is an untenable position. If God is speaking, then God is speaking. If God is indeed speaking to people outside of Scripture then whatever He says we should add to the Bible. Carried to its logical conclusion, then, we now have an open canon of Scripture and with an open canon of Scripture, well, anything goes. Consider how many false religions have begun by an individual claiming to have received new revelation from God. Almost every false religion is begun by an individual saying, 'God has spoken to me. Let me tell you what He has to say.' Two notable examples come to mind immediately: Mormonism and Islam. Both Joseph Smith and Mohammed claimed that an entity appeared to them and gave them new divine revelation knowledge. This entity claimed to speak for God. Interestingly, both of these men initially believed the entity to be malevolent, but, over time, became convinced that it was indeed from God. From these eerily similar encounters in which extra-biblical revelation was given, two huge false religions were born. The canon of Scripture is complete and it is closed – for good reason.
All who claim to have been to Heaven or Hell report that God the Father or God the Son brought them there for the purpose of going back to the earth to let people know that these places are real. For example, Weise quotes Jesus as saying, "Go and tell them about this place. It is not my desire that any should go there."[xliv] Duplantis quotes Jesus as saying, "Go tell My people I'm coming." Replied Duplantis, "They know that." Jesus answered, "No they don't know that. Go tell My people I'm coming! I brought you here to tell them I'm coming!"[xlv] Well, yes, His people do, in fact, "know that" because the Bible states that fact very clearly. We do not need anyone to go to Heaven or Hell to tell us these places are real. If such excursions are indeed necessary to give us this information (or at least impress upon us the urgency of it) then the inescapable conclusion is that the Bible is not sufficient in and of itself to do so. Most of these individuals would at least give verbal ascent to the Bible as God's inerrant Word, but it clearly is not sufficient for if it were, these trips would not be necessary. Recall Abraham's words to the rich man in the lake of fire upon the latter's request to send the deceased Lazarus back to earth to warn his five brothers to repent while they still had time: "If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets (the Bible), they will not be persuaded even if someone rises from the dead (Luke 16:19-31)." There is an inherent power in the Word of God that no miracle, no sign, no alleged visit to Heaven or Hell can boast. If people will not believe the Bible, then neither will they be persuaded by stories such as these.
The New Testament records but three men who were allowed to see Heaven: Stephen just before he was stoned, John, and Paul.[xlvi] Interestingly all three of these men were very much alive when they were given glimpses into Heaven contrary to some, but not all, of our modern cases. Stephen's glimpse was very brief and offers little detail other than seeing Jesus at the right hand of God. John's account is by far the most detailed we have, was revealed to him personally by Christ Himself, and carries the authority of Scripture. That leaves us with the Apostle Paul. What do we know, though, of what he saw and heard in Heaven? Absolutely nothing. Paul writes, "I know a man in Christ who…was caught up into Paradise and heard inexpressible words, which a man is not permitted to speak."[xlvii] We have no idea what he saw, no idea what he heard. Why? Because what he saw was "inexpressible" and he was "not permitted" to speak it. Ponder this for a moment. Here we have the man who wrote roughly one-third of the New Testament and not only did he not give us any details of his rapturous visit to heaven, but he did not even want to mention the experience at all. He did so only reluctantly because his apostleship was being questioned by some in Corinth; hence his reference to himself in the third person, "I know a man." Paul was so humbled by his experience he would not even refer to himself in the first person. Even with that level of humility, God still gave him a "thorn in the flesh" to humble him even further. Contrast that level of humility with the claims being made today. In contrast to Paul who gave no details and only reluctantly mentioned it at all, people today who claim to have been to Heaven write books about it and go on national and global speaking tours. Some of these books sell millions and millions of copies. Spin-off books and courses complete with instructional DVDs often follow. Movies are even being made.[xlviii] The contrast is stark, is it not?
The final theological issue is not so much what these accounts contain, but rather what they do not: the Gospel. It is striking that so many of these people who claim to have been to Heaven and not only seen Jesus but spoken to Him as well do not mention the Gospel. For example, in Heaven is for Real, the closes thing to the Gospel is that Colton quotes Jesus as saying, "I had to die on the cross so that people on earth could come to see my Dad."[xlix] Granted, this is coming from a child, but the author of the book and father of the child, Todd Burpo, is a pastor. If this experience helped make Heaven "real" for them, why is the Gospel never presented so the millions of readers can know how to get there? The same is true for Don Piper, another pastor. He spent 90 minutes in Heaven and yet, save for a few clichés like "accepting Jesus" and "turning to Christ," one will search his book in vain for the Gospel. It's just not there. There is no mention of the seriousness of sin or its eternal consequences. There is no mention of the wrath of God. There is no mention of the deity of Jesus, the meaning of His sacrificial and substitutionary death, no mention of His resurrection. There is no mention of repentance of sin and placing faith in His finished work. There is, in short, no Gospel. To be fair, Bill Weise is different. Weise does give an excellent, complete, detailed and non-compromising Gospel presentation. I watched him do so on TBN and he did so very, very well. There was no fault to be found. However, what of Burpo and especially Piper? For reasons already presented I do not believe that such visits to Heaven and Hell are even possible, but for the sake of conversation, had something like that really happened to me and I had truly seen the majesties of Heaven and the glory of God, I would think that I would be absolutely consumed with telling people about the Gospel. In my preaching I would not be waxing on about how "good you're gonna look in heaven" but rather pleading with people to repent and escape the coming judgment. I hope to think that I would have the attitude of Peter and John who when in response to warnings not to teach in the name of Jesus replied, "we cannot stop speaking about what we have seen and heard" or Paul's desire to preach nothing but "Christ crucified."[l] It is difficult to understand how the Gospel would not be central to any believer's preaching or writing, but especially so for one claiming to have actually seen what for the rest of us is accepted by faith alone.Based on the authority of the complete and sufficient Word of God we are forced to reject all of these claims as valid. This brings us to an obvious question which I have not yet addressed: are they lying? This is where it gets tough. To address this important question, we are forced to depart from the objectivity of Scripture and delve into the subjective realm of people's thoughts and intentions. Some of these people I do believe are complete frauds. Some I have studied for years and believe they are motivated by money and fame and have been very successful in acquiring both. Others, however, I am not so sure. In watching many interviews of him, it seems obvious that Todd Burpo loves his son dearly. He certainly seems like a nice guy. The story he tells tugs at one's heart strings to be sure. Don Piper undoubtedly had a devastating wreck and suffered excruciating pain. However, his claim of seeing God on His throne when he had previously denied this, and denied it quite thoroughly, is difficult to understand. Bill Weise certainly presents the Gospel well and definitely warns people of coming judgment. So, in short, no, I think it would be neither right nor fair to make such a serious charge of lying against any of these. That having been said, neither can I say that I am completely confident of their truthfulness. I think it is entirely possible that some of these stories began with a vivid dream that, at the time, seemed quite real. Dreams often do seem very real. The dream was told to one or two people who then told it to others who then told it to still others and on and on. The reports grew and became more and more elaborate. A radio interview here, a newspaper report there, the story snowballs and before long it takes on a life of its own. To keep up with the hype and publicity the individuals kept up the story and may have even begun to believe it themselves to a degree. Publicity and the praise of men is an intoxicating elixir and it poses a threat to every preacher no matter how humble – this writer included. However, our final authority is the Word of God. No matter how real an experience may seem to us, if it does not plumb with the Word of God then it is an illegitimate experience. We have exceeded biblical parameters. We have begun to divorce ourselves and those who listen to us from sole reliance upon the Scriptures. So, the question about the sincerity or lack thereof of any of these individuals may be an interesting one to ponder, but, in the final analysis it does not matter. Millions of unsuspecting people are slowly but surely being pulled away from the Bible and are turning to other sources for their spiritual knowledge and nourishment. The dangers of this cannot be overstated. These accounts are extra-biblical and often unbiblical. They divert attention away from the true power of God, the Gospel (Rom. 1:16), and emphasize subjective experiences. They may be motivational in a superficial sense but they are not capable of convicting people of their sin and need of the Savior. In the words of hymn writer John Keith, "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 have fled?" What more can He say to us, dear friends, than what He has already said.