We all want to know about heaven. We want to know about the place our Savior has prepared for us, and we want to know our loved ones are safe. These desires are good and right, and God’s Word tells us much about what we can expect. In the new heaven and the new earth, there will be no more pain, no more sorrow, no more suffering (Revelation 21:4). Satan has been conquered through the blood of the Lamb (Revelation 12:11), and death has been defeated forever (1 Corinthians 15:25-28). Those who have trusted in Christ will receive resurrected bodies that can never die (1 Corinthians 15:42, 52-57), and because of the new covenant, believers can never again rebel against their Creator because He has given them new hearts (Jeremiah 31:31-34, 32:40; Ezekiel 11:19-20). Finally and forever, Christians will be delivered not only from the power and penalty of sin but from the presence of sin as well.
While we can be absolutely certain about all of these promises because God has revealed them to us in His Word, what should Christians believe about near-death experiences and the accounts of heaven that accompany them? Some of the most popular and best-selling books among evangelical Christians for more than a decade have been accounts of near-death experiences, including “90 Minutes in Heaven” by Don Piper, “23 Minutes in Hell” by Bill Wiese, and “To Heaven and Back” by Mary C. Neal. By far the most popular book of the past decade, though, is Todd Burpo’s “Heaven is for Real,” which recounts the story of his 4-year-old son, Colton, who says he visited heaven while under anesthesia during an appendectomy. This book has sold more than 7 million copies and spent 50 weeks on top of the New York Times bestseller list. Does the Bible give Christians any guidance as to whether such accounts are real and therefore trustworthy?
First, Scripture recounts many instances of people who did not simply have near-death experiences but who actually died and were raised to life — the Shunammite’s child (2 Kings 4:32-37), Jairus’ daughter (Matthew 9:18-26), the widow’s son (Luke 7:11-16), Dorcas (Acts 9:36-41), and more; nevertheless, no one who is raised from the dead ever gives an account of heaven or the afterlife, including Lazarus, who was in the grave for four days (John 11:1-44). Instead, these passages emphasize God’s power over death and confirm that Jesus is the Messiah. Moreover, even for those in Scripture who actually had visions of heaven — Paul (2 Corinthians 12:1-4) and John (Revelation 4-6), among others — their accounts are not concerned with providing details of what heaven is like; rather, the emphasis in these passages is on God and His glory. Furthermore, Scripture is absolutely clear that people do not go to heaven and come back: “Who has ascended to heaven and come down?” (Proverbs 30:4). Jesus’ answer: “No one has ascended into heaven except He who descended from heaven, the Son of Man” (John 3:13, emphasis added).
In contrast to the emphases of Scripture, the point of the many best-selling books on near-death experiences is not on God’s power and glory but on detailed and often fanciful descriptions of heaven that not only are not present in Scripture but often conflict with what Scripture actually teaches. In defiance of Scripture, many who recount their experiences claim to have actually visited heaven, not that they simply had a vision. Yet another example that conflicts with Scripture is Colton’s claim in “Heaven is for Real” that he received a halo and wings, which perpetuates the unbiblical belief that Christians will become like angels when they die (1 Corinthians 15:12-58). Furthermore, even if these accounts do not directly contradict biblical teaching, accounts of near-death experiences all disagree on various details — even though those who have these experiences claim that what they saw is completely true and reliable. These inconsistencies, combined with the unbiblical emphases and scriptural contradictions, should lead us to seriously question (and ultimately reject as untrue) the accounts of what humans claim to have experienced and should encourage us all the more to rely on the only certain source of truth: God’s Word.
In the end, the question is really who do we trust? Do we trust the experiences of fallible human beings that have been recorded by uninspired human authors, or do we believe the perfect and inerrant Word of God that, while it may not provide us all the details we would like, is always completely and perfectly true? Speaking through the prophet Isaiah, God rhetorically asks: “[S]hould not a people inquire of their God? Should they inquire of the dead on behalf of the living?” (Isaiah 8:19; Deuteronomy 18:10-12). Ever since the Fall, the desire of the human heart is to know everything — even the details that God in His wisdom has chosen not to reveal to us. When we crave to know more than what He has revealed, may our posture be one of humility, seeking to trust what He has made known in His all-sufficient Word. Indeed, may we rely not on ourselves or the words of mortal man, but on the Word of God that endures forever and will never pass away (Matthew 24:35; 1 Peter 1:24-25).
— Joshua J. Styles is instructor of Christian studies at North Greenville University.