What About Those Who Claim They Went to Heaven and Came Back – part 2

Yesterday, I began a brief series talking about those who claim they went to heaven and came back. You can see that post HERE.

Here is a kind article written by Randy Alcorn on the topic. To see the original post go HERE.

Here is the entire article:

“Heaven Is for Real,” “90 Minutes in Heaven,” and other books about visits to Heaven or Hell

Heaven Is For RealIn the past few months, I have been repeatedly asked about the phenomenally popular book Heaven is For Real. This book was again number 1 on the May 8 New York Times bestseller’s list. It has already sold something like four million copies, and it’s not slowing down.

Truthfully, I didn’t want to say anything about this book. But after
being asked about it again and again on Facebook and in emails and at a
conference, I’ve decided I need to say something. People tell me, “Since
you wrote the book Heaven, we want to know what you think.”
Well, that doesn’t make me an expert on people’s claims of after-death
or near-death experiences, but for what it’s worth I’ll share my
thoughts. I will also address other Christian books that claim to record
actual experiences of going to Heaven or to Hell. Consequently, this
will be an unusually long blog, article-length.

Heaven is for Real is written by an evangelical pastor, Todd
Burpo, and tells of his then four-year-old son Colton, who survived
emergency surgery and later told his family that he went to Heaven.
Colton described seeing Jesus and meeting his miscarried sister and his
great-grandfather, who died before he was born.

Honestly, it’s difficult for me to know what to say. I found the book
interesting. Todd and Colton appear to be sincere. Parts of the book
seemed quite plausible; parts of it raised questions. Some of the words
that Colton supposedly spoke as a four-year-old seem more like words an
adult would speak, but perhaps that’s due to his father’s memories as he
tried to reconstruct his son’s words from years earlier.  More
seriously, I was concerned about Colton’s claim that people in Heaven
have wings (he says he too had wings while there), and other details
that fit popular lore about Heaven, but don’t fit Scripture. In the
Bible, some angels are portrayed as having wings, most are not. But
never is any human being in Heaven or anywhere else said to have wings.
Some beings in Heaven, according to Colton, have halos. But that’s not
in the Bible. It’s from popular art in the Greek and Roman era and more
recently in the Christian art of the Middle Ages. And of course we see
it in our popular culture depictions of heaven, including cartoons.

These things suggested to me that perhaps this child has seen and
heard things about Heaven that worked their way into his imagining
Heaven, as opposed to coming from an actual experience in Heaven.  His
father says Colton had never heard or seen such things, but I think a
lot of children have seen much more than their parents realize.

90 Minutes in HeavenOne
concern is that I have seen such great excitement among Christians in
response to this book, an experiential account that in its very best
parts simply confirms what Scripture has said all along. Yes, Heaven is
for real, but we already knew that, didn’t we? God’s Word has told us
that all along. When there is so much fanfare about accounts that simply
confirm what the Bible says, I wonder if we trust the accounts more
than the Bible itself. People come to hear Don Piper speak because of
his story of being in Heaven, told in 90 Minutes in Heaven. But hopefully Don, as well as Todd Burpo, would be the first to say people shouldn’t need to
hear about Don’s experience, or Colton Burpo’s, in order to believe in
the Heaven that Scripture reveals. I think many Christians need a better
understanding not only of the authority of Scripture, but its sufficiency.  

On the other hand, I understand people’s curiosity about books like
this. And I’m deeply grateful that Don Piper and the Burpos uphold the
gospel. I don’t presume to know everything that God does. He is capable
of surprising us. I certainly do not want to speak against anything that
God may have done. In the Bible we’re told that Stephen, Paul and John
all saw Heaven, and John and Paul were actually taken there. All three
were alive when they saw it. Stephen remarked that he saw Christ in
Heaven (Acts 7:56), Paul was hesitant to talk about his experience (2 Cor. 12:1-4), and John relayed his experience in the God-breathed book of Revelation.

While Don Piper and the Burpo family are followers of Jesus, most
reports of after-death experiences come from those who are not. I have
read many accounts of such experiences in which people who do not know
Christ claim to have gone to Heaven, or its outskirts, and were
reassured by a “being of light” that all is well with them.

In such cases, I do not believe the being of light they’ve seen is
Jesus, since in fact the Bible makes clear that all those who do not
know Jesus as their Savior have great reason to fear death, and the Hell
that will follow it, if they don’t repent and turn to Him. Scripture
says, “Even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light” (2 Cor. 11:15).
Obviously, Satan has great vested interests in deceiving unbelievers
into thinking that what awaits them after death is a place of serenity
rather than of eternal punishment. (In response to someone’s question, I
summarized the biblical teaching about Satan.)

As for Heaven is for Real, I certainly don’t see a false
gospel in the Burpo’s account of Heaven. I rejoice that Jesus is
portrayed as the only way to God, in keeping with John 14:6 and Acts 4:12. I could have wished for a greater emphasis on confession of sin and repentance, but on major biblical issues I don’t think Heaven is For Real
contradicts Scripture. Yet on some details, such as wings and halos,
I’m just…uncomfortable. Still, God uses many things without my
permission, and despite my reservations! I emphatically agree with the
title: Heaven is for Real. Not because Colton Burpo or Don Piper say they have been there, but because the Bible says so.

I’ve met Don Piper, author of the book 90 Minutes in Heaven, which paved the way for Heaven is For Real. I was on a panel about Heaven
with Don Piper, J.I. Packer and Sam Storms. Don was a Southern Baptist
pastor, and is a nice guy who believes and affirms Christ and the Bible.
I saw nothing in his book that contradicted Scripture. I like Don, just
as I would no doubt like the Burpo family. I don’t question his
sincerity. But can I say for sure that he went to Heaven? Or
that Colton Burpo went to Heaven? No. I can’t. But I also can’t
confidently say that they did not. I can say for sure that there is a final judgment spoken of in Hebrews 9:27-28,
and that in the ultimate biblical sense of “death,” people do not die
and come back to life before the judgment. If God wants to make
exceptions He can, and if he wants to give people glimpses of Heaven in a
near death experience He can. But there is reason for skepticism on our
part when someone makes this claim.

Divine Revelation of HellSometimes
there is reason for rejecting the account even when it is made by a
professing Christian. I remember reading Mary Baxter’s bestselling book
of being taken to Hell (after her very successful first book about being
taken to Heaven, it seemed interesting that not only the publishers but
God came through with a sequel). T. L. Lowery wrote the foreword to
Mrs. Baxter’s book, A Divine Revelation of Heaven. In it, he
says, “The inspired writings of Mary Kathryn Baxter are divinely
anointed by God.” Mrs. Baxter says, “The Spirit of the living God
revealed to me everything I am telling you.”

I resist such lavish claims that put someone’s book on a level with
Scripture itself. This is a major red flag that to me actually
discredits books. Mrs. Baxter says in her book that Jesus told her Hell
is shaped like a woman’s body and resides in the center of the earth. It
is occupied by snakes and rats. She speaks of “demons taking turns
poking a soul with spears.” One room in Hell is called the “fun center”
where there are special torments for mediums and witches. Obviously,
there is no mention of any of these things in Scripture. In Baxter’s
book, Satan and demons are portrayed as ruling and torturing people in
Hell, whereas the Bible says they will not go to Hell until after the
judgment, and they will not go to punish anyone, but to be punished by

Mary Baxter claims that Jesus twice abandoned her in Hell, even
though He has promised that Christ experienced Hell on the cross so we
wouldn’t have to, and He will never leave us or forsake us. She says it
was revealed to her that God always wants to heal every Christian. But
Scripture tells of many instances showing this is not so, including the
example of Paul, where God did not heal him of his thorn in the flesh,
but rather told the apostle that His grace is sufficient. Mrs. Baxter
says people are not healed only because of their unbelief. That,
apparently, would include Paul, Timothy, and a host of others mentioned
in the Bible, who were sick but not healed. (Several health and wealth
gospel proponents like Baxter have told of God showing them rooms of
spare body parts in Heaven, awaiting distribution to all on earth who
have enough faith to be healed; never mind that Scripture itself says no
such thing.)

There are other claimed first hand accounts of Heaven and Hell I haven’t read, including 23 Minutes in Hell.
I am told that it’s generally true to Scripture, but it also portrays
demons punishing people in Hell, a picture that I find troubling and
unbiblical, since the Bible makes clear it is God who punishes both
demons and people in Hell.

I am not the judge of who has really been to Heaven or Hell, I
emphatically believe every near-death (or supposed “after-death”)
experience must be evaluated in light of God’s Word. Where the
experience contradicts the revealed Word of God, the Word must be
accepted over the experience. For the Christian, there simply is no
other option. We dare not start basing our beliefs on people’s memories
of their personal experiences.

I suspect the phenomenal success of Heaven is for Real will
tempt people to use their imaginations in telling stories about visiting
Heaven. Some will be deceptive, others will exaggerate, still others
may take images from a drug-induced state on a hospital bed and by power
of suggestion may convince themselves that various images in their
heads were actual experiences of Heaven. The financial success of 90 Minutes in Heaven and Heaven is for Real
will inevitably invite others to come forward who are willing to either
deliberately mislead others or convince themselves of something that
was not a true experience of  Heaven.  

Tim Challies, a good and biblical thinker, has major reservations about Heaven is for Real. Tim calls it like he sees it, and I believe his review
is worth reading, especially as a counterbalance to the way so many
Christians are quick to believe people’s accounts of after-death
experiences. Tim’s skepticism about the book is more definite than mine
is. However, Tim and I are in 100% agreement about the danger of
Christians basing any theology on such books, rather than solely on
God’s Word.

Acts 17:11
tells us that the Bereans searched the Scriptures daily "to see if what
Paul said was true." Now, if ever in human history you were going to
assume that another person's words were true, not finding it necessary
to double-check against the Scriptures, surely it would be with the
Apostle Paul. Yet the Bereans were commended for carefully scrutinizing
Paul's words in light of Scripture. If Paul's words needed to fall under
the judgment of God's Word, obviously mine do, and Don Piper’s do, and
Todd and Colton Burpo’s do.

I do believe that something is seriously wrong if people take more
time to contemplate and discuss Colton Burpo’s account of petting Jesus'
rainbow-colored horse, or of Jesus wearing a crown with a pink diamond,
than they do studying what the Bible actually says about Heaven. The
back cover of the book says "Heaven Is for Real will forever
change the way you think of eternity.” I would say, “Seek to let the
Bible alone change the way you think of eternity.”

Heaven: Your Real HomeI
hope people will study the Scriptures first, then secondly read
biblically-based books on the subject of Heaven. I would feel like an
opportunist recommending my book Heaven. So instead I’ll recommend Joni Eareckson Tada’s book Heaven: Your Real Home,
which I told her was my very favorite. Graciously, Joni told me that
mine was her favorite. So there you go, we are each other’s endorsers,
but I am certainly the greater beneficiary of hers than she is of mine!
And the fact that I mentioned this certainly does make me an opportunist
after all, doesn’t it? So does the probability that people who work on
EPM staff will link to my Heaven book in this blog, and I will do nothing to stop them. 🙂

If it’s any consolation, I sought to base the Heaven book
solidly on Scripture, and then make clear when I was speculating. I
always attempted to base that speculation on biblical grounds. I am no
doubt mistaken on some points. But I hope that my attempt to honor
Scripture as absolute authority, and the fact that I make no money from
the book, will at least provide some counterbalance.  

By the way, I first wrote about Heaven in my novel Deadline
in 1993, back before it was cool to do so. 🙂 Of course, everything
I’ve said about other people’s books applies to mine, despite the fact
that I make no claim to having seen or been to Heaven (in fact I make
the explicit statement that I haven’t). Don’t base your theology of
Heaven on my books except where you believe they line up with Scripture,
which makes the Bible the authority, not me. And while curiosity is
understandable, don’t base your theology of Heaven on any book that
tells of someone’s personal experience and memories, no matter how
sincere they may be.

Randy's signature


One comment
  1. Belief that heaven is for real has never left my mind and what about the once young girl who painted brilliant paintings of Jesus and heaven? Or how many stops the Burpo’s made throughout their trips and show Colton pictures of Jesus asking him is this how He really looks? Is there anywhere in scripture that relates to Jesus’ physical features?

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