There is a new popular book out called Heaven is for Real, written by Todd Burpo. In his book, Todd, tells the remarkable store of his 4 year old son's illness, death, visit to heaven, and his "resurrection" (my word not his). There are a number of reviews on this book, some good some bad. Some reviews call this book exceptional; others think much less of this account. However, I have noticed, none of the reviews I have come across and deal with the most obvious theological issue at hand. Those critical of the book deal with some of the descriptions of heaven provided and discuss their theological significance, either in showing the books fault, or accuracy (depending on who you ask). But of all these reviews, nobody deals with the main point, and the one I want to deal with today. This will not be a simple review of this particular book, but all books in this genre of "I died, God gave me a message, now I'm witting books, doing interviews on television and making tons of money." So, I will critique the following works based upon this notion; Heaven in for Real, 90 Minutes in Heaven, 23 Minutes in Hell, A Divine Revelation of Heaven, and A Divine Revelation of Hell.
I have read several of these books, and sizable chunks from the "Divine Revelation"...nonsense. The lady who wrote those was, simply an idiot, and not worth reading. I feel like a lesser being for simply holding that trash in my hands, and then go as far as to discuss it with a friend (who used to like them).
I will avoid the particular theological matters within these books, those may be saved for a later blog, but probably not, and only at an individual's request. As I stated, I want to deal with the large theological implication at hand.
Can a person die, go to Heaven (or Hell) and then come back to testify to this experience?
The short answer is a resounding, “no”. But, as you probably have guessed, I did not start this post to give a quick answer. I want to deal with two sections of scripture that I feel relate to, and speak to this particular idea. Firstly, let us look to the book of Hebrews, which, as far as I am concerned, wins the argument in one blow. Hebrews 9:27 states that, "And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment". I am not sure what there is to expound on, except that once a person dies, they die for good. Obviously there are cases of people being resuscitated, but resuscitation is not what I or the above books are talking about. Then once this person dies for good, they then go to judgment. If a person dies and goes to judgment, then they do not return. If they say they did something the bible explicitly says cannot happen, and does not happen, they we cast them off as a lunatic, or a liar.
Another thing to look at is the parable Jesus told about the rich man and the poor man, Lazarus, in the Gospel of Luke. This Lazarus should not be confused with the Lazarus who was a real person, a friend of Jesus, was rich, died, and Jesus rose from death. These are two different men, but, both with something great to teach us about death, and the accuracy of these books. I will share the entirety of the parable from the Biblical text below:
"There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man's table. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores. The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham's side. The rich man also died and was buried, and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. And he called out, 'Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.' But Abraham said, 'Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.' And he said, 'Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father's house-- for I have five brothers--so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.' But Abraham said, 'They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.' And he said, 'No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.' 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.'" Luke 16:19-31 ESV
There are a few specific verses I would like to point out. Firstly we see the rich man in torment, and the poor man in Paradise, also referred to as "Abraham's Bosom" in some translations. We then, in verses 27-31, the rich man begging Abraham to send Lazarus to his brothers to tell them of he is experiencing, so they may repent. However, the response from Abraham is the key to both this scripture, and the books Heaven is For Real, et al. Abraham explains that "they have Moses and the Prophets" and they will not "be convinced if someone should rise from the dead." So clearly the testimony from a person who has experienced Paradise is not enough. The only evidence a person needs, and should rely upon, is scripture, not another fallible person's experience.
I think that in the cases of human testimony on matters of such spiritual importance, especially eternal life, that it is vastly important to test everything they say by scripture. This is especially true in times when a person, claiming to have a divine revelation from God; this could be a dream, a vision, or prophesy. In these instances it is important to be reminded of the words of the Apostle Paul in 2 Timothy 3:16-17 when he explains that “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work (ESV).” We as Christians, take this to mean that because the Bible, the 66 books that make of the Old and New Testament Cannon are without error, and are the word of God. Because we believe this, it must be understood that all those who claim to be speaking with authority on matters pertaining to faith should be tested according to Scripture. If it is found that a person is speaking in contradiction of what the Word of God does indeed say, they should be held accountable. To get a better understanding of the idea of Scripture being the Christian’s final authority I will link a few books on the subject, and a sermon or two by Mark Driscoll.
For a much better review of this kind of literature that I discovered when this review was near completion go to Tim Challies' Blog www.challies.com. He does a number on the book Heaven is for Real. You can also find his review on 90 Minutes in Heaven, and The Shack there as well.
For further reading on Heaven and Hell I will link a few books on Amazon that may of use to you.
Saved From What? by R.C. Sproul
The Glory of Heaven by John MacArthur
Sermon on Heaven and Hell by Mark Driscoll
Sermons on Heaven and Hell by John Piper
For Further Reading and study on the Doctrine of Scripture you might like some of this stuff.
Sermon by John MacArthur on 2 Timothy 3:16-17
Sermons on the Bible by John Piper