A student recently asked me what I thought of people who claim to have visited Heaven. Near-death narratives about visits to Heaven come in and out of fashion in the subculture of evangelicalism, and a few years ago, these narratives made big money in the feature film industry. I remember hearing stories of people who visited Heaven or sometimes Hades on daytime talk shows when I was young. Don Piper’s 90 Minutes in Heaven and Todd Burpo’s Heaven Is For Real each became feature films after landing on lists of best-selling books. Infamously, the subject of The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven disavowed the narrative of his own visit and return from Heaven, prompting its removal from book stores.
While these stories perhaps peaked in their level of larger cultural awareness, claims such as these will continue. What I purpose to do below is to dismantle the main criticisms of these claims, offer a differing, more substantial criticism, and direct our eyes, minds, and hearts toward the glory of Christ.
How Not to Criticize Claims of Visitation to Heaven
Usually responses to these sorts of claims boil down to one thing: skepticism. To show fairness, I must confess if I did not follow Christ, I would probably have a completely skeptical worldview.
Why do we look at such things skeptically? I can think of several reasons:
1. We believed miraculous claims in the past only to find ourselves disappointed by the truth.
2. We do not want others to perceive us as naive.
3. We do not think God operates in such ways.
4. We distrust the motives of those making the claims.
We cannot let the first and second reasons characterize our thinking as Christians. We do, after all, believe in miracles. The Bible predicates our faith on miracles. Without the incarnation of the Son of God, and his resurrection from death, we have no faith at all to believe. If I can believe God became a man, and I can believe the God-become-man died and rose again to life, I can believe any sort of miracle. Notice, I can believe any sort of miracle, not necessarily any claim of a miracle. In Scripture, sometimes Jesus heals a leper or calms a dangerous storm. Other times, ax heads float.
The fourth reason has some weight to it as well, does it not? Suspicion does not find itself commended in Scripture, but our experience sometimes leads us to keep a wary eye on those peddling things for money. Certainly our suspicions reveal themselves as founded in the case of The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven. However, controversy over contrived narratives do not arise from other similar claims. Suspicion and skepticism, in and of themselves, do not merit much.
Many think themselves wise merely because they never believe anything anyone tells them. These people can go on thinking themselves intelligent due to their doubtful outlook, but wisdom in one’s own eyes never receives the Bible’s commendation.
From the reasons above, we find only one remains; we do not think God brings people to heaven to send them back to earth to give a narrative account of their experience.
The Bible and People Who Return to Life
Can we biblically support the proposition that God does not send people back to earth from heaven in order to testify about its reality? Does the Bible address such a thing at all? Bear in mind: while systematic theology texts and catechisms have a question-and-answer format, the Bible does not. The answer does not necessarily come easily to us. However, the Bible does not stand in stark silence on the matter either.
Before continuing and considering pertinent biblical texts, we should note one thing. While we take the dead returning to life for granted (mainly because of the ministry of Jesus) in the whole of Scripture, people returning from death to life happens only occasionally. If one begins reading in Genesis, the first time a dead person lives again does not occur until long after the fissure of the Israelite kingdom! The prophet Elijah (by God’s power) performs the miracle in 1 Kings 17, and later, his protege, Elisha does the same thing. Two chief figures in the early church, Peter and Paul also each raise an individual from the dead. These happen within parameters one might see today; a mere human becomes God’s agent in raising the deceased to life.
Jesus himself performs several miracles in which individuals rise from death. He raises Jairus’s daughter from death as well as the son of the widow at Nain. Most famously, Lazarus returns to life at the word of Jesus after being entombed for four days. These miracles we would not necessarily expect to see repeated for the same reasons we do not expect people to distribute food items past the limit of available supply or walk on water. Though Jesus does raise a few dead people to life, he does not perform the miracle often.
Finally, Scripture contains two somewhat odd occurrences in which people return to life. In 2 Kings 13, a group of people burying a dead man throw him into the grave of Elisha. Upon touching Elisha’s bones, he returns to life. 2 Kings adds no further comment on the event—it only states its occurrence. In Matthew 27, upon the death of Jesus, tombs in Jerusalem open, and the dead inside exit, apparently alive. Much like the 2 Kings text, Matthew does not go into detail.
You might wonder why I have not included Jesus’s own resurrection. The resurrection of Jesus fits into a different category. Each of the individuals in the texts mentioned above died again. They lived, died, lived again, and died again. In resurrection, one never again dies. Instead, one lives an eternal, embodied life as Jesus does right at this moment.
One notices something major missing from the biblical narratives when compared to the stories of contemporary people who apparently died and came back to life claiming to visit Heaven. Not one of the biblical stories includes the living-again individual declaring anything about their time away from their bodies. In the entirety of Scripture, only a handful of stories about people being raised from the dead exist, and in those stories, not one of them leverages experiential knowledge of heaven for any reason.
Someone will object: But that does not categorically mean we cannot.
I think the lack of Scripture’s inclusion of a testimony of a temporary post-mortem experience of heaven provides much in the way of how we think on these things. However, I’ll bite. Consider another text with me, will you?
Luke 16:19-31 sheds light on the conundrum. In the text, Jesus relates the story of Lazarus and the rich man. When the rich man dies he descends into Hades for torment while Lazarus goes into heaven to reside with Abraham. When the rich man implores Abraham to send Lazarus from heaven to his family in order for them to receive warning of his condemnation. Abraham rebukes the man and says his family have Moses and the Prophets. Their witness suffices; furthermore, if they will not heed the Old Testament, they will not become persuaded by a risen dead man.
Did the lack of openness to the things of God change between the time of Jesus and now? Did the hearts of men become softer, so God would do something explicitly said not to possess potency in the pages of Scripture?
A quick summary of the pertinent Scriptural data reads thus:
1. No risen-from-the-dead individual in the pages of Scripture says anything about their experience in Heaven.
2. Through the means of a story, Jesus states the testimony of a person returned from the dead would not convince anyone who would not already believe the revelation given through Moses and the Prophets.
The Glory of Christ
We must consider the following: what point does a story about a return from Heaven communicate? If the point proves anything other than the majesty of the King Jesus Christ, we need to have nothing to do with it. In a few of the apocalyptic writings of Scripture, prophets and apostles of God see into Heaven, and their view brings back news of things terrifyingly magnificent (see Ezekiel and Revelation). God reigns from his throne and even reading the accounts picks up one’s heart rate somewhat. I could not possibly enter into there, we think upon reading these texts.
God preserved every one of the handwritten words of Scripture over time and across the world for one purpose: for people to possess a sure and personal knowledge of the coming King, Christ Jesus. Do these stories of returning from Heaven draw attention to Jesus? Or do they draw our eyes away from him? What can a man preach or teach possessing a higher quality than what already resides between the covers of the Bible? In our evaluation of cultural trends, zeitgeists, and social contagions, we must ask ourselves: does this bring glory to Christ according to the Scriptures?
Which of these shall produce more disciples: a story of an entrance and return from Heaven or an invitation to repent from sin and embrace the king in order to be seated with him in the heavenly places? For two thousand years, the church relied on the second of these to bring others to bring others to saving knowledge of Christ. Christian, direct your eyes and the eyes of those around you to Christ himself. When you do, the things which impress us on earth, including stories about heaven, will fade in comparison with him.
Interestingly, Abraham believes God to possess the power to raise the dead, though in the text of Genesis, such a thing never happens. We only know he believed God had the ability from the Book of Hebrews.