What is heaven like? The question is one many people ask. To find the answer, one can search the Scriptures and read what God has revealed. Or, one could buy a NY Times best-seller … or read the experience of a young boy … or go to the movies. Sadly, many believe these latter options are often the source for answers. The upsurge in accounts detailing near-death experiences have become a snare for people interested in the topic of heaven. The stories told by those claiming to have experienced do not match up to the beauty of Paradise, they use emotionalism to dupe consumers, and they do not match up to the Bible’s teaching on heaven.
The stories describing heaven lack the glory and splendor of Paradise. They do not conform to the incredible descriptions in God’s Word. The Bible is limited in its descriptions, but what it does reveal is something inexplicably marvelous. Present there is “One sitting on the throne” (Rev 4:1-4). Flashes of lightning and peals of thunder were present “from the throne”; nearby are “seven lamps of fire” and a “sea of glass, like crystal” (Rev 4:5-7). Heaven also reveals mysterious and unusual scenes. There are winged creatures continually praising God: “holy, holy, holy” (Rev 4:8-11). Revelation 21-22 describes what the new heaven and new earth will be like.
Contrast this with description of Colton Burpo. Colton believed he visited heaven during emergency surgery when he was 4 yrs. old. His father relays his stories in Heaven is for Real. Colton said, “Hey, Dad, did you know Jesus has a horse?” The father replied, “A horse?” Colton tells him, “Yeah, a rainbow horse. I got to pet him. There’s lots of colors.” Elsewhere in the book, Colton shares how he sat next to the Holy Spirit and even did homework for his teacher, Jesus. Similar stories abound in other works published. In fact, creativity seems to know no bounds when inventing near-death visits: Tammy Leroux shot herself, went to heaven, then went to hell, and then came back (click here for the clip). The books and movies making millions do not capture the transcendence and beauty of the Lord’s dwelling place. Rather, they diminish and lie about the most amazing place ever created.
The authors and publishers of this genre of literature know what they are doing. They are cashing in on people’s emotions. They are making multi-million dollar profits selling gullible people what they want to read. Heaven Is for Real sold 10 million copies; the movie brought in over $100 million. The numbers are similar to Alex Malarkey’s, The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven. To Malarkey’s credit, he later admitted he made up his stories about visiting heaven, confessing he sought attention.
The inventors know the current brand of Christianity well. It is superficial and shallow. It is driven by emotions, not truth. The gullible get their theology from books, movies, and anything other than Scripture itself. It is filled with narcissistic, selfish individuals attempting to manipulate God into fulfilling personal agendas. Cultural Christianity is big because it does not call people to repentance, speak about hell, or mention personal holiness. It is all about you and adapting the gospel to one’s own preferences.
If you read any of these books, you see it. Each author is preoccupied with his/her own experience. They are consumed with how they felt, what heaven can do for them. John MacArthur states it well when he says, “they glorify self while barely noticing God’s glory. They highlight everything but what’s truly important about heaven.”
We must examine Scripture carefully when it comes to the claims of heaven. No story will ever contradict Scripture and be true because all Scripture is true. Thus, we must begin with the Word of God. In the OT, we know that Enoch (Gen 5:21-24) and Elijah (2 Kgs 2:11-12) did not die a physical death, but were taken up to heaven. They did not return to tell people about it. In the NT, Paul spoke in the third person about his experience (so as not to boast, 2 Cor 12:1-6). What did he have to share of his experience? First, what he did experience, he was forbidden to communicate. He “was not permitted” (The Greek exesti of 2 Cor 12:6 means “not authorized” or “not permissible”). Second, it appears as though he waited fourteen years before speaking about it (2 Cor 12:2), doing so only after having good reason. Third, Paul received a “thorn in the flesh” (2 Cor 12:7). That’s right. He did not receive media coverage, a publishing deal, or movie contract. He received a divine trial. The leading Apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ had a vastly different experience of Paradise than anything in bookstores today. Paul had a vision (he did not die), while Enoch and Elijah were physically taken upward. These are extremely rare occurrences involving those closest to Christ at critical moments in the history of God’s revelation. The only one who came back with any description of heaven was Paul and he stated it was unlawful to speak about it.
Elsewhere, Isaiah and Ezekiel had a vision of Paradise; Micaiah and Stephen enjoyed just a peek. Even when we include the resurrection of Lazarus, the widow’s son (1 Kgs 17:17-24), and Eutyches—MacArthur notes—“not one biblical person ever gave any recorded account of his or her postmortem experience in the realm of departed souls.”
“No eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Cor 2:9, ESV). The publishing industry will continue to crank out fictional accounts of heaven, while their authors make bank. But, based on 1 Cor 2:9, not one eye, ear, or thought has captured heaven. A handful of prophets and apostles were given visions of Paradise, but none ever died, went to heaven, came back, and made a ton of money. The superficiality and emotionalism of Christianity today is a breeding ground for writings that prey upon feelings. Christians must return to a radical discipleship and a rightful exaltation of the Bible. Heaven is for real. The Bible tells you all about it. A confidence in the Scripture’s will overflow a heart with joy as we eagerly look toward that day when we will worship our great God and Savior in His heaven!