Preface: I want to talk about something that may be touchy subject. It’s not an attack on a man, an author, or even a book, but an idea. I’ve added a question mark to the cover of a popular book from the past few years, but this is not a critique of that book so much as it is a critique of the overarching idea of the book.
If you are a regular viewer of a show like Oprah you’ll inevitably see it. If you go to a Christian bookstore, or go to a mainstream bookstore and browse the religious and inspirational section you’ll no doubt see it. It doesn’t take a fine tooth comb to find books or television shows or what have you in which an author or someone is telling you about their experience in heaven.
It is not uncommon in modern evangelical churches to at least hear a story about someone who died but then came back to life telling about an experience they had in heaven. One of the most popular books within the realm of Christianity and faith in the past ten years is written by a Baptist pastor who says he died and went to heaven.
Such stories capture the imagination. Understandably so. Ecclesiastes 3:11 says that God has set eternity in the heart of man. It is part of the image of God, which man was created in, to desire and long after eternal life, because God is eternal, and long after heaven, because that is where God dwells. It is easy to be taken in by such stories. We want them to be real. The people who tell the stories have often been through something undeniably traumatic and they seem so very sincere. We live in a fallen world and we want to be inspired. We want something better than what we have. There are many, therefore, who are quick to believe such accounts and abandon any measure of discernment.
The Christian, however, must measure everything, even that which seems supernatural, against the revealed will of God found in His word, the sixty-six books of the Old and New Testaments. On every matter in life and death we must be as the Bereans were in Acts 17. Paul preached the gospel to them and they searched the Scriptures to see if the things he was preaching were true.
So on the matter of extra-biblical visions of heaven and stories about people dying and going to heaven and coming back, before we pass judgment on any one particular story we need to step back from the emotions of Oprah or any books we’ve bought off the bookshelves and step into the word of God.
Do stories about people getting 90 minutes in heaven, or any other amount of time for that matter, wash with what we know from the Bible? What saith the Scriptures?
Heaven in Christ-Centered
I couldn’t help but think about the apostle Thomas when I began to think through this subject. It was in John 14, in the upper room, that Jesus had told the disciples He was going away to prepare a place for them. Thomas said, “We do not know where You are going, how do we know the way?” Jesus’ answer, of course, was “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.”
Jesus, of course, was going to be going to His Father, back to the glory which He knew before He took on flesh. He was going back into heaven, where, when Jesus was teaching His disciples how to pray, He told them that’s where His Father resided, “Our Father who is in heaven.”
And what is heaven? Well, Wayne Grudem captures it pretty well in the pithy definition found in his Systematic Theology: Heaven is the place where God most fully makes known His presence to bless. It is where angels and redeemed saints worship Him. And Jesus Christ is the way to this place. Jesus Christ is the way to the Father. He is the embodiment of the truth we must believe. He is the life for all of those who place their faith in Him. No one gets to heaven and to the Father except through the Lord Jesus Christ.
Heaven is where our citizenship resides, if we have trusted wholly in Christ. That’s why we are aliens and strangers, as Peter puts it. Like a citizen of a foreign country who is an alien in the United States of America, when we are born again our citizenship is transferred into the place where God most fully makes known His presence to bless, even though for a time we remain here, in the world, as aliens.
God has transferred us out of the domain of darkness and into the kingdom of His beloved Son Jesus. So heaven is very thoroughly Christ-centered.
But do people get to go for some special revelatory reason and get to come back to earth? What do the Scriptures say about that? Well, there are three people in Scripture who were privileged to see heaven, and they were all alive when they were given their glimpse. I want to just mention two briefly and then take a closer look at the third.
First, let’s consider Acts 7. Stephen was taken into custody by the Sanhedrin in chapter six, and chapter 7 is his defense, in which he basically preaches the gospel to them, beginning with Abraham, going through the patriarchs, Moses, David, and finally to Jesus Christ. Well, let’s pick up in verse 54.
Now when they heard this, they were acut to the quick, and they began gnashing their teeth at him. 55 But being full of the Holy Spirit, he gazed intently into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God; 56 and he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened up and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” 57 But they cried out with a loud voice, and covered their ears and rushed at him with one impulse. 58 When they had driven him out of the city, they began stoning him; and the witnesses laid aside their robes at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59 They went on stoning Stephen as he called on the Lord and said, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!” 60 Then falling on his knees, he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them!” Having said this, he fell asleep.
Know, first of all, that Stephen’s glimpse of heaven just prior to his death is not normative in the Scriptures. That is to say, this is a one time thing. We don’t see this happening over and over again, and so we are not on solid ground if we use this as an example to say that near-death glimpses of heaven are to be considered legitimate.
Know, secondly, the nature of his vision. Stephen doesn’t talk about seeing a great light, or pearly gates, or anything like that. His glimpse of heaven is thoroughly Christ-centered: “he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and JESUS standing at the right hand of God.” So this was all about Stephen seeing a vision of Jesus while he was still alive. Stephen had not yet died, and of course there is no record that he came back to life to tell anyone more about heaven. So that’s one glimpse of heaven.
Next, let’s consider Revelation 4. John had also seen a vision of Jesus back in the first chapter. The second and third chapters consist of the seven letters to the seven churches that Jesus had John record. Then, we get this in verses 1-11:
After these things I looked, and behold, a door standing open in heaven, and the first voice which I had heard, like the sound of a trumpet speaking with me, said, “Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after these things.” 2 Immediately I was in the Spirit; and behold, a throne was standing in heaven, and One sitting on the throne. 3 And He who was sitting was like a jasper stone and a sardius in appearance; and there was a rainbow around the throne, like an emerald in appearance. 4 Around the throne were twenty-four thrones; and upon the thrones I saw twenty-four elders sitting, clothed in white garments, and golden crowns on their heads. 5 Out from the throne come flashes of lightning and sounds and peals of thunder. And there were seven lamps of fire burning before the throne, which are the seven Spirits of God; 6 and before the throne there was something like a sea of glass, like crystal; and in the center and around the throne, four living creatures full of eyes in front and behind. 7 The first creature was like a lion, and the second creature like a calf, and the third creature had a face like that of a man, and the fourth creature was like a flying eagle. 8 And the four living creatures, each one of them having six wings, are full of eyes around and within; and day and night they do not cease to say,
“HOLY, HOLY, HOLY is THE LORD GOD, THE ALMIGHTY, WHO WAS AND WHO IS AND WHO IS TO COME.”
9 And when the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to Him who sits on the throne, to Him who lives forever and ever, 10 the twenty-four elders will fall down before Him who sits on the throne, and will worship Him who lives forever and ever, and will cast their crowns before the throne, saying,
11 “Worthy are You, our Lord and our God, to receive glory and honor and power; for You created all things, and because of Your will they existed, and were created.”
Now obviously that is not all John saw of heaven in the book of Revelation, and for the sake of time I’m not going to exhaust it all, but notice in chapter 4 how Christ-centered his vision is. Christ is the One sitting on the throne. He describes His appearance like fine jewels, and the culmination of this opening part of John’s vision is the glorification of Jesus Christ. He is holy, holy, holy, worthy to receive glory and honor and power.
Most of the rest of revelation is John being shown what will take place in the end. It’s not a description of heaven itself, but special revelation for man to know now what is coming. And the revelation given to John culminates with Jesus Christ being the King of Kings and Lord and Lords. The whole vision is Christ-centered.
But notice that John was alive when he received this vision, and that, like Stephen, it was a vision. He did not go to heaven himself. Jesus said in Revelation 1:11, “Write in a book what you SEE.” Again, this was a vision like no other and so of course we are not on solid ground if we say that things like this are normative for Christians today.
The Third Heaven
The third glimpse of heaven is from the apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 12:1-4:
Boasting is necessary, though it is not profitable; but I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord. 2 I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago — whether in the body I do not know, or out of the body I do not know, God knows — such a man was caught up to the third heaven. 3 And I know how such a man — whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, God knows — 4 was caught up into Paradise and heard inexpressible words, which a man is not permitted to speak.
The first three words there are curious – “Boasting is necessary.” It was the Greco-Roman culture in which Paul was living and writing that necessitated he write about this vision. Boasting was necessary because the thought in the culture was that those who truly represented the gods were those who experienced mystical visions. Tragically, that thought continues to prevail among many today who claim the name of Christ and are taken in my modern day tales and promises of the supernatural.
Paul wrote of his vision not because he wanted to, but because it was necessary in the minds of the unbelievers he would come in contact with. Boasting was necessary, but Paul says, not profitable. Even visions and revelations such as the one he experienced and wrote of weren’t helpful to talk about. It didn’t benefit the church.
And you can tell in the way he wrote that he didn’t really want to talk about it. “I know a man in Christ,” he says. He doesn’t want to boast of himself in the vision, but it was Paul if you read down to verse 7. The vision had happened fourteen years prior to the writing of 2 Corinthians, so it was probably in between the time Paul left Jerusalem for Tarsus in Acts 9 and the time he was commissioned for his first missionary journey in Acts 13. And it seems like this was the first time he was revealing this vision he had way back then.
Notice how he writes, “whether in the body I do not know, or out of the body I do not know, God knows.” He says this twice within these four verses. He doesn’t know in what capacity he was caught up to the third heaven.
Now, what is the third heaven? That’s a question I have wondered about in the past, and it seems clear to me now that what he means by third heaven is that the sky and the air that we breathe make up the first heaven, and then space and the sun and the stars make up the second heaven, and then the third heaven is what we usually mean when we just say “heaven.” It’s where God dwells. “Heaven is my throne,” says God in Isaiah 66:1. Paul saw it but doesn’t know exactly how he saw it.
And that is important because it not only lets us know that Paul himself couldn’t tell you how he came across this vision, but it makes it clear that Paul himself is not in the least boasting of an actual trip to heaven. This really lends itself to a vision in the manner of Stephen and John, and not some kind of trip up and trip back.
But let’s grant for a moment that Paul actually did make the trip up and back. What did he see? What did he hear? We don’t know and he can’t tell us. He does offer us the fact that he heard “inexpressible words.” We don’t know what those words are because they are inexpressible. I’ve got nothing further to go on there. God hasn’t revealed to us what those words were, but it doesn’t matter.
Deuteronomy 29:29 comes into play here: “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our sons forever, that we may observe all the words of this law.” Even if Paul knew how to tell us what he heard, man is not permitted to speak them. So we are left with that.
So Then What?
How do we arrive at a verdict? How we answer the question, “Do people go to heaven and come back?” Well, according to John 1:18, “No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him.” Jesus is the explanation of God and His dwelling place. Jesus said Himself that He is the way, the truth, and the life. We don’t get to heaven except through Him. Therefore, any attempt to answer questions about heaven have to run directly through Jesus Christ and what has been revealed to us through His word, the Bible. Any other explanation is dead on arrival.
Furthermore, Jesus said in John 3:13, “No one has ascended into heaven, but He who descended from heaven: the Son of Man.” This would seem to rule out the possibility, even in the case of John or Paul, that they literally found themselves in heaven.
John wrote that he was in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day when the revelation was given to him. That sounds like a vision to me, as I understand it. And Paul doesn’t now whether he was in the body or out of the body. Given that and what Jesus has said, I think the safe ground is to say that these were visions, and leave them at that.
I do don’t doubt the sincerity of the people who share their stories about what they think was heaven, but I submit to you that those stories are often times born out of traumatic circumstances, such as the one in the book by the Baptist pastor that has sold so many copies in the past few years. I don’t doubt they think they saw heaven, but I do not believe they actually did, and those beliefs are grounded in what we know from the word of God.
Hebrews 9:27 says that “It is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment.” That would seem, in my mind, to rule out any possibility of dying, going to heaven, and being sent back.
Even though it’s a parable, in Luke 16 when Jesus talks about the rich man and Lazarus He seems to rule out any possibility of coming back. The rich man begged Abraham in the parable to send him to his father’s house to warn his brothers so they could avoid the torment. Abraham’s response in Luke 16:29 is crucial to our understanding here tonight, “But Abraham said, ‘ They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ But the rich man said, ‘No father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent!’ But he said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be persuaded even if someone rises from the dead.’”
Now in the context Jesus was talking about Himself there. The dead won’t believe even if they see someone who has risen from the dead. However, there is application to our present question there. I see no great awakenings happening because of the testimony of any man or woman who has died and come back and told us of heaven, or of hell for that matter.
We have been given what God has willed to give us. We have been given Moses and the Prophets. We have been given the Bible, the Word of God. Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 12:1 that to boast or to tell or write of his own vision or revelation was not profitable. In 2 Timothy 3:16, another letter he wrote, he said that “All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable.”
We don’t need to know what heaven will be like. We don’t need to speculate on what it will look like. We don’t even need to dream about being reunited with loved one and things like that, because none of that is what heaven is about. I guarantee you our loved ones in heaven aren’t looking down on us now and dreaming about being reunited. If they were looking down on us then the Bible wouldn’t be true, because then there would surely be tears in heaven. They aren’t looking to us, they’re looking at Jesus.
Jesus is what heaven is all about. Heaven is Christ-centered. Jesus is what heaven is all about. We don’t need to know more about heaven. We don’t need visions and revelations, because God has in His word told us about His Son Jesus Christ.
John Piper, in his book God is the Gospel wrote this, and I believe it to be appropriate:
The critical question for our generation–and for every generation–is this: If you could have heaven, with no sickness, and with all the friends you ever had on earth, and all the food you ever liked, and all the leisure activities you ever enjoyed, and all the natural beauties you ever saw, all the physical pleasures you ever tasted, and no human conflict or any natural disasters, could you be satisfied with heaven, if Christ was not there?
Based on the descriptions of heaven we get from the TV shows and the books and the movies and what not, the answer would seem to be “Yes.” But heaven isn’t about the perfect fulfillment of things which satisfied us on earth. Heaven is about Jesus Christ. Heaven is being face to face with the Savior and being where God fully makes known His presence to bless. That’s where we will be like Him, because we will see Him just as He is according to 1 John 3:2. Purify yourselves, beloved, on that hope, just as He is pure.
Don’t ever be deceived with other views of heaven. It is not profitable. It is dangerous to the church and to the souls of people when we accept an unbiblical account of heaven. We ought to be very wary of teachers and writers who would claim to reveal information about a place Paul wasn’t even permitted to speak about. It just isn’t good theology.
And it provokes weaker brethren to, in practice, deny the authority and sufficiency of the Scriptures. To yearn for more details about heaven is to say that what God has revealed isn’t good enough. And that, in turn, in practice, is a denial of the glory of Jesus Christ and the power of His gospel.
Some Closing Thoughts
So then, let us remember the Spirit-inspired, inscripturated prayer of David in Psalm 17, when he said, “As for me, I shall behold Your face in righteousness; I will be satisfied with Your likeness when I awake.” May we be satisfied with what God has seen fit to reveal about Himself, knowing that He has promised His children, which includes you if you believe in His Son, citizens of heaven, that we will behold Him in all His glory. We will hear and understand those inexpressible words. We will be without tears, heartache, and sorrow, because we will be utterly consumed with King Jesus, for heaven is all about Him.