I just read the Newsweek magazine article "Heaven is Real" which was written from the perspective of a neurosurgeon who claims to have taken a trip to heaven while in a coma for seven days. He says that the part of his brain that drives brain function was turned off while he was under, so there was no way that he could have imagined it.
What was heaven like according to Dr. Eban Alexander? A beautiful young woman was his guide into this heavenly experience of giant butterflies and angelic like creatures who streaked across the sky. God was an inky darkness which was emanating love.
It reminds me of the great fervor that spilled out a few years ago when the book "Heaven is for Real." This book written by Todd Burpo was a father's recounting of his four year old boy's story when he supposedly died, went to heaven and witnessed his version of the afterlife.
So what are we as Christians to think of the doctor and the preschooler? Do we automatically stand up and say, "Amen! See, I told you!" to all of our atheist or agnostic friends? Do we theologically take them apart and prove they are wrong? Do we just leave it all alone, afraid to get on what could be an Ozzy-less crazy train?
Here are 3 things I do when approached with stories like this:
1. I'm initially suspect.
Don't get me wrong. I fully believe in heaven (and hell for that matter!) I'm convinced that heaven will be more amazing than we could ever imagine. How do I know? The great apostle John gives a firsthand account in the book of Revelation of the glory, immensity, power and beauty of heaven. There are times when he has trouble putting what he's describing into words which measure up, but it's obvious that his vision of heaven is overwhelming to him. It's also interesting that the apostle John did not have a "near-death" experience. He had a clear vision while he was alive and well and stuck on the Island of Patmos as a prisoner of the Romans.
So why do I tend to be suspect of firsthand accounts of those who say they died and then came back? Because the Bible has two clear promises which seem to contradict this:
"For we live by faith, not by sight"(2 Corinthians 5:7).
"Just as people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment…" (Hebrews 9:27).
I'm not saying that God can't make exceptions to the rules he has written (after all he is God and can do whatever he wants), but these two passages loom large in front of me as a yellow light about to turn red when someone claims to have died, gone to heaven and come back.
For those (like the good doctor) who claim to have gone to heaven while still technically alive I am still suspect…at first. Bold claims must be backed up with bold evidence.
2. I weigh their description of heaven against the Bible's.
When "Heaven is for Real" came out it was interesting to me how many Christians flocked to accept this preschooler's description of heaven without thinking or blinking. Many of these same Christians, I assume, had not studied the Bible thoroughly on the subject of heaven and measured it against what the little boy said.
Christians, it seemed, would rather accept the testimony of a four year old boy (who I assume is a very sweet kid) over prophets like Ezekiel, apostles like John and Jesus Christ himself.
So how does the Bible describe heaven?
-Jesus describes it as big. In John 14 Jesus said, "In my Father's house are many rooms. If it were not so I would have told you."
-John describes the capitol city of heaven (aka "The New Jerusalem") as big, brilliant and beautiful. According to Revelation 21:17 it is 1,400 miles long, high, wide and deep. If it landed on America it would extend from the Canadian border to the Mexican border and from Chicago to Salt Lake City. It would extend 1,300 miles into space.
-In heaven there are streets of gold (Revelation 21:21), walls of twelve precious stones (Revelation 21:19), gates made from giant pearls (Revelation 21:21) and a tree that bears twelve kinds of fruit (Revelation 22:2).
-There is no sickness, sadness, disease or death (Revelation 21:4).
-The Father dwells there in an unapproachable light (1 Timothy 6:16).
-Jesus is in the center of this city (Revelation 7:17), seated on a throne (Revelation 7:11-12) on what looks like a sea of glass (Revelation 4:6).
-Seraphim flutter around his throne singing "Holy, Holy, Holy" (Isaiah 6:3).
And on and on and on the descriptions go in Scripture. What is common to most of these descriptions is a glorious, heart-rending, mind-blowing description of Jesus being central. So, any book that comes out that doesn't drive the same theme or has a different physical description of heaven I move to the fiction side of my library.
3. I use it as an opportunity to talk to people about Jesus.
There have been several times when I heard somebody talking about "the amazing story in 'Heaven is for Real.'" I didn't challenge them theologically or tell them that it could be "a bunch of malarkey."
No, I used this book and these types of books as conversation starters to whether or not they know for sure they are going to heaven. I've had great evangelistic witnessing experiences as a result.
These kinds of books, whether true or not, get read by the general public. And the general public needs Jesus.
Whether you choose to believe the Newsweek article entitled "Heaven is Real" or the book written a few years ago entitled "Heaven is for Real" is up to you. Measure it against Scripture and make your decision. But use it as a conversation starter with those who don't know Jesus. Why?
Because heaven IS for real!