Monday, August 31, 2015

Visiting Heaven and Hell: A Look At "Heavenly Tourism"

"Heavenly tourism" books are serious business. Don Piper’s 90 Minutes In Heaven has sold 6.5 million copies in 46 languages; Heaven is For Real has been on the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association's bestseller list every month since it hit the shelves in 2010;  23 Minutes In Hell (which I guess falls under the category of 'hellish tourism'?) spent several weeks on the NYT best-selling list after its release in 2006 and continues to be influential.

This popular genre relies on the testimony of those who claim to have had either visions or near death experiences (NDE’s). There has been enough documentation about NDE’s that it’s hard to deny that people experience something when by all medical reasoning they shouldn't.  NDE’s offer fairly compelling support for the existence of a mind or soul – that is, something distinct from our physical biology – but I would be hesitant to claim anything beyond that.  Making an argument for the supernatural is one thing; making a claim to supernatural revelation is quite another.

Though I have heard the claim that books like Heaven Is For Real make an argument for the heaven of the Bible, I don't think that is necessarily true. NDE’s are clearly contextualized by the backgrounds and belief systems of the people who have them.  There are common elements, but when people of different religions or worldview have NDE’s, they report experiences in line with their ideas of the afterlife. All of the accounts can't be right; however, that doesn't mean all of them - specifically the Christian ones - are wrong. However, considering the confusing and contradictory experiences found in NDE's, it is crucial that we use discernment as we filter all the accounts, even from those who seek to inspire us with visions of heaven.

Personal reports aside, does the Bible suggest we can visit heaven or hell before we must remain on that side of the veil? If so, do we have good reason to believe the stories of those who return? I can think of three biblical precedents relevant to the discussion, and none of them lend strong support to the recent accounts of visits to heaven or hell.
  • In John 11, Lazarus gives no record of what he experienced before Jesus brought him back to life (from more than an NDE, I might add).  Had he something to report, I would think it would have been huge news.
  • Paul, who had a vision of heaven (2 Corinthians 12), refused to describe what he saw. 
  • John’s apocalyptic vision in Revelation is a highly symbolic vision (not a visit) expressed with the language of golden streets and pearly gates. It’s not meant to be literal – which leads me to believe that those who claim to have seen these things are not experiencing what they believe they are. 

My concerns about the ‘heavenly tourism” books and movies go deeper than the over-reaching claims  and the lack of biblical precedent for a trip to the afterlife. Many of the specific claims in the books are at best extra-biblical and at worst anti-biblical. I don’t intend to question the sincerity of the writers, but I believe we need to exercise discernment rather than simply accepting any story at face value. Here are a few of the more popular “heavenly tourism” books along with some highlights that fall under the category of ‘extra-biblical’ or ‘anti-biblical’.

Heaven Is for Real (Colton and Todd Burpo)
  • Jesus has a rainbow horse that can be petted. 
  • We have ‘wings’ in Heaven. Colton’s were small and uncomfortable. 
  • We have ‘lights’ over our heads in Heaven – maybe a halo? 
  • Gabriel sits on the left side of God’s throne. 
  • The Holy Spirit is blue, not ‘like a dove’ or ‘like tongues of fire’.
  • Jesus looks just like Akiane’s “Prince of Peace: The Resurrection Portrait.”
  • Colton claims to have had face-to-face communication with the resurrected Christ, John the Baptist, David, Peter, John, and even the archangel Gabriel.

90 Minutes in Heaven (Don Piper)
  • The pearly gates and streets of gold are literally real
  • There is, as the Gospel Coalition notes, "the elevation of experience as authority... demotion of Scripture from authority… an improper view of trials… a lack of theological precision…an inadequate view of heaven." 
  •  Piper does not see Jesus or God – but he does see friends who were part of his spiritual formation. 

This brings up an interesting theme throughout many of these books – the interaction with loved ones who had died. Tim Challies offers a good quote from John Piper on this point: “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 say, 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?”

I get the appeal – my dad died years ago, and I find it easy to wait with eager expectation to see him again in some fashion - but that’s not the point of heaven. That’s not a biblical hope of glory. If that's what makes heaven compelling to any of us, we've missed the point.

Proof of Heaven ( Dr. Eben Alexander)

In spite of apparently visiting heaven, his perspective of Jesus and Christianity is far outside the historical, foundational claims of the Christian faith. Note the following from an article on CNN:
 “I realized very strongly that God loves all of God’s children,” he said. “Any religion that claims to be the true one and the rest of them are wrong is wrong.”Central to his story is something he says he heard in heaven. During his journey, he says he was accompanied by an angelic being who gave him a three-part message to share on his return. When he heard the message, he says it went through him “like a wind” because he instantly knew it was true. It’s the message he takes today to those who wonder who, or what, they will encounter after death. The angel told him:“You are loved and cherished, dearly, forever.”“You have nothing to fear.”“There is nothing you can do wrong."

To Heaven and Back (Mary C. Neal)

Mary freely admits that she was not a Christian when she had her NDE, yet she claims to have gone to heaven.  Her story contains traditionally pagan notions of the world as well as some very unusual theology.
  • An angel speaking through an owl gave her directions once.
  • Her dead stepfather and brother cause things to happen in the world.
  • Human souls exist before coming into the world.
  • If you are in God’s will, “Everything seems to happen without much effort or many obstacles.”
  • A group of robe-wearing ‘souls’ met her in a dome during her NDE, warned her of the     impending death of her son, then sent her back to earth where she helplessly waited for her son to die (which he did ten years later).

23 Minutes In Hell (Bill Wiese)
  • God caused him to forget he was a Christian while he was in hell, and apparently gave him a second body that literally experienced hell even while his other body remained on the floor of his home.
  • Hell contains spiders as large as small cars and snakes the size of trains
  • There are 13-foot tall demons that break all your bones
  • These demons will tear off people's arms and legs, smash heads flat, and rip the flesh right off of people’s bodies
  • This happens at 3,700 feet below the crust of the earth, where there are fire pits hotter than the sun.
This vision offers a distortion of hell that Dante popularized and Hollywood exploited: the idea that Satan is a collector of souls, and that Satan and other demons will revel in torturing the people they drag to hell. There is no biblical precedent for this.

While I believe that most of the writers are sincere, sincerity is not a marker of truth.  I do not have good biblical reasons to believe these books (and others like them) reveal consistently true knowledge of heaven or hell. You may well find them inspiring or encouraging, but I urge you not rely on them to form your view about the life that awaits us after this one.


  1. I have a couple questions/comments. It seems that Paul didn't actually refuse to comment about being caught up to Paradise but was not 'permitted' to tell. Possibly the same with Lazarus. Daniel also wasn't allowed to reveal all he knew but was instructed to seal it up until the time of the end for it concerns the distant future. So I see the precedent of not telling yet possibly revealed in the future. Why do you say: John’s apocalyptic vision in Revelation is a highly symbolic vision (not a visit) expressed with the language of golden streets and pearly gates. It’s not meant to be literal ....? And what do you think the point of Heaven is?

  2. Good observations and questions, Brenda. I'm not sure there is a huge distinction between "not permitted" and refused to comment; nonetheless, I appreciate your distinction. I could rephrase my post to say that there is no biblical precedent for being given permission to recount the experiences. Daniel's vision was about the distant future; as far as I am aware, the recent heavenly tourism books are not seeking to offer that kind of insight, so I don't think the analogy is close enough to draw conclusions from.

    As for Revelation, I know there are differences of opinion in Christian circles about how to understand Revelation and other apocalyptic sections of Scripture. I would point you to what I consider to be a good intro: Bible Gateway's article, "Apocalyptic Literature," at

  3. Thank you for the article. I have it open and will check it out. I am not as interested in defending a position as in knowing the truth, if you know what I mean! Especially since I don't consider myself a Bible scholar!

    I wasn't trying to make an analogy between the sited Bible stories and the recent NDE books. My comment was directed at your conclusions of those incidents. Just because they didn't share doesn't mean there was nothing to share in those Bible accounts, and I like your rephrased wording because the distinction to me is huge. If that makes any sense :)

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