Colton Burpo, Bill Weise, Mary K. Baxter, Jesse Duplantiss, Rebecca Springer, what do all these names have in common? These people have fantastic accounts of visiting heaven (or hell.) My first real encounter with such stuff came as a teenager in secondary school, where a particular preacher brought all sorts of Christian literature to sell whenever he came to preach. This genre is described as “Heaven Tourism” and it is doing pretty well for itself.
Accounts of visits to heaven and hell have been around for ages but according to Tim Challies the person responsible for the modern revival of interest in America is Baptist preach Don Piper’s 90 minutes in Heaven in 2004. It was on the best seller list for five years and has sold over 6 million copies. In total the genre has sold over 20 million books and last year’s box office hit Heaven is for Real, based on young Colton Burpo’s account, made over a 100 million dollars. Don Piper’s best seller also has a movie adaption . Beyond the lucrative sub-industry this genre has created, people are very much invested in this. In the fellowship I was in trips to heaven, occasionally hell as well, became a popular fad with special services dedicated to “ministering” these visions. From time to time on Facebook you see people talk about visions where they saw certain popular preachers in hell because they didn’t greet their spouses in the morning. In spite of all the fervent activity and interest in the subject there is trouble in paradise.
Early last year, major American Christian publishers LifeWay pull down all books in the heaven tourism genre it was selling. This followed the much publicised admission by Alex Malarkey that his trip to heaven, recounted by his father Kevin in the runaway best seller The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven, was a complete fabrication. The whole phenomenon has had critics from John Piper to an amusing satire in The Onion. Beyond the scandal and controversy, the phenomenon and the theological response to it in the Christian community is what has really has caught my attention.
From biblical days throughout Church history Christians have been having such experiences. I am a believer that there are sincere accounts of heavenly visitations or even revelations of hell. My problem is with the whole phenomenon en masse and also the discussion surrounding it on both sides of the debate. All of them operate within the paradigm that the highest aim of the Christian is making it to heaven. We are so caught up in life after death, which more reflects our own theological concerns than the Bible’s, which is more interested in what happens after the afterlife. Critics and supporters alike, though claiming to defend their respective positions biblically, have equally failed to point this out.
I have heard of many trips to heaven and hell but I do not know of any person who has seen the new heavens and the new earth. N.T. Wright in his brilliant work The Resurrection of the Son of God showed that in the ancient world of the Bible resurrection meant life after life after death. The resurrection of Jesus according to the Bible was therefore the inauguration of a new creation, a new heavens and earth, just as it is seen in Revelation 21 and 22. Revelation is not about going to heaven but about heaven coming down on earth. If the Bible culminates in such a vision, which is God’s ultimate plan for the world, why is no one else seeing it?
This is not add odd bit of Christian theology. The resurrection is the central tenet of Christian faith upon which it stands or falls (1 Corinthians 15.) Every single book in the New Testament either assumes the resurrection or explicitly talks about it. Resurrection implies a new creation because in the old world death is a one way street. The resurrection of Jesus is not a mere resuscitation or reversal of death, it is the complete overthrow of it. The prophet writes, “O Death, where is your sting?” The resurrection is therefore a sign that God is going to restore the world anew.
The story in Genesis begins with a good God making a good world. This world falls into trouble through the disobedience of Adam. The fitting resolution of this plot is God restoring it to his original intent and making it even better. That is why the final scene in Revelation is a direct reference to Genesis 1:1, a new heavens and a new earth. Other ways of talking about this in the Bible are eternal life and the age to come which I discuss in more detail in another post. Now if this is the basic plot of the Bible why is that we are stuck on one scene, which is only temporary, and to be honest is not spoken about much in the Bible itself.
When you go through the entire Bible, the references about going to heaven after you die are very scanty. Many of the heaven tourism books are what you might call near death experiences (NDE.) Dr Gary Habermas has done some excellent work in that area. Even those that are not NDEs also point to or imply heaven is our future hope. The Jews, along with most of the ancient world, firmly believed in the afterlife or heaven or whatever you want to call it. Jewish beliefs concerning heaven and the afterlife, which are teased in the Bible (Revelation 6:9-11), differed from the world since they envisioned it as only a temporary resting place for the righteous dead. As with us heaven was real, perhaps even more so for them, but it was certainly not the end of the world. The believed in the great resurrection of the dead at the end of time spoken of in Daniel 12:1-3. Christian theology is derived from second Temple Judaism with some major differences: the death and the resurrection of the Messiah Jesus before the end of the age.
Beyond heaven tourism, the multitudes of contemporary visions and prophecies also lack any mention of the new creation. I fully grant that many of our modern seers have revelations regarding specific things that are happening in the present. Besides they are only shown what God wants to show them. However, can we really say God does not even want to reveal his ultimate plan to the global prophetic community? The way some of them go on about being so prophetic, their fixation on the old heavens is quite amazing, since God has said in both the Old and New Testaments many times that he is doing a new thing. Did they miss the heavenly memo or are they so anointed that the revelation just slipped by? I am not critiquing individual visions but the state of contemporary visionary experiences.
When I asked my friends the best answer they could give is that the Church is not ready yet to see such things. If we take that to mean God thinks we are ready then we have found that in the Bible the exact opposite is true. However, if we mean that as a Church we have somehow closed our eyes to true spirit-inspired theology, now that seems more plausible but it is a very disturbing thought indeed. Also if revelation is God’s prerogative, why hasn’t he broken through and told us the right thing? Is it possible we are somehow screening out God? Has he been prodding and poking us, pointing out the correct thing yet we have chosen to ignore him? I know God grants visions among other fantastic gifts. However, in 1 Corinthians when spiritual gifts are discussed they are understood to be pointers to a new creation. For me the main question is how come our visions seem to reflect us even though they are meant to be from God?
Perhaps there are no simple answers to this. One explanation I have considered is something I mention in Literally Metaphorical. Revelation is not a passive download of divinely given information into a person’s head. It is more complicated than that. From a critical realist stand point what the seer witnesses is influenced by his perception of it. Within apocalyptic visions there are sometimes interpreters who have to explain what is going on to the seer. This shows their personal opinions and biases are still intact. Since revelation is still a kind of knowledge I suggest there is relationship between the knower and the known. That is to say there is nothing within human experience which we know completely objectively but true knowledge is not totally subjective either. How we know things is somewhere in between.
Anyone who has studied human perception knows that it is a complicated thing that fascinates neuroscientists, psychologists and philosophers alike. For instance a brilliant author can convey the truth or a reality using a totally imaginary world. In that regard you cannot fault the author or the artist as a liar or mentally afflicted. The parables of Jesus are examples of truth conveyed through the imaginary. Some of the apocalyptic texts from second Temple Judaism may not have been actual visionary experiences but it does not make them any less valuable or even true. Even if we hear real accounts, their testimony is given to us through the filter of who they are as people and how well they are able to communicate what they saw. We see things through stained glass windows. Since there is some level of human input, it at least opens the avenue for a rather reduced and shrunken version of the truth as we have observed with these heavenly visions. Since we have brought human experience, cultural paradigms and worldviews are things that are known to shape esoteric experiences like visions.
These explanations are of course not comprehensive. They leave many things still unresolved and I personally struggle with the phenomenon. Though I know there are potentially plausible explanations for the general phenomenon, it gives me no comfort that sincere devout individuals don’t really grasp what our true hope is.