Visits to Heaven and Hell, Part One

By Alan Gomes Jan. 27, 2015 9:00 a.m. Culture, New Testament, Theology, Historical Theology

[Author’s Note: This blog post is an excerpt from my forthcoming 40 Questions About Heaven and Hell. This book is part of Kregel Publisher’s “40 Questions” series, edited by Benjamin L. Merkle. Besides the issue treated in this blog post, my book will also deal with questions such as: Does the soul or spirit survive the death of the body? How could a God of love send people to an eternal hell? What is heaven like? What about infants who die? Are there animals in heaven? What are the new heavens and the new earth? How can we be happy in heaven if our unsaved loved ones are not there? And what will the resurrection body be like? Other books in this series cover interpreting the Bible; creation and evolution; elders and deacons; end times; Christians and biblical law; the historical Jesus; baptism and the Lord’s supper; predestination and atonement; divorce and remarriage; salvation; and the text and canon of the New Testament.]


What About Those Who Claim to Have Seen Heaven or Hell?

"This story will “make you love God more and fear death less.”

“It will make earth more meaningful and the future more hopeful.”

“A beautifully written glimpse into heaven that will encourage those who doubt and thrill those who believe.”

"This account “could have been in the New Testament—but God has chosen to speak to us in this twenty-first century through the unblemished eyes of a child, revealing some of the mysteries of heaven….The truth [is] astonishing, creating a hunger for more.”

So read the breathless publicity blurbs for the New York Times #1 bestseller Heaven is for Real, which recounts the story of three-year-old Colton Burpo’s purported near-death transport to heaven. The book, recently released as a movie, regales us with full Technicolor details of heaven’s amazing sights and sounds. It treats us to vivid descriptions of myriad winged children and adults flying about the heavenly expanse—though a wingless Jesus “just went up and down like an elevator.” We encounter animals of every kind: dogs, birds, friendly lions, and especially Jesus’ rainbow colored horse. We find also swashbuckling angels brandishing swords, keeping Satan and his minions at bay. And Jesus also revealed to little Colton heretofore unknown details about the coming battle of Armageddon, “which is going to destroy this world.” To his father’s astonishment, Colton says of this battle, “But the men, they had to fight. And Dad, I watched you. You have to fight too.”[1]

And then we have real estate agent Bill Wiese and his unexpected journey to hell. Wiese sets before us hell’s lurid particulars, including hideous, reptile-like yet semi-human looking demons who claw his flesh; fetid fumes and a suffocating, overpowering stench; and the piteous wails of the damned as they roast helplessly in a massive fiery pit.

What should we make of these stories? Should they form a basis for our faith? Might they supplement or enhance the convictions that we already have? How do we evaluate such claims and what is their practical use even if true?

Different Types of Accounts

Sometimes purported experiences of heaven or hell occur in the context of a so-called “near death experience” or NDE.[2] In such accounts individuals typically experience “death” in a “clinical” sense, whether through a car crash, heart attack, or some other physically traumatic event. Such individuals are “dead” in the sense that they experience a cessation of certain vital biological functions, such as cardiac or brain activity. The accounts of Don Piper (90 Minutes in Heaven) and Betty Eadie (author of the New York Times best seller Embraced by the Light) are of this sort. These contrast with Colton Burpo (Heaven is for Real) who, though seriously ill, never ceased breathing nor had his heart stop.

Others claim to have had visions of heaven or hell quite apart from any physical trauma. The famous scientist, philosopher, and mystic Emmanuel Swedenborg (1668-1772), who detailed his visions in his book Heaven and Hell, falls into this category. The same is true for Bill Weise, who claimed that he was unexpectedly transported to hell one morning simply while lying in bed.

The goal of this chapter is to establish principles for evaluating any such experiences, regardless of what may have precipitated them. It does not matter whether the claimant was “clinically dead,” “all dead,” “mostly dead,” or simply snoozing on the couch. Nor does it matter whether they claim a literal transport to heaven or hell, or merely to have had a vision. The same principles of evaluation will apply.

Principles for Evaluating These Claims

Here are some of the principles that should guide us:

  1. The Bible is the only absolutely reliable guide for truth about the afterlife.
  2. We must reject any alleged experience of heaven or hell that contradicts the Bible.
  3. Consistency with the Bible is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for accepting such a story.
  4. A look at the biblical authors who gave (or withheld) information about the afterlife suggests the default pattern that we should expect to see.
  5. When presented with such stories we must give due consideration to alternative explanations.

The Bible is the Only Absolutely Reliable Guide

As we set forth in Question 3,[3] the Bible is the only absolutely reliable and trustworthy source for Christian doctrine generally and for information about the afterlife specifically.

Recently I was talking to a lady about this book, which I was halfway through writing at the time. She related that she herself had received some kind of dream or vision of hell. She then asked me: “How can you possibly write anything about hell when you haven’t actually seen it first hand?”

Good question! I replied that I am able to write about heaven and hell because the Scriptures give us completely true information about these realities. I also shared my conviction that the Bible is the only unquestionably reliable guide in such matters.

Any Experience Contradicting Scripture Must Be Rejected

Since God is a God of truth, and because truth cannot contradict itself, we must reject any claims about the afterlife that contradict the Bible.

We can immediately dismiss visions or purported journeys to heaven and hell offered by occultists such as Betty Eadie or Emmanuel Swedenborg, since these invariably present information that opposes the Bible. For example, in Eadie’s incredibly popular Embraced by the Light, she dishes up New Age as well as Latter-day Saint (Mormon) teaching that Jesus supposedly communicated to her during her heavenly sojourn.[4] Since such teachings directly deny the Bible, we can reject her claims without further consideration.

Consider also Colton Burpo’s account in Heaven is for Real. Most of the fanciful extra-biblical details do not contradict Scripture as such. For example, Colton claims that he saw Jesus riding a rainbow-colored horse—a statement that doesn’t contradict the Bible, but one about which the Bible is silent. However, other statements in his account do run afoul of biblical teaching. For example, Colton declared the following concerning his deceased grandfather, whom he claimed to see in heaven: “He’s in heaven. He’s got a new body. Jesus told me if you don’t go to heaven, you don’t get a new body.”[5] Jesus did not tell him this because it is false. We do not receive our new bodies in heaven; heaven is a bodiless state, not an embodied one (see Question 7).[6] Rather, we will receive our new, glorified bodies at the resurrection, which we will enjoy for all eternity on a newly renovated earth (see Question 24). Furthermore, as noted above, Colton provided the interesting detail that he saw his father, Todd Burpo, fighting on God’s side during the battle of Armageddon, which takes place at the end of the age.[7] This is improbable in the extreme and certainly will be falsified if (when) Mr. Burpo dies before this great and terrible battle takes place.

Consistency with Scripture is Necessary but Not Sufficient

How should we evaluate accounts that do not contradict the Bible but either repeat information that is found in the Bible or at least present descriptions that are compatible with it?

Here we need to distinguish between a necessary condition for accepting a claim as opposed to a sufficient one. While agreement with the Bible is necessary, it does not follow that we should automatically accept a biblically compatible account.

Consider the following illustration. I drive a 2003 Toyota Tacoma pickup truck. Let’s say that I announced to my students during class, “Guess what! God just transformed my pickup truck and reassembled the parts into a brand new Mercedes and it’s out there in the parking lot! Take a look.” The students rush to the window and see a brand new Mercedes-Benz GT coupe parked in one of the faculty parking spaces. Figuring that I must be playing a joke on them, they groan in disbelief. Now, what if I were to chide them by saying, “What’s the matter, O ye of little faith! Don’t you believe that God is omnipotent? Is anything too hard for God to do (Jer. 32:17)? What I’m telling you is entirely consistent with Scripture!”

Have I given my students sufficient reason to accept my claim? Certainly not! While I hope that my students would grant that God could do such a thing—God is, after all, omnipotent—I would also hope that they would not accept my assertion uncritically but would consider any number of alternative explanations to account for that Mercedes. Perhaps I was playing a joke on them (something that I am known to do). Maybe I truly believed my story but was sincerely confused because I accidentally took too much cold medication. Regardless, the burden of proof would be on me to demonstrate my claim—assuming that I could even demonstrate such a thing—and not on them to disprove it.

 

This is the first post in a two part series; Part Two will go into details about the default pattern one finds in biblical visions of heaven, as well as modern-day accounts of visits to and visions of heaven and hell, even granting their possibility.

 

[1] Todd Burpo with Lynn Vincent, Heaven is for Real (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2010), 72, 136-139.

[2] For an excellent investigation of NDEs see Richard Abanes, Journey into the Light (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996). Abanes takes the view that these experiences do not provide objective information about the afterlife. For a contrary view see the work by Christian philosophers J. P. Moreland and Gary Habermas, Immortality: The Other Side of Death (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1992), chapters 5 and 6. Moreland and Habermas do believe that some NDEs furnish objective evidentiary value in demonstrating life after death and the reality of the soul. At the same time, they do not believe that NDEs can “be used to describe (or interpret) details concerning heaven or hell” (93).

[3] I.e., in my forthcoming 40 Questions About Heaven and Hell (Kregel Publishers).

[4] See Richard Abanes, Embraced by the Light and the Bible (Camp Hill, PA: Horizon, 1994).

[5] Burpo, 136.

[6] Again, in my forthcoming 40 Questions About Heaven and Hell.

[7] Burpo, 136-139. “Colton was describing the battle of Armageddon and saying I was going to fight in it” (139).

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