Selling Heaven

Thomas Nelson – the world’s biggest publisher of religious books — now belongs to the secular publishing house, HarperCollins.[1] If you look at the spine of your Bible, you will likely see the Nelson name.

One of Nelson’s titles, Heaven is for Real, is on the New York Times non-fiction bestseller list. On, Real is the top seller in their “Christian Theology” section.

In fact, as of writing, 9 out of 20 books are about heaven.[2] One is a straight ahead attempt at saying what heaven is like. Two (from Rob Bell) suggest that everybody is going to heaven. The six remaining titles represent three allegedly true stories (in various formats) of people who went to heaven and came back again.

In some respects, these stories resemble the Near Death Experiences that people used to talk about in the heyday of the New Age movement. But these go beyond the typical NDE story: it’s not just a case of seeing the light, or Jesus opening His arms, but of spending time in heaven.

Trust Me, I Was There?

Heaven is for Real (2010)

  • This is meant to be the true-life story of a 4 year old boy who went into surgery for an appendectomy and then, after surgery, had all sorts of amazing tales to tell about heaven.
  • His accounts are compelling, so we are led to believe, because they reveal all sorts of information about heaven that a 4 year old couldn’t possibly know unless he had actually been there.

The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven (2010)

  • This is a story of a 6 year old boy who went into a coma following a car accident.
  • When he woke up two months later, he told his parents that the angels had taken him to the gates of heaven, and he talked to Jesus.
  • He related events at the accident scene and in the hospital while he was in a coma – events, allegedly, that he could know nothing about unless he saw them in heaven.

90 Minutes in Heaven (2004)

  • A Baptist preacher was in a serious car accident, declared dead at the scene, and allegedly spent 90 minutes in heaven.
  • Another Baptist preacher was passing by, stopped to pray, and the guy miraculously came back to life.

Quick Response

1.    Is it possible to die, experience something of the afterlife, and return to tell the tale?

  • Absolutely. This is exactly what happened during the New Testament times. We know that Paradise is the next step for those who are found righteous in God’s sight (Luke 23:43). In addition, John the Apostle paints a highly symbolic picture of the spiritual world that awaits us. In one scene, we are shown the souls of martyred saints under the altar (Rev. 6:9-11). They are clearly conscious, so we know that souls can experience the afterlife (i.e., they are not soul sleeping).
  • Second, Jesus brought Lazarus (John 11) and the son of the widow of Nain (Luke 7) back to life, and the resurrection of Christ is the ultimate example of life after death (1 Cor. 15). So we know that it is possible to be dead, and live again. And yet, nothing is said about their experiences in Paradise. The message of Jesus’ miracles and His resurrection are much more important than sensationalist stories of afterlife experiences.
  • Paul in 2 Cor. 12:2 talks about a man who “was caught up into Paradise and heard inexpressible words” (vs. 4). In the context of this passage, Paul is talking about the significance of prophetic visions (vs. 1). Again, it is significant that neither this man nor Paul dwelt on their experiences. In fact, the man heard things he was not permitted to speak about (vs. 4).
  • The bottom line: Yes, we find people dying and coming back to life in Scripture. We can infer that they experienced the afterlife but, in contrast to the above books, their stories of the afterlife are notably absent.

2.    That was back in the days of miracles. What about today?

  • Even if the stories in these bestselling books were true, what more can they tell us that we do not already know? We know already that there is a heaven to gain and a hell to lose. Jesus told His disciples in John 14:2 that He was going to prepare many mansions. That promise is backed up by His life, teaching, works, and resurrection. Why do we need the testimony of a preacher or a young boy, when we already have the testimony of Christ and His apostles?
  • If these stories are trying to tell us something new, then they are vulnerable to the warning issued in Gal. 1:8 – “Even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed.” In fact, there are claims in these books that are simply unbiblical, which brings the accounts into question.

3.   There is no independent corroboration for the claims in these books.

4.   Here is something else that we already know: “it is appointed for men to die once, and after this the judgment” (Heb. 9:27). This is the sobering truth that we need to hang our hats on.

Update: Interesting little post from Hunter Baker at Touchstone/Mere Comments.


[2] As of Nov. 1, 2011: Heaven is for Real (1 Kindle, 2 Paperback, 3 Hardcover) – NYT Nonfiction list: #2, 39 weeks on list; The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven (6 Kindle); Love Wins (8 Hardcover), Love Wins Companion (10 Paperback); Heaven (14 Hardcover); 90 Minutes in Heaven (13 Paperback, 17 Kindle).

© 2011 – 2012, Trevor Major. All rights reserved.

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