I've been hoping that the hoopla surrounding this book and so many of the other "died and went to heaven and came back" books would end. And then I went to the theater over the holidays and saw previews for the upcoming movie based on Heaven Is for Real. So before you ask if I am going to see the movie, let me just tell you—no, I'm not.
Do These Books Encourage Genuine Faith?
People sometimes say these stories encouraged their faith or the faith of someone they know. But I think they actually diminish biblical faith by elevating claims of a supernatural experience over the substance of the Scriptures. Most of these claims of seeing into heaven focus on earthbound concerns and stunted human desires that lack what the Bible describes as the heart of heaven—the glory of God, the Lamb who was slain, on the throne of the universe. In embracing these stories we're saying the Bible is simply not enough, that someone's mystical experience is needed to verify or "make real" what God has said. But saving faith is putting all our hopes in who God is and what God has said as revealed in the Bible. It is being confident of what we can't see (John 20:29; Hebrews 11:1), not being convinced by something someone else supposedly saw.
Interestingly, Jesus himself spoke of the uselessness of such testimony for generating genuine faith. Jesus told a story about a rich man in the place of the dead who calls out to "Father Abraham" to go and warn his brothers so they will not end up in the place of torment (Luke 16:19-31). The rich man wants someone who has died and gone to heaven to come back to life and tell about his experience so that his family members will believe what the Scriptures teach about the consequences of failing to become united to Christ by faith.
In Jesus' story Father Abraham says, "If they won't listen to Moses and the prophets, (meaning, if they won't believe what the Bible says) they won't listen even if someone rises from the dead." Jesus is saying that everything we need to put our faith in the promises of God, everything we need to find comfort and hope regarding the life beyond this life, can be found in the Scriptures.
Testimonies You Can Trust
There are only five testimonies of seeing into the realities of heaven that we are obligated to believe. These testimonies clearly develop rather than diminish biblical faith. There is Isaiah, who saw the Lord high and lifted up, seated on a throne (Isaiah 6); Ezekiel, who was given a vision of the future new heavens and new earth that he describes as garden-like city in the shape of a temple called The Lord Is There (Ezekiel 40-48); Stephen, who, before he was stoned by the people of Jerusalem "gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God and said, 'Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God'" (Acts 7:55-56); John, who saw the risen and glorified Jesus seated on the throne of the universe being worshiped by all the people of the earth, all the creatures of the earth, and all the angels of heaven (Revelation 1, 4); and the apostle Paul, who was caught up into the third heaven and "heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter" (2 Cor. 12:1-7). Isn't it interesting that Paul, who wrote most of the New Testament, did not include details about what he saw in his personal guided tour of heaven and said, in fact, that it should not be talked about?
None of these witnesses claims to have died and come back to life. None of these testimonies focuses on meetings with other people who have died. These witnesses are clearly captivated by God alone. We read that they fell on their faces as their eyes beheld the glory of God radiating from his being.
Of course, the Bible does tell us about some people who died and came back to life. Yet it doesn't see fit to record their testimony about the experience. Evidently it just isn't worthy of being presented to us as a foundation for faith. If it were, wouldn't there be a book of Lazarus in which he gives us a run-down on those four days in the grave before Jesus called him back to life (John 11)? Matthew tells us that when Jesus died, "many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised" (Matt. 27:52). Amazingly that's all we're told. If the testimonies of those who have died and gone to heaven and come back to life provided something of value to help us to put our faith in the promises of God, wouldn't the Gospels contain their testimonies?
How We Really Know Heaven Is Real
The question really isn't about whether or not a 4-year-old's description of heaven lines up with what the Scriptures teach. The question is whether or not we really believe that God in his Word "has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence (2 Peter 1:3). Admittedly the Bible does not provide as much detail about what awaits us beyond this life as some of us might like. It does tell us four significant things:
1. We will be with Christ (Luke 23:42-43, Phil 1:21-23).
2. It will be far better than life on this earth (Phil 1:21-23).
3. We will be away from the body (2 Corinthians 5:6-8).
4. Our spirits will be made perfect—completely cleansed of sin (Hebrews 12:22-23).
Since we know that to be at home with the Lord is to be away from the body, when one of these books describes physical bodies in heaven that are healed and whole, we know instantly that it is not a genuine account of the current realities of heaven. One day the physical bodies of those who are united to Christ will be healed and whole like the body of the risen Christ (1 Corinthians 15:22-23; 1 John 3:2). But that will not be until the day Christ returns and makes all things new. Right now "we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body (Philippians 3:20-21).
Until then, we do not need the testimony of an impressionable 4-year-old boy, a neurosurgeon, spine surgeon, sports writer, or even a pastor to know that heaven is real. We have everything we need in the Bible. Its testimony is enough to generate genuine faith in Christ, as well as a greater longing for unending life in his presence.