This past weekend (July 10), we examined Revelation 21 and the vision of heaven (in particular, the new heaven and the new earth) the Apostle John received as a way to correct misperceptions that people (both kids and adults) have about heaven, including what it is like and how to get there. If you haven’t had a chance to listen to it, would encourage you to find the video or listen to the message as I found it to be very clear and illuminating.
A church member recently asked me for some thoughts on visions of heaven that some people experience when they are near-death (and then came back to life) — at times these are put into books and made into movies. I thought it would be good to share these thoughts more widely in light of the nature of the message this week. In sum, I always look at them through the lens of the Bible, thankful where they agree with Scripture, concerned where they are different, and cautious where they go beyond what we can find in Scripture. I am also cautious because of stories like this one of how a book about a person who died and came back was a story that was made up. Finally, I am cautious because I know that my memory and perception of things are not always right or true to reality (just ask my wife!).
Just as there is a danger in focusing on the presence of loved ones in heaven (which can be true when they are in Christ) or being released from the sufferings of the world in heaven (which is true and awesome) in that focusing on these things can cloud out the primary picture that the amazing truth and reason for everything else is that God is there (the focus is on “who is there”), so there can be a danger of focusing too much on these visions that take us away from Scripture, the only true and perfect authority that we have. The Scriptures themselves seem alert to that danger, as we have some visions of heaven (like John’s, or those found in Isaiah) but also many that do not go into details about experience. We never find Lazarus giving a testimony when he comes back from the dead about what he experienced in those days while his body filled the tomb (maybe he did talk about it, but we have no record of it). We also see Paul talking about someone who went to the “third heaven” — this is probably himself, some think it was when he was almost stoned to death in the book of Acts (see Acts 14:19) but we can’t be sure of the occasion — but Paul says he is not sure if it was in body or out of body and that he is not going to boast about this or talk about it! He downplays it and draws attention back to the word. The Apostle Peter seems to also remind us of the importance of the Word when he talks about his experience in seeing Jesus “transfigured” in a display of his glory (see Matthew 17), as Peter talks about this experience and then says “And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:1:19-21).
Again, I am not saying that these visions were not genuine — just that we need to be careful to make sure that we are drawn back to Scripture, not away, as we know that Scripture is never confused or false; we have a guide in Scripture that we need to look at more often. We have visions and teachings on heaven in Scripture that we need to listen to be comforted by — we can be assured that these are true.
If you are interested in a book that looks more at what the Bible tells us about heaven, one cited by many of our pastors this week is Anne Graham Lotz’s Heaven. Another good resource is Randy Alcorn’s Heaven, as Alcorn seeks to explore what the Bible says, tries to make sure that he is faithful to Scripture (having made revisions and corrections in light of deeper study of Scripture), and admits when he is speculating and going beyond Scripture. I don’t necessarily agree with every point that Alcorn might make, but that comes from close examination of Scripture, which points us upward to our heavenly home. Close examinations hopefully make readings of the “heavenly vision” stories more powerful, as you can affirm what Scripture teaches in deeper ways.
May we be distracted by heaven and the visions we have of it as we live in this world this week.
Questions about Bible or theology, e-mail them to Pastor Brian atTheology@wearefaith.org. You can also subscribe to the blog and get its weekly updates by clicking here and filling out the info on the right side.