Heaven (and hell) are again a topic of interest to many, due to the significant popularity of books and movies like Heaven is for Real, 23 Minutes in Hell, and 90 Minutes in Heaven. As Christians, how should we think about these popular accounts that narrate experiences of the afterlife?
I was recently asked a question like this via email, and have included my (only slightly edited) response below. I'm sure there's more to be said (that's what the comments are for!), but here's the "shoot from the hip" response I offered:
Tough (and good!) question. I'm hesitant to put a lot of weight on these "to heaven and back" stories.
I don't want to disparage the authors or guess at their motives; I want to be gracious in the way I approach these books and what they're trying to say. At the same time, I want to point people to a couple of examples in the Bible where people experienced death or near death experiences:
What's interesting about both of these cases is that neither Lazarus nor Paul came back and had a ton to say about their experience. In terms of what we have recorded, Lazarus didn't come back and start sharing everything about his experience of the afterlife. Even as Paul talks about being caught up to "paradise" in 2 Corinthians 12, he says he heard "inexpressible" things that one is "not permitted to tell."
The hesitancy of these inspired authors to narrate their afterlife experiences reinforces my hesitation to put too much weight on others' experiences.
On a related note (and probably the bottom line): We never want to listen so much to these recent best-sellers and box-office surprises that we stop searching Scripture to see what God HAS decided to tell us (through His Word) about the afterlife. If people want to read Heaven is For Real or 23 Minutes in Hell or whatever, I'm not going to stop them. I've read Heaven is for Real myself.
But if or as we read these books, here's what we need to be doing. We need to make sure we're searching Scripture as diligently as we're reading some of these other popular books, and looking to Scripture as our ultimate source of truth. I'm concerned that too often these popular books on the afterlife can perhaps distract us from what Scripture says (and chooses not to say), rather than drive us into Scripture for truth on these matters.
Here are a couple of recent articles that relate to this topic as well, in case you want to dig in further:
Hope that helps!
What's helpful in the way I fielded this question? What's missing? Let me know your thoughts here!
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