Heaven is for Real and I don’t need a 4-year old to tell me

Full disclosure before you read: I have not read or seen Heaven is for Real, and I probably will not in the future.

Today, the feature film Heaven is for Real hits theaters across the country and it will, no doubt, make a box-office splash. The film is based on the book of the same title—a book which is the #1 selling so-called “Christian” book of the past decade. Everyone, including Evangelicals, are going ga-ga over this movie. “Finally,” some think, “something’s gaining traction that shows heaven and God are real!”

No, it is not evidence. This is not good for the church or the culture.

Heaven is for Real (and books and movies like it) are not helpful. They are harmful and discourage people from trusting God’s word in Scripture. Now, hear me on this: I am not saying that these people know they are portraying a fanciful account as reality. They very well may have seen or experienced something. I can’t say one way or the other on that. But what I do know is that they have not died and been to (the real) heaven (or hell) and come back to tell about it.

How can I say this?! Isn’t their experience valid? Who could deny an experience? If Christians are going to uphold the authority and sufficiency of Scripture, then we must validate our experiences based on Scripture, not validate Scripture (or add to it) based on our experience. Scripture is an objective standard outside of me. Everything must be judged by it, not the other way around.

The question is then, does the Bible have anything to say about this? There’s not much, honestly, about near death experiences and trips to heaven, but what it does say is incredibly insightful. Let’s start with the Man who came from heaven.

Jesus said, “If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man” (John 3:12-13). Jesus is speaking with Nicodemus, describing what it means to be born again, and he uses an earthly illustration to describe a heavenly reality (i.e. the work of the Spirit in the new birth is like wind, which you can’t see or hear). But Nicodemus doesn’t get it. In saying, “No one has ascended into heaven…,” Jesus’ point is that while Nicodemus doesn’t comprehend heavenly things, Jesus does, because he has a unique qualification to speak on heaven. Theologian D.A. Carson comments, “Jesus insists that no-one has ascended to heaven in such a way as to return to talk about heavenly things…But Jesus can speak of heavenly things, not because he ascended to heaven from a home on earth and then descended to tell others of his experiences, but because heaven was his home in the first place” (The Gospel According to John, 200-201). Jesus has authority to talk about heaven. We do not.

There’s another place where Jesus speaks to this issue. In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31, he says that the testimony of people who have come back from the dead is useless. In the parable, the rich man begged Abraham to send the deceased Lazarus to his family’s house, for he reasoned, “If someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent” (v. 30). But Abraham responded, “If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead” (v. 31). This is an secondary point in Jesus’ parable, but it’s still a point: if someone neglects the testimony of the prophets in Scripture, then the testimony of a dead man is pointless.

In the rest of the Bible, there are only four men who were given glimpses of heaven: two prophets, Isaiah, Ezekiel, and two apostles, Paul and John. Here’s a glance at what they saw and heard:

  • Isaiah sees the Lord on his throne, hears a voice that shook “the foundations of the thresholds” (Is. 1:4), and his conclusion is, “Woe is me! For I am lost!” (Is. 6:1-7). (John later notes in his Gospel that Isaiah saw Jesus’ glory; see John 12:41).
  • Ezekiel sees a vision of heaven (Ezek. 1:1), and sees “awe-inspiring crystal” (1:22) and fire and brightness all around (1:27), and he hears the terrible “sound of the Almighty, a sound of tumult like the sound of an army” (1:24). He concludes, “Such was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the LORD” (1:28b).
  • Paul is given a glimpse of heaven in a vision and he uses massive space to tell of it—three verses (2 Cor. 12:2-4). Hesitating to boast of his experience, he writes in third person: “And he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter” (12:4). Paul later says, “To keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited.” (Notice that Paul was given a messenger of Satan for humility, not a book and movie deal.)
  • John was “in the Spirit on the Lord’s day” (Rev. 1:10) and upon seeing Jesus he “fell at his feet as though dead” (1:17). In chapters 4-6, John sees a vision of Jesus on the throne, and all he sees and hears is glorious singing to the One who lives forever and ever (4:8-11; 5:9-14). John’s vision is radically centered on Christ, the Lamb who was slain and is now “worthy to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing” (5:5-6, 12).

There is extreme consistency in these accounts, and several similar themes arise. Let me mention four main themes. First, each of these men saw visions of heaven. They did not have near death experiences in which they went to heaven and were brought back to earth. (Sidebar: One could argue that for God to actually take someone to heaven (as in a near death experience) and then send them back to earth would be quite a cruel thing.) Second, these men labor to describe what they saw—Ezekiel and John reach to the boundaries of their vocabulary to paint the scene; Isaiah and Paul labor in that they are nearly left speechless (Paul, as I mentioned, is essentially told not to say anything about what he saw). Third, each of them express a sober and appropriate sense of awe, fear, and unworthiness because of the vision. Fourth, they are all fixated on God’s glory, holiness, or majesty—not family members, beautiful landscapes, or other incidentals. As John points out at the end of the Bible story, Jesus and his glory is the main focus. Heaven is, to be sure, Christocentric. If it weren’t, then it would not be heaven.

Books and films about near death experiences and trips to heaven are nothing like these visions. In fact, as one author noted, the books themselves do not even agree with each other on the details of heaven. These type of stories fail to draw people into adoring the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. Instead, they draw people into conjecture, speculation, and exalting subjective experience and away from trusting the Scriptures. If you want to know if heaven is for real, then put down the popular book you picked up at the bookstore and read what God has written in his word. Heaven is real, and it is glorious—much more glorious than any so-called near death experience makes it out to be.

In the next few days, I hope to write a follow-up post about how the Bible describes heaven and, more importantly, how we can know if we are going there.

Review: The Third Day

Alex Webb-Peploe and André Parker. The Third Day: The Gospel of Luke Chapters 22-24. Surrey, UK: The Good Book Company, 2014. $6.29 (Amazon). 44 pp.

Teenagers and young adults read. Physics, chemistry, history, The Grapes of Wrath, economics. You name it. They are told to read it. And, for the most part, they do read (if they want to graduate high school or college!).  Academic reading is a pathway to adulthood. You just have to do it.

So if you have ever ministered to students, then you know it is a challenge to get them to read the Bible, much less enjoy it. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard a student (high school or college) say to me, “I don’t have time to read the Bible because I have so much homework and I have to read x-amount of pages before Friday.” I get it. I use to be there. But we can’t be content this. If you don’t read your American history textbook, you may be clueless about the Boston Tea Party. If you don’t read your Genesis or Romans, you will be clueless about matters of eternal significance.

So the question comes up, “How do we get young people to read the Bible?” My answer is that we must start small and do our best to make the Bible exciting, compelling, dramatic, yet at the same time faithfully represent of the actual words of God. For many of us, we immediately think that this applies to teaching the Bible with words (in youth group, summer camps, etc.). That is good and helpful, but what if it meant actually illustrating the Bible graphically? You know, providing some teeth to the biblical story in a way that might resonate with a teen. Alex Webb-Peploe and André Parker have done just that with a new graphic novel titled The Third Day.

The Third Day is, what the authors call, a “graphic realization” of the Bible. It’s not a “comic book” (read here to learn the difference). The book tells the story of Luke 22-24, which traces Jesus’ last hours before his crucifixion and resurrection. The story begins with Judas’ deal to betray Jesus and ends, as the Gospel of Luke does, with Jesus’ resurrection and ascension. The novel uses the complete text of Luke 22-24 from the Holman Christian Standard Bible. No one can argue that the book is a compromise of the Holy Scriptures because it used the “worldly medium” of graphic novel. The words are the exact words Luke wrote down, only beautifully represented with graphics.

Now about that graphic representation. It’s superb. It’s gritty, raw, and dark—far removed from the sanitized representations in Sunday School material or Hollywood movies. Jesus and his disciples look like the rag-tag bunch the Gospels make them out to be. The scenes, most prominently people’s faces, draw out the pain, anger, heartache, fear, brokenness, sadness, and unspeakable joy of Luke’s tone. The Third Day brings the Passion narrative to life with a punch. It’s a refreshing reminder that the gospel, though timeless, actually happened in a specific historic context at a certain point in time.

One particular scene that was helpful for me was after Jesus shared the Passover meal and the disciples argued about who is the greatest. The authors depicted the “dispute that arose among them” as a physical confrontation, in which one disciple grabs the shirt of another (imagine grabbing someone to throw them up against the wall) as they stand nose-to-nose (see the first image below.). In the West a “dispute” is usually done across a boardroom table with a Starbucks in hand. I can’t know if the art represents reality, but it makes me stop, think, and reconsider my assumptions of the text. That’s what good art, not to mention preaching and teaching, is supposed to do.

I highly recommend The Third Day for young people who find the story of Jesus (or the church’s modern re-telling of it) boring, uninspiring, or unrealistic. If you’re a parent or a youth minister, get a copy (or many copies) and give them away. My hope is that God will use this graphic novel, and others like it, to help young people to take Scriptures and the gospel story within it seriously.

Here are a few sample pages (click to enlarge).

You Can’t “Live” the Gospel

You have probably been encouraged to “live the gospel” by a pastor or teacher or another Christian. The truth is, you can’t live the gospel, because it’s already been lived for you. Graeme Goldsworthy states:

If something is not what God did in and through the historical Jesus two thousand years ago, it is not the gospel. Thus Christians cannot ‘live the gospel’, as they are often exhorted to do. They can only believe it, proclaim it and seek to live consistently with it. Only Jesus lived (and died) the gospel. It is a once-for-all finished and perfect event done for us by another (Gospel-Centered Hermeneutics, 59).

Perhaps one of the best places to go in Scripture to see what Goldsworthy refers to is in Galatians 2:14. Paul writes about Peter’s hypocrisy, saying, “I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel.” Paul didn’t say, “Peter and the brothers were not living the gospel,” but that their conduct was not in step with it. It would be better for us to say this or, as Goldsworthy wrote, to seek to “live consistently with” the gospel. I often pray that I and others would live a “gospel-shaped life.”

You might think this is semantics or some kind of linguistic snobbery, but it’s not. If we want to be a “good news” people (and we all can be, no matter what tradition or denominational allegiance), then we must be absolutely clear about what the good news is and what it is not.

Was John Calvin a Heretic-Burning Maniac?

John Calvin is often black-eyed because of his aggressive, sometimes virulent personality. Even the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church claims that “Calvin was the ‘cruel’ and ‘the unopposed dictator of Geneva.’” Bruce Gordon, a Calvin biographer, states that Calvin knew how to manipulate relationships, intimidate, bully, and humiliate. In other words, he was a normal human being like you and me. Calvin seemed to be aware that his character hindered his ministry as in many of his writings he confessed and lamented his sinfulness.

For many of Calvin’s critics the infamous “Servetus affair” defines his posthumous reputation. Michael Servetus was a theologian who taught doctrines contrary to the historic Christian faith in Geneva, the city where Calvin ministered. He was arrested in August 1553 for denying the Trinity and that Christ was the eternal Son of God. He was executed two months later when he was burned at the stake. To Calvin, Servetus was outside the circle of orthodoxy, for Servetus publicly denied the essentials of the faith and encouraged people to embrace his doctrines. Calvin was zealous for God’s reputation and did play a role in Servetus’s execution. Therefore, many think that John Calvin was racing around Switzerland and all of Europe hunting down heretics. Even more, many Christians categorically dismiss the doctrines Calvin taught because of this perception.

Before assuming Calvin was a heretic-burning maniac and dismissing his teachings, consider these points:

  1. People were often executed in Calvin’s day to maintain public order, and heresy was a capital offense. Because of the inherent connection between church and state, anyone who disturbed the peace could be branded as a revolutionary who may do harm to the common good.
  2. Calvin did not oppose Servetus because he was an Arminian. In fact, Servetus was not an Arminian, but a Pelagian (he denied original sin), a Modalist (he denied the Trinity), and a Pantheist (he rejected the fundamental distinction between Creator and creation). Calvin did not oppose people who disagreed with his theological system. For example, he agreeably disagreed with the likes of John Knox over the English prayer book controversy. In reality, Calvin only opposed people who opposed the gospel.
  3. Servetus was the only person put to death for religious opinions during Calvin’s time in Geneva, even though executions for heresy were common elsewhere. Alister McGrath, a historian and Calvin biographer, states that Calvin acted more as a technical advisor or expert witness, rather than prosecutor. Additionally, the great historian Roland Bainton notes that Geneva’s prosecutor was a noted enemy of Calvin and acted independently of Calvin in Servetus’s trial.
  4. Though this may count for little in some eyes, Calvin asked that Servetus receive a more humane execution of beheading rather than being burned at the stake. Calvin’s request was denied.

In Calvin’s zeal to protect his flock, he often lacked mercy and grace, as was most certainly the case with Servetus. We must not, however, envision that if Calvin were alive today he would be seeking out heretics to roast. At the same time, we know that Calvin was not an innocent bystander in this situation; yet his legacy is not in jeopardy because of Servetus’s death. Let us remember that Calvin failed us, and not just in the Servetus affair. Like the great men and women of the faith who went before him and came after, Calvin’s virtue lies in pointing us beyond himself to the only One who never failed us and never lacked mercy and grace. Like you and me, Calvin was a great sinner in need of a great Savior.