Jesus

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.

Ash Wednesday at Grace Chapel

Wednesday, March 5, is Ash Wednesday. This marks the beginning of Lent, the 40 day period before Easter (46 including Sundays). The word Lent comes from a Latin word meaning “spring,” which comes from an earlier Germanic word meaning “lengthen” or “long” (since the days get longer in spring). At Grace Chapel (a non-denominational, Protestant Evangelical church), we’re encouraging our congregation to observe this season—not to merit favor with God or even because it’s hip to be ancient. We want to take advantage of these valuable observances so we can dive deeper into the gospel. That’s it. It’s really all about Jesus.

Observing Ash Wednesday and Lent are not commanded in Scripture. Therefore, we’re free to observe them or not. However, there’s a few reasons you may want to consider observing them. Ash Wednesday and Lent can provide us the opportunity to:

  • Connect with the historical church. Our faith is not born in a vacuum. We aren’t the first of our kind. We have descended from a great community of faith which has gone before us, of which Ash Wednesday and Lent have been significant traditions.
  • Be confronted with reality of death and our need for Jesus. How often do you think about death? Ours is a death-averse culture, but we must face the reality that we are all going to die because of sin. In the midst of this bad news, however, the good news of Jesus’ death for us is our glorious hope.
  • Freely experience sorrow and lament. Individually and corporately, we make little room for mourning our sin and brokenness. This season provides a ripe time and space for that.
  • Fast with anticipation. We fast (abstain from food or other things) to deny temporal pleasure in order to pursue the ultimate pleasure of knowing, loving, and obeying Jesus as we long for his kingdom to come.

So to kick-off Lent, our church will gather this week on Ash Wednesday to lament and confess our sin, meditate on the glories of the gospel, and worship God.

Our Ash Wednesday gathering will be an interactive time. One aspect of the gathering that some Protestant Evangelicals may balk at is what Christians have historically called “the imposition of ashes.” This is when you receive ashes on your forehead in the shape of a cross. Why would we do such a thing? Isn’t that meritorious? religious? legalistic? ritualistic? It could be, but it doesn’t have to be. Ashes and dust in Scripture are symbolic of the brevity of human life and picture repentance (e.g. Gen. 3:19; 18:27; Job 30:19; 42:6; Matt. 11:21; Luke 10:13). The ashes are simply a tactile and solemn reminder that we are finite creatures and death looms over us all; they are drawn in the shape of the cross to remind us that in the midst of this bad news, there is infinite hope in the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Let me be up-front: the imposition of ashes is not a sacrament, and observing Ash Wednesday or Lent can’t save us. At the same time, even our repentance can’t save us. God alone saves us through his Son Jesus! Repentance is a response to God’s saving work, and while Christians are by no means required to participate in Ash Wednesday or Lent, we are praying that God might use these rituals to drive our congregation to repentance and faith in Christ. Who knows whether or not, in his grace, God will use these instruments to spur renewal in the hearts of individuals and our congregation as we anticipate the glory of Easter. Of course, this should be the normal rhythm of the Christian life! However, Lent provides us with a special time to zero-in on this as a church community. This approach to Ash Wednesday and Lent is undeniably Christ-centered and gospel-driven.

So if you are in the Capital Region, consider joining us this Wednesday, March 5 at 7pm at Grace Chapel. Even more than that, whether you join us or not, consider how you might take advantage of these forty days to repent of sin and fix your eyes on Jesus.