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.


The Goal of Creation is God’s Glory

In case you (like myself) need to be reminded:

  • We were created for God’s glory (Isa. 43:7).
  • Everything we do should be done for God’s glory (1 Cor. 10:31).
  • We were made in the image of God, to reflect his glory, but we have fallen short of it (Gen. 2:27; Rom. 3:23).
  • Paul says that the human race has “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles” (Rom. 1:23).
  • Jesus came to earth to reveal his glory, “glory as of the only Son from the Father” (John 1:14).
  • Jesus prayed that God’s people would be with him where he is to see his glory (John 17:24).
  • God has provided a solution to our falling short of his glory. Through Jesus, he has saved us so that we would “be to the praise of his glory” (Eph. 1:12).
  • In this salvation, God predestines his own people to be “conformed to the image of his Son” (Rom. 8:29) who is the “radiance of the glory of God” (Heb. 1:3).
  • One day, God will redeem all of creation by setting “it free from its bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Rom. 8:21).
  • The Bible (and life) is not about us. It’s about God and his glory.

God Loves Us Because He Loves Us

God’s heart is to carry us as a man carries his son (Deut. 1:31). Yet, despite God’s word, how often do we refuse him (Deut. 1:32)?  Still, how much more often does God say, “You transgressor! You stubborn of heart! You have no faith in me. You are running to everything else and whoring after idols! You are far from me, but nevertheless I will run to you. I will give you my righteousness. I will give you my salvation. You will be my glory. I’m doing this because I love you.”

Isaiah 46:12-13 says,

Listen to me, you stubborn of heart, you who are far from righteousness; I bring near my righteousness; it is not far off, and my salvation will not delay; I will put salvation in Zion, for Israel my glory.

Deuteronomy 7:6-8 says,

For you are a people holy to the LORD your God.  The LORD your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth.  It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the LORD set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but it is because the LORD loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers, that the LORD has brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.

And so God doesn’t just say, “I love you.”  He ends with, “And I love you because I love you. And I will love you until you obey me.”


Why God Quenches His People’s Thirst

Isaiah 41:17-19 tells us that God will quench his people’s thirst.  In the first part of the chapter, God is shown to be a warrior king who redeems his people from their worm-like state of being (vv. 13-14).

At the end of the chapter, God tells us why he quenches the thirst of his people (vv. 17-19).  Verse 20 says, “That they may see and know, may consider and understand together, that the hand of the LORD has done this, the Holy One of Israel has created it.”

Everything that God does is meant to draw attention back to himself. He acts for his own glory and no one else’s (see 42:8). Everything that God does for his people is meant to bring us to a deeper understanding of his sovereign control over all creation and that everything works for his purpose.

This does not mean that God rolls with the punches and everything just happens to fall into place with a desired outcome for the world. Rather, God creates the punches to bring about his designed outcome for the world, namely that he would receive glory and his people would receive salvation and joy in him.


Jesus is the Blazing Center of Social Justice

Last night here in Pretoria, I went to a showing of the newest Invisible Children movie.  Before the movie was played, I was in the main building where there were dozens of Christian ministries and non-profits represented.  I didn’t know everything would be so “Christian” because I knew that Invisible Children has never made any kind of profession to be religious.  So, I was hopeful that this night would be about Jesus.

The program started out with an Afrikaans girl who prayed.  Her first word was “Jesus…”  She prayed that God would open our hearts to the injustice in the world.  She prayed that we would be empowered to do something.  She prayed, “In your Name, Amen.”

That was the last time I heard Jesus’ name.

There were other people who spoke after the film.  They talked about how South Africa could help.  They said they “had meetings…and thought and prayed about” how to be involved.   They said this is an “interdenominational” movement.  They said that we “cannot turn a blind eye toward this.”

And you know what?  I would be all for it — if it had to do with Jesus.

By my guess, I’d say there were about 3,000 people at the program, and as always in a group that size, most probably do not follow Jesus.  As I sat there, I said to my friend Rylan, “They missed a huge opportunity to share the gospel tonight.”

Then you might say, “Well, James, this isn’t about the gospel.  It’s social justice.  It’s a non-religious movement.  It’s about people working together to make a difference.”

And I would reply that if that’s all it is, it’s a problem.  It’s a problem because there are thousands of people who may be fooled into believing that if you give a couple bucks, write a few letters, spend a night on the streets, and buy some merchandise you will have done your duty.  Even greater than that, it’s a problem because there are possibly thousands of people who will not understand the greatest injustice ever committed: we have sinned, and continue to sin, against Almighty God.

We will not properly understand injustice in our world until we understand the injustice of sin that lives in our hearts.   We have highly offended God.  We have trampled upon his glory.  We have committed awful crimes against the Creator.  We deserve to die because of our evils.

But God sent Jesus to earth.  The God-man came down to live and work and teach and bring us back to God.  He lived without any injustice in his heart, because he was God.  Even so, we couldn’t overcome our own injustice.  In fact, we are so unjust that we did the unthinkable.

We killed God.

But it wasn’t for nothing.  God used his own death to justify all those who come to him.  No one understands injustice more than God does.  Jesus was innocent, and he was murdered.  No one has been sinned against more than he has.    Because of this, we will not be rightly passionate about social justice until we understand the justice that God satisfied when Jesus’ died on the cross.  Therefore, if any social cause is not grounded in Christ, it is meaningless.

Invisible Children is neither a good nor a bad thing.  It depends on who you are in it for.  If the blazing center is Jesus, then it is good.  If it is for any other reason — noble as it may be — it’s bad.

The sad fact is that anything not done for Jesus — for the glory of God — is a sin.  As great as it seems for someone to rescue children from being slaves of a crazed terrorist, it doesn’t justify anyone before God.  If anything doesn’t bring glory to Jesus and  lead people to him so they might be rescued from bondage — physically and spiritually — it simply draws attention away from Christ and toward something else.

The prophet Isaiah puts it this way.  “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment” (64:6).  The phrase “polluted garment” in Hebrew means “bloodied rag.”  I know this is gross, but in our day, this is akin to a bloodied tampon.  You say that’s disgusting.  You say that’s vile.  It’s in your Bible.  Disgusting is the point Isaiah is making.  Anything “righteous” that is not done to the glory of God is like a bloodied tampon.  That’s how disgusting social justice is to God if it is void of Jesus.

Know that I’m not bashing Invisible Children. I don’t hate social justice campaigns.  This blog isn’t about that.  It’s about you and me.  It’s about our wrongs.  It’s about our injustices.  It’s about our hatred, resentment, bitterness, greed, envy, jealously, lust, malice, harshness, lying, cheating, stealing, mocking, jeering, and a thousand other sins that we commit daily.

It’s all injustice.  Against God.   Against his glory.  Against his perfection.  And it’s ugly.  So ugly that God had to die to forgive us.

My plea is that you examine yourself and repent so you don’t stand before God and show him a bloody towel and say, “Look at my good deeds.”  I pray that you stand before God and point to Jesus and say, “There’s my righteousness.  There’s my goodness.  There’s my justice.”