Not too long ago, I received a copy of one of the many books on someone’s alleged trip to heaven and back. I couldn’t bring myself to read more than a few pages before putting it down.
This was probably the biggest trend I noticed in the “Religion and Spirituality” category of publishing over the last couple of years (especially since the wild success of Heaven is for Real), one I hope won’t continue into 2013.
I chose to not read the book about visiting heaven I received—and will continue to do the same for one reason:
They’re almost certainly not true.
That may seem like a nasty bit of prejudgement, but here’s the thing: the Apostle Paul was “caught up to the third heaven”and what he saw and heard “cannot be told, which man may not utter” (see 2 Cor. 12:2-4). Paul in these verses describes this vision of heaven in the third person—which some commentators suggest means he was so hesitant to even talk about it at all, especially in the context of his self-defence against the “super-apostles” at Corinth.
So why do so many people feel they’ve got a freedom that Paul did not?
Some may ask, “but what about other heavenly visions in Scripture?” There are a few experiences recorded. One in particular (Ezekiel) is filled with such peculiar imagery it’s probably not a good idea to base your full theology on it. The others (in Isaiah and Revelation) have a consistent focal point: Jesus.
Isaiah saw the Lord on His throne with the angels singing, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of Hosts, the whole earth is full of his glory!” (Isa. 6:3) His response? To utter a prophetic curse upon himself and wish for his own death (Isa. 6:5). He recognized his own sinfulness and knew he had no right to stand before the Lord. John’s experience was much the same, falling at the Lord’s feet “as though dead” (Rev. 1:17).
They saw the Lord and were humbled and terrified, until the Lord intervened. Isaiah’s unclean lips were made clean with a coal from the Lord’s altar; John was told to “Fear not.” And their right response was worship of Jesus.
But back to Paul. His speaking of being caught up into paradise”—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows,” he reminds us (2 Cor. 12:3)—was for a single purpose: to quiet the needless boasting about visions.
In effect, he was saying, “If you really want to see who’s got the greater ‘achievements,’ I win.” But he does so in a very interesting way—rather than boasting in his successes (after all, he was instrumental in converting a massive amount of people, and planting dozens of churches), he boasts in his weaknesses. He tells of his many shipwrecks, lashings, beatings, being left for dead, and of the “thorn in the flesh” the Lord permitted to persist.
But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Cor. 12:9-10)
This is something we ought to keep in mind as we read or hear of others’ experiences. If what you read or hear does not model the same attitude as that of Paul, Isaiah and John—postures of meekness and humility, a fearful trepidation of even discussing such things!—then beware. I realize many of these authors are trying to be genuinely encouraging to people who are hurt, lonely and grieving, but they don’t need 72 Seconds in Heaven—they need Revelation 4, 5 and 21! There is no greater comfort for us than what’s found in the Scriptures. Christian, look nowhere else.