By T. A. McMahon
The Berean Call
There have been quite a number of books written by or about people who claim to have personally visited Heaven. Some of these authors profess to be Christians while others do not. The descriptions of their experiences vary regarding such things as entering into a dazzling white light at the end of a dark tunnel and being greeted by deceased loved ones, or being in the presence of God and seeing the shed feathers of angels dotting the grand floor of His throne room. Many of their stories contain information that would seem to be beyond their ability to know at the time - or at all.
Although these individuals supply much information, the content raises many questions. Obviously, everything they say can't be true because some of the content in one book contradicts what's written in others. How do we know who is giving us an accurate and truthful account?
A biblical Christian might say that he would compare what they say with what is presented in the Scriptures about Heaven. If it rings true to the Word of God, then it must be true. Well, yes and no. Yes, it must be true to Scripture. What is presented certainly cannot be at odds with what the Bible teaches about Heaven; nevertheless, just because it conforms to Scripture doesn't prove that the person's declaration or experience of being in Heaven actually took place.
I know a good deal about Heaven from my study of the Bible. If I told you that I had recently visited there and only communicated what I knew was recorded in the Bible about it, you couldn't object to what I said on the basis of my being biblically inaccurate. Accuracy, however, is not the only criterion for biblical discernment. There are many other instructions and examples that we must take into consideration. For example, the Apostle Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians 12 of a "man in Christ" (no doubt Paul himself) who was caught up to Heaven. He didn't know at the time whether it was an experience in which his spirit had left his body, or a vision while his spirit remained in his body. Nevertheless, he states that what he saw and heard in paradise was not lawful for a man to utter. Paul's experience was followed by a humbling infirmity, which he states that God allowed him to suffer "lest any man should think of me above that which he seeth me to be, or that he heareth of me. And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations..." (2 Corinthians 12:6-7). That isn't always the case in Scripture. The Apostle John obviously was given permission to declare what he witnessed in Heaven in the Book of Revelation. This would seemingly apply as well to the writer of the Book of Job.
But can we be sure that the visions and personal experiences of these writers are true? Absolutely - because their words are found in the Scriptures. Of the Word of God, the psalmist writes, "Thy word is true from the beginning...," and Jesus said, "Thy word is truth" (Psalm 119:160; John 17:17). That is the ultimate verification that the experiences of those men of God indeed took place as they described. Furthermore, since the canon of Scripture was closed in the first century A.D., no one since that time can have his vision of - or his alleged visit to - Heaven validated in the same way.
Jesus gave us another insight to help our discernment when He told of Lazarus and the rich man. The rich man, who had died, was in a place where he was tormented and suffering remorse. Yet he begged Abraham to send someone to warn his brothers so that they would not end up with him in "this place of torment." Abraham's response was: "They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them." And again, "If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead" (Luke 16:19-31).
Armed with the above scriptural teachings for the purposes of discernment, let's apply these and other biblical admonitions and critical questions to a book that is having an impact on Christendom and the American public. Heaven Is for Real was published in 2010 and made the New York Times Best-Sellers list. It has also been the cause of controversy in some fellowships, as believers have been divided in their support of and disputation over the book's veracity.
Heaven Is for Real is a nonfiction account that documents the experience of a three-year-old boy who believes that he visited Heaven. The story is told by the boy's father, an evangelical pastor. He and his wife initially seem to be rather startled by their son's revelations, which he shares over a period of about three years. There is nothing not to like about this Christian family, and much that is quite admirable. The little boy is a typical three- or four-year-old - hardly precocious, but simply matter of fact in relating what he seems to have experienced.
That experience took place when three-year-old Colton was undergoing emergency surgery for a ruptured appendix. Not too long afterward, he told his parents that he saw them praying for him outside the operating room. When they asked how he knew what they had been doing he said, "Cause I could see you....I went up out of my body and I was looking down and I could see the doctor working on my body. [Scripture tells us that death takes place when the spirit vacates the body. Yet there was no medical report of a clinical death during Colton's surgery.] And I saw you and Mommy. You were in a little room by yourself, praying; and Mommy was in a different room, and she was praying and talking on the phone" (pp. xx-xxi). The accuracy of Colton's disclosure rocked his parents to the core. But that was just the beginning of revelations that far and away defy natural explanations.
Colton's other revelations included: angels singing "Jesus Loves Me" to him; his sitting on Jesus' lap; meeting John the Baptist and the angel Gabriel; petting Jesus' rainbow-colored horse; his descriptions of Jesus' wounds and attire, including a crown with a pink diamond that Jesus wore; the prevalence of kids in Heaven; his description of everyone there having wings like the angels - all except Jesus, that is; his being recognized by his great grandfather, who died decades before Colton was born; and the description of God as "really, really big."
Although most of Colton's observations in Heaven are not outside the realm of possibility of what could take place there, they are nevertheless extra-biblical insights and information, some being more problematic than others. For example, Colton explains that "Everyone kind of looks like angels in heaven," sporting wings (the size of which are dependent on the individual's size) and a halo. Since the resurrection of believers' transformed physical bodies has yet to take place, their form now in Heaven must lack physical attributes. Hence the need for wings of whatever size makes no sense. Moreover, other than the descriptive visions of the heavenly creatures known as cherubim and seraphim and the decorative designs in the Temple and upon the Mercy Seat, angels that appear to humanity are never described as having wings.
Many supporters of the book claim that any and all objections pale in the face of the supernatural knowledge that Colton reveals - things that were humanly impossible for him to know. For example, he said that he had met his other sister in Heaven. When told by his mother that Cassie was his only sister, his shocking response was, "No....I have two sisters. You had a baby die in your tummy, didn't you?" (p. 94). Colton had never been told of the "painful episode" of the miscarriage, and his parents never knew the gender of the fetus. Colton added, "In heaven, this little girl ran up to me, and she wouldn't stop hugging me....She said she just can't wait for you and Daddy to get to heaven" (p. 96). That revelation seemed to be the most convincing for Colton's parents that their son had indeed visited Heaven: "We had wanted to believe that our unborn child had gone to heaven. Even though the Bible is largely silent on this point, we had accepted it on faith. But now, we had an eyewitness: a daughter we had never met was waiting eagerly for us in eternity" (p. 97).
Was Colton truly an eyewitness in Heaven to everything he described? Much of it is quite mindboggling, notwithstanding the fact that all of it is extra-biblical. Yet it provides alleged insights about Heaven; e.g., a girl dies as a fetus, grows into a little girl in heaven, and then is eagerly awaiting her parents' arrival. What if one or both parents reject the gospel? Would there then be disappointment in a place of perfect bliss?
Consider how Colton's father mentioned that "the Bible is largely silent" on a certain issue. It is also completely silent on the specific things that Colton has revealed. This raises the question as to why God would leave out something of value for us in His inerrant Word, which was given through His prophets "as they were moved by the Holy Ghost" (2 Peter 1:21) - only to reveal it later through a little boy (as well as many others who make similar claims). On the back cover of the book we read, "Heaven Is for Real will forever change the way you think of eternity, offering the chance to see, and believe, like a child."
The Bible is God's precise, absolute, and eternal communication to mankind (Luke 21:33; Hebrews 4:12). It did not come by nor was it left up to the will or imagination of man (2 Peter 1:20). Paul writes, "For this cause also thank we God without ceasing, because, when ye received the word of God which ye heard of us, ye received it not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God, which effectually worketh also in you that believe" (1 Thessalonians 2:13). Our faith can be childlike, but it is faith placed in God's Word, not in anyone's alleged "eyewitness" account, be they a child or an adult. Peter was an eyewitness to an incredible event. He saw Jesus supernaturally transfigured before his very eyes and heard the voice of God. We can be sure that the personal experience he had was true because it's reported in Scripture. Nevertheless, he tells us that his personal experience (or anyone else's) is not as trustworthy as the Word of God:
"We have also a more sure word of prophecy; whereunto ye do well that ye take heed" (2 Peter 1:19).At the time and in the years following Colton's experience, his dad was very interested in having him describe Jesus. He wrote that "as a pastor, I wound up spending a lot of time at hospitals, in Christian bookstores, and at other churches - all places where there are lots of drawings and paintings of Christ....When we came across a picture of Jesus we'd ask Colton, 'What about this one? Is that what Jesus looks like?'" (p. 93). Time after time, Colton would reject the dozens of misrepresentations. Then, nearly three years after Colton's surgery, he was shown a portrait of Jesus painted by a young girl named Akiane, who also claims to have have visited Heaven beginning at the age of four. Colton's reaction was, "Dad, that one's right." His confirmation convinced his father: "Knowing how many pictures Colton had rejected, Sonja [his mother] and I finally felt that in Akiane's portrait, we'd seen the face of Jesus. Or at least a startling likeness" (p. 145).
In Exodus, we find a definitive statement against anyone attempting to make an image of God (Exodus 20:4-5). That applies to images of Jesus, whether of statues or great religious paintings or on the silver screen. One of the many problems is that they inevitably lead to idolatry, which in turn breeds superstition and occultism. Another related problem is that they must all be false representations because they have no basis in Scripture - other than being condemned. Jesus therefore could not encourage a young girl to paint His portrait.
Those who believe that He did encourage Akiane (because she could then point people to Him through her amazing art skills and her testimony concerning Him) need to compare with Scripture what she, at age 16, says about Jesus:
"Jesus shared with us: 'I am the way, the truth and the light. No one comes to my Father, but through me.' I feel that he invited us to participate in the divinity. Each of us is one of kind [sic] original path to the way of truth and light, and without our individual love and effort we cannot understand and reach God" (http://akiane.com/blog/?tag=akiane).Her interpretation rejects Jesus as being the only way for mankind to be reconciled to God. It opposes what Jesus taught in favor of Satan's promise of divinity to Eve (Genesis 3:5). Akiane's paintings and words clearly reflect "another Jesus."
What puzzles many people is how Colton, as a three-year-old at the time of his experience, could attain information, most of which was completely foreign to him at his young age. His parents don't know for sure but believe their son received the visit to Heaven as a gift from God. Their "faith," however sincere and biased toward their little boy, does not have the support of Scripture. How, then, was he able to describe what he did without the input gained from actually being in Heaven? No one can say for sure - not even little Colton. He was in an operating room, surrounded by attending medical personnel, and under the influence of an anesthesia-produced altered state of consciousness.
What we do know about that and other types of drug-induced conditions of mind (even dream states, meditation, and an overworked imagination) is that multitudes of people have reported experiences that seem to validate everything from clinical or near-death events to past-lives journeys to abductions on UFOs. They also reveal information for which they had no basis of knowledge prior to their experiences. It may be that an altered state of consciousness creates a condition in which the mind is like a blank screen, open to outside input. Spirit entities, whose goal it is to undermine the Word of God and deceive the world, might have that ability to program the blank screen and could therefore take advantage of anyone in such a highly susceptible condition (see Dave Hunt, Occult Invasion, pp. 187-90). But again, no one knows for sure how such things take place.
The critical issue for discernment is not "how it works" but "what is being communicated." All that a Bible-believing Christian can do in ascertaining the truth of a matter is to be vigilant by "searching the Scriptures" to see if what is being presented is true to the full counsel of God's Word (Acts 17:11). If we don't do that, whether we are young believers or mature in the faith, we are just as vulnerable to false teachings as those whose circumstances have directly opened them to deceptive experiences.
A believer's life in Christ is shaped by a great many experiences that the Lord allows for our growth in Him. It begins with one's believing the gospel, to which sound doctrine is added. As we abide in Christ's teachings, our discernment will increase, thus protecting us from "being carried about with every wind of doctrine" (Ephesians 4:14). Let us therefore take to heart Paul's warning:
"I have laid the foundation [of the gospel], and another buildeth thereon. But let every man take heed how he buildeth thereupon" (1 Corinthians 3:10).
Questions and Answers Related to Near-Death Experiences - Eternal Perspective Ministries (Randy Alcorn)
Question: What About People Who Say They’ve Gone To Heaven? - SeriousFaith.com (Brent Riggs)
What does the Bible say about an out of body experience / astral projection? - GotQuestions.org
Visiting Heaven and Hell: Why the Claims of Afterlife Experiences are not Reliable - Critical Issues Commentary (Bob DeWaay)
The Sufficiency of Scripture, Pt. 1 - Grace to You (John MacArthur)