Jan 1, 2012

Have Heart: Another Exercise in Discernment

T. A. McMahonBy T. A. McMahon
The Berean Call

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Q. In a previous TBC newsletter, you wrote about a book titled Heaven Is For Real. You introduced the article as an "exercise in discernment." I was recently sent a book that rather shocked me. Its title is Have Heart: Bridging the Gulf Between Heaven and Earth. It seems to do what you objected to in Heaven Is For Real - that is, supply information about heaven that is not taught in Scripture. Actually, it goes well beyond that problem by seeming to promote things prohibited in God's Word. The most disturbing aspect of the book for me, however, was that two of the endorsers are men for whom I have great respect: Greg Laurie and Chuck Missler. What is your discernment regarding Have Heart?

A. Have Heart was written by Steve and Sarah Berger, a couple who suffered the tragic loss of their 19-year-old son, Josiah. Their stated objective is to use what God showed them through their experience surrounding his auto accident in 2009 and beyond that event to comfort and help others who have had a similar loss of a loved one.

My wife and I (T. A.) recently experienced the loss of her mom, who lived with us for the last three years. Yet, as difficult as that was, I can't imagine such a heartrending event as losing one of our five children. For those who have had such an experience, the first part of the Bergers' book fulfills much of their goal: they do give wonderful comfort and some sound biblical counsel. For example, they write,

"From the beginning of our pain, we asked the Lord for only His truth. We didn't want to be comforted by a lie or counterfeit sympathies. We wanted God and His truth....The Holy Spirit also convicts believers of what is true and what is not. He is the ultimate Teacher and Comforter. In His comforting, He brings not only the truth, but He also proves God's Word time and time again in our hearts....We need to be rooted and grounded in this truth so that no matter how hard the wind [of brokenheartedness] blows, we'll stand....Our words need to match biblical truth" (pp. 32-33, 36, 60).
This concern for God's truth is repeated throughout the book.

Sadly, however, midway through Have Heart, the Bergers take leave of their statements regarding the objective Word of God and begin introducing their subjective experiences involving their deceased son, Josiah. Dreams become a vehicle of communication between Josiah and his family and friends:
"And then one night, Josiah showed up in a dream" (p. 69). In that episode, Josiah cryptically communicated that he was "pickled," i.e., his term for his life being preserved in heaven. "He [God] used a dream in my life to further unfold the greatness of Heaven, to reinforce the supernatural preservation of my son..." (p. 71).
Communication through dreams featuring a deceased loved one quickly led to direct communication:
"Only two weeks after Josiah went to Heaven, I (Sarah) made it a habit to talk to Josiah...I would then be in instant conversation with Jesus and Siah [Josiah]" (p. 82).
Sarah declared to her son that she needed "to be involved with your life even now...and I want to be involved in what you are doing" (p. 82). She then pleads with God to allow that to take place. Supposedly, God answered Sarah through the dream of an unbeliever, a Muslim friend of the family. Others supplied details of Josiah's "job" in heaven through their own dreams.

The authors introduce many things that are allegedly taking place in heaven that are not specifically taught in the Bible.
"Are our loved ones in Heaven able to occasionally see things that are happening on earth?...Do the saints intercede for people who are going through hard times? Yes - they know what is happening, as much as God allows, and they are praying for us!" (p. 76).
Although the authors intend to comfort people with their insights, they don't seem to be thinking the process through. Knowing what loved ones are doing on earth - perhaps in rebellion and sin - would certainly bring grief to those in heaven, a place of consummate joy. They seem to recognize that problem yet address it with another extra-biblical assessment:
"It's not all the time; they don't get to see everything. But every once in a while the Lord grants them permission to look on this earth, and based on what they see, they intercede on our behalf."
Where is that found in Scripture?

The authors note the biblical prohibition of contacting the dead in Deuteronomy 18:10-12 but then issue a qualification presumably for believers:
"We need to understand that God has the power to temporarily lift the veil between Heaven and earth at any time according to His good pleasure" (p. 95)
They offer support for the legitimacy of their view experientially by adding that "Several people in our family and inner circle of friends have experienced similar meetings with Josiah..." including their pastor. The latter declares,
"The next thing I knew, Josiah came into [the church] sanctuary...and he got down on one knee and bent to speak into my ear....I stood up and went over to my wife and told her, 'Josiah was just here'" (pp. 99-100).
The gist of Josiah's communication was an encouragement regarding what his pastor had gone through during Josiah's hospital stay.

The Bergers claim that such events surrounding their deceased son are proofs of biblical truths:
"This visit proves that our loved ones in Heaven are spiritually active and that they care - they are aware of the times that we need special encouragement....God granted Josiah permission to make an appearance...it serves as proof that our son is not dead and gone, but merely moved to a different place to do other things for God. It shows he is happy there, and it demonstrates his continued presence in not only our lives but in the lives of his friends as well" (p. 100; italics added).
Although perhaps well meaning in their attempt to uphold the faith by "proofs," the Bergers are nevertheless undermining biblical faith. Jesus gave the example of Abraham speaking to the rich man who wanted Lazarus to appear to his five brothers, saying that if they hear not Moses and the prophets, i.e., the Scriptures, they wouldn't believe someone returning from the dead. Furthermore, Jesus chided Thomas for not believing that He had resurrected from the dead without physical proof, adding,
"Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed" (John 20:29).
Experiences never trump faith that is based upon the Word of God. Peter had an incredible experience on the Mount of Transfiguration when he saw Jesus glorified and in the presence of Moses and Elijah. Yet Peter declares that even better than that, we have "a more sure word of prophecy" and exhorts believers to "take heed" to the written Word (2 Pt 1:19).

In further attempting to legitimize their experiences (in view of Scriptural prohibitions), they appeal to the "spontaneity" of the "visitations" as the difference between that which is "condemned by God" and that which is "orchestrated by God" (p. 102). This is wishful thinking on their part, not Scripture's truth.

In fact, much of what the Bergers hold for their hope in heaven is not stated in the Bible. They say that loved ones in heaven are "enjoying some pretty rockin' new bodies," whereas Scripture indicates that a deceased believer will receive his immortal body not right after death but when Christ returns for His church at the Rapture (1 Cor 15:52). They transfer things they love about their temporal life into the eternal realm, particularly their family relationships, and they see that relationship continuing with their deceased son:
"We want all of us to continue to have relationship with Siah right up until the day that we are face-to-face in Heaven with him" (p. 103).
Just because someone wants it doesn't make it so. We know that our relationships with unbelieving family members will not continue in heaven. How joyful, then, would a family unit be there with perhaps multiple missing members? Will there be family relationships in heaven? No matter what our rationale, Scripture simply does not tell us. We do know that there is neither marrying nor those given in marriage in heaven (Mt 22:30). Furthermore, all that the Bergers describe seems to lose sight of, even diminish, the extraordinary relationship every believer will have with Jesus Christ.

One of the dangers of this book for a person who doesn't study the Word of God for himself (which is epidemic today) is that he is disarmed by the multiple claims of biblical veracity, which give way to human speculations - which are then accepted as biblical truth. With no scriptural support, the Bergers write,
"We know that [Josiah] can see us, hear us, and even be involved, not only in our lives but also in the lives of his friends. We are continually hearing of Siah coming to friends in dreams....The dreams are incredibly profound and always prove God's Word, point to the glory of God, and compel us to get closer to Jesus" (p. 104).
They add,
"We mean no disrespect to the prophets, but the idea of Siah being able to observe the choices we make here on earth is way more motivating as we seek to live for God moment-by-moment. The cloud of witnesses [of "Christian loved ones in Heaven"] is personal, and we believe it is part of their work in the spiritual realm to cheer on their loved ones still on earth..." (p. 107; italics added).
In their attempt to comfort those who have also lost loved ones to death, the Bergers fail to give the biblical warnings of spiritual deception, especially since their grieving state may make them terribly vulnerable to Satan's ploys, such as transforming himself "into an angel of light" (2 Cor 11:14-15).

In our day, when biblical discernment is practically nonexistent among most who call themselves Christians, to emphasize the experiential, as the Bergers do throughout their book, is playing right into the hands of the Adversary. Tragically, they call such supernatural experiences with their deceased son "God Nods" and encourage their readers to seek their own:
"Be on the lookout for God Nods in your own life" (p. 104).
They give examples of Josiah kissing his sister after his death (p. 115), and his dad crying out to God for a sign:
"I was begging God for a sign, a sign...out of the ordinary...that my Josiah was all right.... I was asking God to give me something I could behold with my physical eyes" (p. 118).
Scripture, however, warns that "An evil and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign" (Mt 12:39).

In contradiction to the biblical counsel the authors give at the beginning of their book, in the end they not only capitulate to a view that disagrees with the Bible but they promote it enthusiastically:
"Our loved ones may show up in dreams or visits or other ways (who can limit God's imagination?), but the fact is that we're connected....There is a thin veil, and we're connected to them, forever, in Christ" (p. 110).
They conclude,
"You don't father or mother a child for nineteen years and then hear God say, 'Oh, now you can't talk to him. You no longer have a relationship with him until you see him face to face in Heaven....' We still talk to Josiah, and it's going to be so great when we're together again" (p. 125).
In our view, Have Heart is an example of how a tragic event in the lives of believers can lead many into an even more tragic misunderstanding of God's Word.

Related Links
Is 'Heaven Is for Real' for Real?: An Exercise in Discernment - BPB (T. A. McMahon)
What About People Who Say They’ve Gone To Heaven? - SeriousFaith.com (Brent Riggs)
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)
Questions and Answers Related to Near-Death Experiences - Eternal Perspective Ministries (Randy Alcorn)