What is heaven like?
There are many answers. Correct or not, we don’t know yet.
Quite a few years ago, I heard a reference on tv to Raymond Moody, a psychiatrist who interviewed dozens of people who had near-death experiences. He summarized the common patterns of their descriptions in a book “Life After Life.”
Intrigued by that, I later read many books by people who state that they had experiences in which they saw glimpses or spent a short time in heaven, then returned to earthly life.
Like Moody saw in his subjects, these independent writings have many overlapping themes and details in their descriptions of heaven.
Of course, we should base our knowledge and hope on God’s descriptions of heaven in the Bible, not man’s words.
While respecting that position, considering the stories of those who claim “to have been there” offers much to think about. Even reading these books with a healthy dose of skepticism, they are interesting and inspiring stories that can lead a reader to stronger faith.
Many of these authors came to these experiences through serious accidents or illnesses. They underwent severe pain, in some cases lasting months or years.
Once “there,” they felt overwhelming peace and love. Some just got glimpses from the outside while others saw more details the gates of heaven, the Book of Life, even the Throne.
Most of them mentioned brilliant colors, way beyond what we know here, as well as incredible music sometimes numerous songs simultaneously, yet it all made sense and again was exponentially better than our earthly music. Usually, the writers simply called it “indescribeable” with our language.
Communication was often understood but not actually spoken. Messages were thought and received so there was no language barrier.
Many tell of seeing dead relatives, some of whom they had never met on earth. Colton Burpo learned of a sister who died in a miscarriage before he was born that he had never been told about. He also later identified a youthful photo of a departed grandfather who he had not met on earth.
Others say they had encounters with people from the Bible John the Baptist, Peter, and even Jesus himself.
Another common theme in these stories is those who had a taste of heaven did not want to return, but were told their time had not yet come and were sent back. Often, though they knew what they experienced, they withheld from telling others, realizing they would not be believed.
Marvin Besteman, in “My Journey to Heaven,” didn’t even tell his wife for five months. Although he remembered it vividly, he had no desire to discuss it at first. Later, he learned that he was sent back to earth for that purpose. “I know that God wants me to tell you what I saw, and trust him with the details,” he wrote.
Dale Black didn’t write “Flight to Heaven” until 40 years after seeing heaven on advice to keep the experience sacred and live his life accordingly.
On the other hand, “The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven” by Alex Malarkey and his father Kevin, was later recanted and then pulled off the market by the publisher. Alex was severely injured in a car accident at age six. The book was published in 2010 but several years later at age 16, Alex retracted it. His mother, Beth, stated “Alex never concluded he was in heaven. He was a small boy who experienced something extraordinary. The adults made it into what would sell to the masses.”
So how should we view these books that have become termed “heavenly tourism” genre?
Are these authors modern-day prophets who were granted a supernatural experience and given the means to tell about it to mass audiences? Or are they greedy pigs who fabricated it all to make a buck?
We cannot know what is in someone else’s heart.
John MacArthur in “The Glory of Heaven: The Truth About Heaven, Angels, and Eternal Life” refutes some of these books in detail.
He outright calls them untrue because they do not match visions of heaven in the Bible especially that they are too self-focused rather than an emphasis on the glory of God.
He writes: “ . . . all of them are teeming with false, flawed, and fanciful notions about heaven . . . it elevates human experience to a higher level than the Word of God.”
MacArthur warns: “We must reject every anecdotal account that contradicts or goes beyond what Scripture teaches. We must also refuse to get caught up in every kind of speculation, every truth claim, and every supposed new revelation that detracts from or leads people away from simple reliance on the Word of God.”
Though I agree, I at least wonder if there is the possibility these authors are telling of real experiences, and what they are describing does not contradict scripture.
If you interviewed a dozen people who went to the State Fair, their responses would have much in common but each would provide his or her own details and perceptions of what it was like. Thus, some of the commonalities in these books, written independently at different times by people in different places, is what keeps me from dismissing them entirely.
What we can do is be confident that heaven is perfect in the presence of God, and know who will bring us there and how to get there by trusting in the shed blood of Jesus Christ as the way, the truth, and the life.
Like a wrapped gift, we can tell a little bit about it size, weight, sound when it’s shaken but we don’t know and aren’t supposed to know more . . . until the right moment arrives when we’re allowed to open it.
• “Heaven is for Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back” 4-year-old Colton Burpo from Nebraska visits heaven during emergency surgery. Also became a movie. Follow-up book is “Heaven Changes Everything.”
• “90 Minutes in Heaven: A True Story of Death and Life” Baptist minister from Texas experiences heaven after car accident. Follow-up book is “Heaven is Real.”
• “To Heaven and Back: A Doctor’s Extraordinary Account of Her Death, Heaven, Angels, and Life Again” Mary Neal, orthopedic surgeon from Michigan, who drowned in a kayak accident.
• “Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife” Eben Alexander, neurosurgeon from Boston, who went into a seven-day coma from bacterial meningitis-encephalitis.
• “23 Minutes in Hell” Bill Wiese, real estate agent from California. Experienced a visit to hell but also was rescued to heaven.
• “When Will the Heaven Begin?” Ally Breedlove. The story of her brother who died at 18 from a heart condition, and used videos to share his visions of heaven.
• “My Journey to Heaven: What I Saw and How It Changed My Life” Marvin Besteman, a retired banker from Michigan. After surgery to remove a pancreatic tumor, he is escorted to heaven by two angels where he is met by St. Peter.
• “Flight to Heaven” Dale Black, the lone survivor of a California plane crash at age 19, is healed and strives to live out his life as a reflection of his heavenly visit experience.
• “Waking Up in Heaven: A True Story of Brokenness, Heaven, and Life Again” Crystal McVea, child abuse victim from Oklahoma, learns that God has a perfect plan for everyone.
• “Akiane: Her Life, Her Art, Her Poetry” by Akiane and Foreli Kramarik. A young girl born in Illinois, after a heavenly vision, becomes a prodigy poet and painter, including an image of Jesus she painted that Colton Burpo later identified as “they finally got one right.”
• “Heaven” by Randy Alcorn. Not about an experience, but cites numerous scripture references to show heaven as a physical place.
• “The Glory of Heaven: The Truth About Heaven, Angels, and Eternal Life” by John MacArthur, a direct refutation of some of the above books, plus scriptural descriptions of heaven.