Tuesday, September 22, 2009

90 Minutes in Heaven … But How Do I Get There?

I just finished reading 90 Minutes in Heaven by Don Piper. It tells the story of a Baptist pastor who dies in a car accident, supposedly goes to heaven, and comes back again to tell the story.

It's not easy to argue about the subjective, personal experiences that people have, especially when they seem so real to the person who had those experiences. Piper himself admits that he is skeptical about the near-death experiences that some people have had. Yet, he asserts that he “knows” that he really went to heaven. My firm belief is that all near-death experiences can be explained physiologically and psychologically. I base that on the information in another book I have read entitled If I Should Wake Before I Die: The Biblical and Medical Truth about Near-Death Experiences, by H. Leon Greene. Greene is a cardiologist and professor of medicine who is also a Christian.

It is necessary to always judge everything we hear on the basis of Holy Scripture. When we do so with Piper's book, there are some things that make me uncomfortable.

For example, Piper tells about his friend Dick who happens upon the scene of the accident. As the story goes, God tells Dick to go pray for the dead man in the car. “Dick prayed me back to earth,” Piper asserts. However, nowhere are we told in Scripture that we are to pray for the dead. Certainly, we read accounts in the Bible of the prophets, the apostles, and our Lord himself raising people from the dead. But it is doubtful whether prayer for the dead is something that is approved of by virture of those accounts.

Piper's description of heaven is similar in some ways to St. John's vision in Revelation. However, the bulk of the book is a description of his recovery from the accident and the suffering he endured. I don't mean to downplay Piper's suffering. I'm sure it was a painful and depressing process. He writes of the ways in which the story of his recovery has been encouraging to others, and I can see how that would be the case. He also describes the diligent prayer and compassionate care that was offered on his behalf by so many people during his recovery. That part of the story is indeed inspiring.

Yet I was surprised that for all the talk about the author's suffering there was so little talk of Christ's suffering at the cross. Piper even says that during his time in heaven “[n]one of the hymns that filled the air were about Jesus' suffering and death. I heard no sad songs and instinctively knew that there are no sad songs in heaven.” Yet the vision that St. John saw and the hymns he heard are full of references to Christ's sacrifice: “I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain” (Rev. 5:6) … “you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God” (Rev. 5:9) … “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain” (Rev. 5:12) … “They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (Rev. 7:14) … “they have conquered him [Satan] by the blood of the Lamb” (Rev. 12:11). Piper assumes that hymns about Christ's death are sad songs, but those are instead truly joyful songs, for the death of Christ on behalf of sinners is the basis of our salvation.

What was also missing from the book was talk of the resurrection on the Last Day. The Bible has much more to say about the resurrection to eternal life for believers in Christ than it does about what heaven will be like. That is our Christian hope. Piper seems to place more emphasis on the reality of heaven than on the death and resurrection of Christ, and as a Christian pastor – even one who claims to have gone to heaven – you'd think he'd know better.

And that's my biggest beef with the book. Piper writes, “I now feel an urgency about helping people open their lives so they can be assured of going to heaven.” Yet he never quite gets around to telling people exactly how they can be assured of going to heaven. He does refer to Jesus as Savior, but a Savior from what? Christians who read this book can assume that the author means that Jesus is their Savior from “sin, death, and hell.” But non-Christians who read it (and as a New York Times bestseller you can bet many did) will not have a clear idea of why they need a Savior or how they can have the forgiveness of sins and eternal life from this Savior. I can only hope and pray that those who did read the book found their way to a church which clearly proclaims the Gospel message, something that 90 Minutes in Heaven fails to do.

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