1 I must go on boasting. Though there is nothing to be gained by it, I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord. 2 I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven – whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows. 3 And I know that this man was caught up into paradise – whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows – 4 and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter. ~ 2 Corinthians 12:1-4 (ESV)
You can walk into any book store and find a host of books which are stories of people having near-death experiences of heaven (and even a few of hell). These books have become so popular and widely read that movies have been made. Though some of the books have now been proven to be frauds.
So, what should we think about books and tales of such experiences?
The answer is more complicated than a blanket accept or reject based upon our own religious tradition or the spectacular nature of the claims. After all, Paul told the Thessalonican church, “Do not scoff at prophecies, but test everything that is said. Hold on to what is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:19-20, NLT1996).
Paul, himself, was a man who had an experience of a heavenly vision. He wrote about it in 2 Corinthians 12, first in the third person but later explaining that he had received a thorn in his flesh to keep him humble and prevent him from boasting in such an experience. In his vision he was caught up to the highest heaven or the third heaven—meaning the place where God’s glory most fully presents itself at the moment, as opposed to the sky or space (compare: Deuteronomy 28:12, Psalm 19:14, and 1 Kings 8:27, for examples of the different heavens). He saw many things and heard many things that he could not repeat.
There is one difference between Paul’s experience and that of many of these books—Paul had to keep the bulk of his experience to himself. Now, that alone is not enough to dismiss other claims outright. After all, John wrote an entire book (Revelation) filled with many heavenly visions he was allowed to communicate.
Here are some thoughts to keep in mind when considering these modern day books and stories:
First, don’t reject them outright just because you may not agree. In 1 Corinthians 13:11-12, Paul wrote that this side of eternity we have an imperfect and dim view of God. In other words, we can know truly about him (what he has revealed), but we cannot know fully about him (what he has not revealed), but even then our beliefs must be subject to change as we learn and grow. If everything you believe about God is the same today as it was ten or twenty years ago, then likely you have not been dedicated to reading and pondering God’s word, the Bible. It is a living and active book (Hebrews 4:12-13). The word itself is unchanging, but it changes us. We grow in time in our understanding, attitudes, character, and actions. Something we find silly today may prove true the more we learn and grow. So don’t reject something merely because it does not fit your current view of things. Instead, use that as motivation to dig deeper into God’s word.
But… Second, don’t accept them uncritically because they seem to be honest claims. As I mentioned above, some of these accounts have now proven fraudulent. Just because a person claims to have an experience about something doesn’t mean that it’s true. Likewise, the mind has been shown to do plenty of weird things with memories and processing, especially in times of trauma and stress. A person can believe they truly had an experience and yet be wrong. This is why Paul said of prophecies to test them.
So, third, test such claims against what the Bible says. Peter walked with Jesus, had experiences of great miracles, heard the Father’s voice echo from heaven on more than one occasion, and even experienced true visions. Yet when writing to the churches, he said, “We have something more sure”—speaking about God’s word. Peter wasn’t discounting his experiences, he was telling a host of other people looking to him for guidance that the word is a much better guide.
If a person claims to have seen a vision, had an experience, or received a revelation and it contradicts the Bible, then we are to trust God’s word against what the person says. From cover to cover, the Bible paints us in a story where the natural and supernatural interact. There is a spiritual war and spiritual forces of darkness. Pharaoh’s magicians were even able to mimic some of Moses’ signs in Exodus such as turning their staffs into snakes. Yet, Moses’ staff-snake swallowed up theirs. There can be false experiences and demonic experiences. If the event contradicts God’s word then it falls into one of these categories. If not, then there could be truth.
Finally, long for God’s word more than the stories and experiences of others. Even if some of these books and experiences are true, they still pale in comparison to the Bible. Again, Peter said God’s word is something more sure. And Paul wrote in 2 Timothy 3:16-17 that God’s word is sufficient to guide us and grow us in a faithful Christian life. In Deuteronomy 29:29, Moses wrote that the secret things belong to the Lord but the things revealed belong to us and our children forever.
If you really want to know what God says about heaven and eternity, look to the Bible. Crave to understand what God has revealed to us through it. This is our hope and source of life and wisdom and joy. Other works should, at best, assist our understanding and not drive it. So, instead of rushing to read the next bestseller, we should rush to read, ponder, and absorb God’s very word.
This post is part of our ongoing journey through the Bible as a church.
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