The Heaven tourism industry is booming. Books chronicling near-death experiences and subsequent visions of heaven top the bestseller lists. Big hollywood studios buy film rights and made tens of millions of dollars on movies adaptations. People want to know what Heaven is like. Anyone who has lost a loved one understands this desire. We take comfort in saying, “they are in a better place now.” We want flesh and blood people whom we can see on T.V., sharing their experiences of heaven.
As Christians who hold the Bible as our authority, what should we make of these accounts? What is their value? What does our fascination with these stories tell us about our culture and ourselves?
One thing that has struck me on our study through the book of Acts is how word-centered it is. The book of Acts is basically the Apostles sharing God’s word in a bunch of different places. Last week we looked at the first part of Acts 17. Verses 2 and 3 read, “[Paul] reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that the Messiah had to suffer and rise from the dead.” In verse 11 it says of the Bereans, “they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.” What we see over and over again in Acts is that Scripture is sufficient in itself. It contains everything we need for our life. Paul doesn’t need to go outside of Scripture for his message. And when the Bereans challenge and test Scripture it doesn’t break. Jesus himself said in John 10 that Scripture cannot be broken.
And this leads to where we need to be careful with these accounts of Heaven. While Scripture cannot be broken, these accounts can. It’s certainly embarrassing when we learned that “The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven” actually didn’t. Alex Malarkey recanted his testimony about the afterlife saying, “I did not die. I did not go to Heaven.” Now this doesn’t mean others books about heavenly experiences are based on lies. It’s hard to argue with someone's experience. But there is a danger in pinning our hopes or trust on someone else's experience of heaven. What if it also turns out to be a lie? What is your faith resting on then? In his letter where he recants his story, Alex says,
I said I went to heaven because I thought it would get me attention. When I made the claims that I did, I had never read the Bible. People have profited from lies, and continue to. They should read the Bible, which is enough. The Bible is the only source of truth. Anything written by man cannot be infallible.
A danger with these accounts of Heaven is that they can undermine the sufficiency of Scripture. They can take the place of Scripture in our understanding of Heaven. It’s as if we are saying, “God didn’t finish giving us everything we needed, so here’s a little extra for you.” But when we do that we are ultimately saying that we know better than God regarding Heaven. But shouldn’t we trust that the one who made us and loves us enough to die for us would give us exactly what we need to know? While these accounts may help confirm what we already know through Scripture, it’s dangerous when they add to it or when we trust in them.
Our fascination with heaven is partly borne out of a dissatisfaction with earth. We lose our loved ones, and we wonder if we will see or even recognize them again. Our bodies are falling apart, and we long for something better. We long to be free from the pain. And thus we should talk about heaven. We should long for heaven!
But we want to know specifics, and this is where we can feel the Bible is lacking. And where we do have details, they seem odd or unhelpful. Streets of gold are certainly cool, but don’t seem practical! But Scripture is sufficient, and perhaps we need to do a better job of understanding what Scripture says about heaven. Because when we do that, we get something that is far better than anything we can read elsewhere. It is helpful to remember that our emotions are a gift from God. We might abuse our emotions, so that we seek pleasure and joy from things that are contrary to God’s purposes, but pleasure and joy themselves are not contrary to God’s purposes. They are in fact gifts from God, and he wants us to enjoy them; when we are seeking those things in Christ, we will experience the greatest pleasure and joy and so much more.
We might not know the details of Heaven, but we do know it holds the greatest joy we’ve ever known. Remember the greatest happiness of your life. Recall the greatest sense of pleasure you’ve ever had. Now realize those experiences will seem small and fleeting compared to the joy and pleasure of Heaven. Tears are wiped away. Pain is gone. Mourning ceases. Heaven is for real, and it’s greater than we can ever imagine.
If you are interested in learning more about what the Bible has to say about Heaven, you can listen to this sermon from Isaiah 60:18-22. Scot McKnight also has a helpful book,
called The Heaven Promise: Engaging the Bible's Truth About Life to Come.