Heaven is For Real: Is Discernment Dead?


We have good reason to believe that discernment is floating dead atop the surface of the wide stream of American evangelicalism like a bloated corpse drifting with the current. As far as that goes, discernment may not be dead in America’s largest denomination, but it is certainly dying. An example for your consideration…

Dr. Steve Lemke, who can be seen here arguing the not-so-Traditionalist position in this PBS segment on Calvinism, is professor of religion and philosophy and serves as provost at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary (SBC). According to the NOBTS website, Lemke’s teaching specialties include world religions, historical theology, soteriology and eschatology. In other words, Dr. Lemke is a learned man. And certainly, studying and teaching in the fields of theology, soteriology, and eschatology would make one well enough aware of the monumental Biblical challenges to the basic precept of Heaven is For Real and its subsequent assertions throughout. And to be charitable, Dr. Lemke says that he’s not read the book – and yet he all-the-more disturbingly seems to endorse it as providing “at least some evidence for there being ‘the other side’.”

He then credits ‘Gary H.’ from the bastion of sound theological teaching that is Liberty University. “Gary H” is Gary Habermas, apologist and professor at Liberty University. Interestingly enough, the director for the upcoming film Heaven is For Real recently spoke at Liberty University.

Visiting Liberty on March 26, director Randall Wallace spoke at their “convo” worship service and screened the film for the students. Wallace was originally only supposed to speak at the student assembly and show the film later to a few administrators, but students were so very excited by Wallace’s talk that Jerry Falwell Jr. invited eleven-hundred students to view the film also. The film is set to go public on April 16. The goal for the movie, as stated by Wallace, is to “put the nation back on track.”

However, the details of the book ought to strictly and immediately raise the red flag of discernment for even the most elementary of Christians – let alone those serving as provost of Southern Baptist seminaries. As the Berean Call points out, certain of the child’s supposed experiences (angels singing Jesus Loves Me to him; his sitting on Jesus’ lap; meeting John the Baptist and the angel, Gabriel; petting Jesus’ rainbow-colored horse, his descriptions of Jesus’ wounds and attire, including a crown with a pink diamond that Jesus wore, etc.), others are theologically problematic.

The child also describes everyone having wings, indistinguishable from angels. This might be expected from a child giving an image of Heaven from their fanciful imagination, but it is hardly acceptable from the vantage-point of Scripture. But instead of opining on the absolute ridiculous and unscriptural notion of returning from Heaven found in Heaven is For Real, just consider this clip from my friend, Justin Peters, discussing this on Brannon Howse’s program.

Now, keep in mind that the Apostle Paul speaks of himself “being caught up in the third Heaven” in 2 Corinthians 12:2 – and what does not follow is the Apostle Paul then explaining to us the interior decoration of Heaven, Jesus’ horse of many colors, or any other aspect of Heaven that God chose to not reveal in the written revealed Word of God. Neither was the Apostle Paul receiving this vision as an accidental, premature visit to Heaven from a near-death experience. Maybe we should take a hint.

What’s forgotten is that Burpo’s book (and Wallace’s movie by the same name, Heaven is for Real) is nothing new, novelty, or unique. Phil Johnson gives a good list of books with similar testimonies that have become so prominent in the evangelical marketplace that Tim Challies has come to call the genre “Heaven Tourism.” Johnson gives the list including My Journey to Heaven: What I Saw and How It Changed My Life, by Marvin J. Besteman; Flight to Heaven: A Plane Crash . . .A Lone Survivor . . .A Journey to Heaven—and Back, by Dale Black; To Heaven and Back: A Doctor’s Extraordinary Account of Her Death, Heaven, Angels, and Life Again: A True Story, by Mary Neal; 90 Minutes in Heaven: A True Story of Death and Life, by Don Piper; Nine Days In Heaven, by Dennis Prince; 23 Minutes In Hell: One Man’s Story About What He Saw, Heard, and Felt in that Place of Torment, by Bill Wiese.

Johnson writes:

This is not a totally new phenomenon…What’s different about the current crop of afterlife testimonies is that they are being eagerly sought and relentlessly cranked out by evangelical publishers…

These books are coming out with such frequency that it is virtually impossible to read and review them all. But that shouldn’t even be necessary. No true evangelical ought to be tempted to give such tales any credence whatsoever, no matter how popular they become. One major, obvious problem is that these books don’t even agree with one another. They give contradictory descriptions of heaven and thus cannot possibly have any cumulative long-term effect other than the sowing of confusion and doubt.

Johnson continues…

Why Christians who profess to believe the Bible would find these stories the least bit compelling is an utter mystery, but it is a sure sign that many in the evangelical movement have abandoned their evangelical convictions. Specifically, they have relinquished the principle of sola Scriptura and lost their confidence in the sufficiency of Scripture. Why else would they turn from clear biblical teaching on heaven and seek an alternative view in mystical experiences that bear no resemblance to what Scripture tells us?…

Evangelical readers’ discernment skills are at an all-time low, and that is why books like these proliferate. Despite the high profile, high sales figures, and high dollar amounts Christian publishers can milk from a trend such as this, it doesn’t bode well for the future of Christian publishing—or for the future of the evangelical movement.

Johnson is right. And one more thing – it certainly doesn’t bode well for Southern Baptists (or in particular, New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary) that its leaders haven’t rejected outright the premise of Heaven is For Real from the onset. It was only a few years ago that the Montana Southern Baptist Convention brought in Don Piper to shill his book, Ninety Minutes in Heaven. The problem is pandemic.

At the heart of it, our infatuation for these extra-biblical revelations don’t merely speak of our lack of discernment (although that’s frightening enough). Our infatuation for these extra-biblical revelations speak of our disinterest and disenchantment with the sufficient, written Word of God.





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