This boasting will do no good, but I must go on. I will reluctantly tell about visions and revelations from the Lord. I was caught up to the third heaven fourteen years ago. Whether I was in my body or out of my body, I don’t know—only God knows. Yes, only God knows whether I was in my body or outside my body. But I do know that I was caught up to paradise and heard things so astounding that they cannot be expressed in words, things no human is allowed to tell. (2 Corinthians 12: 1-4, NLT)
Have you noticed the spate of books on Heaven in the last few years? And not just books theorizing on what Heaven may be like. I mean all of the books by people who have died, visited Heaven, and come back to tell us about it. Books like To Heaven And Back, Heaven Is For Real, The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven, and 90 Minutes In Heaven (not to be confused with 23 Minutes In Hell). They seem to be popping up all over. People telling of near-death experiences where they visited Heaven, only to be told they needed to come back to this world to testify of their trip.
What are we to make of these stories? Is there something God wants us to heed through all of these books, or are they just words given to tickle itching ears and line publishers’ and authors’ pockets with easy money (and they do sell extremely well)? Why are people clamoring for such books?
As always, I may be raising up more questions than offering answers.
To be honest, I don’t think that much of Heaven. That’s not to say I don’t long to be with Jesus, in his visible and tangible presence. That is the hunger and longing of every beat of my heart. But I don’t spend my days cursing my rotten luck that I’m stuck here in this world and pining for the next. Not at all. I want to see and hear Jesus today, right here, right now. He told me to follow him. I don’t think for a minute that means I am to sit here, isolated from this world, waiting to follow him into the clouds where I will be able to see him clearly and then follow him. No. He said to follow him now, today, right here where I am right now.
Still, I have a deep hunger for a food I’ve never tasted. I long for Heaven, though I have but the smallest idea what it will be like, and even that idea is probably off-kilter. And this brings me back to the books on Heaven. Why are there so many right now? Is God wanting to give us an appetizer before the main course? Are these stories to whet the appetite of those who have forgotten their hunger? Are they to awaken a hunger in some for the first time?
Let’s assume, for the sake of this essay, that the stories being told in these books are true. I have not done more than flip through them on the shelves of the store, but they all seem to share the same elements. The author is in a horrific crash or accident, or is on the operating table undergoing surgery, when they seemingly die. At that time of near-death, they are caught up into a place where there is light, music, laughter, joy, celebration, love, and an overwhelming sense of the lightness of life. They are then revived and return to this life.
As I say, let’s believe what they (“they” being a collective pronoun for those who have written these books in the past few years; I am not including people like Todd Bentley who says he was beamed to Heaven in a pillar of fire during a church service) are writing is true. If so, then what is going on?
First—and, well, last as well—if these stories of visiting Heaven do not reveal Jesus and cause us to forsake all and follow him, I have no interest. None. I’m not saying they would not have merit as a scientific study or as interesting campfire tales. I’m just saying without Jesus, I ain’t giving them a moment of my time. Nyet interested. But if Jesus is revealed in these stories, count me in.
And I believe he is. And here is my thinking.
Let’s confine the effect these stories are having to the Western world, to our consumeristic culture. We are like Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King who lamented,
“Now I have already mentioned that there was a disturbance in my heart, a voice that spoke there and said, I want, I want, I want! It happened every afternoon, and when I tried to suppress it got even stronger. It said only one thing, I want, I want! And I would ask, ‘What do you want?’ But this is all it would ever tell me.”
We want what we know not what, but we want it very strongly. We’ve invented everything we can think of (for now) to try to satisfy that want, but we want all the more. All day long I sell video games, iPods, iPads, TVs, books, music and movies to people who want want want. They are satisfied for the moment, but will be back tomorrow to try and fill that want once more. Young and old alike, the people I see are starving for something nutritious, but are eating cardboard instead. They tell me of losing their jobs, of their families falling apart, of losing hope. Many who tell me this are Christians. Yet they still try to plug the leak in their soul with stuff that won’t satisfy.
Maybe—just maybe—God is speaking to us at our level. Maybe he is giving those who hunger a brief glimpse of the banquet table so that we don’t give up hope. Perhaps in his mercy he is giving us some bread and a glass of iced tea while we wait in the tension of the now but not yet.
These books about Heaven are not great literature, nor are they sound theology through and through. But they do show what changes have been wrought in their authors. Mary Neal, who wrote To Heaven And Back, was asked to describe the difference of her faith before her near-death experience, and then after her visit to heaven. She says,
Before my near-death-experience, I believed in God and took my kids to Sunday school but was not particularly religious. Like many accomplished young adults, I felt like I was in control of my life and my future. Although I tried to be a “good” and “moral” person, my faith was not integrated into my daily life and the demands of work and family left little time to think about spirituality.
With my near-death-experience, the truth of God’s promises and the reality of eternal life became a part of my every breath. I am in constant prayer and regardless of what I am doing, I try to reflect God’s love and live for His glory. I try not to miss opportunities to uplift or encourage the spiritual life of others, and I live with gratitude and joy, knowing that I never face challenges alone.
Ok then. There it is. A change from trying to accomplish righteousness on her own to receiving the righteousness given freely by God through Jesus. Is that a message that could change others’ lives as well? Is that a cup of living water, or just another piece of cardboard, pass the mustard please?
Is it ok if God chooses to awaken one’s heart to Jesus by causing them to hunger after Heaven? Sure it is. For me, I hunger now, but I know nothing in this life will completely satisfy that hunger. C.S. Lewis said that the very fact that we do hunger for something we cannot eat now should tell us that there is more to come. As for me, I need that reminder now and then so that I don’t ruin my appetite with junk food. Heaven is very real, and its banquet table laden with food beyond our imaginings.
Perhaps what we need to hear from these books is this: Get dressed, for the dinner bell is just about to sound.