Heaven is for Real: Why I’m Skeptical of the Afterlife Industry
Heaven is for Real, a movie based upon the same-named book by Todd Burpo, recently debuted in theaters around the country. Like the book that preceded it, the movie has generated a great deal of interest, already proving to be a box office success. Similar to The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven by Kevin Malarkey and 90 Minutes in Heaven: A True Story of Death and Life by Don Miller and countless other experienced-based books on the afterlife, Heaven is for Real is an autobiographical account of heaven from a four year-old boy who ostensibly experienced it.
In years past, I simply shrugged my shoulders at such books, seeing them as nonsensical and unhelpful. Yet, afterlife books and resources have congealed into something of an industry—an industry of books, paraphernalia, and movies—with a consequential and costly underbelly. And this new industry is generating massive revenues for those with a compelling afterlife story to tell.
Whether it comes from charlatans intentionally profiteering off of duped Christians or persons sincerely, but mistakenly, substituting their own dreams and imaginations for heavenly experiences, I’m deeply skeptical of the afterlife industry for a number of reasons.
The Finality of Death
First, the Bible associates death with finality. Not finality of existence, for each person will last forever in heaven or hell. Rather, the Bible states that death happens once, not in multiple iterations or in multiple stages.
As the author of Hebrews makes plain: “It is appointed unto man once to die and then face the judgment.” Death may occur slowly, and one may be in a suspended state of near-death, due to medicinal treatments or other physiological phenomena, but one only truly dies once.
Heaven is God-Centered, not Man-Centered
Second, afterlife testimonies typically present heaven as remarkably man-centered. These accounts include protracted, personal interactions with Jesus, and enjoying and touring heaven with Christ. It is as though Jesus’ main concern is to make the short-term visitor feel welcome and happy. This does not correspond with the Bible’s accounts of heaven.
In Scripture, the great heaven scenes reveal worship centered on the throne. The focus of heaven is on worshiping Christ, not taking a victory lap with him. In heaven Jesus is not preoccupied with us. We are preoccupied with Jesus.
Incompatible with Biblical Accounts of Heaven
Third, the biblical accounts of individuals who saw heaven depart in content and tone from afterlife testimonies. Consider those in Scripture who actually experienced heaven or were raised from the dead. On the rare occasion when God granted a living person first-hand knowledge of heaven, it occurred as a vision—not an actual tour—and the accounts are relatively brief and remarkably consistent. Isaiah, Ezekiel, Paul, and John all received visions, not private tours, and certainly not afterlife or near-death encounters.
What is more, the Bible never recounts any person raised from the dead—including Lazarus who was dead four days—elaborating on heaven or the afterlife. Whether from personal vision or resurrection, the Bible studiously deemphasizes such experiences.
The Contradictory Testimonies
Fourth, one does not have to read many testimonies of those who supposedly went to heaven, received a tour, and returned to earth to find how much these accounts vary. Beyond the typical “saw bright lights, experienced joy, everything was beautiful, etc.” reflections, there often is a stunning degree of contradiction. Heaven is for real, but contradictory testimonies about heaven cannot be.
A More Sure Word
Fifth, experientialism plays well on daytime talk shows and in pop-culture, but for Christians, Scripture alone is our authority. It is God’s special revelation to us, and it is a perfect, sure, and adequate divine disclosure to us.
That is why, if God chose miraculously to interrupt the laws of nature and resurrect a person from the dead, one’s afterlife story would still merit shrugged shoulders. When Peter recounted his personal interaction with Christ and hearing the voice of God affirm Jesus with “This is my beloved son in whom I am well-pleased,” he determined the prophetic word—Holy Scripture—as much more sure than experience.
Granted, modern medicine and 21st century hospitalization have made death more of a process than a moment. I find it entirely believable that one may see lights, hear noises, and experience all sorts of phenomenon while in a semi-conscious or subconscious state. But let’s not make hospital lights, medical equipment, sedation, and mental disorientation synonymous with divine revelation.
And let’s especially not confuse the afterlife industry with biblical Christianity. It’s merely 21st century Gnosticism, accelerated by 21st century capitalism. Such books are bad for the church, bad for the lost, and misleading to all who read them. If you want to know more about the afterlife, don’t look to fanciful books about heaven, look to heaven’s book—the Bible.
 Hebrews 9:27
 Isaiah 6:1–4; Ezekiel 1; Revelation 4, 5.
II Peter 1:16–20.
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