Posts Tagged ‘Heaven Is for Real’

Heaven is for real, but so is resurrection

April 21, 2014

I guess “Resurrection Is for Real” would have made a great sermon title yesterday! Missed opportunity!

In this short critique of the new movie adaptation of the book Heaven Is for Real, theologian Roger Olson puts his finger on the main problem that I had with the book. Even though its author is a Wesleyan pastor who has received theological training, he writes as if the “intermediate state”—where souls go immediately upon death—is identically equal with the New Testament’s vision of future resurrection.

“Heaven” is a two-stage process. As N.T. Wright has said many times, our Christian hope isn’t for life after death, but life after life after death. When I read the book, I was disappointed that Todd Burpo said nothing about the difference between these two stages.

So here comes my main critique of the book and movie. I believe in the “intermediate state”—the technical theological term for conscious life after death before resurrection. But I fear the book and movie will reinforce the popular idea that the intermediate state is actually the fullness of heaven (and therefore not an intermediate state!). It isn’t. In fact, we are told very little about it in Scripture. Jesus called it (for the saved) “Paradise.” Paul referred to it as the “third heaven.” But Jesus told his disciples he would go away and prepare a place for them, then return and take them there—to his “Father’s house” with many rooms. So the fullness of heaven is after Christ returns. The “blessed hope” of believers in Christ has always been not the intermediate state, a bodiless existence of being with Christ, but the resurrection and the new heaven and new earth—liberated from bondage to decay (Romans 8).

The book and movie force us to think about this issue. Do we have to choose between the Bible’s revelation of personal eschatology (intermediate state then resurrection and heaven) and personal experiences of life after death?

As fascinating, inspiring and emotionally titillating as Colton Burpo’s experience was, we must not allow it or any other such testimony to become the basis of Christian belief. Our belief is based on Christ and his resurrection and on the Scriptural witness to him and to God’s plan for us. As Reinhold Niebuhr said, “We should not want to know too much about the furniture of heaven or the temperature of hell.” The key is “too much.” We can only “know” (believe) what Scripture says about life after death before the resurrection and that’s not much.

Heaven is for real, but not like this

September 9, 2011

Since so many church people are reading Todd Burpo’s Heaven Is for Real, and since I’m talking about heaven in this Sunday’s sermon, I’ve also read it. Two hours of my life I’ll never get back! It’s exactly like some glurgey chain email that your Aunt Sally forwards to you, except it’s 150 pages long! If the author were reading this, he would undoubtedly think, “Well of course you don’t like it! You’ve been to some fancy-pants seminary. You make everything so complicated, when in fact it’s really so simple. So simple a four-year-old child can understand it!”

To which I would respond as follows: Even giving Colton Burpo—the four-year-old son of the author who supposedly died and spent three minutes in heaven—the benefit of the doubt that he had some kind of out-of-body, near death experience (which are common), Christian eschatology is, in fact, so complicated that I would expect a four-year-old to misunderstand it.

I asked someone what she liked about the book, and she said, “It just gives us so much hope—that we will be reunited with our loved ones after death.” And I said, “That’s fine, but we have this other book, the Holy Bible, which does that, and it’s inspired by the Holy Spirit!” The whole phenomenon of the book is, for some Protestants, what weeping statues of Mary or visitations by the Virgin are for some Catholics: an inferior substitute for actual revelation.

Catholic theologian Hans Küng put it nicely when he said that he would much rather have one more sentence from St. Paul in scripture than all the pages of pronouncements from the Virgin Mary over the centuries. (Besides, the actual content of Mary’s contemporary words are always so banal compared to her revolutionary words back in Luke 2. I want to hear more from that Mary!)

We may not have as much information about heaven as we would like in the Bible, but it’s enough. God obviously thought it was enough. And where a four-year-old child’s version of heaven contradicts what little the Bible says on the subject, guess which authority I’m siding with?