Though the shelves of bookstores are lined with books from authors of all walks of life claiming out-of-body and near-death experiences, few of them rise to nationally-known status. Even when such books do garner national attention, very seldom are such books even acknowledged by the broader Christian community. Most are rejected outright, and rightly so. Their claims of postmortem experiences, disembodied voices, bright lights, and long-dead loved ones somehow lack the veracity to make them even slightly believable. So, when a book of this ilk has penetrated the Christian community, it gets my attention.
In Ninety Minutes in Heaven, Baptist pastor and author Don Piper describes an experience in which he claims to have died, gone to heaven, and returned to earth. The book tells of Piper’s death in an automobile accident in 1989. During the 90 minutes which elapsed while paramedics discerned no signs of life in Piper, the author claims to have truly been in heaven. He describes the sights and wonders that greeted him on his brief visit to glory before another pastor prayed for him and he was returned to life on earth.
There are elements of Piper’s description of his time in heaven which trouble me. They teach a different view of heaven than that of Scripture. The most blatant of these issues is in Piper’s description of the music of heaven. He tells that, though any songs he heard were familiar, he heard no songs such as “the Old Rugged Cross.” Then he claims to have realized that in heaven, there would be no songs of Christ’s sacrifice, because in heaven, there would be no songs of sadness.
Piper seems to have missed that John, in his biblically validated visit to heaven, describes songs and sights that are completely focused on the sacrifice of Christ as a thing of glory. For example, Revelation 5:9 describes one heavenly song in this way: “And they sang a new song, saying, ‘Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation.’” Later in the same scene, John declares that myriads sang, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” (Rev. 5:12). Even in the description of the holy city, Christ is still referred to as the Lamb, indicating his sacrifice (Rev. 21:22, 23, 27; 22:1, 3). So Piper’s claim that no songs in heaven will refer to the blood or sacrifice of Christ is simply unbiblical and imagined.
There are other elements of Piper’s description of heaven that are troubling. It is disturbing that Piper describes in vivid detail his attention first being focused on the crowd of people who came to welcome him. When John was transported to heaven, his attention was first transfixed on the throne of God and not on others (Rev. 4:2-3a). The relatives who came to welcome Piper in his description were all expressing how glad they were to see him. This contrasts with the words in the mouths of those in heaven in the Scripture which focus almost exclusively on the glory of Christ. In fact, Piper was the center of attention, the real star of the show, if you would believe his description of his heavenly stopover. Piper even corrects the Bibles description of the heavenly city’s gates, calling them pearl-looking in their sheen, not, as the Bible claims, “And the twelve gates were twelve pearls, each of the gates made of a single pearl” (Rev. 21.21a).
Am I calling Don Piper a liar? Not really. I do not know what he experienced or what he believes he saw. He is not claiming, at least not in his book, to have brought back any sort of new revelation for the people of God. He simply is talking about what he believes himself to have seen. However, when a man decides to preach and teach things that are not present in Scripture or which claim to be experiences that go beyond Scripture, such a teacher is dangerous, regardless of how well-intentioned.
The important thing for Christians to grasp is that no man’s experience is as solid as is the Scripture, the word of God. Allow me to show you this principle from the book of 2 Peter. Peter described in vivid detail his experience of seeing Jesus on the mountain of transfiguration (2 Pet. 1:16-18), using his experience with Jesus as evidence that his gospel was true. But Peter immediately followed up his personal testimony with these powerful words, “And we have something more sure, the prophetic word” (2 Pet. 1:19). Peter said that, even though his experience, his eyewitness testimony, was gripping, nothing was more solid and certain than the word of God.
Instead of relying on Scripture as the revelation of God, Piper regularly looks to other standards to claim revelation. He relies on circumstances, the responses of friends, inner voices, and personal peace as the tools to discern what is truly from God or God’s will. Presenting such standards to credulous people has the potential to do them harm, leading them away from the genuine revelation of God, the Bible, and into mysticism and subjectivism.
What should be done with Don Piper and his book? While I offer no condemnation for anyone who read and enjoyed the book, I certainly would recommend that others not do so. Other books, better books, have been written by authors who use the Scriptures to give people glimpses into heaven (one suggestion : John MacArthur, The Glory of Heaven, Crossway, 1998). Piper’s description of heaven misses the mark from a biblical standpoint, and thus smacks of man’s own imaginings. The Scripture must be our guide, and Christians should beware of any teacher who claims to know something that is beyond the Bible.