If you either grew up in the 70’s or 80’s or haven’t been living in a bubble the last few years, then you’ve likely heard (or read) about someone having a vision of heaven. In the last couple of years, it’s been a hot market for Christian book publishers even gaining national media attention in some cases (see the Burpo’s story). Just a generic Amazon search will reveal the masses of book titles about near-death experiences where visions of heaven were revealed or dreams (some out of body experiences some not?) about seeing Jesus, along with family relatives, and some that rival tales similar to alien abduction. On the surface, it would seem these books have a positive intent, perhaps to encourage or convince people that heaven is in fact a real place and accounts of seeing it along with seeing Jesus could do nothing but confirm that right? Defenders of these titles will quickly jump to the Apostle Paul’s recount of his heavenly vision in 2 Corinthians 12:1-10 and say “See! There’s biblical support for such encounters!” But there is a myriad of problems with this argument not the least of which is that the Apostle did not boast of his vision, referring to himself in the 3rd person, and he did not build an argument for either the existence of heaven or the existence of Jesus based on what he saw. Likewise, Paul’s experience cannot be normalized as a proof for what people may experience today. If that were true, then we all should rush to the Damascus Road in hopes to have an encounter with the risen Lord.
A second approach to defending the stories detailed in books like Heaven is for real, 90 Minutes in Heaven, To Heaven and Back, et.al. is that some will say these are their stories and how can someone else say they are untrue. It’s therefore their word against their detractors and what’s the harm if it encourages readers, right? Well, it actually is a big problem, because the Word of God is sufficient. Through the illumination of the Holy Spirit, the Bible is sufficient for coming to an understanding of the existence of heaven and more importantly the existence of God and His Son Jesus Christ. God has provided exactly all that we need to know regarding heaven and that revelation is closed and confined to His Word.
These books (I’m somewhat generalizing here because I have not read them all) lack several important, biblical evidences that serve as proofs of a genuine experience. If we return briefly to the Apostle Paul’s experience, we see 3 key elements that we’ve already touched briefly on: 1) He did not boast, nor did he want himself thought highly of 2) He provided no details on what he saw 3) Just to ensure humility, God sent a thorn for his flesh. The modern accounts of heavenly experiences are detailed, they are marketed and sold, they are publicized through media interviews and reports, and I know of none who were given a “thorn in the flesh” by God as an instrument of humility. Surely, these authors and visionaries are not more humble than the Apostle Paul. Why then would he need humbled and not them?
To the next point, and the chief reason I chose to write this post, the biblical authors who had first hand visions of heaven, angelic beings, and God Himself, all have a common response that none of the modern authors have, and it alone is a tell for their accuracy. Let’s look at Ezekiel 1:26-28 as we read of the prophet’s response to his heavenly vision:
“26 And above the expanse over their heads there was the likeness of a throne, in appearance like sapphire; and seated above the likeness of a throne was a likeness with a human appearance. 27 And upward from what had the appearance of his waist I saw as it were gleaming metal, like the appearance of fire enclosed all around. And downward from what had the appearance of his waist I saw as it were the appearance of fire, and there was brightness around him. 28 Like the appearance of the bow that is in the cloud on the day of rain, so was the appearance of the brightness all around.
Such was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord. And when I saw it, I fell on my face, and I heard the voice of one speaking.”
Note the response from Ezekiel after taking in the majesty of the heavenly vision which culminated in seeing the pre-incarnate Christ: “And when I saw it, I fell on my face” Ezekiel was so awe-struck by his encounter with the holiness of God that out of fear and reverence he fell to his face. Some may disagree, but it seems this was hardly a voluntary response by Ezekiel. Look at what happens next in chapter 2:1-2, “1And he said to me, “Son of man, stand on your feet, and I will speak with you.” 2 And as he spoke to me, the Spirit entered into me and set me on my feet, and I heard him speaking to me.” Ezekiel was commanded by the pre-incarnate Christ to stand, yet he was unable. The Holy Spirit literally had to set him on his feet. Such is the response of those who have had a genuine vision of heavenly things, let alone the Lord God Almighty.
Ezekiel’s response is not isolated. The Apostle John had a similar vision and response as recorded in Revelation upon seeing the risen Savior, “17 When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he laid his right hand on me, saying, “Fear not, I am the first and the last, 18 and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.” Revelation 1:17-18 John’s response was remarkably similar to Ezekiel’s and this is not coincidental. This is the immediate response by those who see Christ, namely to worship. And not just trivial worship, but on your face “as though dead.” In other words, a complete and total collapse before the glory and holiness of God. Additionally, John records a second response for us, this time in regards to an angelic being, “Then I fell down at his feet to worship him, but he said to me, “You must not do that! I am a fellow servant with you and your brothers who hold to the testimony of Jesus. Worship God.” For the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy.” Revelation 19:10 John was so overcome by the created beings in the presence of God that his response was to fall down and worship them (though as we see he mistakenly worshipped the angel), not hold hands and skip through gates of pearl down streets of gold.
Can men have dreams of heaven? Certainly, but the image they conjure is not a divine revelation, but more like a human depiction of what they may think the divine holds. Books and stories about visions of heaven and sights of God outside of His Word are fanciful. They may entertain, but they do little to describe the majesty of heaven. If godly men whom God used to record His divine revelation lack the human words to describe the images they saw, how can it be that a 4 year old can? (Note how often Ezekiel uses comparative language in Ch. 1) As we’ve seen, the Apostle Paul provided a pattern of humility for those who have seen visions. But as we saw with Ezekiel and John, those who speak and write about what they’ve allegedly seen lack the proper response to seeing visions of heavenly things, namely the posture of worship, prostrate before the holiness of God. God has declared in His holy Word that “at the name of Jesus every knee will bow every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord.” Philippians 2:10-11 If the mere mention of His name generates that response, why should we expect the sight of Him to be any less?