When I was a boy, my grandmother told me stories of heaven. I remember her telling me in vivid detail about Percy Collett. His story, told through audiocassette tapes, of walking in heaven with Jesus for five-and-a-half days, became popular in Pentecostal and charismatic circles in the 1980s. His fantastic account, including a geographic map of heaven, was simultaneously riveting and confusing to me as a young boy.
The subject of heaven and the afterlife fascinates our modern culture.
Every few years a story of heaven with an exclusive glimpse into the afterlife gathers popular attention. In the 2010 New York Times bestseller Heaven Is for Real, a young boy’s near-death experience and description of his time in heaven captivated audiences. In 2014 the book was made into a major motion picture. These depictions, alongside the many anecdotal accounts of people detailing near-death or out-of-body experiences, have contributed to our collective cultural vision of heaven and the afterlife. What is it about these stories and experiences that is so compelling? Is it possible that many today find these stories more compelling than the biblical vision of heaven and the resurrection? The answers to these questions are of grave importance. What we say about heaven reveals what we hope heaven will be like.
HEAVEN IN POPULAR IMAGINATION
The popularity of near-death experiences reveals that the subject of heaven and the afterlife fascinates our modern culture. Terrence Nichols in his book Death and Afterlife (Brazos, 2010), writes, “The evidence from evolutionary biology and neuroscience strongly challenges the traditional Christian belief in a soul that survives bodily death. But there are other streams of evidence, usually ignored by those in the sciences that do support the claim that the mind survives physical death. These are the so-called near-death experiences.” Many people who have had these types of experiences recount emergency or operating-room scenes that include visions of bright light, the meeting of a religious figure, the experiencing of a “life review” or having a brief encounter with deceased family members and friends. Because of the strong anecdotal evidence from people across spectrums of culture, age, gender and religion, these experiences should not be dismissed. However, the degree to which these experiences, coupled with modern accounts of “heaven experiences,” have shaped the modern Christian’s expectation of heaven is striking. Have we allowed accounts of these experiences more than we’ve taken in the biblical witness, allowing them to shape our understanding of what heaven will be like?
At a typical funeral in America today, one is likely to hear descriptions of heaven that focus extensively on the reuniting of loved ones and the hope that the deceased is now free to enjoy his or her greatest pleasures in earthly life without restriction. Though these may indeed be features of heaven and our lives with God, one attending a Christian funeral today would be tempted to think this was our highest expectation of heaven. Carol Zaleski, who has studied near-death experiences and the otherworld journeys of the ancient Greeks, Egyptians and Romans, concludes that, just like the ancients, today’s stories are “through and through a work of the socially conditioned religious imagination” (quoted in Scott McKnight’s The Heaven Promise: Engaging the Bible’s Truth About Life to Come [Waterbrook Press, 2015]). It is not surprising that our modern views of heaven and the afterlife seem to be shaped more by these socially conditioned imaginations than the Word of God itself. These visions of heaven have more to do with the hope of continuing on with the good things experienced here on earth than the promise of life with God in its longed-for fullness.
In fact, these visions only tell part of the story. They neglect the triumphal return of Christ and the bodily resurrection of the dead. In other words, too many Christians have a truncated view of eternal life with God. Instead, the visions we carry around with us on a daily basis are often dominated by the cultural hopes of endless rounds of golf, fly fishing and family-reunion planning. McKnight concludes, “[A near-death experience] expresses what the person already believes. I’m not denying the experience or its impact. But the interpretation of that experience flows out of what one already thinks.” What we say about heaven reveals what we hope heaven will be like.
WHAT’S MISSING? GOD
What is missing, then, from these personal accounts of heaven and many near-death experience testimonies? Unfortunately, it is often God himself. Though the Bible says little about where our loved ones exactly are now in heaven, there is much in Scripture about the coming of the Lord, the final resurrection of the dead and the worship of God in heaven. The apostle John in Revelation 22:3-5 writes, “No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign for ever and ever.” This is a biblical vision of heaven.
Why then are near-death experiences and accounts of heavenly experiences so compelling today? Perhaps they tap into the highest vision of the good life we can imagine. Perhaps we find ourselves moved by the kind of happiness we have experienced in the past and long to always experience in the present and future. McKnight succinctly reminds us of what should be at the very center of our visions and expectations of heaven: “I believe not only in an afterlife but in Heaven. I don’t believe in Heaven on the basis that people have been there and come back. I believe in Heaven because God promised Heaven and because Jesus was raised from the dead.”
The Christian needs more than the bright light or the reunion with loved ones or the hope of recreation. The Christian needs the hope of the resurrection. Our funerals need the hope of the resurrection. We need a vision of heaven that is rooted in the very promise of life with God in all its fullness, in which the presence of God and the worship of God are at the very center.
Phil Letizia is assistant pastor of discipleship at Community Church, Boynton Beach, Florida, and a doctoral student in practical theology at the University of Aberdeen.