There and back again?

What is it about evangelicals that seems to crave fads? These days we seem to be into stories about people's trips to heaven (or Hell) and back. It seems like a pretty good arrangement: Someone goes to heaven for a bit, they write a book, we buy gazillions of them, we feel good, they get rich. The newest title along these line is Heaven Is For Real. How do we know it's for real? Because a four year old little boy went there and told his dad who got to work writing a book about the whole thing. Apparently this thing is the hottest ticket since Don Piper told us about his 90 minutes in Heaven. Tim Challies reviews Heaven Is For Real HERE. I'm pointing this out because it speaks to our tendency to desire something more exciting than or supplemental to God's Word. This desire inevitably leads to error and worse. A few years ago I wrote a post entitled "The Triumph of the Sensational OR Did Don Piper Go to Heaven?"

I am letting you know up front that this post is going to make some of you mad. You will accuse me of being judgmental, critical, skeptical, etc. And, to a certain extent, you would be right. However, as someone called to be in service to the truth I believe I have to speak out when the church is confronted by error from within.

I received an email today from Lifeway, the publishing arm of the Southern Baptist Convention. It reads in part:

We are currently scheduling Don for June and July of 2009! Allow this wonderful brother to share with your church on a Sunday or a revival service. He offers real hope and biblical solutions to a searching world!!

Dear Pastor Todd: Hi there and greetings in the strong name of Jesus! Please visit Don's web site( and order the amazing book "90 Minutes In Heaven". It is a New York Times best seller with over 3,000,000 in print! The book has brought hope and healing to countless lives! Don has been Recommended by Life Way Christian Resources and Family Christian Bookstores. His book is also carried at Walmart. He has spoken at many evangelical churches from around the world and has been endorsed by Bill and Gloria Gaither; the late Dr. James Kennedy of the Coral Ridge Ministries among many others. Prayerfully consider having Don come share in your church on a Sunday or in a revival se rvice. Don Piper is now scheduling for the 2009 calendar year! Your church will never be the same! Contact me personally for more details!

Now, to my question: “Did Don Piper go to heaven?”

I doubt it. Let me rephrase that: I SERIOUSLY doubt it. I am a skeptic. Perhaps I’m a little jaded but I do not believe that Don Piper spent one minute in heaven much less ninety. How can I say that? Simple. I find the entire notion that God took Mr. Piper to heaven and then sent him back so he could tell us that heaven is really there to be unbiblical and utter nonsense. Does everyone whose heart stops beating get sent off to the place of eternal bliss or damnation only to be yanked back the moment that doctors are able to get their hearts going again? Is clinical death the equivalent of dead-as-a-doornail death? Hebrews 9:27 says, “And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment…”

Piper has said, "I like to say that I came back by popular demand. People prayed me back from the gates of heaven. People prayed me back from death's door. I'm here because people asked God for me to be here." Is this biblical? Can we “pray people back” from heaven? Does it matter if we get something like that wrong? Can we afford to be sloppy about our theology of heaven, death, prayer, etc.? Besides all of that, there is an eternity of difference between coming back from the “gates of heaven” and returning from “death’s door.” And this gets to the heart of my problem with Don Piper’s story. I have no doubt he was knock, knock, knockin’ on death’s door. But for biblical reasons I do not believe he was called back from the courts of heaven.

Let me back up just a moment. DON Piper, not to be confused with JOHN Piper (someone worth reading), is the author of the bestseller “90 Minutes In Heaven.” The book has sold about 5 gazillion copies. It has also proven to be an impressive marketing tool having produced a number of spin-off products. There is also the ubiquitous devotional book based upon “90 Minutes” for those who are apparently bored with the Bible. I am still waiting for the “90 Minutes Shofar” to accompany the “Prayer of Jabez Prayer Shawl.”

One of the things that trouble me about the whole 90 Minutes in Heaven phenomenon is that it reveals contemporary evangelical’s boredom with the Bible. Simply put, the Word of God seems to be insufficient for Christians today. I have been told by wonderful people that “90 Minutes in Heaven” helped comfort them after the loss of a loved one. I want to tread carefully here. But when did the Bible stop being a sufficient means to comfort us with the blessed hope of heaven?

This is a far cry from biblical commentaries and books of theology and doctrinal instruction that simply seek to expound upon the Bible’s teaching. What Piper’s book, and others like it, seeks to do is supplement what the Bible says with something more exciting. After all, who wants to read about Jesus’ promise to prepare for us a home when a contemporary writer can tell us what it looks like because he’s been there? Contemporary Christianity’s infatuation with the sensational has led to innumerable errors and outright heresy. History is pockmarked with would-be messiahs, prophets, and teachers who enrich themselves selling stories of their dreams, magical cures, and flights of fancy.

I can hear the protests. “Todd, isn’t it worth it if one person comes to know Christ because of Don Piper’s book?” I will answer that question thusly: People will not come to know Christ because they read “90 Minutes in Heaven.” Period. The means God uses to bring men and women to faith is the Word of God. “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17; cf. 10:8-14).

Jesus spoke to this issue. In Luke’s Gospel Jesus recounts the story of the rich man and Lazarus. You will remember that both men die. The rich man goes to hell and Lazarus is welcomed into the arms of heaven. Not wanting his five brothers to die and go to hell, the rich man begs Abraham to send Lazarus back to earth to warn them. “Surely,” the rich man reasoned, “if they see someone back from the dead they will believe.” It certainly makes sense. But Abraham’s response is almost shocking: “They have Moses and the Prophets [the Scriptures]; let them hear them…If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead” (Luke 16:19-31).

That’s right. The Word of God is more powerful than the testimony of someone returning from the dead.

I do not know anything about Don Piper. I do not know whether or not he actually believes he went to heaven for 90 minutes. His sincerity or lack thereof makes little difference to me. What matters to me is that hundreds of thousands of Christians seem to need a fanciful tale to offer them comfort or spiritual sustenance. What matters to me is that many Christians have spent more time reading pages from Don Piper’s books than God’s Book.

Now, to those who would say, “Who are you to question his spiritual experience?” I simply say, “I am, I suppose, his brother in Christ.” If a brother in Christ will not question his experience in light of God’s Word then who will? If I claim that God has given me the power to raise the dead or heal all forms of cancer then I would hope that a brother or sister would want some sort of confirmation. I hope that more would be expected from me than just, “Trust me. It’s all there in my book. And by the way, who are you to question me?”

Read the Bible my friends. Live within its pages. Also, read good books by Bible-saturated men and women. Spurgeon said of John Bunyan, “Prick him anywhere and he bleeds ‘bibline.’” Read The Pilgrim’s Progress and you will know what Spurgeon meant. The “Christian” publishing industry is going to continue to churn out fluff, even garbage and businesses like Lifeway Christian Book Stores will be waiting in the wings to sell it.