Food for Thought: Competing Visions of Heaven

heaven2What would a trip to heaven look like?

In 2004, Baker Books decided to test-run a book about one man’s trip to heaven. The book was Don Piper’s Ninety Minutes in Heaven. In ten years, his book has sold over 6 million copies, been translated 46 times, and prompted a whole new genre of “Christian “ book—heavenly tourism.

I put “Christian” in quotes because even as visions of heaven are known in Scripture, the descriptions are nothing like the visions described in newfangled spiritual journeys. In fact, it is worth asking: What should we think about  Heaven is for Real, Ninety Minutes in Heaven, Twenty-three minutes in Hell, etc.? Let me offer five thoughts.

First, descriptions of heaven are superfluous to and compete with the Bible.

There are a number of times in Scripture when God’s word speaks of prophets and apostles entering God’s heavenly court. However, in the case of Isaiah (Isa 6), Paul (2 Cor 12), and John (Revelation), their vision became recorded Scripture. This is categorically different from the accounts offered by Piper, Burpo, and others. In a world of competing sound bytes, these books add to Scripture’s testimony of what to know and believe about God, heaven, and how we get there.

Likewise, for those raised back to life, Scripture has no record of their experience. Apparently, God’s sufficient word did not (and does not) need such testimony. In fact, in Jesus’ parable with the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19–31), Jesus makes it clear that if earth-dwellers “do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.” In context, this has direct application to Jesus death and resurrection, but it also relates to near death experiences today. If Heaven is for Real is considered a way to engender faith in those who won’t read the Bible, such thinking is a vain invention of man, not the ways of God. The Spirit (who inspired the Word) will do nothing to undermine the authority of the Scripture.

Second, in Scripture heavenly visions were accompanied by great afflictions.

John was not brought into heaven until his tortured exile on Patmos; when Isaiah left God’s throne room, he was tasked with proclaiming the ‘gospel’ to a nation who wouldn’t believe (Isa 6:9–11). And in Paul’s case, the apostle declared that a messenger from Satan accompanied his visions, so as to keep him from becoming conceited (2 Cor 12:7). By contrast, the recent heavenly accounts have brought acclaim, book contracts, and movie deals. There might be some slight discomforts that followed, but thorns sent from Satan himself? I’m doubtful. When we reconsider the places in Scripture where Paul, John, and Isaiah encounter God, it is apparent that the comparison is apples and oranges.

Third, God’s revelation always exalts Scripture and Jesus Christ.

In 2 Peter 1, Peter speaks of the origin of Scripture as arising from the Spirit and not man (vv. 19–21). Strikingly, he contrasts his own vision of glory with that of the OT. He says that the inspired word is more reliable than his own experience with the divine. Such apostolic humility gives us pause when we hear others speaking (and getting paid to speak) of their experience, especially when their message is more about heaven than Jesus. While Scripture is a radically, Christ-centered book (Luke 24:27; John 5:39), these new bestsellers focus more on heaven, than Jesus. And yet, what would heaven be like without Jesus? In a word, it would be hell! Indeed, for Christians, Christ is our heavenly hope. Or more put more starkly: Heaven is Christ.

Fourth, why are we convinced that uninspired heavenly visions are from God?

Since we know Satan masquerades as an angel of light (2 Cor 10:4), why would be surprised that in these days, the father of lies would seek to lead astray the elect of God, as Jesus says in Matthew 24:22, 24, 31? Would it not be a stratagem of Satan to concoct a series of visions that feign heaven, but without mentioning the gospel? Satan is very happy for people to believe in heaven and the afterlife, especially if takes them away from God’s Word or it increases the likelihood that they would begin looking for the sensational in life, instead of life in Scripture (cf. Deut 32:47). In other words, if Satan’s goal is to distance Christians from the truth God’s Word, why wouldn’t he use heavenly tourism as a way creating a taste for something less than Christ himself?

Fifth, and most importantly, heavenly visitations are superfluous for the believer who worships every Sunday.

Though we don’t often speak this way, when Christians assemble for worship, they visit heaven every Lord’s Day. Or better, heaven visits them. According to Hebrews 12, when believers gather in the name of Jesus, they are Spiritually and literally (if not bodily), gathering around the throne of Christ. Read Hebrews 12:22–24.

But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. 

It doesn’t say, “And you will come to Mount Zion” in the future; it speaks in the present tense: “You have come . . .”

When believers gather to worship, the Spirit of Jesus is present. When the Scriptures are read and preached rightly, Jesus, who sits in heaven, speaks on the earth. When the congregation sings a new song (i.e., a song of salvation), they are joining with the angels. And when we lift our hears in prayer, we are entering the very throne room of God. Sadly, too many Christians forget that they “travel” to heaven every week. As a result, they are vulnerable to the exotic testimonies of others.

In the end, heavenly tourism, as sold at the local Wal-Mart, is deficient, dangerous, and possibly even demonic. It competes with the way in which God has spoken, and it leads believers and unbelievers alike to put confidence in the words of men and experiences that stand outside of Scripture. All in all, it is a kind of literature that is not needed and should be avoided. God has given us everything we need for life and godliness in God’s word (2 Pet 1:3). The question for each of us is, “Do we have an appetite for the things of God, or are we content to settle for visions of heaven that speak little of the gospel?”

For more on visits to heaven, read David Jones four-page outline on ‘Near Death Experiences.’ It will give you more than a few things to think about and help you formulate a better understanding of what Scripture says about heaven, seeing God, and near death experiences.

Soli Deo Gloria, dss

 

Irenaeus Upholds Sola Scriptura [3]

Irenaeus3 Long before Paul Tillich, men like Valentinus were engaging in theological accommodation and “methods of correlation.”[1] David Dockery says of Valentinus, “His hermeneutical approach was more sophisticated than Marcion, beginning with a simple literal interpretation of the biblical passages and moving to a more esoteric instruction on ethical and spiritual truth.”[2] In response, Irenaeus excoriates Valentinus, saying, “They gather their views from other sources than the Scriptures,” and then use their wicked schema to tie biblical phrases together to come up with another system of doctrine.[3]

Irenaeus, on the other hand, from first to last is explicitly biblical. He outlines his method as one completely derived from the Bible, and he rejects Gnosticism on the basis that they corrupt the perfect word of God. Concerning the veracity of God’s word, he declares:

Our Lord Jesus Christ is the truth, and no lie is in Him. As also David says, prophesying His birth from a virgin, and the resurrection from the dead, “Truth has sprung out of the earth.” The apostles likewise, being disciples of the truth, are above all falsehood; for a lie has no fellowship with the truth, just as darkness has none with light.[4]

Earlier Irenaeus affirms divine inspiration, biblical inerrancy, and the apostolic authority of the Scriptures, writing, “the Scriptures are indeed perfect, since they were spoken by the Word of God and His Spirit.”[5] Congruently, Irenaeus holds to the unity and clarity of the Scriptures when he says, “the entire Scriptures, the prophets, and the Gospels, can be clearly, unambiguously, and harmoniously understood by all.”[6] In short, though centuries before the Reformation and the publication of systematic treatments of doctrine, this second century divine is firmly evangelical. He argues for Scripture’s inspiration, inerrancy, authority, sufficiency, necessity, and clarity.

Though some have argued that Irenaeus’ regula fidei, which appealed to apostolic tradition to defend Scripture, led to “a precedent for setting up church traditions as being of equal authority with Scripture,”[7] it can be equally discerned from his writings that the ultimate authority is the Bible itself. Contending against the Gnostics, whose fallacious doctrines had no historical warrant, he appealed to the church because the church is the “pillar and buttress of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15). In reading Against Heresies, it does not appear that Irenaeus himself is elevating tradition to the level of authoritative Scripture, but rather that he exhorts people to flee to the church because it is the church that possesses the life-giving Word of God.[8]


[1] The “method of correlation” was coined by Paul Tillich and encourages a dialetic approach to the Scripture where philosophy asks the question and the Bible supplies the answer. It is a twentieth century version of what the heretics have always done, comingle biblical truth with worldly philosophies (cf. Colossians 2:8). See Stanley Grenz and Roger Olson, Twentieth-Century Theology: God and the World in a Transitional Age (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1992), 114-29.

[2] Dockery, Biblical Interpretation Then and Now: Contemporary Hermeneutics in the Light of the Early Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1992), 60.

[3] Irenaeus employs one of his most colorful quotations to illustrate what these false teachers are doing. He writes, “Their manner of acting is just as if one, when a beautiful image of a king has been constructed by some skilful artist our of precious jewels, should then take this likeness of a man all to pieces, should re-arrange the gems, and so fit them together as to make them into the form of a dog or of a fox, and even that but poorly executed” (Irenaeus Adversus haereses 1.8.1).

[4] Irenaeus Adversus haereses 3.5.1.

[5]Uniting inerrancy, inspiration, and authority together in one sentence, Irenaeus avows, “; but we, inasmuch as we are inferior to, and later in existence than the Word of God and His Spirit, are on that very account destiture of the knowledge of His mysteries” (Irenaeus Adversus haereses 2.28.2).

[6] Irenaeus Adversus haereses 2.27.2. He continues in 2.28.3, “all Scripture, which has been given to us God, shall be found by us perfectly consistent; and the parables shall harmonize with those passages which are perfectly plain; and those statements the meaning of which is clear, shall serve to explain the parables; and through the many diversified utterances [of Scripture] there shall be heard one harmonious melody in us, praising in hymns that God who created all things.”

[7] Michael Haykin, Defence of the Truth (Webster, NY: Evangelical Press, 2004), 39; see also David Dockery’s appraisal in Biblical Interpretation Then and Now, 71-73.

[8] See Irenaeus Adversus haereses 3.1-5 for a detailed section of his appeal to the “rule of faith” and the historical importance of the church to arbitrate right doctrine. Irenaeus Adversus haereses 5.20.1-2 gives an interpretive key for Irenaeus’ reasoning for appeals to the Church.

Postfoundationalism as Spiritual Adultery

This last semester, I spent a good deal of time reading about, thinking through, and writing on the subject of “postfoundationalism,” the postmodern, postconservative, postevangelical theology of the late Stanley Grenz, John Franke, Roger Olson, and a handful of others.  In my readings, one recurring feature was the denial of Scripture’s sufficiency.  For instance in Beyond Foundationalism, Grenz and Franke propose a method of correlation that adopts an epistemic method “based upon” scripture and Tradition and culture, so that their theological method upholds its beliefs with an integrative mosaic web.

Reading Raymond Ortlund Jr.’s book on spiritual adultery this week, God’s Unfaithful Wife, has made me think back on postfoundationalism’s proposal and to reflect that this aberrant mode of interpreting Scripture is nothing more than spiritual adultery, akin to the ancient Israelites dissatisfaction with God’s Torah and their subsequent pursuit of pagan deities, foreign allegiances, and extra-biblical–to use a word anachronistically– revelation.

Consider some of Ortlund’s words.

Commenting on Leviticus 20:6, he says, “Consulting mediums and spiritists also amounts to whoredom, because, like idolatry, resorting to their ministrations denies Yahweh’s all-sufficiency.  Just as the counsels of a perfectly wise husband should be satisfying to a fair-minded wife, so Yahweh’s revelation in law, Urim and Thummim, prophetic word, and so on, should satisfy the questions and perplexities of his people.  To seek revelation beyond his provision insinuates failure in him, exposes a prying restlessness in the covenant people and subjects them to compromising guidance from degraded sources” (38).

Writing about God’s leadership and revelation in Judges, Ortlund goes on, “The period of the judges was infamous for its widespread moral confusion.  ‘Every man did what was right in his own eyes’ (21:25), and not even Gideon escaped the spirit of the times.  Rather than respect the unique prerogatives of the Levites at the tabernacle in Shiloh, Gideon made his own personal ephod in Ophrah.  As a device for enquiring of God” (43).  Adopting cultural practices of receiving communications from the divine, rather than humbling submitting to God’s prescribed means of revelation, Gideon “inadvertantly [led] the people of God into whoredom” (44).  “[Israel] trusted in it [the ephod] rather than in Yahweh and neglected his formally established means of grace” (44).

Continuing on this theme, Ortlund writes again concerning Israel’s metericious tendencies during the time of Jeremiah, “In real terms, Jeremiah sees the people of God as faddish and insecure, nervously searching the latest offerings from neomania, for they do not grasp the true meaning and abiding claim of covenant (87).

All in all, Ortlund’s biblical-theological treatment of spiritual adultery is a shocking exhortation that all types of revisionist theologies that dismiss the Reformation principle of Sola Scriptura are not just poor, they are prostitution.  Paul says of the church’s tendency towards unholy unions:

Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers.  For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness?  Or what fellowship has light with darkness?  What accord has Christ with Belial?  Or what portion does a believer share with an unbeliever?  What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God…Therefore go out from their midst, and be separate from them, says the Lord, and touch no unclean thing, then I will welcome you (2 Cor. 6:14-16a, 17).

If marriage is to be protected from physical prostitution, so the doing of theology must be guarded against the perverting effects of worldly accomodation.  Theological methods that purport any kind of admixture, combining the biblical authority with tradition, culture, sociological reasoning, psychological sensitivity, or philosophical reasoning ultimately conjoin the unilateral revelation of God’s word with the fleshly calculations of fallen men.  The union is not binding and cannot be consider acceptable in God’s sight.  Grenz, Franke, and Olson call this revisionist theology postfoundationalism, but Scripture seems to call it something else–prostitution. 

May we be warned and wise to heed the singular message of God’s Word and to conform our lives to its gospel and its truth, so that we may not be deceived and “led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ,” to whom we are singularly betrothed (2 Cor. 11:3).

Sola Deo Gloria, dss