You may be familiar with a book called 90 Minutes in Heaven: A True Story of Death & Life written by Don Piper (not to be confused with John Piper)Â and Cecil Murphey. It has been on the New York Times and Amazon best seller list since its release in 2004. In the book, Don Piper describes his experience of being in a car wreck where he was pronounced dead by the paramedics. During his death Piper describes the details of his “90 minutes in heaven.”
It is not my intention here to evaluate the validity of near-death experiences in general, but to ask some questions concerningÂ this on inÂ particular. This is not an easy thing for me to do as I believeÂ Don PiperÂ probably sincerely trusts the Lord and truly believes that his experience that evening was a miracle where the God showed him aÂ glimpse of heaven.Â Â
Having said that, I found myself confused with much of his description of heaven. So confused, I thought to myself at one point while reading this bookÂ If what he says about heaven is correct, then my eschatology is really messed up. Then I am left with this familiar dilemma: Do I believe what this sincere guy says to be the truth and fit my interpretation of Scripture and theology around it or do I trust what I believe the Scripture says without conforming it to Piper’s experience. If I choose the latter, what do I do with Don? Is he lying? Diluted? Or did he misinterpret what he saw?
SettingÂ Piper’s intentions aside for a moment, here areÂ the two majorÂ theological problems that I have with Piper’s description of heaven:
1. His description of people. He says that he was greeted by many people who were the same age as when they died. All of these people were those that influenced him in his spiritual walk throughout his life. Yet heÂ talks about their physical appearance for quite some time. Most interestingly, he says that they all looked the same age as when they died. While the Bible does not tell us much about the state of existence between death and resurrection (the intermediate state), it is clear that our bodies are left behind until the resurrection. It is hard for me to conceive that the disembodied souls of believers haveÂ the physical appearanceÂ of theirÂ former selves. It is even harder for me to conceive that they look the same age as when they died. In the intermediate state their is no material bodilyÂ form which causes this type of recognition. As believers, it seems best to remain agnostic about how and if others will be recognized in the intermediate state.
Yet, curiously enough, this would fit the pattern of the common folk theology concerning the state of affairs for those who are in heaven. Of course we would think of them as the same age as when they died, because that represents our freshest memory of them.
2. His description of the heaven. He describes meeting all these people outside the “pearly gates.” This isÂ even more problematic than the firstÂ for two reasons: 1) TheÂ “gates of heaven” described in the Bible occur in Revelation chapter 21. This chapter does not describe the state of affairs of the intermediate state between death and resurrection, but that of the unique post-resurrection new Heaven and new Earth where the new city ofÂ Jerusalem comes from the sky and settles on the earth. The “gates of heaven” are the twelve gates to the new Jerusalem. In other word, these “pearly gates” do not exist until after the resurrection, judgment, and creation of the new heaven and earth. If this is true,Â how could Piper have seen them? 2) I am not sure that we should take the description of the gates as being “pearly” (or as Rev. 21:21 says “pearls”) as literal. Although I could be wrong, it seems to be symbolic of the beauty and majesty of the great city and God’s kingdom.
This same criticism could be said for the “streets of gold” Piper describes. Once again, in Scripture, these “streets of gold” only exist in the new Jerusalem after the resurrection, not in the intermediate state.
It is again curious that Piper’s description fits with the common folk theology of our day concerning the appearance of heaven. People fail to distinguish between the intermediate state before the resurrection and the kingdom of God on earth after the resurrection.
Having voicedÂ my theological concerns, some might ask if I believe that Don PiperÂ spentÂ ninety-minutes in heaven. My answer isÂ “I don’t think so.”Â I cannot change my theology based upon the experience of another.Â Yet to be fair and honest, ifÂ I experienced exactly what Don Piper describes, I don’t know what I would do. Experience is very powerful and can often cause us to change our interpretation of things, no matter how clear they seemed before.Â
I suppose that we are left with these option:
1. Piper is lying. He made all this up for some type of personal gain.
2. Piper is telling the truth. He did visit heaven and his descriptions are accurate; we have just misunderstood Scripture.
3. He did visit heaven, but misinterpreted what he saw.Â
4. He thought he visited heaven but he really did not. His visions, while unexplained from a medical standpoint, are filled with the common eschatological folk-lore that you would expect from a 21st century westernized Christian.
I am prone to go with number 4. The theological descriptions of heaven are more consistent with ingrained folk theology than with a critical examination of the eschatological issues upon which these touch. Folk theology is powerful. We can easily interpret our experiences based upon emotionally held convictions that may or may not be based in truth.
Concerning this, I would be curious to hear of a near-death experience of a Muslim. Do they have ninety virgins who meet them? What color are their streets? Who is waiting at the gate to allow entrance? In truth, I would be more inclined to believe this story if it came from someone who was not so educated in 21st century western Christian folk theology.