Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Wondering about heaven

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, faith, heaven, near-death experiences

A friend loaned me a book and asked me what I think of it: Heaven is for Real: A Little Boy's Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back by Todd Burpo with Lynn Vincent. I am quite puzzled how to evaluate the book and the story. I have read about NDEs (near-death experiences), and had reached the conclusion that they primarily reflect a person's interpretation of hallucinations experienced by a brain under extreme stress.

I also have a view of the Bible's teaching concerning what happens when we die. In brief, that a body is required to enter God's heaven, and the glorified body of a saved person is not conferred until the day of resurrection. As Paul wrote, "The dead shall be raised incorruptible." (1Cor 15:52) From where do they rise? From the pleasant section of the "waiting place", called Sheol in Hebrew and Hades in Greek. That pleasant section is probably what is referred to as Paradise in the New Testament, and as the Garden of Eden (distinct from the one in Genesis chapters 1-3) by some Jews. OK, that has been my doctrine.

Prior to learning these things, even though I was raised Christian, I was unsatisfied with the cartoon image of "heaven" as a bunch of clouds on which people in white robes played harps when they weren't flying around with their wings. Many Christians accept the Swedenborgian teaching that the dead become angels, though I understand from the Bible that angels and humans are different creations of God, and not to be confused. When I heard from some that in God's kingdom there is work to do, which had nothing to do with harps or wings, it seemed right to me.

Heaven is for Real narrates the story of Colton Burpo, who was just four years old when he nearly died of a ruptured appendix. At various times in the weeks following his recovery, called "miraculous" by doctors and nurses who had not expected him to live, he said things that surprised his parents a little, but they did not immediately take them into account. Then one day, as they drove past the hospital, Colton was asked, "Do you remember this place?" He answered, "That is where the angels sang to me." Now his parents took notice. Some of his experiences, which came out gradually over a period of months—his parents took care not to "lead" him with their questions—include:
  • He saw his father in one room "praying" (Todd was actually angrily demanding of God why his son was being taken from him).
  • He saw his mother in another room, also praying.
  • He went to a place "full of colors".
  • He not only saw Jesus, he sat in His lap.
  • Part of the time he was there, Jesus was teaching many children, and Colton did homework along with them.
  • He met his great-grandfather, "Pop",who had passed away 27 years earlier.
  • Colton said Pop had really big wings. His own were very small, which disappointed him.
  • He met his sister, who had died before birth. She didn't have a name, because Todd and his wife had not named her ("yet").
I was astounded by many of the things I read, and cried often. I was particularly struck by a few of these things:
  • When Colton was shown a picture of Pop, taken at age 61, he said, "He doesn't look like that!" Later Todd got from his sister a picture of Pop as a young man. Colton recognized it right away as the man he had met in heaven.
  • Homework, and the teaching of children. Now that makes sense to me!
  • Colton's parents had not mentioned the miscarriage his mother suffered a year before he was born. They didn't even know the lost baby was female.
Did Colton really experience heaven? I will not try to shoehorn these things into my own belief system. I must assume that Colton and his parents are not trying to deceive anyone.  Some might say all this was some kind of devilish deception. I am certain it is not.

Prior to reading this book, I had been thinking about heaven and paradise, and wondering if there are any "holes" in my understanding about them. Of course, I dare not assume I have complete knowledge of anything, particularly matters such as these about which the Bible leaves a lot of things unwritten. When Paul wrote of an experience of the "third heaven", he stated that it was not possible to speak about many things seen there. (2Cor. 12:1-4)

In particular, I remember reading several times the description of the New Jerusalem in Revelation, where John saw "the holy city, coming down from God out of heaven." (Rev. 21:2) From this and related passages, I have understood that God's eternal kingdom will be on earth, centered on this holy city. There are also passages such as 1Pet. 2:5, "You also, as living stones, are built up a spiritual house", and particularly Eph. 2:19-22, "You are no more strangers and sojourners but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, and are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief cornerstone, in Whom all the building, fitly framed, grows together into a holy temple in the Lord, out from Whom you also are built together into a habitation of God in spirit." These passages have led many good expositors to conclude that the many-colored precious stones that adorn the holy city represent the transformed and glorified people of God. That the city is not just resided in by God's people, but composed of them, "built up together". Thus Jesus said, "I will build My church", meaning the people.

If this is in any way true, the constituents of the holy city are in heaven before the built up city descends to the Earth in the end times. I conclude that neither I nor others have definitive proof of the doctrines I have held about heaven and paradise. Some folks think they are now the same (and a few have very detailed doctrines about this), others think they remain different until some time in the future.It certainly seems that at least some saved folks who have passed away are in heaven, and maybe it is nearly all or all of them.

Perhaps Colton saw paradise, and interpreted it as heaven. He never says he was told he was in heaven, but he did see Jesus there (most emphatically). As to how much of what Colton reported is true and how much is interpreted, God knows, and I do not. I must leave it there.

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