Can Anyone Return from Heaven?

Very Steep Cliffs in Heaven's Gate MountainsPhil Johnson has an article on the recent rash of supposedly eyewitness accounts of heaven. He says it’s nothing new:

Various survivors of near-death experiences have been publishing gnostic insights about the afterlife for at least two decades. Betty Eadie’s Embraced by the Light was number one on the New York Times Bestseller List exactly 20 years ago. The success of that book unleashed an onslaught of similar tales, nearly all of them with strong New Age and occult overtones. So psychics and new-agers have been making hay with stories like these for at least two decades.

Johnson points to an upcoming book by John MacArthur on heaven and these books. He argues that the Bible forbids the possibility that anyone can return from beyond the grave. “All the accounts of heaven in Scripture are visions, not journeys taken by dead people,” MacArthur writes. “And even visions of heaven are very, very rare in Scripture. You can count them all on one hand.” Moreover, the biblical accounts focus on God’s overwhelming glory, not all the fun junk we might do in heaven.

In his excellent book Gospel Deeps: Reveling in the Excellencies of Jesus, Jared Wilson touches on this in a paragraph near the end.

Can I tell you one of the problems with books like Heaven Is for Real? Aside from the obvious honesty issues, they very often demote Jesus to a Character in heaven like one of the costumed players at Disney World. He is Santa Claus, an attraction of some kind. He is a featured player in heaven in these stories. But in the Scriptures there is no heaven without Jesus. Should we have a heaven without Jesus, it would be no heaven at all. He is all or he is nothing.

Zhangjaijie, China
The photos are of the Tianmen Mountains and its Heaven’s Gate entrance. There’s a natural awe about this place, and I can’t blame anyone for feeling closer to heaven, or whatever they imagine of the spiritual world, in this environment. Now, imagine this is part of heaven. I wouldn’t think anything about the mountain would have to change, but our experience would be remarkably different. We would be in awe of the mountains, the caves, the air and mist, but they would draw our thoughts to God. It would be like the man who can enjoy a great meal or fun experience but keeps saying it would be so much better if his wife or girlfriend were there to experience it with him. He repeats, “Stacy would love this,” so often you want to send him for coffee and leave him behind. In a similar way, there will be many mansions in heaven (John 14:2-3), but we won’t spend time enjoying ourselves, occasionally wondering what Jesus is doing or who he’s with. We will be with him always through the Holy Spirit, even as we are now but far more intensely.

At least, that’s the way I think of heaven. I haven’t actually been there.

9 thoughts on “Can Anyone Return from Heaven?”

  1. As a pastor I frequently have people asking me about these books, usually wondering why I haven’t brought them up or recommended them. Others think think they are giving me a great heads up by informing me how wonderful they are. My standard response is to point out my concern that these books are teaching people to base their understanding of spiritual matters on someone’s experience rather than on God’s Word.

    Most of the major church problems I’ve observed over the course of my life can be attributed to that error, Building our Theology and Practice on experience rather than on God’s Word.

    I saw great confusion during the Charismaniac movement when one segment of the church saw their spirituality enhanced by having a mystical experience and then invested much time and effort in encouraging others to have the same experience.

    I left the holiness church that was instrumental in bringing a stability to my walk of faith when I realized that their core teaching was to promote an instantaneous Clean Heart Sanctification experience that the leader claimed to have had. Everybody else aspired to it, but few could claim to have it.

    My own denomination was nearly split a couple of decades ago when a group wanted to promote the teaching that we must base our assurance of salvation, not on God’s promise to those who believe, but on having had a conversion experience.

    The list could go on an on. In all these cases, I cannot deny that people have had an experience. What I challenge is their interpretation and application of that experience. 1 Corinthians 14 deals with similar issues in the early church. The emphasis on experience and emotion was a sign of an immature congregation. Too often today people desire it as a sign of deeper spirituality.

  2. I like your formulation at the end particularly.

    I would like to raise a problem with the mode of inquiry implied by the question, “Can anyone return…?” You’re running into a problem very like the one that Pseudo-Dionysius (i.e., the unknown author long thought to be the early church father Dionysius the Areopagite) ran into in his work on the orders of angels.

    He orders the angels that appear in the Bible into three groups of three kinds each. The top group (Cherubim, Seraphim and Thrones) are celestial intelligences who remain in the presence of God and mediate between God and the second, lower order of angels. These mediate between the first order and the third (which includes the archangels whose names we know, because the third order mediates between the higher orders and us).

    All very well and good, but as Donald F. Duclow pointed out, there’s a biblical counterexample: Isaiah meets a seraph directly and interacts with it. Everything else lines up with it, but this one example shows that the whole structure doesn’t work. Dionysius has a couple of counter-arguments he offers to preserve his system, and later writers like John Scottus Eruigena try to find ways to preserve it, but what is most likely is that we don’t have the system quite right. That’s not shocking, because we don’t have access to the system in a direct way. We have only indirect access via scriptural accounts.

    So, how likely is it that we can say for sure we know how the gates of heaven work? Maybe it didn’t come up in the scriptural times, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t come up tomorrow.

  3. Grim, I read you saying that this is an open question, but Phil Johnson argues that it isn’t. Jesus says, “If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man” (John 3:12-13). Paul says something similar, and the gospels and Book of Acts have no reference to someone being raised from the dead and telling people about heaven. Lazarus would have had a great testimony, except maybe he didn’t experience what those who have written these books claim.

    I don’t see how the example of angelic systems applies, because I’m not supporting a new framework for understanding a minor theological point. I’m supporting the idea that Scripture doesn’t allow for the return of the dead with visions of the afterlife. I’m also supporting the idea that the glory of God is what heaven is all about, not a wonderful place where Jesus is present.

  4. Then there is a problem conferring John 3:12 and Luke 23:43.

    And he said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, To-day shalt thou be with me in Paradise.

    The John quote is therefore situated before a major shift in the relationship between humanity and heaven. Furthermore, I had thought it to be an article of faith common to most Christians that the blessed enjoy the sight of God in heaven even ‘before’ the resurrection: I put ‘before’ in quotes because it isn’t clear that time has the same status in the eternity.

    Still, here on earth time is time, and if the two quotes from Jesus are both accurate, we can’t say that no one has ever been to heaven. Whether it is possible to come again, well, the Nicene Creed (the one approved in 381, at least) says that we look for the resurrection of the dead. Will they all come at once, or might there be a John the Baptist to prepare the way?

    I would take it as an open question, yes.

  5. Yes, there will be a resurrection from the dead. That’s another issue. On the question of whether anyone can have an afterlife or near-death experience, you seem to be telling me I’m arguing from silence while arguing from silence yourself. I don’t think it’s good policy to argue anything is possible because the Bible is silent. I can’t think of an orthodox doctrine that using that reasoning.

    What you say, that we “enjoy the sight of God in heaven even ‘before’ the resurrection,” may well be true. Many have claimed such visions on their death beds, but we aren’t talking about that here. We’re talking about people who have died for a while (possibly), are now living again, and claim to have seen heaven while they were out. These afterlife testimonies have a ring of dishonesty, but believers are taken by them because they are from supposed eyewitnesses.

    I don’t think the color of the Holy Spirit is an open question. I think it’s silly.

  6. The danger in talking of “supposed” eyewitnesses is that we don’t have a good way of testing the claim one way or the other. Chesterton spoke of this, on another matter:

    Somehow or other an extraordinary idea has arisen that the disbelievers in miracles consider them coldly and fairly, while believers in miracles accept them only in connection with some dogma. The fact is quite the other way. The believers in miracles accept them (rightly or wrongly) because they have evidence for them. The disbelievers in miracles deny them (rightly or wrongly) because they have a doctrine against them. The open, obvious, democratic thing is to believe an old apple-woman when she bears testimony to a miracle, just as you believe an old apple-woman when she bears testimony to a murder. The plain, popular course is to trust the peasant’s word about the ghost exactly as far as you trust the peasant’s word about the landlord. Being a peasant he will probably have a great deal of healthy agnosticism about both. Still you could fill the British Museum with evidence uttered by the peasant, and given in favour of the ghost.

    So: we have what presents itself as empirical evidence. We have both kinds, actually: both the one and the other. How to choose between them?

    In addition it is one thing to argue from silence that a thing may be an open question, and another to argue from silence that it might a closed question. If we agree that there is an important silence, then it may be the path of wisdom to consider the question open. Especially this is true when asking questions directly related to God’s grace and God’s will, both of which men attempt to limit at their peril.

  7. Those are interesting points. I see through the link that you have had something of a near-death experience yourself. But it isn’t wise to allow personal testimony, which we say may be true, not imagined, to trump the testimony of Scripture, which gives us enough on the nature of death and visions of heaven to dismiss the accounts given in these books. And I still maintain that it doesn’t allow for actual return visits to heaven.

  8. Well, I take ‘near death’ experiences like that to be quite different from ‘post-death’ experiences. They are certainly interesting — insofar as we find cross-cultural similarities of experience, at least — but I certainly wouldn’t read it as anything like entry into heaven. My assumption is that, should I ever see even the outskirts of heaven, a very great deal of grace indeed will be involved!

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