Visions of Heaven
Recently, I've had several people ask me what I thought about life after death experiences. (I could attribute the interest to the recent visit to SBU of Mr. Don Piper, who wrote a best-selling book about his visiting the gates of heaven when he was dead--and obviously returned to life to tell us about it. But, others have asked me the same question who don't attend SBU. So, this must be a hot topic.) Some of my students have asked, "Mr. Piper said he died and went to heaven. What do you think?"
It depends on our definition of death. Of course, we seem to rely upon biology to define death. But, even physicians cannot tell us the precise moment someone dies. Is it a flat EKG? No, hearts can stop and start again. Is it a flat EEG? No, bodies can be kept alive by machines for quite some time. When does a man die?
If we define death theologically, a person hasn't died unless he returns with a resurrected body. To be sure, there are several stories of resuscitation in the Bible. But, when Jairus' daughter, or the widow's Son, or even Lazarus was "raised from the dead," they simply returned to life in their mortal bodies. In other words, they weren't dead. When a man sees God, he's dead. No one sees God and lives to tell about it. Only one man died and came back to life. His was no resuscitation. Jesus came from the dead with a resurrected body. That's the proof that someone died according to the New Testament.
So, what do we make of experiences told by Mr. Piper? Some, I think, make the wrong assumption and discount his experience, "Well, since he didn't die according to what the Bible says, his experience wasn't legitimate. It can probably be explained biologically: something somatic that made him think he died." So, once again, we leave it to biology to define our theology.
I think he had a real experience. But, he didn't go to heaven. He didn't see heaven as it is. He had a vision of heaven, similar perhaps to what Paul described in 2 Cor. 12 or what John saw in his Revelation of Christ. Paul couldn't tell whether he had an "out of body" experience or not. John saw things and kept using the expression, "it was like this or that." Similes are comparative language. John did not see heaven as it really is. He saw what heaven was like. The same, I believe, could be said of Mr. Piper. He had a vision of heaven. He did not see it as it is. That doesn't make his experience illegitimate. Something happened to him. The question is: how do we interpret his experience? I think the Bible already has.