There is no small amount of interest in what happens when we die. There are countless books, articles, shows, and discussions centered on this subject. Too often such discussions end with, “We’ll find out one day.” Well, Don Piper is here to stop such speculation and provide a first hand account of one who has actually been to heaven and returned.
Piper is a Baptist pastor who was in a tragic accident in 1989. He states that he died that day, went to heaven, spent 90 minutes there, saw some friends and relatives and then returned. He wrote a book about it and many people are reading it, over 2 million people actually. I have previously interacted a bit with Piper based on second hand sources and his website. However, upon a recent visit to Borders I could not resist the urge to pick up the book and begin reading.
The title 90 Minutes in Heaven led me to believe that the book would be an extensive description of Piper’s time in heaven. I was disappointed to find that less than 10% of the total pages in this book actually dealt with his alleged time in heaven. The majority of the book dealt with Piper’s recovery in the hospital, his transition back to ‘normal’ life, and the subsequent speaking ministry that he has enjoyed. Regrettably there was more detail given to his description of an enema than his time in heaven. I do not say this to be crass but to express personal disappointment with the promotion of the book as an expose on heaven and instead I got unmentionable details concerning such things as this. Seriously, it was gross.
So here is the story in a nutshell, Piper is coming home from a conference, his car collides with a tractor trailer, and he is quickly pronounced dead on the scene. Shortly thereafter another Baptist pastor shows up (it is Texas after all) and begins praying for the recently deceased Piper. It is important to note that the pastor indicates that God told him to pray for Don Piper. Now as Protestants we typically do not pray for dead people, we leave that to Catholics, because it is not in the Bible; however, according to this pastor God is giving new revelation that contradicts the Bible. After a time of praying the pastor indicates that Piper began singing with him.
It was during this time that Piper states that he went to heaven. His description of heaven was nothing that you haven’t heard before. There was a gate, gold, music, singing, and of course all of his relatives and friends were there. In fact there was, according to Piper, a reception committee awaiting him. There was no God sighting or a view of the throne or King Jesus. To be fair, Piper asserts that he didn’t get all the way in past the gate.
So Piper comes back to life and is in the hospital. It should be noted that no one knew that Piper had died at this point, including his wife. “No one knew that I had died hours earlier….Eva (his wife) found out I had died from Dick Onerecker (the pastor who was praying) almost two weeks after the accident on one of Dick’s visits to see me in the hospital.” (p. 48) I find this strange that this alleged miracle of resurrection would not be on everyone’s lips in and around the hospital. After all, how many people have come back from the dead?
Furthermore, it wasn’t until nearly 2 years later that Piper told anyone about his experience in heaven. “Until then I had never talked to anyone about my heavenly experience. In a general sense, I had talked to Eva (his wife), but I always closed off the conversation before she asked questions. She tacitly understood that part of my experience was off-limits.” (p. 123)
I will be honest with you, I do not believe the story. I do think that Piper really believes it, I do not think he is parading around the country with selfish motives. However, I have nothing in Scripture to convince me that his experience is genuine and the details he gives me leave me with more questions than answers.
From a Christian perspective this is a troubling book. There are a number of concerns that I have with it and they serve as a list of reasons why you should save your 13 frog-skins.
/1/ The Elevation of Experience as Authority: This book pivots on the authority of the personal experience. However we interpret our various circumstances becomes God communicating to us. Suddenly heaven is all about seeing grandpa, our neighbors, and hearing a hymn or two.
/2/ The Demotion of Scripture from Authority: Aside from the verse at the beginning of each chapter this book is devoid of the Bible. In fact, I would argue that this book is what you would write if you did not have the Bible. Piper’s view of heaven is more akin to what you would see on Oprah rather than what you would read in Revelation. The Bible portrays heaven as being the glorious stage of Christ, he is what makes heaven heavenly (Rev. 5.11-14). Except for an occasional name drop this book is devoid of Jesus. Say what you want, but to elevate personal experience to the chief authority here is to demote the Bible.
This is troubling.
Piper says it best, “I have changed the way I do funerals. Now I can speak authoritatively about heaven from firsthand knowledge.” (p. 129). This is a terrible statement. He writes as one who does not have a Bible. There is no difference in what Don Piper is doing and what the cult leaders have done in elevating their own revelation to a peer or superior status with the Bible (cf. Mormons, Jehovah’s Witness, Christian Scientists, etc..). He should not get a free pass because he is a member of the Southern Baptist Convention.
/3/ An Improper view of Trials: This is a text book on how not to deal with trials. Instead of embracing a trial as the providential means by which God means to sanctify his children and make them more like Jesus (James 1.3-5) Piper resists the trial at every turn.
/4/ A lack of theological precision: Piper is just plain theologically sloppy. You may think I am being mean here, but remember he is a pastor, he has been to seminary, he is supposed to be able to handle the Word like someone who is going to give an account (Jam. 3.1ff, 2 Tim. 3 & 4). Piper attributes the following items to be miracles: wearing a seat belt, the accident occurring on a bridge, not having a head injury, the identity of the surgeon, people praying for him. These may be items of providence but they are not things which theologians would typically call miracles. A miracle is typically referred to as a less common outworking of God’s sovereign control or providence over creation. Wearing a seat belt is not a miracle. A pastor should know better than this.
/5/ An Inadequate View of Heaven: I alluded to this above. It is a big problem when you miss the whole point of heaven. Heaven is not about seeing grandpa or your old baseball coach it is about worshiping Jesus. To rip off the heaven of heaven and package it as some subjective family reunion at club med with nice background music is reproachable. And to furthermore affix some “God-told-me” talk to it to bolster its authority is also troubling.
There is enough heavenly beauty, glory, and treasure in the Bible. Read it and you will long for the heaven of the Bible where Jesus is central.
Save your money, this book is not worth it.