Recent best-selling books Heaven is for Real by Todd Burpo, 90 Minutes in Heaven by Don Piper, and 23 Minutes in Hell by Bill Wiese are raising the question — is God giving people visions of heaven and hell today? Is it possible that God is taking people to heaven and/or hell and then sending them back in order to deliver a message to us? While the popularity of these new books is bringing the concept to the forefront, the over-arching claim is nothing new. Books such as A Divine Revelation of Hell and A Divine Revelation of Heaven by Mary Baxter and We Saw Heaven by Roberts Liardon have been available for years. The key question is—are such claims biblically solid?
First, it is important to note that, of course, God could give a person a vision of heaven or hell. God gave the apostle Paul just such a vision in 2 Corinthians 12:1–6. Isaiah had an amazing experience as recorded in Isaiah chapter 6. Yes, it is possible that God gave Piper (90 Minutes in Heaven), Burpo (Heaven Is for Real), Wiese (23 Minutes in Hell), and others a vision or dream of heaven or hell. Ultimately, only God knows if these claims are true or the result of misperception, exaggeration, or, worst, outright deception. (The co-author of another recent book in the genre, The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven, has admitted his story was false.) We must use discernment and compare the claimed visions and experiences with the Word of God.
If God were to truly give a person a vision of heaven or hell, one thing we can know for sure is that it would be in 100 percent agreement with His Word. A God-given vision of heaven would in no sense contradict biblical passages such as Revelation chapters 21-22. Further, if God were to truly give multiple people visions of heaven or hell, the God-given visions would in no sense contradict each other. Yes, the visions could be different and could focus on different details, but they would not contradict one another.
As with any book written by any author, “test everything. Hold on to the good. Avoid every kind of evil” (1 Thessalonians 5:21-22). If you read these book(s) and/or see the movie(s), do so with a discerning mind. Always compare what the author says and claims with Scripture. Most importantly, never allow someone else’s experience and interpretation of that experience to shape your understanding of Scripture. Scripture must be used to interpret experience, not the other way around. Do not allow any claimed experience of someone else to be the foundation of your faith or walk with God.
While definitely not without significant flaws, overall, we found 90 Minutes in Heaven by Don Piper and Heaven is for Real by Todd Burpo to be the more biblically sound of the “I saw heaven” books. Piper and Burpo seem to approach the issue with humility and honesty. Again, though, read with a healthy amount of discernment and a commitment to the Bible as the absolute source of truth. While we do not doubt the honesty of the authors in sharing what they saw and experienced, there is no way to verify the claims or prove that they were from God and not simply very vivid dreams.
When the apostle Paul was “caught up to paradise,” he “heard inexpressible things, things that man is not permitted to tell” (2 Corinthians 12:4). Similarly, the apostle John (Revelation 10:3-4) and the prophet Daniel (Daniel 8:26; 9:24; 12:4) were instructed to conceal aspects of the visions they received. It would be very strange for God to have Paul, Daniel, and John withhold aspects of what He revealed to them, only to, 2000+ years later, give even greater visions, along with permission for full disclosure, to people today. It is our contention that these books claiming visions of and trips to heaven and hell should be viewed skeptically and, most importantly, biblically.