Recently I was notified of a book review for Heaven is for Real, written from a Charismatic perspective. Aptly named Heaven Is for Real – A Charismatic’s Perspective, it is written by an individual going by the name of “TheBitterPastor”. I had previously written an extensive review on the book, and done an episode of my podcast where I reviewed Eastern Orthodox writer Frederica Mathewes-Green’s defense of it. Reading this review, I felt inspired to write it, not only to give a response to it (since, as we shall soon see, it actually deals very little with the book and movie Heaven is for Real), but to address several of the arguments made in the chapter. My goal here is to try to attempt to respond to contentions that are made often from the Charismatic and Hyper-Charismatic side, and to attempt to call my Charismatic brothers to reason. It is not meant as a personal attack against anyone in particular, especially the author. Many of these arguments are those I have found in Charismatic and (especially) Hyper-Charismatic circles, whenever someone starts to question so-called signs and wonders and miracles.
To visually differentiate between the review’s text and anything else (quoted sources, bible verses, etc.), all quoted text from the review will be in purple. Everything else will be normal colored. All Bible translations, unless otherwise noted, will be from the New American Standard. With all that established, let’s begin our review:
Over the course of the last couple of weeks, I’ve had the pleasure of reading different tweets and blog posts regarding Heaven Is for Real, the so-called account of Colton Burpo’s trip into heaven. Although the book has been out for a while now, the film has recaptured its popularity (or infamy) within certain church circles. Most of the commentary I have either heard or read has been relatively negative and predominately spouted from Baptist circles, those trained in Baptist seminaries and those who identify themselves as Cessationists. One influential critic of Heaven Is for Real who fits the bill in every one of these categories is John MacArthur.
One of the things I enjoy about being a part of The Anon Church is that we can interact with each other concerning differences, similarities and opinions of our like-minded faith. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that I, being charismatic, would challenge people to be very careful before they rail accusations against those who have experienced supernatural things on the account of the Gospel. Many people who have criticized Colton Burpo’s heavenly account are those who have rarely if ever encountered any sort of supernatural activity in their own life—which is strange because the kingdom of God is all about the supernatural—not dead theology with only words and no substance to back it.
The biggest thing that stuck out to me in this opening section was the charge that “many people who have criticized Colton Burpo’s heavenly account are those who have rarely if ever encountered any sort of supernatural activity in their own life”. The argument is therefore made that we must somehow first experience the supernatural before we criticize it. Logically speaking, before we criticize x, we must first experience x, and then we will be able to have a better grasp on x to comment on it.
This position is a popular one among some Charismatic circles…however it is an incredibly fallacious one, and for this simple reason: you do not need to make a truth statement based solely or heavily on experience. Do I need to take meth before saying that meth is bad for you? No. Do I need to get pregnant before I can say abortion is wrong? No. Do I need to be a black person before I say Jim Crow-style racism is wrong? No. Do I need to partake of the occult before I start to say the occult is wrong? No. To summarize, in order to make a truth statement regarding all of these questions and dilemmas, experience is not necessary, only the facts at hand.
So when someone shares their supernatural experience, is it absolutely necessary to partake in the supernatural before commenting on it, or having a valid opinion on it? Absolutely, positively no. We do not need to experience anything before commenting on whether or not it is right or wrong. What we can do is hold it up to a set standard, and discern from there. An example can be seen in the fact that I can say “Meth is bad” because all medical and scientific evidence demonstrates that meth is harmful to the body and produces terrible side effects, as well as leads into harsher social evils.
In regards to supernatural experiences, the one constant we have is the written word of God. By this, we are able to see what is and isn’t an act of God, and by what standards we are to hold the teaching of an individual teaching from the word of God. It is precisely why the Reformers rejected so much of the nonsense coming from the Roman Catholic mystics of the Middle Ages: because, despite all the so-called signs and wonders that they performed, and all the supernatural experiences they had beheld…in the end, they contradicted God’s word, and taught doctrines well beyond it.
Let me pause here a moment to clarify that I am not a “hyper-cessationist”. The common continuationist straw man against cessationism is that cessationists believe God never acts supernaturally, or never does anything miraculous or out of the ordinary, which is simply untrue, and few cessationists I know think in such a way. I do not believe that is the norm for God to act, but it is not below God to act supernaturally, and it is not impossible for supernatural things to not occur. I myself have had supernatural experiences which I cannot fully explain; however, I do not hold those experiences to be the determining factor in how I perceive God to operate, or how I perceive He should operate, nor as what God desires me to base my life around. To quote Jonathan Edwards, “God has not given us his providence, but his word to be our governing rule.”
The supernatural and a “living” testimony are important aspects of the Christian faith. If you recall, that is one reason the Pharisees and Jesus did not get along. The religious leaders were stuck in a rigid, dead theological perspective surrounded by tradition, rules and regulation that allowed for zero testimony and zero power. The ministry of Jesus shook things up because it challenged dead theologians and their legalistic views of Scripture.
It is a bit sad that, this far into the article, we have already had “The Pharisee Card” pulled upon the critics of Burpo’s book (Todd Burpo himself accused his critics of being Pharisees). The Pharisee Card is really the Christian equivalent of Godwin’s Law: in Godwin’s Law, the longer a debate goes on, the greater the chance someone is going to be compared to the Nazis; with the Pharisee Card, the longer a Christian debate goes on, the greater the chance someone is going to be called a Pharisee.
However, let us put that aside and examine this charge about the Pharisees: it is said that “the religious leaders” were “stuck in a rigid, dead theological perspective surrounded by tradition, rules and regulation that allowed for zero testimony and zero power.” The author likewise states that Christ’s ministry “shook things up because it challenged dead theologians and their legalistic views of Scripture.”
In truth, this is only half right. It is certainly attested to by history and scripture that the Pharisees were heavy on tradition, and were likewise legalistic in their view on scripture’s commands. This is the testimony of most of the gospels. It is precisely why Christ promised rest for those who were “weary and heavy-laden”, and asked them to take on his yoke (Matt 11:28-30). The Pharisees were those who tied up heavy burdens and laid them upon the shoulders of men, but were unwilling to “move them with so much as a finger” (Matt 23:4). They relied heavily upon the Law and their own Jewish lineage to save them (Matt 3:9), and hence emphasized the works of man over and against God’s grace and mercy.
However, that the Pharisees denied the existence of miracles or the works of the supernatural is blatantly false. We see this especially in the charge Christ lays at those Pharisees who said he cast out devils by the power of the devil, when he says to them: “If I by Beelzebul cast out demons, by whom do your sons cast them out?” (Matt 12:27a; Luke 11:19a). The point of Christ’s rebuke here was to ask the Pharisees just who their own sons (that is, followers and members) cast out demons, if he did it by the power of the devil. What this means is that even those among the Pharisees performed some kinds of signs and wonders, and yet the Pharisees did not condemn them. If the Pharisees really were hyper-cessationists who didn’t believe in any kind of supernatural occurrence, then Christ’s argument would make no sense, and the Pharisees could have easily refuted him with, “Uh, they don’t cast out demons. What in the heck are you talking about?”
Some sources that discuss this (all speaking on the verse from Matthew):
The latter (people of your own school; see, in general, note on Matthew 8:12) are exorcists who have even pretended actually to cast out demons (Acts 19:13; Josephus, Antt. viii. 2. 5, Bell. vii. 6. 3; Justin, c. Tryph. p. 311), who have emanated from the schools of the Pharisees, not the disciples of Jesus, as the majority of the Fathers have supposed. [Heinrich Meyer’s commentary; source]
The children are the disciples of the Pharisees, who either really possessed the power of casting out evil spirits, or pretended to have that power. In either case the argument of Jesus was unanswerable. [Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges; source]
…[Christ] means, some among themselves, who pretended to have a power of exorcising and ejecting of devils, either in the name of Jesus, as some of them did, Mark 9:38 or in the name of their kings, righteous men, prophets and patriarchs, as Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; and which practice, perhaps, they took up and made pretensions to, in imitation of Christ and his apostles; so as Christ healed men possessed of devils, they also affected to do the same. A story is reported, ‘concerning Ben Talmion, that a miracle was wrought by R. Eleazar bar Jose, who healed a king’s daughter at Rome, in whose body the devil entered, whose name was Ben Talmion…'” [John Gill’s commentary; source]
It is also important to note how the Pharisees reacted to all of Christ’s miracles. They never once contend against them with “miracles can’t happen” – rather, they always argue about the circumstances around the miracles. Some examples:
- When a man with a withered hand comes near Christ, the concern of the Pharisees is not whether or not the man can be healed supernaturally, but if it is lawful to heal on the Sabbath (Matt 12:10).
- When Christ exorcises demons, the Pharisees do not contend whether or not exorcisms can take place, only that Christ was doing it by the power of the devil, not God (Matt 9:34).
- When a paralytic comes to Christ for healing, the contention of the Pharisees is not “Healings don’t take place”, but rather that Christ, by saying the man’s sins are forgiven, is blaspheming (Mark 2:6-7).
- When the lame man is healed by Jesus, the Pharisees do not get upset at him with “What are you talking about? Healings can’t take place!” Rather, their anger is directed at the fact that the man was carrying his bed on the Sabbath, and Christ was healing on the Sabbath (John 5:10, 16).
- When the Pharisees interview the man born blind, their contention is not that such a miracle could never take place, but that Christ, being a supposed sinner, could not have been the one to make the miracle (John 9:24 – by the way, this point will be relevant later).
The point of all this is that the idea the Pharisees were somehow hyper-cessationists is simply untrue, and hence is a completely erroneous position to take.
Don’t misunderstand, I am not saying that it is right for contemporary Christians to change the Gospel. However, you need to recognize that the Bible does not mention everything concerning the supernatural, or our like-minded faith. There are going to be things that we encounter that aren’t specifically mentioned in Scripture, or are otherwise obscure in the text. This is why we always need to be ready to pour new wine into new wineskins, so to speak. We need to be able to adapt to what God wants to do today. If we’re being completely honest, this was the Achilles heel of the religious leaders in the days of Christ.
Of course there are certain things God will do today which may not be specifically mentioned in scripture, but once again how do we discern what is and isn’t the work of God? How do we know God is behind something, or something that God “wants to do today”? In fact, if something goes beyond the word of God, it might be worth pausing and simply examining to see if it goes against or contrary to what scripture tells us. For example, anything in which a person loses control of their ability to move and causes them to act against the will of their body – which was always a sign of demonic possession in scripture (Matt 17:14-15; Mark 5:5; etc.) – is most likely not under the power and influence of the Holy Spirit.
Perhaps it can be put another way. In scientific experiments, you tend to have two groups: your constants, and your variables. Which is your standard for understanding how something operates? It is the constant. Constants are always the same, hence the name; variables change – again, hence the name. Scripture presents us with these constants, and the variables are judged by them.
The issue is that many in Charismatic circles desire other Christians to throw out those constants and experience and believe what goes well beyond the constants, and instead rely on the variables. Imagine a conversation like this:
Person A: “Hey man! I froze my water at 98°F!”
Person B: “Uh, that can’t be – water typically freezes at 32°F. I think you got something else going on there, and that’s why your water hardened.”
Person A: “Look, you just live by cold, dead science! Get out of your facts and figures and just embrace this new science!”
This conversation wouldn’t make any sense on a scientific level, of course. Most would recognize Person A is ignoring the constants of his field and is trying to dance around it by inventing new, undiscerning standards. Yet for many in Charismatic circles, it is precisely what they are desiring to happen within the church, only with the constants of God.
Jesus was big on supernatural acts and encounters. He was big on the demonstration of the power of God. This is something that is lacking in the church today–something that was not lacking at all in the early church. Jesus stated emphatically concerning the demonstration of the power of God:
“If I am not doing the works of my Father, then do not believe me; but if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father.” (John 10:37, 38 ESV)
Jesus made the declaration that works (meaning his supernatural works) were just as important as the teachings coming out of his mouth. It always amazes me when teachers like John MacArthur write books on subjects they have zero experience in. I’m curious: when was the last time a guy like John MacArthur cast a spirit out of someone, healed the sick, or demonstrated a miracle in his ministry?
The reason Christ performed many “supernatural acts” was because it was foretold the Messiah would perform such acts. This was precisely why Christ referred to the prophecies concerning the Messiah’s miracles when John the Baptist’s disciples asked if he was indeed the Messiah (Matt 11:2-6). Christ’s signs and wonders were part of his mark as the Messiah, and confirmed just who he was.
The author’s appeal to John 10:37-38 is also problematic. He concludes that Christ is saying supernatural works are just as important as the teachings coming from his mouth, and applies this to criticize Cessationists who have performed no miracles in their ministry. However, Christ is referring to his works as a proof of his Messianic status…as well as his divinity. In John’s gospel, Christ’s use of phrases such as “the Father is in me and I am in the Father” are in reference to the unity of the act of God the Father and God the Son in harmony within the Trinity. Remember that this is the same chapter in which Christ states: “My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one” (John 10:29-30). For this, the Jews pick up stones to stone him, because he, being a man, was making himself out to be God (John 10:31, 33). Again, Christ’s use of “supernatural works” here is not the same thing as so-called supernatural works in Charismatic theology – unless, of course, the author wishes to state that we are also divine like Christ is.
Note, also, the repetition of the fallacious presupposition of “You need experience in something to criticize it”. Our author states: “It always amazes me when teachers like John MacArthur write books on subjects they have zero experience in”. If John MacArthur were arguing “I have experience in this, therefore I can criticize it,” that point might be legitimate – however, that is not what Mister MacArthur says. Again, if I wanted to write a book on how bad meth was on the human body, would I have to go and experience meth for an extended period of time before I even thought about opening up a Word document? Absolutely not.
Yes, the religious are so quick to point out that Christians aren’t the ones doing the miracles—”It’s Jesus who does them!” True, but that’s exactly what the Pharisees said when a blind man claimed Jesus healed him (John 9:25). They said, “Give glory to God.” They were so incensed that supernatural power was existent in Jesus’ life that they wanted to put him in his place. It’s called religiosity.
The citation from John 9 is a bit misplaced, since (as we established earlier) the Jewish leadership was only hesitant to give any glory to Christ because they believed him to be sinner rather than Messiah, and were opposed to his ministry. You see this in the part of the verse which was not quoted: “Give glory to God; we know that this man is a sinner” (John 9:24 – not verse 25). There is also a follow up comment they make to the formerly blind man, when they say: “We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where He is from.” (John 9:29). Their contention with this healing was not merely that the healing occurred, but rather the healing occurred on the Sabbath (John 9:14), and hence, to the Pharisees, that made Christ a sinner. A sinner like Christ, they reasoned, could not perform such miracles (John 9:16). Therefore, it was not that the Pharisees denied miracles could exist – rather, it was whether or not Jesus could perform miracles.
I’m always leery of ministers who seem to know a lot about God and the supernatural, yet they’ve never encountered anything supernatural about God. These people think they know a lot about Scripture–holding conferences and seminars blasting those who are moving in God’s power–yet they greatly err in their theology because they don’t know the Bible or the power of God as well as they think (Matt. 22:29).
Once again, we have to ask: is experience necessary in a position or topic before stating whether or not the subject or topic is erroneous? Should I give birth to a few babies before I say abortion is murder? Should I be forced to endure 1950’s Jim Crow laws before I go to a Martin Luther King Day parade?
In my life, I have encountered a great deal of supernatural incidents, both godly and demonic. I remember a couple of trips to Jamaica when our teams held revival meetings in which many people were healed of physical injuries and relieved from demonic influence. This kind of thing is very common in third-world nations where people practice higher levels of spirituality. Consequently, there are more supernatural encounters in these places.
However, there are also those in third-world countries such as Jamaica, who practice the black arts including Voodooism and Obeah. Many of these people attend Christian meetings either because they’re intrigued by Christianity or they plan to disrupt the meetings. Strangely enough, when the Holy Spirit is manifested in such a powerful way, these demon-possessed people begin to act out. Consequently, we saw people slithering on the ground like snakes, barking like dogs and just plain acting like a bunch of idiots.
What did we do about it?
Well, we didn’t go back to America and report how “ungodly” and “demonic” the meetings were. We didn’t go and write some silly book called Strange Fire where we rip apart and insult the power of God because we were too ignorant to recognize what was going on. Instead, we exorcised the spirits out of these people and introduced them to our Lord who was actually responsible for setting them free. Amen?
We didn’t stand there like a bunch of saps in a theological discussion and mull over how barking like a dog and slithering like a snake was not “godly.” We didn’t close up shop and head home because our nice, quiet little church service was being disrupted by the forces of evil. We dealt with it just like Jesus would have and just like Paul would have.
You got all that?
Of course, some of you may wonder how we were so sure that the spirits were actually cast out of people…
Well, when 20 out of 20 people all vomit up the same white foam out of their mouths, suddenly stop acting like a bunch of idiots, and begin praising God–that’s generally a good indicator.
Remember, if you will, that this is listed as a “Book Review.” At this point, one has to wonder if this is more of a thinly veiled attempt to strike at John MacArthur and the Strange Fire Conference, since little has been mentioned about Heaven is for Real up to this point (and the author himself will admit this in a moment). I have to also admit that it is a bit strange to ask one side to show grace towards those who have experienced the supernatural, and yet turn around and call them “a bunch of saps.” In fact, it is very ungracious.
Now, I am not going to enter a game of “who’s side is more meaner”, because I’ll freely admit there are cessationists out there who are very ungracious. However, from extended personal experience, I have found – whether it be a random guy on the internet, or the pastor of a large church, or someone high up in a major ministry – that the Charismatic and Hyper-Charismatic response to discernment and criticism will often quickly devolve into ad hominems, personal attacks, snide remarks, etc. The minute you start to say “I don’t think this is biblical” or “So-and-so is abusing scripture based on his personal experiences”, you get the Pharisee card, you get accused of not really listening to God, etc. Again, I am not saying there aren’t kind of rational Charismatics out there, but (again, from extended personal experience) whenever I and others encounter this kind of vitriol from the opposite side, we can only say, “Well…here we go again…”
Putting this aside – it is certainly true that there seem to be “more supernatural encounters” in “third-world countries”, but as I spoke with my friend Kofi of Fiery Logic on a podcast episode about the state of African Christianity today, the very reason there are more supernatural encounters, and why Charismatic churches catch on so quickly, is because the paganistic rituals and the so-called “supernatural encounters” found in many circles of Charismatic churches are one and the same, or at least very practically identical. The “higher levels of spirituality” are not productive. I would suggest listening to the podcast, as we go into more detail there on the subject than this blog post permits.
The church in America has seen a move of God a few times in recent years, and many ignorant Christians have seen these “strange” manifestations described above and automatically concluded that these meetings “must be of the devil” because they don’t understand the spiritual dynamics going on. Of course, it is also safe to say that some of the Christians in attendance at these meetings didn’t understand it either and ended up attributing some of these demonic manifestations to the work of the Holy Spirit.
Being a person of faith in Jesus means being able to discern both demonic influence and the power of God. Paul did this very well in his ministry when he and Silas encountered a slave girl who was actually praising them for being “servants of the Most High God” (Acts 16:16-18). Paul recognized that it was demonic activity influencing this girl and not some righteous zeal for the faith.
The issue is, once again, there is very little sign of this in mainstream Charismatic thinking, or in much of what calls itself Charismatic theology. That is not to say there are no discerning Charismatics (they do exist, and God bless ’em), but while it is one thing to say we should accurately define what is and isn’t the work of God, we need to see if such a notion is carried out in application. For example, the International House of Prayer would probably say they discern spirits…so why do they think a girl shaking uncontrollably for two whole hours is a sign of the Holy Spirit?
On a side note, it is interesting that our author claims “being a person of faith in Jesus means being able to discern both demonic influence and the power of God”…but again, how do we go about this? It cannot be by a special gift of the Holy Spirit, for the “distinguishing of spirits” (1 Cor 12:10) is listed by Paul as one of the “variety” of gifts (1 Cor 12:4), which God sends out “to each one individually just as He wills” (1 Cor 12:11), and which Paul makes quite clear, throughout the rest of the chapter, not every single Christian has (this passage also refutes the notion that all Christians are supposed to be able to speak in tongues).
The answer, once again, is by the word of Almighty God. As the prophet Isaiah said concerning mediums and spiritists: “To the law and to the testimony! If they do not speak according to this word, it is because they have no dawn” (Isa 8:20).
Yes, you may have noticed that I have not mentioned one thing regarding the film Heaven Is for Real. That’s because I don’t have much to say about it. I’ve read the book and saw nothing out-of-bounds with it. I’m of the strong opinion that if supernatural encounters point people to Christ and/or produce the power and manifestations of the Holy Spirit mentioned in Scripture, then I generally tread lightly. This does not mean that I completely agree with people’s recollections of their supernatural experiences. We’re human. We make mistakes. But I would rather err on the side of caution than on the side of bordering on blasphemy.
Frankly, I was utterly flabbergasted that our author says he “read the book and saw nothing out-of-bounds with it”. I will refer once again to my review of it, where I believe I demonstrate there is quite a lot that is “out-of-bounds” within the book, particularly when it comes to the resurrection.
Our author states: “I’m of the strong opinion that if supernatural encounters point people to Christ and/or produce the power and manifestations of the Holy Spirit mentioned in Scripture, then I generally tread lightly.” This is the classic logical fallacy of arguing from pragmatism; that is, if someone provides a benefit, then it’s a good thing (or at the very least, it’s a tolerable thing). In this specific scenario, we have two problems:
First, there is little emphasis on scripture and its authority in this book. Yes, it claims that Colton Burpo’s encounters can be backed up with scripture. Yes, Todd Burpo goes on interviews and says his son’s account back be backed up with scripture. However, I invite my readers to sit down and really examine what scripture says about a lot of the things Colton talks about – especially those passages quoted by the Burpos. You will find that, the vast majority of the time, scripture is twisted and turned so that Colton’s experiences can fit in there; in one situation (Todd Burpo’s citation of Acts 6:15), a specific translation was employed so that a specific reading would give Todd Burpo exactly the interpretation he needed. It becomes quite clear that Colton’s experiences were placed over scripture, rather than seen in light of it.
Second, much of the emphasis here is not on what scripture teaches and what happens on scripture, but rather on therapeutic concerns and desires. What happens to your family members after they die? What happens to the unborn, or babies, when they die? Do animals go to heaven? These questions and others are the main focus in Heaven is for Real. When you look at scripture, there is very little concern about what happens in Heaven, or what will really happen after we die (that’s not to say it’s never talked about, but it’s not the focus). Rather, the focal point of most of the Bible (especially those “theological” parts) is our sin, our need for redemption, and the coming resurrection and glory. Heaven is for Real, and most books like it, distract people from those things, and focus instead on factors that are meant to tug at our heart strings…and hence there is the real seduction.
Could God have saved some people through providential use of the book? Maybe. Perhaps. I won’t deny that possibility. However, nothing and no one alone saves a person – rather, God alone saves someone. That God can “draw a straight line with a crooked stick” does not mean the crooked stick itself is somehow blessed, nor should it be considered profitable for a Christian. I know some believers who were saved reading the New World Translation; that does not make the NWT a translation blessed by God.
Our author follows up his previous statement with: “I would rather err on the side of caution than on the side of bordering on blasphemy.” Our author is apparently of the mindset that, if one critiques the book or just flatly ignores it, might be erring towards blasphemy. Many, in fact, make these kinds of arguments in regards to supposed messages or revelations from God. However, we are forgetting that those who would readily accept what might be a fabrication are likewise erring towards blasphemy, and in fact would be breaking one of the ten commandments: using the Lord’s name in vain, and “the Lord will not leave him unpunished who takes His name in vain” (Exo 20:7). If you want to know how seriously God takes using his name in vain, here are two other passages as examples:
“But the prophet who speaks a word presumptuously in My name which I have not commanded him to speak, or which he speaks in the name of other gods, that prophet shall die.” [Deuteronomy 18:20]
“So My hand will be against the prophets who see false visions and utter lying divinations. They will have no place in the council of My people, nor will they be written down in the register of the house of Israel, nor will they enter the land of Israel, that you may know that I am the Lord God.” [Ezekiel 13:9:]
“Therefore thus says the Lord concerning the prophets who are prophesying in My name, although it was not I who sent them—yet they keep saying, ‘There will be no sword or famine in this land’—by sword and famine those prophets shall meet their end!” [Jeremiah 14:15]
The idea of “using God’s name in vain” does not merely mean stubbing your toe and shouting “G’ d’ it!” It’s likewise saying, “The Lord has told us this…” when really, the Lord never spoke, or you are twisting what the word of God says. Therefore, anyone who wants to support someone claiming to have witnessed or been told things by God – and it is actually absolutely false – are, in fact, erring on the side of judgment.
At this point, our author seems to have placed us, logically, between a rock and a hard place: do we err on the side leading into blasphemy, or err on the side leading into judgment? Let me present a quote from Diadochos of Photiki, a fifth century bishop:
We have now explained the distinction between good and bad dreams, as we ourselves heard it from those with experience. In our quest for purity, however, the safest rule is never to trust to anything that appears to us in our dreams. For dreams are generally nothing more than images reflecting our wandering thoughts, or else they are the mockery of demons. And if ever God in His goodness were to send us some vision and we were to refuse it, our beloved Lord Jesus would not be angry with us, for He would know we were acting in this way because of the tricks of the demons. [On Spiritual Knowledge, 38; The Philokalia, Volume I]
Diadochos of Photiki was not concerned with “erring on the side of blasphemy”, because he fully realized that demonic deception was a very real thing. We are warned in scripture that Satan can disguise himself as an angel of light (2 Cor 11:14), and if one studies the tales of monastics in the desert, many of the demonic temptations they speak of (whether you want to give credability to them or not) involved devils appearing as angels, and presenting messages that would appear, on the surface, to be mostly harmless. One has to also consider the countless Roman Catholic mystics who had visions and apparitions of Christ and the Virgin Mary that told them things which were simply heretical, or taught things that clearly did not come from God. There was good reason that the Reformers rejected these visions.
Therefore, if we ever encounter a situation in which we are unsure if Christ is truly involved – especially when it involves contradictions in scripture, or adding to the word of God – then it would be far safer to avoid it, and flee from it.
I’ve also listened to David Platt’s teaching on the Heaven Is for Real debate and thought he brought up some important points. However, I think he is mistaken on his interpretation of John 3:13 which reads, “No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.” It is strange to assume that Jesus is referring to heavenly encounters seeing that Enoch was taken from his earthly existence to be with God (Gen. 5:24), and both Moses and Elijah appeared to some of the disciples in glorified bodies, which indicates that they came from heaven (Matt. 17:1-5). Most likely, what Jesus was referring to was his actual physical ascension into heaven after his physical death and physical resurrection because no one has ever physically risen again and ascended into heaven. However, that interpretation is debatable.
I am not going to argue for or against David Platt’s teaching on Heaven is for Real, since, at the time of this writing, I am not familiar with it
Many people have criticized some of the things Burpo claimed to have seen such as the Holy Spirit, who is apparently “blue” in color. This seems rather odd and deserves some questioning. However, you cannot disregard some of the other things that he witnessed that cannot be explained away, or even criticized such as seeing certain relatives in heaven whom he had never physically seen before, etc.
With all due respect, this is like a state prosecutor telling the jury, “I know some of the evidence suggests this man isn’t guilty…but you can’t disregard the evidence that says he is!” If there is evidence Colton Burpo did not hear from the true God, chances are he did not.
It is likewise problematic trying to bring up examples of relatives he saw in heaven that he formerly did not know about; mainly because it is similar to the argument made by those who support the doctrine of reincarnation. What I mean is, there are those who refer to the phenomenon of young children who suddenly begin making references to names, places, locations, etc., which they have no way of knowing…and yet can be found through research and documentation. Those who support the idea of reincarnation point to these examples and say, “See? You can’t explain these things away. They’re too fantastic. This must be evidence that reincarnation is true!” If we were consistent with how we are arguing in favor of Colton Burpo, we would have to argue that those who support reincarnation are likewise bringing up a good point.
However, whether it be children who supposedly know a random, insignificant person who died in the 1940’s, or it’s a four-year old boy claiming to have visited heaven, it is wrong to say that such things “cannot be explained away,” since there is a very real and very real possibility, and one we mentioned before: demonic deception. The sad truth is that it is very possible for someone to have what they believe to be a legitimate spiritual experience…and yet which is an absolute forgery. Scripture gives such examples of such things happening:
Your prophets have seen for you false and foolish visions; And they have not exposed your iniquity so as to restore you from captivity, but they have seen for you false and misleading oracles. [Lamentations 2:14]
“Did you not see a false vision and speak a lying divination when you said, ‘The Lord declares,’ but it is not I who have spoken?” [Ezekiel 13:7:]
Note very carefully: these prophets saw and experienced something. They weren’t just making things up on the fly, nor going into the occult and asking advice from other gods; they thought they had experienced legitimate prophecies and visions from the Lord. If you want to see an application of this in the Bible’s narrative, go to 2 Chronicles 18, where the prophet Micaiah speaks of seeing the throne room of God, and hearing God’s plan to intentionally put lying spirits into the prophets, so that they will prophesy incorrectly and lead Ahab and his armies astray. Again, most of Ahab’s prophets truly believed they had visions, or something prophetic to offer the war council, but they had all been deceived spiritually.
If I may be frank, this is something I notice lacking very much in many Charismatic circles: a sincere interest in looking out for demonic deception. If our attitude is one in which we think it is better to believe than be concerned, then we are naive about the workings in the spiritual world.
We need to be careful about what kinds of accusations we lay at God’s door because one day we will answer for it. If God wants to show a 4-year-old boy the glory of heaven and use his experience to confound the wise theologians of the world—then that’s his prerogative and there isn’t anything you can do to change that. Besides, how do you know that Jesus didn’t specifically choose a 4-year-old on purpose so that even the most stubborn person would recognize the fact that the youngster had no motive, no agenda and nothing to gain from peddling a “near death experience?” And don’t go accusing Colton Burpo of making millions off of his “vision” because he had no idea that a book deal and a film would come out of it being 4-years-old. I’ve even read tweets from people who mock the idea that Christians should even be entertaining what a “little boy” has to say about heaven.
Oh, the irony…
We are told: “If God wants to show a 4-year-old boy the glory of heaven and use his experience to confound the wise theologians of the world—then that’s his prerogative and there isn’t anything you can do to change that.” I am not aware of any “wise theologians” being “confounded” by Colton Burpo’s testimony (most have provided biblical arguments for why it’s wrong, and have merely been met with “You’re a Pharisee!”). Likewise, while it is true that God could want to do that, the question is did he. I’m sorry to say, Colton Burpo’s testimony either adds to God’s word (at which point, we have to accept it as extra-scriptural revelation), or it contradicts it (at which point, we have to consider it false). When we see this happening, we have to go with the conclusion that Colton Burpo did not have a legitimate spiritual experience.
Also, it has never been my personal position that Colton or Todd Burpo have done anything merely for profit. It could be the case on Todd’s part, or it could be both father and son think they are doing good. However, even if both have honorable desires, it is best to remember that the saying goes “the road to hell is paved with good intentions,” not “the road to heaven.” When Muhammad began to preach against the idolatry and social corruption he saw in Mecca, he and his followers thought they were doing good – that didn’t make it automatically right. Noble intentions do not equal right intentions.
Some of you would do well to read John 9 over and over again until it sinks in. You’ll notice how Jesus played a little game with the Pharisees—almost to the point of mocking them through his supernatural power. This chapter provides clear evidence that sometimes God bends our strict rigid traditions and rules in order to make a point. The message in this chapter is simple: Those who are blind will see the truth and those who think they see, will become blind.
The point of John 9 is that Christ has power over spiritual blindness and sight. That is why Christ called the Pharisees blind at the end: not to mock their opinion on supernatural signs and wonders (which we’ve already established is an erroneous argument), but rather to mock their view of themselves as saved and secured of God. Consider the last part of John 9:
Jesus heard that they had put him out, and finding him, He said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” He answered, “Who is He, Lord, that I may believe in Him?” Jesus said to him, “You have both seen Him, and He is the one who is talking with you.” And he said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped Him. And Jesus said, “For judgment I came into this world, so that those who do not see may see, and that those who see may become blind.” Those of the Pharisees who were with Him heard these things and said to Him, “We are not blind too, are we?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would have no sin; but since you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains. [John 9:35-41]
Even after he had endured, the blind man had only one desire regarding the man who healed him: to believe in him. When Christ reveals who he is, the blind man falls down and worships him at once, showing his faith. Christ’s statement that he came into this world for judgment, so that “those who do not see may see, and those who see may become blind,” he is referring to spiritual sight, and spiritual blindness. The Pharisees, who had called the blind man “born entirely in sins” (John 9:34), had believed themselves to be righteous above others. It is similar to Christ’s words regarding why those who opposed him did not understand the parables: “to you it has been granted to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been granted…therefore I speak to them in parables; because while seeing they do not see, and while hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand” (Matt 13:11, 13).
John 9, in short, has nothing to do with “bending our strict rigid traditions and rules in order to make a point.”
No, you don’t have to believe the testimony in Heaven Is for Real in order to keep your salvation (even as ironic as that sounds), but what I would like you to do is to be more careful before making a critical judgment regarding testimonies that have to do with our like-minded salvation–especially when it involves something that God may be doing. Don’t get me wrong, there have been supernatural encounters that I have heard about, which I have questioned. However, I do not have a blanket policy of willfully rejecting any and all supernatural encounters just because I feel like it.
If I did, that would make me no better than a Pharisee.
And the “review” ends as it began: with the Pharisee Card. This is based upon, as we established earlier, the utterly incorrect notion that the historical Pharisees had “a blanket policy of willfully rejecting any and all supernatural encounters,” and they opposed Christ simply because he enacted supernatural feats and wonders. As we established before, the Pharisees were not hyper-cessationists, and therefore to in essence argue that you should be gracious towards spiritual revelations and experiences or you’re a Pharisee is simply contrary to the Biblical and historical facts.
We are told that we won’t lose our salvation if we don’t believe in the testimony, although earlier we were told: “we need to be careful about what kinds of accusations we lay at God’s door because one day we will answer for it” (emphasis mine); and those who might criticize the book “err on the side…of bordering on blasphemy”. We are even told (after the salvation comment) that we need to “be more careful before making a critical judgment…when it involves something that God may be doing.” This is not new to our author – it is often how Hyper-Charismatics and some Charismatics argue in regards to revelations given to individuals. On the one hand, it’s OK to disagree; on the other hand, it is ungracious, un-Christian, etc., to oppose these individuals and their teachings. In some cases, your very salvation may be questioned.
To my Charismatic brothers, I must be honest: this kind of thinking is an example of compartmentalization. The fact is, if Colton Burpo really did hear from God (and he’s never claimed “this might be true”), and, as Jo Anne Lyon, General Superintendent of the Wesleyan Church, says in the recommendations page for the book, “God has chosen to speak to us in this twenty-first century through the unblemished eyes of a child, revealing some of the mysteries of heaven”, then Colton Burpo speaks with God’s authority. As we saw in the passages we reviewed, there is no middle ground with “thus sayeth the Lord.” Either Colton Burpo really did hear from God, and those who oppose him will, one day, answer for their sins; or Colton Burpo did not hear from God, and he and his family need to repent for speaking in the Lord’s name when the Lord has not sent them.
As I said before, this was not meant to be merely an examination of a single post, but to address common arguments made against those who discern so-called revelations and supernatural acts. When this discerning happens, it is done out of love for God’s word. I have had experiences in the past where people online pretended to be family members, trying to get financial “help” – just as I was eager to discern this to check for deception, so too do I want to discern to avoid spiritual deception. If anything, we should be far more concerned with spiritual deception than we should be with earthly identity theft.
No matter what our emotions may desire, and no matter what we think may pragmatically be beneficial, we must hold to the word of God. Let us say, with the Psalmist, “I shall delight in Your statutes; I shall not forget Your word” (Psa 119:16).
UPDATE – JANUARY 22, 2015: It has come to my attention that the article was taken down at the original website. I have not found it on the author’s Medium page either (where it was formerly listed as well). I have not received any real explanation for this dual disappearance, though I do find it interesting.