There and Back Again
Tales from the interstice of life and death.
Christian publishing is not so different from mainstream publishing in that they are always looking for the next big hit. It is a business after all and if there is no profit, there is no business, just a very expensive hobby. One book seems to be doing very well right now and no one knows how far it will go.
Heaven is for Real by Todd Burpo, Sonja Burpo, Colton Burpo, and Lynn Vincent was released in November 2010 by Thomas Nelson. At the time of this writing, it is listed on Amazon as #2 in books, #2 in Christian living, and #2 in eschatology. This book presents the account of the Burpo’s four-year-old son’s experience during an emergency surgery. He is purported to have passed from consciousness and entered Heaven. He is sent back and after surviving the surgery tells his family the things he has seen, heard, and knows.
Let’s deal with the disclaimers before we proceed. This is not a review of this book nor is it an analysis of its story. I have not read this book and most likely will not read it. One reason for that is that I am just not interested in these types of stories. They come along every so often. Some get into print and others spread by word of mouth.
I am not criticizing anyone else for reading it. I just cannot envision any scenario in which I will read it. This particular book is a conversation starter to address certain issues. My concerns are more general and categorical that this type of book is symptomatic of. Hopefully, that will make sense after I am finished.
The Clamor for Something Else
A certain demographic within American Christianity is always ready for this type of story. As a caveat: American Christianity is not the same as biblical Christianity, but we’ll leave that for another time. These folks are very heavy on experience and always ready to hear of dreams and visions and such.
They love to tell and hear about “what God is doing.” Interestingly, that talk does not include what God is doing in history to fulfill His purpose, nor how He is at work to reconcile to Himself, nor His governance of the universe to unfold according to His plan, nor even how He makes the small drops of water to fulfill His purpose and glorify His name (Job 36:28; Job 37:10-13). No, they are more concerned with what God is doing for them personally: how He is calming their storms, helping them face their giants, enlarging their borders, paying their mortgage, healing their planter’s warts, getting them into the car they want, and generally making them successful.
After a while around such people, you get the feeling their main concern is not for the Word of God, but something else. This sort of story appeals strongly because it is something else. They are not like the Psalmist who loved the law of God, meditated in it day and night, and desired it above earthly treasure (Psalm 119:97; Psalm 119:48; Psalm 119:127; Psalm 19:9-10). In a word, the Scripture is not sufficient for them. They want something else, something more.
I would recommend reading and considering John 6. There a multitude of people were following after Jesus. Though they stood in the presence of the Lord of Glory in human flesh, and though they had already seen mighty signs confirming His witness, they wanted more. They wanted something else (John 6:30-31). Those who majored on experience (John 6:26) were not satisfied with Jesus and wanted something more. When they did not get it, they went away and did not return (John 6:64-66).
A Good Sign
The popularity and success of such stories is a good sign to many. They are gladdened and take it as a sign that faith is alive and well in America. It restores their outlook and justifies great optimism. It is tantamount to an endorsement of what they are all about.
But let us come back to John 6 for a moment. According to Jesus, the clamor for something else did not manifest faith. It actually manifested the exact opposite, unbelief. It is not a heart of faith, love for God, and love for His Word that drives people to buy millions of copies of The Shack, or other categorically similar works. It is unbelief and a desire for something else, anything else, than the truth.
An Evangelistic Tool
Because of the popularity, many people will read these kinds of books who would otherwise neither buy nor read a “Christian” book. Savvy apologists will seize this fact to advance an ends-justifies-the-means argument. In other words, it’s an evangelistic tool and good for reaching where other methods might fail, says they. They reason that people in general are skeptical of religion and if they could hear the testimony of one who went there and could tell them of the experience, maybe they would believe.
Boy, that reminds me of something . . . ah yes, a true after-life experience in Luke 16. A rich man died and went to hell in unbelief. He wanted Lazarus, who died and went to Heaven, to be sent to his brothers to warn them that they would not die like he did (Luke 16:27-28). Abraham told him that they had the Word of God, i.e. Moses and the prophets, to warn them (Luke 16:29). The formerly rich man, who was still unbelieving, responded that that was not sufficient, they needed something else (Luke 16:30). Then Abraham gave him the final word on the matter.
And he said unto him, if they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead.
~ Luke 16:31
I don’t think these types of books are helpful and I don’t recommend them. If you go away from this post thinking I said anyone who reads this book, The Shack, or other similar books is not a real Christian, you missed the point. What is the point? Hold the Word of God, the Bible, in high regard (Job 23:12) and if you find you prefer something else, you need it all the more.
Lastly, Heaven is real and so is Hell. But don’t take my word for it. Take God’s Word for it.