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Tuesday, April 29, 2014 | Comments (13)

by John MacArthur

Far too much of the present interest in heaven, angels, and the afterlife stems from carnal curiosity. It is not a trend those of us who accept the authority of Scripture should encourage or celebrate. Any pursuit that diminishes people’s reliance on the Bible is fraught with grave spiritual dangers—especially if it is something that leads gullible souls into su­perstition, gnosticism, occultism, New Age philosophies, or any kind of spiritual confusion. Those are undeniably the roads most traveled by people who feed a morbid craving for detailed information about the afterlife by devouring stories of people who claim to have gone to the realm of the dead and returned.

Scripture never indulges that desire. In the Old Testament era, every attempt to communicate with the dead was deemed a sin on par with sacrificing infants to false gods (Deuteronomy 18:10–12). The Hebrew Scriptures say comparatively little about the disposition of souls after death, and the people of God were strictly forbidden to inquire further on their own. Necromancy was a major feature of Egyptian religion. It also dominated every religion known among the Canaanites. But under Moses’ law it was a sin punishable by death (Leviticus 20:27).

The New Testament adds much to our understanding of heaven (and hell) but we are still not permitted to add our own subjective ideas and experience-based conclusions to what God has specifically revealed through his inerrant Word. Indeed, we are forbidden in all spiritual matters to go beyond what is written (1 Corinthians 4:6).

Lazarus of Bethany fell ill and died, and his body lay devoid of life and decaying in a tomb for four days before Jesus raised him (John 11:17). A whole chapter in John’s gospel is devoted to the story of how Jesus brought him back from the dead. But there’s not a hint or a whisper anywhere in Scripture about what happened to Lazarus’ soul in that four-day interim. The same thing is true of every person in Scripture who was ever brought back from the dead, beginning with the widow’s son whom Elijah raised in 1 Kings 17:17–24 and culminating with Eutychus, who was healed by Paul in Acts 20:9–12. Not one biblical person ever gave any recorded account of his or her postmortem experience in the realm of departed souls.

The apostle Paul had an experience of heaven so real he wasn’t sure whether he had been physically carried there or merely caught up in a vision. He mentions the experience only once—reluctantly—because false teachers were challenging his authority, and this heavenly vision was a vital affirmation of his apostolic credentials. But he had kept completely silent about the whole affair until fourteen years after the fact. Even then, he framed his testimony as a third-person narrative:

I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows. And I know that this man was caught up into paradise. (2 Corinthians 12:2–3 ESV)

Despite the third-person pronouns, this was clearly Paul’s own experience, because he shifts into first person as soon as he starts talking about how God humbled him in the aftermath of that experience:

To keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becom­ing conceited. (2 Corinthians 12:7 ESV)

The typical contemporary evangelical response to an event like that would be to write (or have a ghostwriter produce) a sensational ac­count. It would be filled with specific details of what heaven is like and what’s currently happening there. A large publishing conglomerate would publish it, and once it was clearly established as a blockbuster, they would start working on sequels and movie rights.

But having mentioned the fact of his experience, the apostle Paul declines to give any details whatsoever. He merely says that he “heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter” (2 Corinthians 12:4 ESV). He employs a Greek expression that means it is not lawful for any human to speak of the things he heard.

So Paul, who had been called to one of the most important apos­tolic roles in the early church, was forbidden to discuss what he saw and heard in paradise. The brief three-verse account he gives of his vi­sion makes quite a stark contrast to all the currently popular volumes written by people who claim to have been to heaven and come back.

Why would it have been unlawful for Paul to describe what he heard in heaven? After all, Ezekiel, Isaiah, and the apostle John each had visions of the very throne room of heaven and wrote about what they saw and heard. Their accounts are even part of inspired Scripture.

That is precisely the point. Those in the Bible who wrote about seeing heaven were expressly commanded by God to do so and were carried along by the Spirit of God as they wrote (2 Peter 1:21). The relatively brief accounts they each gave are part of the God-breathed text. The Al­mighty Himself had those men record that information for our benefit in the precise words that He chose. No extrabiblical account of heaven can legitimately make that claim.

Those who demand to know more than Scripture tells us are sin­ning: “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever” (Deuteronomy 29:29 ESV). The limits of our curiosity are thus established by the boundary of biblical revelation.

(Adapted from The Glory of Heaven.)


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#1  Posted by Nancy Pae  |  Tuesday, April 29, 2014at 5:23 AM

There is truth in becoming more interested in these kind of testimonies and being led away from the Bible. Some stories are quite remarkable. I had been curious and so listened to some on YouTube. I was equally curious about those for whom hell was their experience. Theses particular people were scared to the truth. Their experiences were frightening, terrible, horrible experiences, the kind that should be heard (in my opinion), but definitely not for little children.

I look forward to discovering the Kingdom of Heaven and I don't want my surprise to be ruined. My feelings are somewhat akin to knowing that I have the best ever gift waiting for me to open. I do not want help unwrapping it, and I do not want anyone else to touch it. I want to be presented this gift by the Giver and I will not settle for anything less.

Thank you and God Bless

#2  Posted by Michael Anda  |  Tuesday, April 29, 2014at 11:14 AM

Beautifully stated, Nancy. Thank you.

#3  Posted by Elaine Toomey  |  Tuesday, April 29, 2014at 11:41 AM

Nancy, I love the way you expressed that. .beautiful

#4  Posted by Patty Duke  |  Tuesday, April 29, 2014at 12:25 PM

Wonderful blogs! I have been so confused by the hoopla around the Heaven is for Real book and movie. So many of my Christian friends are all about it- like it proves something. At least now I have somewhere to point them- your blog. All I've been able to say so far to them is that when the rich man asked to have someone from the afterlife go back and warn his brothers, Jesus' answer was a resounding "No". Your blog is much more informative and detailed. Thank you!

#5  Posted by Mark Strong  |  Wednesday, April 30, 2014at 8:21 PM

Excellent points from the Scripture by John, as always. I'm shocked how many people are drawn in by these stories - how easily people are lured away from the truth. Thanks for great pastor-teachers like John for staying the course in an increasingly confused age

#6  Posted by Mitch Jacquard  |  Thursday, May 01, 2014at 10:39 AM

It is unfortunate that too many today operate in the sphere of "Doubt looking for Proof" and claim to have faith in Christ. Faith trusts in promises that are true and unchangeable even though the results of those promises my be yet unseen...I thank God for faithful men like Pastor MacArthur who continue to direct our thoughts to the truth rather than all these New Age philosophies.

#7  Posted by Ben Enders  |  Thursday, May 01, 2014at 1:31 PM

My church has reserved the local cinema and sold out a showing of “Heaven is for Real”. I have not been in church for a few weeks due to travel so I don’t know what the mind set of the leadership is. I find it doubtful that they recommended this movie with any word of caution. I'll find out for sure before I say something.

I was asked by one person, “so what is the difference between going to see this movie and Transformers”? This person is a Christian so I gave her an answer using many of the same reasons I have heard Dr. MacArthur explain. "Grace to You" is like advanced combat training, thanks again to all who are part of this ministry!! Her response was that even if this movie is inaccurate regarding Heaven that it would provide an opportunity to present the truth from scripture. I see her point, but asked, what about the people who do not have the benefit of someone who knows what scripture teaches on this. I live in one of the least churched areas of the country and it has a strong charismatic presense. Double trouble. Since I have not read the book or seen the movie I have had to rely on reviews by others. I have found the common thread indicates a severe lack of gospel presentation. That hearsay and being produced by TD Jakes is enough for me to warn people about this movie.

I am interested in what any of you have to say regarding the opportunities presented by the onslaught of (biblically challenged) movies that have come out in the last few years.

Personally, I sometimes feel that all I do is deconstruct what is being presented to my family and friends and I am concerned that I am building a reputation of someone who is only interested in dissention.

#9  Posted by Mark Tanner  |  Friday, May 02, 2014at 5:45 AM

Hi Ben,

I agree with much of what you said and what you are doing, and in my opinion, the right thing by using the opportunities presented to "deconstruct". You are NOT alone in this, for this is my experience and it is because I love the truth and hate the perversions of my Lord and His word. Keep up the good fight and do not be discouraged, but rather be encouraged knowing that with a clear conscience you are defending the Lord whom you love against error! Remember what Paul told Timothy and we are witnessing this at every turn; it is why we come to God's word and use resources like GTY.org.

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"For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, 4 and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry." - 2Timothy 4:3-5

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God bless you Ben and we will pray for your encouragement and faithfulness to His word regardless of what others are saying or NOT saying.

Mark

#8  Posted by Mark Tanner  |  Friday, May 02, 2014at 5:29 AM

Nancy,

Thanks for sharing your thoughts and experiences. I have a question for clarification; what did you mean by the following statement: "I do not want help unwrapping it, and I do not want anyone else to touch it."?

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Dr. MacArthur & GTY staff and friends,

Thank you for all the great blogs and useful resources; you have been used of God to bless our entire family for many years and we will continue to pray that God will open new doors and avenues to accomplish His will by using all of you and those who have been blessed by your many ministries as "tools for the kingdom".

We live in a time when the "visible" church is suffering from "malnutrition" and GTY provides spiritual nourishment through careful exposition and a plethora of resources to help us grow in the knowledge and love for God, His word, His people and for the lost..thank you so much! We will continue to prayerfully support GTY as the Lord allows and point others to the many resources at gty.org.

Sincerely,

The Tanner's

#10  Posted by Janie Hildebrand  |  Friday, May 02, 2014at 7:04 AM

From what I see in scripture, visions of heaven have always accompanied a call to be either a prophet or a martyr.

So while we can dismiss Colton's account as a little boy's imagination of his Bible Story book and My Little Pony cartoons, I think we must also be careful not to miss any opportunity we have with our unsaved friends who may have seen the film and begin to have questions regarding heaven.

I'm not in any way advocating Hollywood theology, but I will use whatever opportunity they may give to share with people that not only is heaven real, but how to get there.

#11  Posted by Patty Duke  |  Friday, May 02, 2014at 9:59 AM

There are only 4 people who had visions of heaven in Scripture. Isaiah, Ezekiel, Paul, and John. Perhaps you can add Stephen as he was martyrd. No one else, and as John MacArthur teaches in this blog, no one who was raised from the dead gave an account of his/her time in the afterlife. And I must add the comment I have made before, that in Luke 16 when the rich man asked if someone could come back and tell his brothers about hell, there was a specific answer of "No",from Abraham because the brothers had the Word of God and didn't believe, neither would they believe if someone came back from the dead and told them. That is not just for those brothers, it is also for all of us too. There is not a single example in the Word of God of someone converted to Jesus Christ because they talked to someone who came back and told them about Heaven. And that should settle it for Christians. I heard David Platt speak on a video, and was struck by what he said concerning Heaven is for Real and the numbers of people in the Christian community that are embracing it. He said it shows that discernment in the church is at an all time low. I couldn't agree more.

#13  Posted by Jeffrey Weis  |  Sunday, May 04, 2014at 6:48 PM

amen

#12  Posted by Janie Hildebrand  |  Friday, May 02, 2014at 11:18 AM

What I find astounding is that Christians accept that Colton saw God! How is it then that 1 Timothy 6:16 says, "God lives in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see." We either have to conclude that scripture is wrong or Colton is lying. What a dangerous precedent we're setting by accepting this.