By Joel Hess –
This past week I enjoyed a heartwarming tale about a young man who met the resurrected Jesus Christ. Can you guess what book I read…..?
The Gospel according to St. John! Sure, you thought it was, ‘Heaven is for real’ didn’t you!? I tried that trick on my congregation this past Sunday but they didn’t bite! They have been catechized well! So after my catchy intro failed, I had to resort to a joke about the pope who was recently canonized despite the fact he was skipper of the boat when the church was playing the shell game with their child molesting priets. Hmmmm,… still skipped purgatory! Maybe Rome believes Grace is for real afterall!
Ok, sorry Glover. In fact I did read ‘heaven is for real’. No I have not seen the movie yet. Do I have to?
I read the book because I am a responsible pastor and I know my flock is reading it. I would never in a million years pick up a book like this. It looks like it belongs in the religious/spiritual section of your local Mcbookbarnesandwaldens. It probably sits next to 20 minutes in heaven, 7 minutes in heaven, 5 minutes in Gehanna, 1000 years in purgatory, 10 days in Shipshewana , and of course the Mohammedan version , 3 days with 100 sexy virgins and so on.
Needless to say I began my reading as a scoffer. Yet how quickly, like a dust ball slipping beneath our davenport, I was drawn in. I’m officially a sucker. A little boy is dying. He visits heaven and sees our resurrected Lord with marks still on his hands. What cold hearted soul wouldn’t be anxious to know how it all ends? Spock would be crying and hastily turning pages…with his mind.
Fortunately an assisting author cleverly helped layout the story in a way that kept you engaged. Although frankly about half way through I grew tired of the refrain of- boy says something crazy, dad drops his jaw and yells to his wife, ‘you gotta hear this’.
If you don’t know already, the book is a father’s story about his 4 year old boy who visited heaven while he was critically ill. He never died. Well, not yet. After his recovery he randomly dropped ‘ pericopes’ of his divine visit. He saw his baby sister who died in the womb. He saw Jesus go up and down like an escalator and everyone else flying around with wings. He met his grandpa and so on.
Jesus definitely is the center of this story. In fact the boy makes a proclamation early on that everyone must believe in Jesus to go to heaven. This Christ exclusivity was repeated throughout the book. Of course the gospel is presented in that backwoods protestant manner that sounds more like the inverse of a Roman soldier forcing a Christian to bow to Caesar or die.
Besides Jesus, the whole trinity makes an appearance. And the Holy Spirit is a He! Its almost as if the kid read the bible! Hmmm, his dad is a pastor…. Still, this is no Willy Wonka heaven story. I must admit some of the boy’s tale inspired me. There I said it!
I also respected the father frequently checking his son’s story with scripture. Unlike a lot of goofy ‘I died and went to heaven’ stories with butterflies and chocolate rivers, the father attempted to validate his son’s story with the certain word of God.
But a couple items repeatedly unnerved me. And hey, I’m easily unnerved, plus you don’t really want a boring positive book review do you, so…
The father kept joking that either his son’s Sunday school teachers were really effective or the boy really went to heaven. Well maybe his teachers are effective and little kids do listen! – and maybe that’s why the kid described heaven in such a scriptural way. The pastor father totally abandons the possibility that his son might have actually learned something from him and his church, therefore his description of heaven must come from an extraordinary experience.
I too have heard amazing thing from kids! Just this past week I listened to my confirmands tell me things about scripture I was totally surprised they knew. Because I swear they have not listened to me for a year! And junior high kids and 4 year olds are not much different! Perhaps they too have visited heaven! Maybe I will write a book!
Secondly, the boy’s vision of heaven was full of people with wings, looking like angels, betraying a typical pop spiritual belief that people die and become angels. “Oh, grandpa’s got his wings and he’s playing for the heavenly all stars.” I thought this was kind of kitszchy. Scripture makes it clear that angels and people are two different animals.
Thirdly, the author severely misinterpreted the several texts where Jesus tells his disciples that one must become like a little child in order to enter the kingdom of heaven. Predictably this pastor used these words to elevate his son’s simple straightforward faith. Cute. However Jesus is not applauding the intrinsic attributes or cognitive characteristics of children which makes them more apt to believe. Nor is he praising their innocent nature. The kids I know are not humble nor innocent! He is referring to the humble social status placed upon kids.
Fourthly, as other critics have opined, scripture doesn’t concern itself with the landscape of heaven as much as it speaks of the Last Day,the day of resurrection and new creation. This book leaves the reader concluding that our Christian goal is to ‘give your life to Jesus’ and then go to heaven. The end. In fact the boy says at some point that people receive bodies in heaven. No they don’t.
And finally, a danger of this book is that the boy’s experience can justify the possible wrong beliefs and teachings of his church-even if they are ‘minor’. For example, how can a Lutheran argue with a Wesleyan pastor who doesn’t believe in infant baptism – “well my son just went to heaven and came back? What did your son do?”
Now I certainly understand Christian brothers can have disagreements on theology and practice, but our differences can only be settled with the Word of God; the writings of the sundry and certain eye witnesses designated by the Lord! No experience, no matter how awesome, can contradict God’s word!
I can’t say this book is a dangerous book altogether. It confirms many important elements of the Christian faith. Of course it has its shortcomings and it’s hard to verify whether this kid really experienced what he experienced – or that this family is even telling the truth. Oh my, someone just shot a mental arrow at me. How dare you call a little munchkin who almost died a liar! I can’t. But I also have not investigated it enough to say he is not.
Seriously though, go ahead read it. Heaven is for real after all. But I’m looking forward to the resurrection.
Until then I will hang my faith on the words of God through John who said of himself and the other apostles, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life.”