“Heaven Is For Real” Meets Andy Crouch’s 5 Questions

Heaven is for RealLast week Michel Hyatt tweeted that the Thomas Nelson book “Heaven is for Real” was the top selling book for three weeks in a row on Amazon. The editors describe the books as “the true story of the four-year old son of a small town Nebraska pastor who during emergency surgery slips from consciousness and enters heaven. He survives and begins talking about being able to look down and see the doctor operating and his dad praying in the waiting room. The family didn’t know what to believe but soon the evidence was clear.”

I expressed some skepticism and concern over the book to Michael Hyatt and he graciously sent me a complimentary copy. I scanned the book and was immediately impressed with the quality of the writing and how perfectly plotted the book was. No matter what questions I might have about the story I can’t deny the power with which it was told.

It would be easy to write a screed about  stories like “Heaven Is Real”, “23 Minutes in Hell”, or “30 Minutes in Hell.” The stories, by their very nature, are unverifiable. I could also point to the profit motive behind books like this. However, there’s a few problems with writing a post like that. First, I cannot prove with certainty that these folk are not telling the truth. Secondly, I have to admit that books like these should be published. Christianity, gratefully, is a big tent that accommodates ideas and beliefs bigger than my traditions, doctrines, and comfort levels. Christian publishing does not exist to cater to my brand of thought. Third, I have to admit that I’m bothered by these books, in part, out of jealousy; books in this genre outsell the books I’ve written. I’d be a liar to think that this doesn’t color my attitude toward the book.

So what would happen if I stepped back and looked at the bigger picture? “Heaven is For Real” is the number one selling book in America. The narrative in this book is resonating with tens of thousands of people which makes it an important cultural artifact. Let’s apply Andy Crouch’s “5 Questions” to understand the significance of this book:

1. What do books like “Heaven is for Real” assume about the world?

We like in a culture that that is anxious about the afterlife. 9-11 and the “War on Terror” have made us more aware of our mortality. We wonder if there is purpose in this world and we are more apt to look to the next life for answers and an emotional anchor. The book assumes that people consider personal experiences as valuable source of authority in understanding the supernatural and that people are less content to rely on traditional sources of authority, such as the local church.

2. What do books like “Heaven is for Real” assume about how the world should be?

These books point to a discontentment with life as we experience it.  We experience, pain, suffering, death, and separation from loved ones. We are searching for hope that these are temporary experiences. Books that focus on Hell capture a desire to see injustices in this life corrected and punished.

3. What do books like “Heaven is for Real” make possible?

People gain contemporary vehicles to test the veracity of their sacred scriptures  or to draw conclusions about the afterlife independent of their scriptures.

4. What do books like “Heaven is for Real” make impossible? Or at least a whole lot more difficult?

I’m struggling here. Need some help from you readers!

5. What new culture is created in response to books like “Heaven is for Real”?

Books like “Heaven is for Real” reinforces our culture of looking to experiences to verify our faith. It also provides fodder for the culture of “attack bloggers” who police the Internet for atrocities to correct.

Time to wear your sociologist hat. How would you answer these five questions?

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  • http://www.JanetOberholtzer.com Janet Oberholtzer

    Hi … not sure if we’ve ‘met’ before, but I’ve seen you around the blogosphere.

    As for this post … thanks for it, I’ve had a bad attitude about this book since I read about it and saw an interview with the author and his son. I’d not heard of Andy Crouch’s “5 Questions” so thanks for helping me look at it with a more balanced view. Because I’ve had doubts about the experiences in the book … I haven’t spent money on it and haven’t read it, so I can’t give a fair opinion of it.

    I almost died from injuries in an accident 6+ years ago … so I’m very skeptical about books of this nature. Not because I didn’t have a Heaven experience, I may or may not have … but I know that I was not thinking clearly (between lack of oxygen, then followed by massive meds) so any experience I had during the traumatic first day or the early days post-accident, I don’t regard as accurate.

    • Anonymous

      Those 5 questions powerful. Andy Crouch as given us a tool to calmly decode the cultural artifacts all around us. http://www.culture-making.com.

      What a harrowing experience you went through. I’m sure that its impacted your view of life and afterlife even if you didn’t have similar experiences to those in the book.

  • Anonymous

    The book title especially bothers me (thinking through #1 “test veracity of Scripture” and 3 above). From what I see in Scripture, experience is not the proof that Scripture is accurate or false because it is very possible to misinterpret our experience. Jesus said in Luke 16:31 “… If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be persuaded even if someone rises from the dead” (NASB). Peter writing in 2 Peter 1:19 says that we “have the prophetic word more sure, to which you do well to pay attention…” (NASB). I realize that there is some discussion over what that means precisely, but a very good understanding is that the Word of God is more sure than personal experience (e.g. Mount of Transfiguration referred to in 2 Peter 1:16-17). I recall reading an editorial from a Time magazine editor who was involved in a horrific car accident in Australia and he was not a believer at all. He claimed to have had an out of the body experience, and saw a bright light, etc., and found it to be a very calming experience. His take away, no worries about the afterlife, everything will be fine. People who subscribe to false cults claim the same experiences. The book “Heaven is for Real” may be a good story and told very well. But for me, the bottom line is that we know heaven is for real because “the Bible tells me so.”

    • Anonymous

      I think you touch on some important considerations, namely “does our brain use religious language interpret the neurological impulses that come with near death experiences because it is conditioned to?” There’s a whole field of neuro-theology that makes us look at uncomfortable questions.

      My point with the blog wasn’t to endorse or condemn the book but to explore the “why’s” of the book’s popularity.

  • Anonymous

    The book title especially bothers me (thinking through #1 “test veracity of Scripture” and #3 above).

    From what I see in Scripture, experience is not the proof that Scripture is accurate or false because it is very possible to misinterpret our experience. Jesus said in Luke 16:31 “… If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be persuaded even if someone rises from the dead” (NASB). Peter writing in 2 Peter 1:19 says that we “have the prophetic word more sure, to which you do well to pay attention…” (NASB). I realize that there is some discussion over what that means precisely, but a very good understanding is that the Word of God is more sure than personal experience (e.g. Mount of Transfiguration referred to in 2 Peter 1:16-17).

    I recall reading an editorial from a Time magazine editor who was involved in a horrific car accident in Australia and he was not a believer at all. He claimed to have had an out of the body experience, and saw a bright light, etc., and found it to be a very calming experience. His take away, no worries about the afterlife, everything will be fine. People who subscribe to false cults claim the same experiences. The book “Heaven is for Real” may be a good story and told very well. But for me, the bottom line is that we know heaven is for real because “the Bible tells me so.”

  • http://movethemountains.blogspot.com Chad Jones

    I can’t think off the top of my head of the reference, but I recall a passage where Paul talks about a man caught up to the third heaven, and about it not being lawful to discuss it. That said, I don’t want to dismiss this account out of hand; however, I feel some discomfiture in fully embracing it. My “ecclesial” background includes some whack stuff (“Do you feel anything, brother? Just start muttering, it’ll come”), so I’ll reserve judgment for now.

    On a related note, did you happen to the see anything about The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven? Apparently, it came out last June. It’s subtitled “A True Story.” Seems to be a harrowing tale of a young man gravely injured in a car accident, rendered comatose, who spent two months meeting with angels and talking with Jesus. Unfortunately, and I’m not making this up, the author’s last name is Malarkey. ;-)

  • Ennis Pepper

    I read the book and loved it and I think Andy’s negative take on experience is a little over cooked. Experience and heaven are both realities and neither God nor the Bible would suggest we dismiss experience or ignore heavenly visits.

    Can we read too much into experience? Yes, without doubt!

    Do we solve that problem by being completely oblivious? Absolutely not!

    Is heaven a reality? If you believe the Bible, you have to say yes and it really shouldn’t surprise us that it bleeds through occasionally.  It’s not just real, it is very very close.

    I did several write ups on the book, the first one being a review/summary:  http://nowthinkaboutit.com/2010/11/heaven-is-for-real-by-todd-burpo/

    I also put together a few questions for discussion:  http://nowthinkaboutit.com/2011/05/heaven-is-for-real-study-questions/

    I also compared Colton’s experience to that of Don Piper: http://nowthinkaboutit.com/2011/02/review-90-minutes-in-heaven-by-don-piper-2/

    I did a few more but you can find them on the site.

    Coming from a very conservative background, I too used to be skeptical of these experiences. But, if you will put traditional opinions on hold for a moment and investigate the issue with Bible in hand before dismissing it, you might see things a little differently. It’s a challenge.