“I died on January 18, 1989. Immediately after I died I went straight to heaven. While I was in heaven a Baptist preacher rushed to my lifeless body and prayed for me. At least 90 minutes after the EMT’s pronounced me dead, God answered that man’s prayers. I returned to earth. This is my story.”—Don Piper, 90 Minutes in Heaven, 2004
Maybe you’ve read one of the Christian leaders advising others NOT to go see the new 90 Minutes in Heaven book-based movie, released Thursday. “You dishonor God and the Bible if you need this kind of outside verification.” “Bad theology.”
I don’t think so.
My many reasons why began Friday, March 22nd 2003. I was in the “bullpen” at the Mt. Hermon Christian writer’s conference in California. At break time a handful of us news junkies were watching the US military unleash its “shock and awe” campaign on downtown Baghdad. “I can’t help but notice your limp,” I eventually said to one of the guys. “After twenty-three years of rheumatoid arthritis I limp sometimes too, so my antennae are fairly sensitive to that.”
“Yes,” he replied, “I was in a car wreck.”
We talked about the challenges of pushing through pain every day. When I asked how it happened he told me he’d been hit head-on by an eighteen-wheeler that crossed into his lane. I asked him about his injuries and recovery. I was stunned to learn he’d had over 30 surgeries. “It must have been horrific,” I replied. “I’m so sorry.” He didn’t seem to mind answering my questions. But he wasn’t exactly spilling his story.
We watched the bombs exploding over Baghdad and shared our thoughts on the prospects for a quick victory. We discovered we were both from Houston. I asked him why he had come to Mount Hermon. For the first time he gave a long pause. “Well,” he finally continued, “I have a story to tell and I’m looking for someone to help me tell it.”
“Oh? Tell me a little of your story,” I invited. Another long pause. “Ok…” he was clearly out of his comfort zone. “Driving home from a pastor’s conference in East Texas, I was crossing the river on an old two-lane bridge with a superstructure when that 18-wheeler veered into my lane and rolled right over me. He was going 60. I was going 50. I died instantly.” Over the next ten minutes this very soft-spoken, reluctant witness shared the details of his story that he had concealed earlier.
I’m inclined to be very skeptical about tales of the supernatural. But I found Don Piper to be very credible.
One of the most convincing parts of Don’s story was the pastor who felt compelled to get through the police line on the bridge and pray for him. When he couldn’t get to Don’s body he climbed through the trunk and put his hand on his shoulder and prayed like he had never prayed before. Or since.
Those are the kinds of prayers that bring miracles. Like the house shaking in Acts 4.
Don told me it was years before he even told his best friend or his wife of his heaven experience. But when he finally did they found it deeply encouraging and urged him to start telling his story. So he did. But only for free or for love offerings. He didn’t want to trade on his experience to make a lot of money. He was only at the writers’ conference because, again, his wife and friends were leaning on him. I got the feeling he almost hoped it wouldn’t go anywhere. Of course it did.
Two years later his book came out. Since we both lived back in Houston, I interviewed Don on our radio program (listen here). He was still limping when he entered the KSEV studio. He told me that when he and Cec Murphy had turned in the manuscript, the Baker-Revell publishing committee thought this would either be the biggest hit or the biggest flop they had ever published. They sent it over to their theologians at Baker Books to get their opinion. The Baker team replied that they didn’t see anything that contradicted Scripture. So Revell took the plunge and published it.
At the time of our interview the book had already sold half a million copies. (Now it has sold over 6 million.) Don had been travelling quite a bit speaking about the book. He told me that when he spoke in Sweden, one of the most secular countries on the planet, the host pastor had peeked out at the audience from back stage. When he turned around his eyes were brimming.
“What’s wrong?” asked Don. “Nobody here?”
“No,” the pastor replied, “The balcony is almost full. I’ve been here 20 years and we’ve never had anyone in the balcony.”
I believe God gives us glimpses through the glass darkly. Opens doors. And surprises us when we pray. Thousands have come to Christ through this book as Don has traveled the world speaking for a simple love offering or travel expenses.
I hope thousands more come to him through the movie. That is certainly what I’ll be praying.
But what about the warnings against seeing the movie?
Tim Challies criticizes Heaven Tourism as a money-making racket: “I’ll grant that the cost of this type of journey is rather steep (you’ve got to die, though only for just a few minutes), but it’s a sound investment when you factor in the sales figures. I can think of quite a few authors who would trade a few minutes of life for 50+ weeks on the bestseller lists and a few appearances on TBN.” This cut totally dishonors Don Piper’s track record of speaking for love offerings and massive charitable giving. All the profits of this movie will be given to charity as well.
Challies’ snarky tone really surprises me since he also ridiculed Ann Voskamp for her book, 1000 Gifts but, after he discovered her email in his inbox inviting him to dinner, he apologized: “I did poorly here and I can see that I need to grow in my ability to critique the ideas in a book even while being kind and loving to its author.” If only he had extended the same understanding to Piper.
Challies claims that because the Bible says it is “appointed to us once to die and after that the judgment” that Don’s account simply isn’t true. The team of theologians at Baker books disagreed. And they publish some of the sturdiest, conservative academic books out there. Maybe this verse is written in the spirit of Proverbs. Yes, that is the general rule, but God may have his purposes for granting exceptions. Enoch didn’t die. Neither did Elijah. Jesus himself raised Lazarus who died twice.
Challies also asserts that, “for a person to die and visit heaven, to experience sinlessness and the presence of Jesus Christ—for that person it would be the very height of cruelty to then demand that they return to earth.” Maybe that is why Don did not see Jesus. But here Challies misses the point of the book. The agony of returning to earth, especially to have to endure the excruciating pain Piper has endured, was the great conflict of his story. The very thing that sucked him into despair and depression. For years Piper endured only a few hours a day without intense pain. He still battles a great deal of it. He can’t speak more than once a day or two days in a row when he travels.
Why would God allow such suffering? We do not know. But we do know that he has used it mightily. Which has me wondering if the reason there is so much “heaven tourism” out there in the wake of Don’s book in 2004, and the reason many subsequent books on heaven have been recanted or deeply disagree with the Bible, is because God is doing a great work through Piper’s book, and the enemy seeks to dilute or discredit his message by spinning out counterfeits. Wouldn’t be the first time.
Challies also makes the point that we don’t need testimonies like Piper’s because we have the testimony of Scripture. But we all know that God uses people’s personal stories combined with Scripture quite powerfully to bring people to faith or repentance or offer deep encouragement. He even uses Paul’s testimony of “heaven tourism” enfolded into Scripture to encourage us.
Over on Patheos Jonathan Aigner (Ponder Anew) really took Don Piper to task. He insists that heaven is an event coming at the end of the present age, not a place. “If Don really died, he wouldn’t have seen pearly gates (which are likely symbolic, not literal). He wouldn’t have seen redeemed bodies. It should be concerning that his account looks like something someone who knew nothing of the Bible and nothing of heaven other than the common nominal understanding could have come up with.”
Aigner is committed to a theological point of view that insists that the descriptions of the new Jerusalem must be symbolic. I respectfully disagree. We can’t have an adequate discussion of this from blog to blog. But briefly, Jesus said he goes to prepare a place for us. A place. Not just the event of restoration. This place where we can live together forever and Jesus’ occupation of preparing it himself is so significant that it’s offered as a consolation in view of his imminent departure (John 14:2,3).
Many sturdy, conservative theologians (with a different theological pov) affirm its literal reality. Maybe the reason most people take this view of heaven is because this view, rather than Aigner’s, has prevailed in the popular culture. In which case it would be quite circuitous to discredit Piper’s view simply because it lines up with the view of people who know little about the Bible.
In Revelation 21 an angel gets out a measuring rod and measures this place. How does one measure a symbol? And why would he measure it? Isn’t measuring something an empirical confirmation that something is real?
Aigner insists that Piper would not have seen a reunion of the people who helped him come to faith in Christ because no one can see “redeemed bodies” until after the resurrection. This in spite of the fact that Jesus’ disciples could clearly see Moses and Elijah talking with him.
I agree that after death our souls will be “unclothed” from our mortal bodies. But somehow we can be manifested to one another before the resurrection. And I believe that is what Don saw.
What most rankled me about Aigner’s post was, like Challies, his snarky description of Don as “a messenger from beyond, telling people to get right so they can meet up with him for a cup of celestial coffee and a few repetitions of old gospel favorites.” Don Piper has suffered far more than most of us and reluctantly born witness. And I think that deserves better.
Aigner may have meant it as hyperbole to make a point, but is that how we speak to a brother or sister in Christ if we are trying to understand our differences and honor them? Sarcasm sells but I don’t see it used in Scripture when brothers disagree. I see people bending over backwards trying to respect each other.
Finally, Aigner believes that this “bad view of heaven makes people settle for wistful thoughts of seeing Grandma and Grandpa again, instead of adopting a more robust theology of victory over death.” “Heaven is not a family reunion,” he contends, “but it’s an age to come when the curse is broken, when salvation is complete, and creation is fully redeemed and restored. We can look forward to that, of course, but not as our escape from our every earthly ailment. It’s much bigger than that.”
I heartily agree with Aigner in that we can focus on the personal reunions and comforts and lose sight of the great Restoration. But it strikes me that God is the God of the epic and the intimate. Heaven will be about restoration on a grand scale and reunion and healing and wiping away tears on a very personal level. If you’ve ever lived in chronic pain as I have, and as Don has far more, you know that the heavenly reality of healing will be unspeakably beautiful. As will be the reunion with Grandma. Or a lost child. I see no problem with heaven being deeply restorative on both levels. Of course Don’s story would not depict the epic restoration still to come. I believe the remedy here is ramping up our teaching of the epic. Not dismissing the intimate.
It also concerns me that evangelical “destination theology” has mucked up the way we present the gospel. Too often we focus on escaping hell and going to heaven rather than gaining Christ and delighting in a relationship with him (my recent post on this). This approach has taken the focus away from the reconciliation of relationship in God’s redemptive story and put it on the setting. Crazy. And Don’s story can’t help but reinforce that. But again, it is on us to clearly present the gospel as the disciples and apostles did–with a great emphasis on the larger Restoration.
So my recommendation would be…
Don’t let the theological questions dissuade you from seeing this movie.
As for the merits of the movie as a movie, the production values are solid. Don’s story is simply amazing. As his doctor told him upon his release from the hospital, he’d seen people injured as badly as Don come in, but none of them made it out. Kate Bosworth takes us deeply into his wife’s struggle to hold down her job to keep the insurance benefits coming, manage the kids long-distance and stay by his side for months of extraordinary care giving.
It’s difficult to show the interior conflict with despair Don was trying to navigate. I found his narration of his struggle in the book more compelling. I had the feeling that the movie makers were trying so hard to make the film true to Don’s experience that they weren’t able to bring the audience along as well as if they had included more external expressions of the internal drama. Nor is Hayden Christensen the actor most gifted at bringing that conflict and the battle with physical pain to the screen. He was good enough. And there was no cringe factor for me like there are in so many Christian movies.
However, 90 Minutes in Heaven is a terrific story to ponder and discuss. So often we live our lives without the reality of heaven in view. If God is real…if Jesus will restore all things…if a future of beauty, intimacy and adventure awaits us for eternity, then it really changes everything. It lifts our heads and our hearts to push into the pain and brokenness of this world with fresh hope and fire. Those after-the-movie discussions over dinner with neighbors or driving home with your kids will deliver a far better return on your movie dollar than most films today.
To hear our interview with Don click here and scroll to #7. You might also want to listen to our interview with Randy Alcorn on his book about Heaven (#4).
Did you read the book or see the movie? What did you think of Don’s story? I’d really like to hear in the comment section below…