90 Minutes in Heaven: A Look at Death & Afterlife

Among works offered in Christian bookstores and on-line sellers there are books written by so-called evangelicals advocating their experience of dying and coming back to life and telling us what they experienced either in heaven or about hell. What is wrong with these ideas? How would you counsel a friend that has been influenced greatly by such a view?

In his book, 90 Minutes in Heaven, Baptist pastor Don Piper claims to have experienced heaven. As the publisher describes the book:

90 Minutes in Heaven is the runaway bestseller about one man’s experience with death and life. As Baptist minister Don Piper drove home from a conference, his car collided with a semi-truck that had crossed into his lane. Piper was pronounced dead at the scene. For the next 90 minutes, he experienced the glories of heaven, where he was greeted by those who had influenced him spiritually, and he experienced true peace. Back on earth, a passing minister who had also been at the conference felt led to pray for the accident victim even though he was told Piper was dead. Miraculously, Piper came back to life, and the pleasure of heaven was replaced by a long and painful recovery. For years Don Piper kept his heavenly experience to himself. Finally, friends and family convinced him to share his remarkable story. An inspiring and encouraging account, 90 Minutes in Heaven continues to touch and comfort millions of people around the world as it offers a glimpse of inexpressible heavenly bliss.[1]

There is hardly a person alive who does not think of death from time-to-time. After all, it is one of the few things that all living beings have in common. Just as intriguing is the thought of afterlife. What is waiting for us beyond the moment of death? Even many Christians are caught up on the pop cultural belief in “near death experiences” and even various forms of communicating with the dead. A clear, biblical understanding of death is the only way to fully answer these questions.

Moody’s Handbook of Theology provides a simple overview of the biblical view of death:

Death is a reality for every member of the human race (Heb. 9:27). When the Bible speaks of death, it refers to the physical death of the body, not the soul. The body may die, but the soul, the life-principle of man, lives on (Matt. 10:28; Luke 12:4–5).

Because the body was made from the elements of the dust, at death the body returns to the dust (Gen. 3:19). Physical death results because of sin. Through the sin of Adam in the garden, death spread to the entire human race; no one is exempted (Rom. 5:12). Death is the “wages” of sin (Rom. 6:23; 1 Cor. 15:56).

Death, however, should not be understood as annihilation. Life continues on for believer and unbeliever alike after the death of the body.[2]

What about near-death experiences, like the one described at the start of this paper? Is this possible? There are really two issues in question when considering near-death experiences: did the person really die, as the author of the book above claims, and did they really see heaven?

As stated above, death is a reality for everyone. Yet, the Bible also teaches that it is something we will only experience once (Heb. 9:47). (Note: Without getting sidetracked by a discussion on those raised from the dead in Scripture, let it be known that I do believe in miracles, but that for the purpose of this question, I am addressing something that is too common to be considered a miracle.) There are perhaps many possible explanations regarding the physical condition of the body during near-death experiences, but from a biblical perspective, it is clear that man will experience death once, and then face judgment.

The second issue involves claims of seeing heaven or hell and living to tell about it. Ironically, a common thread in so many of these scenarios is a description of the place. For example, Piper says “he experienced the glories of heaven, where he was greeted by those who had influenced him spiritually, and he experienced true peace.” Christian or not, we often hear about the gates of the city and the sense of great joy and peace. Yet, consider the description Stephen gives us from the book of Acts: “Behold, I see the heavens opened up and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” (Acts 7:56). As a student of the Bible, is this not what you would expect to hear from a description of heaven…to see Jesus standing at the right hand of God the Father!

If a friend went to Washington D.C. and personally met the President of the United States, do you think he would come home and tell you he saw the Lincoln Memorial? No! He would tell you that he met the President of the United States! If someone really saw heaven, the place where God is, don’t you think they would mention that over the streets and gates!

What would I tell a friend who was impacted by a book like 90 Minutes in Heaven? This is one man’s story of what may or may not have really happened to him. My understanding of the biblical teaching of death and the afterlife tells me it didn’t happen exactly as he describes it, but more importantly, consider your own destiny. These are the real facts: heaven and hell are a real place; death is coming to all of us and then the judgment; when you are judged, there is only one payment for the penalty of sin, and that is faith in Jesus Christ. How you answer that question determines where you will spend eternity. You can be certain today that you will spend eternity with Him if only you will believe in Him and trust in Jesus for your salvation.

[1] Don Piper and Cecil Muphy, 90 Minutes in Heaven (Grand Rapids, MI: Fleming H. Revell, 2007), back cover description.

[2] Paul P. Enns, The Moody Handbook of Theology (Chicago, Ill.: Moody Press, 1997, c1989), 371.

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