Quite a bit of controversy has arisen over the popular book and film, Heaven is for Real. It might seem a little silly to squabble about. But I have to admit that many of both Christian and secular discussions of this story -even in reviews and articles- are disturbing.
I am disturbed for this reason:
Heaven is not the good news. The good news is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. When we take liberties, even small ones, in what we proclaim, believe, and set our sights on, we are vulnerable to in-numerable trappings and abuses. Further, when we condone or approve of such liberties, we expose others to a wayward path.
And, in more detail,
1. We diminish the kingdom of God when we place our faith in human experiences that add to or subtract from the Word of God.
It seems in regards to this story that we are all largely concerned with the things of this world, not with the Kingdom of God. Some of the concerns, for example, involve believing/disbelieving a four year old child whose experience occurred while he was drugged. Others involve what to make of the "evidence" for his story, namely that he was able to piece together things that were never directly spoken to him.
Generally, when people publicly claim to have had spiritual experiences that are not in line with the Bible, Christians largely consider the experience to have been misunderstood or to be folly. For example, many believers have claimed over time to know details about Christ's return. Scripture is usually quickly referred to -no one knows the time of His return (Mark 13:32). No person is given license to add to the Bible in such a way.
People also try to subtract from Scripture. For example, many individuals have tried to claim that all spiritual paths can lead to God, dismissing that Jesus is the way, singular (John 14:6). Bible-believing Christians often respond in unity, appealing to God's Word as infallible.
This is according to Scripture. Deutoronomy 4:2, for one, says:
"You shall not add to the word that I command you, nor take from it, that you may keep the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you."
What the Bible tells us about heaven is not in line with stories like those presented in Heaven is for Real, or the many other differing tales on the topic. So what about the evidence people provide to justify themselves?
Trying to work out the nuances and "science" of experiences like those presented in Heaven is for Real is foolish. The story isn't a myth to be debunked, it isn't truth just because it was sincerely spoken. Heaven is not in need of our discovery and presentation; the Bible has got that covered.
2. We diminish our hope in the Lord and His Gospel when we take foolish risks about what we should or shouldn't believe.
Our hope is in the Lord. The Gospel alone saves us. Without the Gospel of Jesus Christ, it doesn't matter if we believe in heaven and want to get there. It doesn't even matter what we think heaven is like. The Kingdom of God exists. Scripture tells us to "repent and believe in (the good news of) the Gospel" (Mark 1:15). We learn that the Kingdom of God isn't a worldly or human matter, like eating or drinking, but is found in the Holy Spirit, and in pleasing God (Romans 14:17-18).
Romans 14:20 highlights the issue for us. "Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food."
The Greek word "food," transliterated "bróma," is figurative and literal. It indicates anything selected for the purpose of satisfying the soul or the mind. The implication is that the selected thing is not God Himself. "Destroy," transliterated "kataluó," describes an act of thoroughly loosening or breaking up something bound properly, like a yoke.
This verse exhorts us -do not loosen the yoke of the Gospel for the sake of something to satiate you with satisfaction apart from the truth.
Further, later on in, in verses 21 and 22, we read this: "It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything else that will cause your brother or sister to fall. So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who does not condemn himself by what he approves."
It is better not to participate in things selected to satiate us that could cause another person to loose hold of the truth. Our beliefs about the things that might be currently considered unclear spiritually in our minds are between us and God alone. We are blessed by not approving of things that we might actually be condemned by.
It is also wise for us to not jump on a feel-good bandwagon that could be headed far from the truth, simply because it might satisfy one of our many sinful cravings for foreknowledge and hope beyond the sufficiency of Christ. This is even more so because it might not be only ourselves that we condemn in the process, but others who are led astray.
3. We diminish the sufficient and living quality of God's Word.
We have good reason to be cautious in what we believe about other's experiences. Scripture has plenty of examples of visions, signs, and wonders, that are not of the Lord (see examples such as Egyptian magic in Exodus 7 or Satan and the false apostles being disguised as angels of light in 1 Corinthians 11).
There are also a few Biblical examples of people having visions of heaven -but always for an explicit, new purpose and message from God. Those who died and are raised in the Bible, regardless of their experience with death, never recorded what occurred during the experience. And all occurrences are in absolute conjunction with each other and the rest of Scripture. The stories we hear of modern folk's experiences of heaven, like in Heaven is for Real, are never like those had by Biblical characters and always add something.
Why do we "add to the truth" as if God's promise of heaven (the Kingdom of God, which is at hand!) isn't sufficient? Why do we place our hope and faith in the fanciful dreams of men and their children instead of in the One who is living? And in His living and active Word?
4. We diminish our belief in Jesus Christ, and Him crucified (1 Corinthians 2:2). It matters that we put our whole faith in Jesus Christ, and not in any person, no matter how convincing their tales. Christ alone is the Savior who is with us and will be with us forever.
The glory of heaven is something to look forward to, but we don't have to wait for the peace and joy and righteousness of the Kingdom of God. It begins for us, though it is not yet brought to completion, when our life is given anew in Him. When the Holy Spirit begins to work in us and we can securely fix our eyes on the Savior who is with us and will be for the rest of eternity, we have the guarantee of future glory, and we have the beginnings of our witnessing glory now.
We shouldn't diminish the reality of heaven. We must not diminish the Gospel that gives us access to eternity in glory. Yet we do diminish all these by skipping over the Gospel, dismissing it, or putting it in second place, right after our own "happy day" arriving in heaven. Heaven is established and maintained by God, who is the only one worthy of all glory and honor and praise.
Hebrews 12 is a beautiful place to revisit the course laid out for us, remembering not our selfish desires for glory, perfection, and joy, but our actual goal:
"Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God." (Hebrews 12:1-2)
And what is our prize? Not a jolly mansion in the sky, not schemed up angel wings, not seeing people who we've never even met, but as Philippians 3:8-14 states:
"I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.
Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus."
(Underlined emphases added)