Heaven Is for Real?

Heaven Is for Real? August 17, 2023

Heaven Is for Real?

A few years ago, a six year old child, son of an evangelical pastor, reported seeing heaven during a coma. His report of heaven was extremely detailed and matched almost perfectly what his church taught about heaven. His report resulted in a best-selling book and then a movie. I read the book and saw the movie, mostly due to pressure from people who kept asking me about them.

Many of you will know the case I’m referring to, but I prefer to leave names aside here.

My initial and enduring personal response to the book and movie was skepticism. But I chose not to make an issue of it. I didn’t see any harm in letting people believe in the story or good in expressing my skepticism.

Let me be clear: I believe in heaven. I believe that when people die their souls go somewhere. If they die in a state of grace, their souls go to “paradise” according to both Jesus and Paul in the New Testament. But the NT gives us very little detail about paradise. In my own personal theological vocabulary, when I teach, I reserve the English word “heaven” for the future new creation (in general agreement with N. T. Wright in Surprised by Hope).

I know there are good Christian people, including my late friend Stanley Grenz, who do not believe in conscious existence outside the body between death and resurrection. On the basis of scripture and Christian tradition, however, I disagree. I do NOT rely on “near death experiences” reported in books and movies, etc.

Why was I skeptical about this particular story of a near death experience? First, it was too detailed and matched too closely the popular folk religion of most American evangelical Christians. Second, it was given by a six year old child. I know that children have vivid imaginations and often tell things that are not true as if they were true.

The young man who told the story about his visit to heaven has now, according to news reports (e.g., The Guardian) retracted his story. He says it was all a fantasy invented by his six year old mind to get attention and please his parents.

That does not surprise me. Nor does it change anything about what I believe about life after death.

To me, this is another indicator that children should not be turned into religious celebrities (or possibly any other kind) and believed unconditionally when they tell tall tales or take on an unusual role.

Almost nobody now remembers the case of Marjoe Gortner. Look it/him up. Read all about it. I remember him well. He convinced thousands, if not millions, of Christians (and perhaps others) that he was a sincere child prodigy preacher. Many people put him on a pedestal. He was a phenomenon. However, later he reported that adults used him for their own purposes and that he was merely performing. According to the movie “Marjoe” (and published reports) he renounced his Christian faith (if he ever had it) and became an atheist or agnostic.

Anyone who remembers the “Satanic Panic” of the 1980s must remember that many, many children reported being abused at day care centers and even at home. Many adults were convicted and sent to prison. Then, many of the children’s stories were reported publicly and they were simply unbelievable. What they reported to police and social workers under intense questioning simply could not have happened. Then, worst of all, as they got older, most of them retracted their stories, especially of what they had reported about abuse they suffered in day care centers. But the owners of those day care centers, in both Canada and the USA when through hell because people chose to believe the children’s simply outlandish stories. (I won’t go into the details of those stories here; you can read all about them or watch documentaries about the horrors of the Satanic Panic that swept the country in the 1980s.)

I was skeptical about many of the children’s stories from the time I first heard them reported in the news. Many of them, the ones I doubted, involved conspiracies, flying clowns, underground torture “dungeons” (beneath day care center), Satan, etc., etc. Eventually the vast majority of experts came to believe most of the children made up the stories to entertain or please their inquisitors.

My personal wish is that the boy’s parents and others would have kept his report of his visit to heaven to themselves. I’m not saying children should never be believed, only that we should take children’s stories and play acting with a grain of salt and not put them up on pedestals based solely on those stories or performances. Let’s not make celebrities of children at all. It rarely works out well for them in the long run.

*Note: If you choose to comment, keep it relatively brief (no more than 100 words), on topic, addressed to me, civil and respectful (not hostile or argumentative), and devoid of pictures or links.*

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