Reprinted with permission from Voice, March/April, 2012.
Many Christians have read popular accounts about people who claim that they have been in heaven and have come back to report on it or that they have died and hovered over their own bodies before being brought back to life. Some of the people in my congregation have read Heaven Is For Real and 90 Minutes in Heaven, as well as other books, and have taken them as real descriptions of heaven.
Does the Bible have anything to say about these phenomena or the many accounts of visions and dreams about spiritual matters?
This is a timely topic since there are many who accept these accounts as not only being factual but as direct revelations from God. Yet someone may ask what is the harm in believing these accounts? The answer is threefold. First, we have a complete revelation from God in the Bible and we do not need any further revelation (including dreams and visions). Second, Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians 12 that he was transported to heaven yet he was not allowed to speak of what he saw in heaven. Third, there are people who take these visions as confirmation that they are going to heaven when they are actually lost.
Three passages to keep in mind
As we begin to discuss the topic at hand, we need to consider three Bible passages to give us some important insight: Ecclesiastes 5:3, 2 Corinthians 11:14-15, and 2 Corinthians 12:1-4. Whereas none of these passages are definitive when it comes to the topic of dreams and visions, they are helpful to give us a framework for discussion.
Ecclesiastes 5:3 informs us that through much activity come many dreams. In other words, the business of our lives and minds causes the brain to continue to work in sleep, producing dreams of many kinds. The key point of this passage is that it is the activity of daily life that stimulates the mind to produce dreams. The mind is the origin of dreams and not some outside source.
2 Corinthians 11:13-15 tells us that Satan is a great deceiver, appearing as an angel of light, and his ministers (servants) also appear as angels of light. In other words, there will be those who teach false things who look and sound like they are actually teaching the things of God. They sound real, godly, and genuine. In fact, they sound so real and convincing that many true believers are led away by their clever rhetoric. Would it be surprising that Satan could use our minds and visions in the same manner?
Finally, 2 Corinthians 12:1-4 tells us that the Apostle Paul was taken up into Paradise, which is in heaven today, and he saw and heard things that “are not lawful” to reveal to anyone else. Surely, if Paul was not allowed to speak of what he saw in heaven, no one else is either. The secret things still belong to God (Deut. 29:29).
What is seen by those who see visions
Laying aside the charlatans and self deceived for a moment, let’s discuss what is actually seen by those who see visions of tunnels and lights, angels and Jesus, departed loved ones and mansions. No one can say with any certainty what the origins of these visions are (even the lights and voices of the hospital room). But we do know that the mind is a complicated entity that can produce many wonderful images on its own.
Those who see lights, tunnels, angels, and the like actually see them and hear them. Someone on a psychedelic or hallucinogenic drug sincerely believes that they actually see writings and images on a wall. Similarly those who see things in near death cases and in visions actually see them. But this is not the same as those things being real. A movie may depict a story, but the story itself may have nothing to do with anything that is real or historical. So the little boy near death actually saw and heard the things he described, but were they real or imagined?
Furthermore, if you would take all the accounts from all the people in near death experiences, you would notice a great variety of contradictions among the accounts. Jesus had blue eyes or brown eyes, a red sash or gold sash, a white robe or purple robe. There are those who describe peacefully going down a tunnel with a light at the end of it, while others describe sheer terror and darkness. None of those descriptions align with anything in the Bible. And therein lays the danger, the deception, and the warning to all of us.
The danger of any dream is not in the dream itself but in the interpretation given to it by the dreamer. Let me illustrate this principle in this way. One day I was talking to a lady in order to share the gospel of Christ with her, and another man was with me. This lady informed us that she did not need the gospel since she had a vision of her deceased grandfather standing at the end of her bed and he told her that everything was going to be all right. She took this to mean that she was going to heaven just the way she was. We both knew that she was lost and bound for a fiery eternity, but because of this vision she was convinced that she was heading to see her grandfather in heaven. No testimony from the Bible could convince her otherwise. I cannot say that the devil sent her the vision, but it does not matter, for the results are the same. Here before us was a soul bound for the Lake of Fire because she was depending on a dream to confirm that she was already saved. The results are obviously devastating and the deception utterly destructive.
To add to the tragedy of this story is the fact that there are literally tens of thousands of people just like this woman. They have had some vision, dream, experience, or vivid inspiration that comforts them and leads them to believe that they are fine and their eternity is secure. This false hope and comfort is the devil’s security blanket that will be consumed in the raging fires of eternal conflagration.
In spite of my best effort to warn the saints in our church, there are still going to be a number of people who will insist that these experiences are real. I can hear them now: “Oh pastor, you don’t know what you’re talking about. I know that this little boy actually saw heaven. I know that Uncle Ted really met Jesus at the end of a long tunnel. I know in my heart that these things are real.”
To such a person I give two warnings. First, our hearts are very deceitful (Jer. 17:9) and we are easily tricked. We can sincerely believe that we are right, yet in reality be wrong. That’s the problem with the human heart and mind. Second, when we stand before the Lord and are judged, our judgment will be based on our compliance with the Word of God and not based on how we responded to visions or experiences. If we sincerely hold to a vision instead of the Word and teach others to do the same, there will be very dire consequences to follow and much irreparable damage as a result. Remember, it is not our emotions that determine what is truth, but the teachings of the Word of God. Everyone one of us has been fooled by illusionists before, and spiritual illusions are no different.
What shall we say then to the heartwarming descriptions of some vision? We need to warn that as vivid as the experience was, it was still more of a product of the mind than of reality. We need to remind ourselves and others that there is no independent confirmation for what is being described. We must return to the only truth that can be attested to, the Word of God. There is nothing wrong with a good allegory or story, but when that story is believed to be real, problems surface. Something apart from the Bible is competing with the Bible as truth and revelation.
Conclusion: sola scriptura
The best advice I can give you regarding the truthfulness of dreams and visions and experiences is to stay with the Scriptures. It is the Bible that is inspired by God (2 Tim. 3:15-16), that chastens the heart (Heb. 4:12), that will never return void (Isa. 55:8-11), that should be meditated upon day and night (Ps. 1), that is to be taught exclusive of all other spiritual instruction (1 Pet. 4:11), is exclusively trustworthy in all matters of life (2 Pet. 1:16-21), and is sufficient to guide all people into godly living (Ps. 119).
Not only are all the descriptions of visions, heavenly visitations, and out of body experiences dangerous, they are totally unnecessary. They add nothing to our understanding of Scripture and can only detract. When people say they experience these amazing things, what they experience is of an unknown source and cannot be proven to anyone else. It does not matter, for their visions are not of genuine spiritual realties. They may be interesting, they could be distracting, and they definitely may be destructive. Stay with the Word, stay with the Word, stay with the Word!
James Lowther is Senior Pastor of Camp Springs Community Church, Clinton, MD.