At the end of August, I received an invitation to a private luncheon showing the film 90 Minutes In Heaven. The movie was free, and best of all the lunch was free. I was tempted to accept the offer, not because I actually want to see 90 Minutes In Heaven. I very much don’t want to see it. And that’s why I wanted to see it! A chance to offer a preemptive review of a bad movie with bad theology before it comes out? For a free lunch?! I’m there.
However, the lunch was on a Tuesday which is the day I help feed lunch to high school students and share with them the gospel. It’s an opportunity that I treasure and I hate missing it. Thinking about accepting the invitation to see 90 Minutes In Heaven lasted for about as long as it took you to read that first paragraph. Then I declined. When it comes down to it, I know all I need to know to tell anyone why they should not bother seeing this movie…
1. It’s a lie.
I’m going to present five reasons here about why someone doesn’t need to see this movie, but the number one reason is enough. The whole premise behind 90 Minutes In Heaven is a lie. The author did not visit heaven, but he presents his tale as truth and the film is pitched as an “Incredible true story.”
On January 18, 1989 (as it says in the trailer), author Don Piper (not John Piper), died in a car accident and went to heaven for, you guessed it, 90 minutes. There he saw everyone who preceded him in death, greeted first by his grandfather (apparently everyone who has an afterlife experience authenticates it as genuine by seeing a grandparent). Then he came back to write a bestseller about it.
I have Don’s book. It’s sitting in the heresy section of my study next to the Book of Mormon and Blue Like Jazz (John’s books are on a completely different shelf). Despite the title, it doesn’t have much to do with an afterlife experience. The account of Don’s heavenly visit lasts all of fifteen pages. The book and the film are mostly about his journey of recovery from his accident.
If that’s all this was about, I’m sure it would make a compelling and inspirational story. But the selling point is centered around the false notion that Don visited heaven. He didn’t. I know he didn’t because I read the Bible which says something completely different about heaven than what Don says it is (coming up in point 2).
Don’s account of heaven is like that of every other American who’s never been there: being greeted by dead friends and relatives, angel’s wings, pearly gates, beautiful sights and sounds, time and space have no meaning, light everywhere, light and more light, increasing light, going towards the light, and incredible heavenly music (which gets its own chapter, pg 29 to 36).
And that’s pretty much it. Don didn’t see God. He wasn’t even in his presence. He says, “If I had actually seen God, I would never have wanted to return. My feeling has been that once we’re actually in God’s presence, we will never return to earth again, because it will be empty and meaningless by comparison.” (pg. 33)
So his theology about heaven is based entirely on “feeling,” not at all grounded in truth. Not once in his 15 pages is the Bible ever quoted. Time and space have no meaning in Don’s heaven, and apparently God’s word doesn’t either, though God has said, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away” (Matthew 24:35).
Even if Don’s story was true, and he actually visited heaven and came back to tell us about it, Jesus said that such stories have no credibility. If a person will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they believe someone who comes back from the dead (Luke 16:31).
2. It makes a mockery of the Bible.
The thing about books like 90 Minutes In Heaven, Heaven Is for Real, Flight to Heaven, The Boy Who Went to Heaven, Proof of Heaven, and other heaven-tourism tales is that experience trumps fact. The authors require their readers to accept whatever they have to say over what the Bible has to say.
I’m going to say that again another way because it is so important: The authors of books about visiting heaven and coming back are demanding that we take their word over the word of God. Therefore, a four-year-old boy (Colton Burpo, Heaven Is for Real) has more authority than the apostles themselves, on the beaten backs of whom Christ built his church (Ephesians 2:20).
A person who believes and eats up these kinds of stories believes in their heart that the Bible is merely a helpful guide but cannot hold a candle to experience. Experience is the real gospel.
John MacArthur confronts such heaven-tourism accounts in his book, The Glory of Heaven, where he says the following:
For anyone who truly believes the biblical record, it is impossible to resist the conclusion that these modern testimonies — with their relentless self-focus and the relatively scant attention they pay to the glory of God — are simply untrue. They are either figments of the human imagination (dreams, hallucinations, false memories, fantasies, and in the worst cases, deliberate lies), or else they are products of demonic deception.
We know this with absolute certainty, because Scripture definitively says that people do not go to heaven and come back: ‘Who has ascended to heaven and come down?’ (Proverbs 30:4). Answer: ‘No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man’ (John 3:13, emphasis added). All the accounts of heaven in Scripture are visions, not journeys taken by dead people. And even visions of heaven are very, very rare in Scripture. You can count them all on one hand.
Adds David Platt, “Four biblical authors had visions about heaven and wrote about what they saw: Isaiah, Ezekiel, Paul, and John. All of them were prophetic visions, not near-death experiences. Not one person raised from the dead in the Old Testament or the New Testament ever wrote down what he or she experienced in heaven, including Lazarus who had a lot of time in a grave for four days.”
Heaven is the place where God dwells in all of his magnificence and holiness, unabated in all his glory. When we read the biblical accounts of those who saw heaven, in the very presence of God they become terrified (Isaiah 6:5), fall on their faces (Ezekiel 1:28, Revelation 1:17), or are silenced (2 Corinthians 12:4). They do not embrace friends and family members or have these self-gratifying experiences they can regale us with like they just returned from vacation.
Seriously, I don’t see much of a difference between Don’s account of heaven and the caricature of angels with halos sitting in the clouds playing their harps.
3. There will be no gospel.
The gospel is the message that God is reconciling all things to himself, in heaven and on earth, through the person and work of Jesus Christ, who died on the cross for our sins and rose again from the grave so we can know that in him, we are rescued from death and will live forever with God. No such message will be presented in this film.
While stumping for the movie, Don has said, “It’s about learning to embrace the new normal and that’s where people get hung up. People have to realize that you must turn your test into a testimony, and turn the pain into purpose.” He said at one point he was angry with God, but heard God telling him, “Take the fist you are shaking at Me and open it to extend as a hand to others.”
Turn your test into a testimony? Turn the pain into purpose? Turn your fist into an open hand? Ugh. It’s the tired trend of the American pastor trying to be a motivational speaker. Though Don’s testimony is peppered with mentions of “God” and “Jesus,” his story is not about God. Don’s ministry is about giving people the warm-fuzzies. It is not about winning lost souls.
The difference between a film like 90 Minutes In Heaven and the latest Pixar movie Inside Out (which I highly recommend, by the way) is that the latter incorporates real experiences into a work of fiction, while the former incorporates fictional experiences and presents them as truth. Both are feel-good movies. But Inside Out is honest in their approach while 90 Minutes In Heaven is not. (I can’t believe I just said Disney was the less-exploitative one.)
Ephesians 4:15 says to speak the truth in love. If a person is lying, they are not loving, no matter how genuine their intentions. Even if Don saw something resembling heaven and he is convinced that what he saw was real, it’s still a lie. He does not care enough for those he shepherds to test his experience against the Bible and know whether or not it lines up with God’s word. Worse yet is he doesn’t love God’s word enough to test his experiences by it.
4. The acting is just terrible.
I know, this reason is a lot more subjective, but there’s a point. The big-name star of this film is Hayden Christensen, most recognized as little orphan Annie Skywalker in Star Wars, Episodes II and III. If you’ve seen them, I doubt I need to comment on his acting chops. The actress playing his wife is Kate Bosworth whose most notable work is Superman Returns. “But Gabe, I happen to know you liked Superman Returns.” I did. The acting was still terrible.
They’re not in this movie to be professional. They’re Hollywood names meant to draw in an audience. I was very disappointed to see Michael W. Smith was a part of this cast. Hey, I grew up a Smitty fan. I had hoped his presence in The Holy Ghost was just a fluke, like he didn’t actually know the Wanderlust crew making that joke of a documentary were frauds. But you’d have to be irresponsibly naive to not know what 90 Minutes In Heaven was about before signing up for it.
Don’t be fooled into thinking any movie is legit by the names of big stars, even if those stars are commonly associated with the Christian genre. The Bible tells us to test everything, clinging to what is good and doing away with what is not (1 Thessalonians 5:21-22).
5. If you buy a ticket, you’re a sucker.
There is money to be made in heaven-tourism books, and business is a-boomin’. The best-selling Christian book of the last decade is Heaven Is for Real, which has sold over 10 million copies. Don’s book, 90 Minutes In Heaven, has sold over 7 million copies. Both books have been made into movies and are now making money off of the movie-rights.
Someone could argue, “Wait, I heard that Giving Films, who produced 90 Minutes In Heaven, is giving 100 percent of profits to charities!” Sure, they probably are. But not Samuel Goldwyn, the film’s distributor, or the actors or the screenwriter or anyone else behind this production. The only reason the movie got made was to bank off of the success of a false-teaching book about heaven.
Again, it doesn’t matter how great anyone’s intentions are. It doesn’t matter how many lives they claim they’ve made a difference in. They could be building fresh water wells for poor families in Africa. It’s noble work, but they’re leading people to hell in the process by presenting something that claims to be greater than God’s word.
Who goes to a movie to donate to charity? If that’s important to you, then take it upon yourself to give to the charity that you feel led to give to. These filmmakers are just suckering you into a film. They play off of the sympathies of others first by making a movie about heaven that’s not actually about heaven, then they double-down by announcing the proceeds go to charity.
It’s all a con, orchestrated by the prince of the power of the air (Ephesians 2:2). It has the appearance of godliness, but denying its power (2 Timothy 3:5). The Apostle Paul wrote, “Avoid such people.” Or in this case, avoid such films.