Published in 2004, Don Piper’s book 90 Minutes in Heaven is certainly not new. But with the current popularity of other books that are of the same genre, I thought it prudent to first read it (I had not taken the time) and second to offer some opinion.
Generally I try to avoid comment on books that might amount to mere personal criticism. Here, however, the immediate hurdle that the discerning reader will need to clear is the author’s writing style, which is little more than choppy, repetitive, simplistic phrases thrown together with little organization. It is difficult to plod through the writing in order to mine — and address — the author’s content.
Piper was involved in an auto accident and assessed as dead when paramedics arrived on the scene. An hour and a half later, a passing pastor stopped to render aid, and asked to pray for the ostensibly deceased Piper. While doing so, Piper began to sing “What a Friend we have in Jesus” with the pastor, causing no small amount of consternation and incredulity to bystanders.
The bulk of the book’s volume is taken up with descriptions of events leading up to and following the accident. This includes detailed descriptions of Piper’s recuperation and physical rehabilitation. Much of this detail seems unnecessary to the premise of the book, but could relate to a general theme that Piper’s experience was given him in order to provide a base of sympathy with other undergoing similar rehab.
Piper’s description of his time in heaven (the ninety minutes between the accident and the pastor’s prayer that pulled him back to earth), is brief. As such, his description is fairly useless, filled with superlatives regarding the stimuli that his various senses received, as well as the exceeding emotion he felt, primarily produced by seeing prior departed friends and relatives.
There is much about which to be concerned in Piper’s account. Others have dealt with specific biblical problems (see, for example, Tim Challies’ review), so I will limit my assessment to general concerns.
First, one must question the nature and purpose of prayer offered for visibly dead people. Piper explains that the pastor at the accident scene prayed for the healing of his internal organs, but for what purpose? How does Piper approve of such a practice when the result was that he was removed from heaven and returned to earth to occupy a broken body subject to months of agonizing rehabilitation?
Furthermore, Piper claims that while he had, prior to the accident, preached on the reality of heaven, after his experience he could do so “with authority.” But this is a direct refutation of the Reformation principle of sola scriptura, the sufficiency and authority of Scripture alone. What Piper — and others who teach similar sentiment — is suggesting is that Scripture is validated or confirmed by his personal, subjective, emotional experience. Pastorally, he is supposedly better able to comfort those facing death or those whose loved ones have died by virtue of the fact that he himself died, and that he himself experienced heaven. Yet biblically, this ground of comfort is limited to the One who died and rose again. For the rest of us, our comfort regarding death and the eternal state is derived from the promise of God realized in the person of Jesus Christ and the sustaining ministry of the Holy Spirit.
Additionally, the general nature of Piper’s euphoria while ostensibly in heaven is problematic in that it focuses almost entirely on being reunited with humans that we will recognize when we get there. Piper grants superlative degrees of emotional and tactile experience with departed humans — his “celestial welcoming committee” — that he meets outside literal gates of heaven. Such emphasis only fosters further interest in the human aspect of entering the eternal state; it serves the human desire of seeing loved ones, which while not wicked in itself, can be so when it becomes the primary “selling point” of the goodenss of heaven, rather than audience with God himself.
It is difficult to discern who Piper’s audience is. If it is believers, then he indirectly teaches them not to rely on the teaching of Scripture regarding our understanding of heaven, but on one man’s personal, subjective, emotional experience. If it is unbelievers, it is unclear with what he intends to reach them, because he does not clearly state the gospel of Jesus Christ.