AUDIO VERSION: YouTube Podbean
If you want to get famous—or if you want to get yourself out of staggering medical debt—just tell people you went to Heaven. There are are some very predictable perks of claiming to have had a near death experience (NDE), and it doesn’t matter which side of eternity you visit. Heaven or Hell—they can both pad your bank account very nicely. But Heaven is by far the more popular choice and in 90 Minutes in Heaven, we find ourselves yet again following the journey of a preacher who believes he has really visited the other side.
90 Minutes in Heaven was a best-selling book written by Baptist preacher Don Piper and American author Cecil Murphy. As was the case with Heaven is for Real, someone finally decided to turn the book into a movie.
The movie’s plot is very straightforward. Don is the main man at his community’s church. He goes off to a conference one day and doesn’t come home. He tries to come home—but pouring rain and a semi that swerves into his lane on a bridge road make that impossible. The semi plows over Don’s small Ford. There lies Don: crushed to a bloody mess across the front seats. When emergency responders arrive on the scene, they declare him dead because he has no pulse. They then stand around twiddling their thumbs with a “whatever” attitude as they wait for the coroner to show up and give them the official sign off they need to pull Don’s corpse out of the car. Those 90 minutes of thumb twiddling are later referred back to as time that Don literally spent in Heaven.
Now of course you’re eager to see what Don saw, but you’re just going to have to hold your horses. There are a few blurred out images of that classic golden light, but the images are brief and you don’t get any explanation about what they were. Instead, you’re brought back to earth where you see another pastor arrive at the wreck scene. This second pastor approaches one of the officers on the scene and asks if he can pray for anyone. The officer points out one couple who witnessed the scene. They are rattled but obviously not injured. Nope, they’re not of interest. This second pastor wants to know who’s inside the crushed car. The officer explains that it’s only a corpse. The pastor claims that God told him he needs to pray for the corpse. The officer obviously thinks he’s crazy, but he’s not in the mood to argue, so he tells the pastor to go ahead.
We learn later on that this second pastor is supposed to be some great prayer warrior. Well, that makes sense. Prayer warriors are notorious for refusing to accept God doing things they don’t like—such as killing and maiming people. That’s why we always find warriors showing up in times of crisis to order God to stop doing what He’s doing (in Jesus’ Name, of course).
Okay, so warrior-pastor climbs through Don’s car, lays his hand on Don’s bloody corpse (which our cameraman loves to focus on), and he starts praying. His prayer is senseless. He seems to think Don’s a Christian (though he later claims not to know who he was). If you really believe someone’s a Christian, then obviously he’s in Heaven, so what is the problem? Praying for yourself to deal with the loss—that makes sense. But praying like the dead guy is in some kind of crisis? That’s just lame—especially coming from a pastor. But the pastors in these NDE films tend to act like faithless dingdongs, so as warrior-pastor breaks into an emotional solo of “What a Friend we Have in Jesus”, we sit there thinking, “Boy, this is random.” But then, hark, someone else is singing beneath the tarp that is covering Don’s lifeless corpse. It’s Don! He’s alive! Hurrah!
Obviously warrior-pastor is thrilled. When the paramedics overcome their scoffing attitude and feel for Don’s pulse (yet again) they, too, become excited. Don is extracted from the vehicle, and we are treated to many, many more close ups of Don’s graphic appearance as we track with him to the hospital. The makeup department was not about to go unappreciated in this film—they did a fine job of making Don’s injuries look grotesquely real and we have their work shoved into our faces over and over again. If you’re not a big fan of gore, you get mighty tired of prolonged close-ups of Don.
This movie is two hours long. It feels like three. Don spends the majority of the time lying in various hospital beds in a self-absorbed, ungrateful, bratty funk. Meanwhile his placid wife Eva breaks her neck to be by her husband’s side every day despite juggling a job, her kids, and a home. Eva is upheld as the ideal wife—and one which normal women will find impossible to relate to. Eva shows a ridiculously small amount of frustration with her husband’s intentional stonewalling and perpetual bratittude. While normal women would be cussing Don out, whacking him across the face, and telling him to grow up and realize he’s not the center of the universe (something we’re sorely tempted to do many times as the audience), Eva’s character expresses her occasional frustration with epic restraint. No, she doesn’t appreciate Don’s attitude. But as the months go by, we find it increasingly unrealistic just how unflustered she is.
The title of this movie is very misleading. 90 Minutes in Heaven sets you up to expect that the movie will be about, well, Heaven. But it’s actually about watching bratty Don slog through his epic recovery. It’s also a talent show for the makeup department. After a few brief mentions in the beginning of the movie, Heaven isn’t brought up again until the very end. It’s only after we’ve lost all respect for Don as a self-absorbed little brat that we finally get to the part where he talks about his after death experience. By now Don has moved back home, still wearing his graphic limb screws, and resumed a new kind of funk that is less bratty but still not very engaging.
We just don’t like Don. We want to, and we try to sympathize with how he temporarily lost the will to live. But by the time his third close friend is trying to politely tell Don to get over himself, we’re very over the movie. To be fair, the actor who plays Don does a very good job of portraying a man who regresses into a snarky brat. The problem is that we have to be told via voice over narration that Don has been changed for the better by his experience—we don’t really see much evidence of it. The main hurdle he needs to overcome is his prideful resistance to receiving help. As a pastor, Don is used to doing the giving and the saving—he’s not used to having to receive. He doesn’t like to receive. He spends two hours of film time showing us just how much he doesn’t like to receive. But he finally claims to be over that, even though we then see him rush to play the savior role in another young man’s life who is suffering through a similar form of painful limb healing.
So what about Heaven? After you ask yourself this question thirty times, the movie finally cycles back around to Don’s initial NDE. One day he confesses to a close friend—another pastor—that he saw Heaven. The friend reacts with shock, then pushes a reluctant Don to share his story with others. Don doesn’t want to at first (they never do). He calls his experience his “sacred secret.” But with prodding, he ends up telling Eva about it. So what exactly did Don see? Well, it was bright and glorious, of course. And he wasn’t technically inside of Heaven, but rather just outside its majestic gates. He was on his way in when he was so rudely pulled back to earth, hence his epic funk.
As is so often the case with these testimonies, what makes Heaven heavenly is experiencing a bunch of warm acceptance from other humans. God is merely a background detail. Don describes an awareness of Jesus’ Presence, yet he doesn’t see Him. Don spends his whole time in Heaven marveling at the other humans he sees there—humans who have all influenced him in some way in his personal life. He emphasizes how accepted he feels by them. It’s one big happy, “Yay, I’m wanted by other people” moment, and then it’s back to the harshness of real life.
Overall, Don’s heavenly experience is so brief, lame, and devoid of any spiritual significance that we couldn’t help wondering, “That was it? This was the story that sold over six million copies?” At the end of the film, the director makes sure we know how many copies Don’s book sold, as well as the fact that Don has shared his story with 3,000 different churches to date. But what story? “Heaven is real.” That’s what Don keeps saying, and that’s supposed to be some big revelation to us Christians. It doesn’t matter that God has been telling us Heaven is real for thousands of years. It takes a faithless pastor to have an epiphany before any of us will put stock in what God says.
As was the case in Heaven is for Real, we find it very tiresome that so-called pastors are so surprised to discover that Heaven is real. The pastor in Heaven is for Real (who showed good evidence of not even being saved), crashed into a full blown theological crisis because his son saw Heaven. Really?? The validity of these visions aside, what’s with these Christian pastors being so shocked that Heaven is a real place? If you don’t believe what Christ says, why are you claiming to be His follower?
At the beginning of the movie, Don preaches from the pulpit about wanting to spread the Gospel. After describing the Gospel spreading from place to place he says “and our reward is Heaven.” Our reward for what—evangelizing? No, we don’t get saved because we shared the Good News with a sufficient number of people. We get saved through reverential submission to our three glorious Lords: Yahweh, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. But you won’t find the Gospel message being properly taught in these Heaven flesh fests, nor will you find any mention of the fact that Hell is just as real and a far more common destination for human beings. While Don’s pastor friend urges Don to share his story because it could really inspire people with hope, we have to ask ourselves, “Hope in what? Hope that we’ll all end up in a happy place with lots of friends on the other side?”
In the first place, most of us won’t even make it to Heaven. We’ll have our souls chucked into Hell for defying our Makers. If a film was serious about giving souls spiritual guidance, you’d think it would include that pertinent bit of information and tell the entire Gospel message (not just the pleasant parts). In the second place, what makes Heaven heavenly is being closer to our glorious Gods.
Life is about pursuing deeper communion with our Makers, not becoming popular among humans. The fact that God is always some side prop in these visions should give you serious pause. Yahweh, Jesus and the Holy Spirit always exalt Themselves, and when a vision is really from one of Them, we will see souls responding to that vision with deeper reverence for God and a fresh eagerness to serve and please Him. It will be God who they want to go on and on about, not the joys of seeing dear Aunt Betty waltzing around free of her arthritic pains. But then again, that’s assuming that the soul who receives the vision is seriously devoted to God. If it’s just some carnal Christian or an unsaved soul who God is intentionally deceiving—that’s when we get into these ego stroking dreams of golden lights and an instant fan club. Don is wowed by how happy everyone is to see him—well, sure, who doesn’t want to be popular? But is this really the kind of vision our glory loving Gods are going to be handing out? Heaven is God’s house. So we’re supposed to believe people are going to come and go from it and remember seeing everyone but Him?
Here’s another thing that makes these visions such obvious crocks: everyone’s still in their earthsuits. People look like people—they are different ages and colors, and they’re sporting the styles from earth. In Revelation, John sees people in Heaven wearing tunics because tunics were the modern fashion. In Don Piper’s vision, the folks are donned in shirts and pants. A pastor should certainly know better than to think such a vision is literal. Our bodies will be left behind on earth. Grey hair, various skin colors, speaking different languages—these are all strictly earth things. Sure, God uses familiar earthly images to help us grasp eternal concepts, but to take such images literally is absurd. In the Old Testament, Heaven is sometimes depicted as open land, other times as a fortress. People are depicted as farming and bringing sacrifices to the Temple. In Revelation, Heaven is a glorious fortress. It contains a Temple of God in the beginning, but in later visions, the Temple element is removed. People are depicted as sitting around ruling, praising, and being utterly unproductive.
It’s very fascinating to compare the Heaven Jesus describes to John in Revelation with the way Jesus talks about Heaven in the Gospels. What no one ever tells you is that the apostle John’s ego was out of control. The evidence is right there in front of us. In his gospel book, John refers to himself and only himself as “the disciple Jesus loved.” Those other disciples—well, they weren’t as great. Then in 1 John, he arrogantly claims that no true Christian sins, falters in his love for his fellow man, or even desires to do wrong. Since John obviously considered himself to be a true Christian, what does this tell us about his own view of his moral perfection? Obviously the man thought he was an icon of righteousness—God’s gift to Christendom. How else could he possibly be comfortable with seeing his own name inscribed on one of the pillars of fort Heaven in Revelation. Really?? So Heaven is a shrine to ethnic Jews and twelve of the early apostles? This is what Jesus shows John in Revelation, and if you think He’s being serious, you need to think again. No, God really isn’t a bigot who thinks someone’s earthsuit genetics makes them spiritually superior to everyone else. God has a very low opinion of human arrogance and He doesn’t share His glory with mere created beings. But when we stop listening to God, what does He do? He intentionally deceives us by telling us what our egos want to hear (see Applying Revelation: Its Warning for Modern Day Believers).
In Revelation, Heaven is depicted as a place where human beings go to collect honor, glory and power—especially Jewish Christians who were martyred. Simply getting beheaded by a Roman soldier earns you the right to reign 1,000 years on your own little throne according to the visions Jesus gives to pompous little John (see Applying Revelation 20: Millennial Madness). But when Jesus is talking to a broader audience in the Gospels, He presents Heaven not as the ultimate party town, but as a place where we will continue to serve our Makers. When He tells parables about eternity, Jesus often describes good servants being rewarded with more responsibility—that’s code for more work. You see, Heaven won’t be a place where we sit around being endlessly applauded for the few times we actually listened to God on earth. We aren’t going to spend eternity drifting on clouds, plucking harps, and picking flowers. Despite what the arrogant apostle Paul taught, we aren’t going to be co-reigning with God. Instead, we’re going to continue to serve, mature, and make choices about how seriously we want to pursue our Kings. Heaven isn’t the end of the journey, it’s just the beginning.
So given all of this, should we consider Don Piper’s vision of Heaven to be an accurate depiction of reality? Not hardly. Instead, we should find it a disturbing sign that Don’s spiritual health is languishing. It really isn’t good when God encourages you to think eternity will be all about you feeling loved and popular among other humans. You don’t want to see humans rushing to greet you on the other side, you want to see your Gods standing there with approving smiles on Their faces. Don says he didn’t see Jesus at all. Yikes.
So how did Don react to his vision of Heaven? He went around the globe promoting himself. Why wait till the other side to become Mr. Popular? Write the bestselling book today and get those steep medical bills paid off. At the end of the film, we get to see a snatch of the real Don Piper giving a brief speech from behind a pulpit. He sums up the things he’s learned by saying “God still answers prayers. He’s still in the business of doing miracles.” Wow. So this is all Don has for us? If we really need assurance of these things, there is a bigger crisis at hand.
It should be no-duh obvious to us that God answers prayers. But what pro-prayer warrior Don really means by this is that God still invites us to boss Him around. You see, most prayer enthusiasts don’t recognize “no” and “wait” as valid answers. Several times in the movie, we see many people gathering together to pray for ailing Don. When he’s at one of his low points, his pastor friend tells him “Just rest. We’ll take it from here. We’re going to be praying for you all night.” Pastor friend then calls everyone he can think of and the all night prayer vigil begins. Well, this is just great. Let’s all insult God by treating Him like He’s deaf and indifferent to the needs of His creatures. Sure, we all know that Don and his friends want Don to get better. But what does God want? Surely He had a purpose in doing what He did to Don. Well, no one ever bothers to ask God for His input in this film. They just continuously nag Him to do what they want. It’s only after He appears to obey their commands that they affirm that yes, He does indeed still answer prayers. Returning to his home church for the first time after his accident, Don rakes in the applause by struggling out of his wheelchair and saying, “You prayed. I’m here.” That’s right—let’s give humans all the glory for his recovery. God is just our Servant, and it’s only when He gives us our way that we applaud Him for taking care of us, loving us, and listening to us. What irreverent little brats we are.
If you haven’t seen this movie, don’t waste your time. It’s tediously slow and the way it treats God is seriously annoying. Though it promised to inspire hope, all we felt inspired to do was grab the real Don Piper by his scruffy white beard and tell him that using God as a means of promoting oneself on earth is a dangerous game to play. But as we watched his audience explode with applause over Don’s lame end speech about God still listening to us, we got the feeling that our warning would only fall on deaf ears.
Movie Review: Heaven is for Real
Movie Review: War Room
Better than Heaven: Pursuing What Really Matters