Why we’re fascinated with stories from heaven
Richard Sigmund’s description of his eight-hour visit to heaven is a sensual extravaganza. After a serious, single-vehicle accident, he suddenly walked through a glory cloud, smelled a sweet aroma and tasted a sensation like strawberries and cream.
Walking on a 6-foot-wide golden path accompanied by two angels, he looked out at the richest green grass he had ever seen. Massive banks of flowers adorned the scene and included roses 4 feet wide.
In a park he observed a surfeit of benches, some made of solid gold. Trees standing 2,000 feet high dotted the landscape. One stunning timber appeared to measure miles across, with leaves shaped like teardrops, similar to crystals on chandeliers.
He saw other delights: four rivers feeding the throne of God, great universities with buildings 1 to 2 miles square, people constructing houses, warrior angels 20 feet tall.
Sigmund also reported encountering such historical figures as Johann Sebastian Bach, Smith Wigglesworth and William Branham.
“I guarantee you, I remember the experience,” says Sigmund, a charismatic evangelist who used to volunteer at Oral Roberts’ and Kathryn Kuhlman’s meetings. “I know dozens of other people who have had similar experiences—people who had experiences with God or have seen heaven.”
Released recently by Whitaker House, Sigmund’s My Time in Heaven is an expanded version of a 1994 book published by a different company. It contains one of the most detailed accounts of the eternal realm, but it is not alone in the annals of first-person experiences about heaven.
Among the numerous other books is Heaven Is Empty, Hell Is Full, published two weeks after Sigmund’s. In it, author Asfaw Berhane—a counselor with the Trinity Broadcasting Network—discusses supernatural encounters with Christ, including his four visits to heaven. Some other titles include:
- Death, Heaven and Back by Lonnie Honeycutt. Released last year by Honeycutt, a charismatic pastor, this details his trip to heaven in 2008 after he died in the hospital during a battle with throat cancer. He tells of being bathed in a light so bright he almost glowed, meeting the mother-in-law he never knew while she was alive, and seeing legions of angels flying overhead. “I was told I was dead for four or five hours,” says the minister of pastoral care at Deeper Life Fellowship in Mobile, Ala. “I have no clue, really. Time in heaven meant nothing to me.”
- 90 Minutes in Heaven by Don Piper. After more than five years on the market, Piper’s popular book shows no signs of losing its appeal. More than 4.5 million copies are in print. Pronounced dead at the scene of an accident in 1989, the Southern Baptist minister tells of meeting childhood friends who died in accidents and his great-grandparents, and seeing dazzling sights: “Everything I experienced was like a first-class buffet for the senses.” Piper’s book gathers an endorsement from ministry leader and author Randy Alcorn, whose biblically based expositions on heaven have been popular among charismatics and Pentecostals. “I’m certainly convinced he is not at all lying or exaggerating,” says Alcorn, who joined Piper recently at a panel discussion on heaven. “When I read his book, I didn’t see anything in it that contradicted the biblical revelation.”
- Caught Up Into Heaven by Marietta Davis. She penned this account, one of the first written, after falling into a nine-day trance in the summer of 1848. Her story also appeared in Scenes Beyond the Grave by J.L. Scott (1859), which was updated by Dennis and Nolene Prince in 2006 and titled Nine Days in Heaven. Davis tells of seeing dazzling light and talking to an angel who explained that when people die, they are taken to the place where they will spend the rest of eternity.
- Divine Revelations of Heaven by Mary K. Baxter. This is another title popular among charismatics. It is based on a series of visions that she says God gave her in 1976 immediately after showing her the horrors of hell. Baxter says she was being accompanied by an angel and saw two others standing at the gate, one of whom retrieved a book that had her name stamped on its gold cover. After opening the book, the angels admitted her. “I was totally enraptured by the glory of heaven,” Baxter says. “Heaven is a reality. It is one thing to try to describe the wonders of this city; it is quite another to know that you will share the joy of it.”
Even science, the typically rational antagonist of faith, is being included in the discussion. Christian apologist Dinesh D’Souza argued in his book Life After Death, released last fall, that an afterlife is a probable occurrence based on scientific evidence, not just religious belief.
These assorted book releases reflect what Pentecostal theologians and other Bible teachers see as a growing trend: Heaven is popular. Between 70 percent and 90 percent of the public believe in it, polls in recent years have shown.
Some observers attribute this rising interest to a parallel, renewed curiosity about the end times. James Bradford, general secretary of the Assemblies of God, typically hears more speculation about the Antichrist or future events in the Middle East than the afterlife. People tend to ask him about heaven when they have a death in the family.
“Eschatology issues and heaven are linked,” says the former pastor. “Sometimes people ask, ‘What’s this all about?’ I tell them to be in the presence of God is heaven.”
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