Earlier this summer, not too long after Apple Valley finished its own Vacation Bible School, we squeezed in one more for our youngest kiddos. Two open nights on the calendar and the beckoning of friends made it an easy choice. It soon became clear, however, that our children got more than the Bible.
As our daughter recounted it, a video clip was used that dramatized the true story of a boy who says he died on the operating table, then took a trip to heaven and then returned to life. In the video the boy sat on God’s lap and the angels were singing to him. Yikes.
On the very next day Jen was looking through the sales flyer from a local Christian bookstore that had come in the mail. Highlighted inside with "can't miss" urgency were a bunch of books that sounded very similar to what our daughter had just witnessed at the VBS.
What is going on here? Why all this emphasis on "near death" experiences and why is this stuff showing up in a Vacation Bible School curriculum? I wish I could find an answer that didn't originate from deep cynicism. But alas, I can not.
I suspect that the VBS video was full of good intent. Bible teachers wanted to show the kids something extraordinary to pierce the fog of the "same old, same old" Bible stories and scripture memory verses. The video was likely construed as compelling evidence that the Bible is indeed true.
But as is usually the case, highly engineered good intentions did not bring forth much good.
Not too many Lord's Days past our scripture reading was Luke 16:19-31. While in the torments of hell a rich man wanted a poor man to leave heaven and deliver a warning to his five living brothers. "And he said, 'Then I beg you, father [Abraham], to send him [Lazarus] to my father’s house—for I have five brothers—so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.'
Did the rich man get his wish? Would Abraham send Lazarus back to earth to warn the five brothers? No. "But Abraham said, 'They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.' Abraham refuses the petition. Instead he insists that God's holy Word is sufficient to bring men to repentance.
The rich man would not be silenced. He doubles-down on the petition: “No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent." Abraham flatly disagrees. "If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead." Stunning. If men do not respond to God's ordinary means of revelation they will not respond to something extraordinary.
Here's why I am - and we all should be - cynical of the die-go-to-heaven-return-to-life stories: they are extraordinary means of convincing people that God's Word is true and therefore they undermine the ordinary sufficiency of God's Word.
If someone's round-trip to heaven testimony must be told to validate scripture's own testimony, then the testimony of men is of greater worth than the testimony of God. Ironically, in an effort to do more to build up the faith of children and adults, these books and videos actually undermine the only rule of faith and life - the holy scriptures. These heaven-trips are no more worth publishing than the most pleasant dreams I have had over the past four decades.
Dear Christian, know this: God is much more gracious to us than the publishers and speaker bureaus who parlay and parade these taken-and-returned people before us. God's means of grace - bringing us to repentance, to faith and to assurance - is all completely free and available not far from home through the ordinary ministry of the Word preached, the sacraments administered, and the prayers offered.
God's ordinary means are not only readily available but they are completely effective in bringing all of God's people to their salvation. As our Larger Catechism puts it: The outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicates to his church the benefits of his mediation, are all his ordinances; especially the word, sacraments, and prayer; all which are made effectual to the elect for their salvation (#154).
When we open the door - or the circus curtain - to these extraordinary means of convincing and convicting, we put people on the hamster wheel and they begin to chase one extraordinary tale after another. We invite them to a life of spiritual voyeurism where they will soon consider illegitimate and drab anything like an ordinary means ministry of the gospel. If they are fascinated with the extraordinary tale but not the scriptures, has any real good been done?
We have something better and something more sure.
"And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers." 1 Thessalonians 2:13