Updated: Jun 17, 2020
“If you would like to experience what the Apostle John experienced in the book of Revelation, as he went to heaven and interacted with the heavenly hosts, you can. Pastor Joe Brock will actually set you on your way. Joe Brock …. has taken his congregation on trips to heaven on numerous occasions. This provides a biblical understanding for you to experience heaven now, and to lead groups into heavenly encounters.” (link)
What!? When I came across this, I was stunned by the audacity of such a claim. This man believes he actually arranges spiritual visits to heaven where his congregation can interact with angels, departed saints, and have tours of the heavenly mansions.
What is even more troubling, his congregation are eager for these encounters, and submit to this supernatural activity without any discernment. When spiritual discernment is lacking, particular amongst an entire church, the members are gradually being fattened for the kill.
To willingly submit and engage in such practices in an ongoing manner will set you up to receive even further delusion. You will be fattened for spiritual slaughter. So I cannot help but dismiss these claims as unbiblical, deluded and dangerous, whether they be visions or supposed bodily/spiritual encounters. Why? For one most important reason: the related stories of these encounters ADD to what has already been revealed in Scripture.
We don’t need extra “fresh” revelation, intriguing prophetic insights outside the boundaries of Scripture, or teachings that are based on the latest quantum physics (as if to prove the point). You’d be surprised to see how many ministries piggy-back on the latest insights from the scientific world, especially relating to quantum physics. It’s as if in order to validate a new spiritual insight or experience, some ministries are quite happy to use the latest scientific discover to corroborate their spiritual encounters, to seduce the undiscerning into accepting their false teaching as true. Bethel church led by Bill Johnson is a prime example (see here).
If you’re attracted to Bethel church you may want to reconsider. I realise they are hugely influential through their musical ministry, and by their laid-back approach to church meetings, but often this acts as a smokescreen to what is really believed and being practised. The doctrines they publicly espouse are vitally important, and although they’ll appear to adhere to the Bible, it’s the extra add-ons that are troubling. “Yes, we believe the Bible, absolutely, but wait … there’s more!”
Some of the “more” includes belief in grave sucking which is the calling up the anointing from the bones of a famous deceased preacher or prophet (see footnote). The celebrating of unexplained phenomena in services such as gold dust and angel feathers (“The feathers and gold dust are not things we do, they happen” Bill Johnson says). Also the appearance of a holy smoke “glory cloud” in their services that they believe is a supernatural sign of God’s favour. And of course the practice of cooperating with angels and even using them (“angels are among us! They come for a lot of reasons. There are different kinds of angels: messenger angels, healing angels, fiery angels. I think that they have been bored for a long time and are ready to be put to work”: link). Angels get bored!
As with all these types of experiences it doesn’t take too long before the REAL issue pops up; the validity of the Sola Scriptura test (By Scripture Alone or The Exclusiveness of Scripture). Is the Bible all we need, or is there more, by the means of extra personal revelation or extra-biblical spiritual experiences? Bill Johnson finally arrives at this test point and boldly claims that God “wants to take us farther and we can only get there by following signs. Our present understanding of Scripture can only take us so far” (When Heaven invades Earth. Chapter 12, page 142).
This attitude elevates experience over Scripture. Every cult and sectarian group come to this same test – is Scripture enough, or do we need more? They always answer, Yes there is more revelation. The Mormons did it, even Islam has done it. Today some are saying Scripture alone isn’t enough but instead of adding further texts (like the Mormons or Islam) they say we now need new and fresh experiences to enhance God’s Word.
The temptation (spurred on by the Father of Lies) is to replace the truths of Scripture with anti-biblical elements usually from contemporary culture. But Scriptural truths should not change at the personal whim of the experiencer, or even the interpreter.
Supporters of this desire for new and fresh revelation experiences often say it’s about “pushing through” for more of God, as if it’s about spiritual development. No it’s not, but what it should be about is spiritual maturity. And spiritual maturity is linked to discernment and wisdom. It is not about searching for greater spiritual encounters just to have an experience of some kind – and then boast about it.
If true spiritual encounters do legitimately come to us, they are at the behest of God, and not something we actively seek out. God is more concerned with our inner character than our spiritual activity of having experiences.
Anyway this blog isn’t about Bethel and other comparable churches, but there are similarities. This is about how extra-biblical teachings lead to extra-biblical experiences, and finally to extra-biblical authenticity. One of the most popular instances of this is “trips to heaven”.
Near-death experiences (NDE) or out-of-body experiences (OBE) are different from supposed trips to heaven induced by someone. NDE and OBE encounters would require another entire blog!
Here I’ll be talking about “heavenly trips” deliberately sought for, and then induced by someone acting as a kind of spiritual travel agent. This will include examples of Christians who say that they’ve had encounters with departed saints or Jesus, who visit them in their homes and take them away to heaven for a special one-on-one audience.
I had an acquaintance, who before his recent death, said he often had encounters with Enoch, Jesus, or a manifestation of the Holy Spirit. These would occur quite regularly and sometimes when not even sought after. This man would wake early, make a cup of coffee, go to his study, sit down and before too long “Enoch” would come into the room and share spiritual “truths” with him.
Frequently, he said, it would be Jesus appearing, and on one occasion he was supposedly taken to a distant planet where sin had allegedly not occurred. When he spoke with the inhabitants, he learned how they were so jealous of Christians on earth. When he asked why, he was told because Christians on earth had to overcome sin and temptation which made them stronger in faith, and so surpass the faith of those on that distant planet who had it so easy, because there was no sin to deal with!
My mind reels! Yet this man was in great demand on his preaching tours to various countries. No one really seemed to question the theology of this encounter but shrugged it off “because he was a prophet of God who spoke truths”.
Experience over Scripture, gullibility over Discernment, sensationalism over Accuracy.
Dozens of people have claimed to visit heaven as a result of a near-death experience. A Google search will pick up over 170,000 results. Several say they’ve even been taken on tours of hell. Some of these experiences have been caused solely by the use of drugs during medical procedures. Others have been the result of a traumatic event, like a car crash. Others still by personality disorders. And some sadly by people seeking attention, notoriety, or financial gain.
Recently there have been a number of pure deceptions, some the result of a disturbed mind thinking the experiences were real, and some by deliberate deception. The most notorious being the sad case of little Alex Malarkey, the young then 6-year old at the centre of the immensely popular book, The Boy who came back from Heaven (published by Tyndale House) with over a million copies sold. He finally refuted the contents saying his experiences were a fabrication and distortion of Scripture. The publishers stopped printing the book, and bookstores around the world removed it from their shelves.
A sad and disturbing story. The Christian public hasn’t helped in many similar cases because of the popularity of believers wanting endorsement of sensational spiritual experiences. It seems that many believers are willing to take astonishing stories as truth with little discernment or testing against Scripture. Far too many Christians are overly quick to believe people’s accounts of supernatural experiences.
More lately I’ve noticed a trend among those who claim to have undergone exceptional supernatural experiences; they want to out-do one another! If someone says they’ve had a trip to heaven, the next person claims to have done that, but also had a private tour. Then someone tops that by saying they had a private audience with the 12 apostles. Next comes another claimant who tells a sensational story of being allowed to see the moment of creation! And on it goes. Jealously, pride, arrogance and mere fabrication. Imagination over inspiration. One is from man, one is from God.
The fact that there are so many different (even conflicting) accounts about what heaven is like, is a clear sign it is all subjective, and therefor highly suspect.
What you’ll notice in all these stories of supernatural experiences, is the embellishment of what we already have in the Bible. We get overloaded with descriptions of what angels really look like, what the music sounds like, how fragrant the flowers smell up there, etc.
And while many stories do mention the glory and wonder of heaven, of seeing the Throne and He who sits there, there’s often a lack of the Fear of God evident in the telling. The nice anecdotes are more about the breathtaking difference of heaven compared to earth and are even somewhat folksy in their narratives.
Now compare some of the rather fanciful stories told us by visitors to heaven, to what Scripture actually tells us. First, we note that none of biblical authors who recorded experiences of the heavenly realm were having a near-death-experience at the time. None of them! They all had visions. This should tell us something about NDE.
Second, such encounters of the supernatural were limited to only four biblical characters: Isaiah and Ezekiel in the Old Testament, and Paul and John in the New. Two for witness maybe from each covenant age? It’s true that Micaiah (2 Chron 18:18) and Stephen (Acts 7:55) had visions of heaven, but they were very fleeting glimpses, with little in the way of any detailed description.
Third, only three of the four wrote of their experiences. In each case the focus was about the glory of God and the accompanying Fear of the Lord (Isa 6:1-4 / Ezek chpts 1 and 10 / Rev chpts 4 to 6). Compare those awesome accounts to some of the frivolous descriptions of contemporary story tellers.
Last, the remaining account is that well-known one from Paul, where having told us it happened, he simply concludes by saying “I know how such a man (himself) who … was caught up into Paradise and heard inexpressible words, which a man is not permitted to speak” (2 Cor 12:2-4). No description given, no tour of heaven, but only “inexpressible words”.
A contrast indeed to the bizarre stories that have become so popular today.
My concern is about the tendency for Christians to so willingly accept supernatural stories without factual investigation and examination of the account, along with those proffering the story, and not let Scripture be the deciding factor. Have we really come to this in the church today? We’ve been warned ahead-of-time for over 2,000 years to watch out for such deception, but still many disregard the advice, let alone commandment, of Scripture (Matt 24:24 / 1 John 4:1-6 / 2 John 1:7-11).
Now while the New Testament writings add considerable insight to what the supernatural realm of heaven is like, it does not give us any leeway at all to include personal experiences. After all, Scripture is objective but our personal experiences are subjective. Which one do we really want to use as a foundation? Paul tells us that we should be cautious and not cross the boundaries set by revealed Scripture (1 Cor 4:6 – “do not go beyond what is written”).