Margaret in our Office lent me this book, 90 Minutes in Heaven by Don Piper, telling me that she had read it in one hit, unable to put it down. Me too. I read it in a sitting, and found it, in places, very moving. But a fascinating book is not necessarily a good book. This one is smallish, 205 pages, fairly well written by Piper's ghost writer Cecil Murphy, and quite undemanding. And it does seem strange, on reflection that a book which claims to tell of an actual trip to heaven and back should be undemanding.
In fact the time in Heaven occupies only 15 pages. There is a brief postscript which does some rudimentary analysis of the whole phenomenon of near death experiences, but by and large, the book is about Don Piper's accident and his gradual recovery from some horrific injuries. On the way home from a conference, while negotiating a two lane bridge, his little Ford Escort was run over by an eighteen wheeler . Piper was cursorily examined by paramedics, declared dead and left in the wreckage of his car for an hour and a half. He stayed there, apparently without a pulse, until another pastor prayed for him, whereupon his corpse breathed again, and he was cut from the wreckage by incredulous firemen. He says that in that 90 minute period he went to Heaven, and gives a brief account of his experience.
I have read many near death experiences. I have had very many people personally relate their own near death experiences to me - I have never served in a congregation where there is not at least two or three of them. I usually find these accounts intriguing and riveting. Strangely, I didn't find Piper's account to be so. He tells of a very literal Biblical heaven, with gates of actual pearl and streets of actual gold. There is the rustle of angels' wings and crowds of departed loved ones. There is a choir singing. All is described in superlatives with the constant admission of a failure to find words for the magnificence he beheld. There is no encounter with God, and no description of the angelic beings. This all left me a little cold. Give me CS Lewis any day.
What was moving, for me, was the long and honest account of his twenty year struggle with pain and with the depression caused by the limitations imposed by his injuries. Moving also was the very real testimony to the power of prayer: the prayer of the man at the time of his accident, the prayer of his friends and congregation throughout his ordeal, the prayer of thousands who had heard of Piper and interceded for him. He speaks with some insight about his own drivenness and inability to accept help. He recounts some of the ministry opportunites which his experiences have opened for him but there is surprisingly little reflection on how his ordeal had changed his view of God, the world and himself. Most surprisingly, given the book's title there is no real evidence that his experience of Heaven has changed him, other than by making his troubles seem all the worse in comparison.
Who knows what happens inside a human mind during moments of extreme duress, particularly if there is anaesthetics and/or physical trauma involved? Who knows whether the many reports of near death experiences are some sort of internal psychological phenomena or are perceptions of some great reality beyond our five senses? Some that I have heard I have suspected to be elaborate hallucinations or even downright fabrications.Some though, do seem to have the echo of somewhere else about them, and having just made that distinction, I am not at all certain that I can clearly elaborate the criteria on which I would judge; and those criteria certainly wouldn't be the incidental details of the recounted experience. If someone did have some encounter with the greater reality which lies beyond death, it would obviously have to be perceived, remembered and analysed in terms of what the person already knew; that is, it would be described in terms of this three dimensional reality whether that description quite fitted or not. If Don Piper did have a real experience of the beyond, of course he would have to remember it and describe it in the terms which are most familiar to him as a Southern Baptist preacher. When I hear accounts of near death experience it is not the details which most interest me, although they are sometimes fascinating. I am, rather, listening for two things: a sense of the transcendent and an impact on the person's life. People will describe their experience in terms of images and concepts they already know, but their description will have the feel of something that is not quite containable in the imagery they use. If you have stepped out of time and space, how do you tell anybody about it? Mostly though, it is the effect on people's lives that is the most persuasive. The fear of death and the conviction of our own mortality unconsciously informs much of what we think and do. When that fear is gone, as it is in many of those who report these encounters, there is a quality about them which is noticeable but not easily describable; it is a quality which I think would be impossible to fake, especially over a long period. These peoople aren't necessarily Saints or spiritual giants; but they know something, and it shows.
Does Don Piper know this? In truth, I wouldn't dare say without ever meeting the man in the flesh. He iseems to be personally convinced of the authenticity of his experience, but his book, for me, doesn't carry with it the rumour of Angels. It does however carry the testimony of faith and courage and the power of prayer. Which is not the same thing, but may in fact be better.