Revelation, not Experience Should Drive Our Apologetics

Don Piper’s book, 90 Minutes in Heaven has been on the New York Times’ bestseller list since it was released in 2004.  Though I have not read the book, Michael Patton argues that this form of apologetical argument is insufficient and dangerous. One of his strongest arguments against this form of apologetics is that Piper’s book is that Piper’s writing flies in the face of a good bit of biblical and systematic theology.  Patton explains it this way,

I thought to myself at one point while reading this book, “if what he says about heaven is correct, then my eschatology is really messed up.”  Then I am left with this familiar dilemma: Do I believe what this sincere guy says to be the truth and fit my interpretation of Scripture and theology around it or do I trust what I believe the Scripture says without conforming to Piper’s experience?

Patton’s argument essentially hinges on the question of whether we choose to believe the revealed word of God or the experience of a person.  The Bible teaches that it is truth above all truth, the very ground and nature of truth.  To elevate experience to a level of truth equal to or above the Bible is to assume that what is seen has more truth than what has been revealed.

Apologetical arguments like the one described by Piper are problematic because they hinge on experience and are unverifiable and non-falsifiable.  Piper’s book is based on an experience that he had that cannot be verified by another human being.  By definition of his experience, he no one could have been there to verify his experience.  Further, by definition, it is essentially non-falsifiable because Piper can always fall back on the “you weren’t there, you don’t know what I saw” argument.

Sound apologetics should be based on verifiable and falsifiable evidence and or revealed Scripture.  Further, experiences need always to be compared to the Scriptures to test their truthfulness.  Patton shows that in several places, Piper’s book appeals more to “common folk theology” than it does to actual Scripture.  Before one jumps in full with Piper, one should consult scripture.  The gates of heaven that Piper describes should look like the description of those same gates in the Bible.  IF we have to make a decision between who is wrong, Scripture or Don Piper, the answer should always be Don Piper.

Patton concludes by showing that there are several good explanations for Piper’s experience as follows:

  1. Piper is lying.  He made all this up for some type of personal gain.
  2. Piper is telling the truth.  He did visit heaven and his descriptions are accurate; we have misunderstood Scripture.
  3. He did visit heaven, but misinterpreted what he saw.
  4. He thought he visited heaven but he really did not.  His visions, while unexplained from a medical standpoint, are filled with the common eschatological folk-lore that you would expect from a 21st century westernized Christian.

Patton concludes that number four is probably correct, and I would agree with Patton.  We must be careful to not trust our experiences more than we trust God’s revelation.  Our senses can mislead us, God never will.