90 Minutes in Heaven – the movie
The new movie 90 Minutes in Heaven hit theaters on Friday, September 11 and I went to see it last night. The movie, which is based on a 2004 book of the same name, is about a pastor, Don Piper, who claims that he died, went to heaven and returned as the result of a terrible auto accident in 1989. His book is really what kicked off the current Near Death Experience (NDE) / “Heaven Tourism” phenomenon in the Christian realm—which continues unabated with books and movies.
As of this writing, after eleven years, Piper’s book is still ranked #1 in Eschatology on Amazon.com, has sold over 7 million copies and has been translated into 42 different languages (if I recall the info at the end of the movie correctly).
I first read Piper’s book in the spring of 2014 as part of research I did into over 25 NDEs, including reading the books Heaven is for Real, The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven, Clinically Dead, To Heaven and Back, My Journey to Heaven and Heaven and the Afterlife.
First, I want to say that I’m not challenging the sincerity or motives of the author. The Lord knows the heart.
Second, the accident in which Piper was severely injured was truly horrific and the recovery process was excruciatingly painful—and I wouldn’t want to minimize how much he and his family went through in surviving such a traumatic ordeal.
That being said, just as is true of all NDEs, I do not believe that Piper died and went to heaven. At the accident, he was declared dead because they couldn’t find a pulse for 90 minutes.
However, there is a difference between being clinically dead and being dead in the biblical sense. When someone is clinically dead, all that means is that vital life signs can no longer be detected, but to be dead in the biblical sense means that the person spirit leaves the body—and the two do not necessarily occur simultaneously. Furthermore, the depiction in the movie is that only Piper’s pulse could not be detected by EMTs—and there were no indications that any medical equipment was used to detect other evidences of life like brain waves, sense of touch/feel, body warmth, etc. There are many recorded instances of people with very minimal vital signs being declared dead, when in reality they weren’t—and even began to recover in mortuaries and morgues.
There is no reason to believe that Piper’s experience was anything more than a vivid dream in the midst of serious trauma with perhaps his body on the verge of death with its cascading bio-chemical processes that happen as a body and brain begins to shut down. There is no way to objectively confirm that anything like an out-of-body experience actually happened. Everything is entirely based on one man’s perception—and in cases like this, perception does not necessarily correspond to reality.
For an in-depth discussion of NDEs, please refer to my article here on the ABI website by clicking here.
Normally I try to stay away from critiquing books and movies from a literary or artistic perspective and instead focus on content. However, with a movie the medium can’t really be separated from the message because the script, dialogue, the acting, the cinematography, the music, etc. are all inseparably linked to how the message is presented and perceived. In the case of 90 Minutes in Heaven, it is just a really poor movie—with a rating of only 19% on Rotten Tomatoes, 4.1/10 on IMDB and 28% on Metacritic.
First, it drags on and on at a snail’s pace—to the point of being painful. I simply could not wait for it to be over. Had I not been watching it for purposes of research for an upcoming interview, I would have been very tempted to leave.
Second, the title is almost deceptive as very, very little is actually said or depicted about Piper’s time in heaven. The vast majority of both the book and movie deal only with his recovery time in the hospital—and not about his claimed trip to heaven—which is why people picked up the book or will go to the movie in the first place. You almost feel like it is a bait-and-switch by the end of the movie as there can’t be more than five minutes of total screen time given to the heaven sequences which occur at two different points in movie.
Speaking of which, the depiction of heaven was almost painful to watch. On the one-hand, it was both predictable and clichéd. It showed the “pearly gates” with a golden light emanating from them. Many people that Piper had known were there to welcome him—all exactly the same age as they were when they died (is that how we’re going to spend eternity?). And one of the most bizarre things is that several, perhaps most of the men were wearing coats and ties, while the women were all wearing dresses. Just strange.
Furthermore, the dialogue is really very poor—and even hokey in places. People just don’t talk like the characters in the movie—who are supposed to be portraying real people, real events and real conversations. It was just not believable.
This is true of much of the acting, as well—and even some decent acting by Fred Thompson and a brief appearance by Michael W. Smith didn’t salvage the movie. Country singer Dwight Yoakam’s character as a sleaze-bag lawyer was excruciatingly painful to watch—to the point that it could best be described as a caricature of a caricature (sorry Dwight Yoakam fans, but it was bad acting at its worst).
I could go on and on, but I want to close with a couple of thoughts:
1. The most appalling part of the movie was the last few minutes. After the story of the movie ended, it cut to Don Piper himself (not the person playing his character) who was speaking in a packed church. If his message in the over 3,000 churches where he has shared his story was anything like the end of the movie, then he has no right to consider himself a minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ—because he did not give the gospel at all—not even a single phrase.
The only thing he said was that people needed to “keep the faith”—but he never even hinted at what that might mean. And, he said something to the effect, “I hope to see you all in heaven someday.” (leaving the impression that he would)—leaving the impression of a universalistic view of salvation—the idea that everyone will ultimately be saved.
Not one word was said about Jesus Christ—who was only very briefly mentioned a couple of times in the entire movie. Nothing was said about us being sinners in need of a savior. Nothing was said of Jesus being God or that He died on a cross for our sins, taking the punishment that we deserve. Nothing was said of His resurrection or His return.
With a movie about such an important part of his life, and an opportunity to share the gospel with potentially tens of thousands of movie-goers, Don Piper completely failed to give the movie any biblical meaning or purpose whatsoever. This is utterly inexcusable.
And finally, Jesus told the story of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16—two men who died, but with two completely different destinies. Lazarus, a believer, had died and entered paradise, a place that is referred to as the “the bosom of Abraham.” However, the rich man, an unbeliever, had gone to the place of punishment and physical torment—the fires of sheol. And when the rich man lifted up his eyes and saw Lazarus he cried out to Abraham and we read the following exchange in Luke 16:25-31:
But Abraham said, “Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things; but now he is comforted and you are tormented. And besides all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed, so that those who want to pass from here to you cannot, nor can those from there pass to us.”Then he said, “I beg you therefore, father, that you would send him to my father’s house, for I have five brothers, that he may testify to them, lest they also come to this place of torment.”Abraham said to him, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.”And he said, “No, father Abraham; but if one goes to them from the dead, they will repent.”But he said to him, “If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rise from the dead.”
The point is very clear: Those who believe that “heaven is for real” and that the day of reckoning is coming can and will do so on the basis of the Word of God alone—and so there is no need for evidence or proof in the form of reports from someone who returns (or claims to have returned) from the dead.
In contrast, for those who do not and will not believe, neither will they be persuaded by any supposed report from beyond the grave.
The Word of God and the convicting work of the Holy Spirit is all that is necessary—and nothing else can or will genuinely work to any degree.