Upon the urging of one commenter, I read “90 Minutes in Heaven.” I managed to do so in one weekend which again makes me wonder why the people over at the New York Times have not taken the time to review it. It certainly isn’t because it takes too long to read.
I could bemoan the tone and numerous logical fallacies, however to concentrate on those would be a tad unfair. The book is not a polemic like “The God Delusion.” In fact, it isn’t really about 90 minutes in heaven either. At its core, it is about solidarity, hope, and coming to terms with a catastrophic life-altering change.
First, I’d like to talk a little bit about Piper’s experience in heaven. It is less than 10% of an approximately 200 page book. This is actually something to be thankful for, because it reads like two children trying to one-up one another. How wonderful was heaven? More wonderful than the most wonderful thing you can imagine. Lest I be accused of exaggerating, I’ll let some quotes speak for themselves.
Without the slightest doubt, I know heaven is real. It’s more real than anything I’ve ever experienced in my life. I sometimes say, “Think of the worst thing that’s ever happened to you, the best thing that’s ever happened to you, and everything in between; heaven is more real than any of those things. – Longing for Home pg 194
Age expresses time passing, and there is no time there. All of the people I encountered were the same age they had been the last time I had seen them — except that all the ravages of living on earth had vanished. Even though some of their features may not have been considered attractive on earth, in heaven every feature was perfect, beautiful, and wonderful to gaze at. – My Time in Heaven pg 27
Besides heaven being melodious, luminous, brilliant, beautiful, perfect, etc., etc., ad nauseum. Piper provides one minor tweak to the biblical account.
One thing did surprise me: On earth, whenever I thought of heaven, I anticipated that one day I’d see a gate made of pearls, because the Bible refers to the gates of pearl. The gate wasn’t made of pearls, but was pearlescent — perhaps iridescent may be more descriptive. To me, it looked as if someone had spread pearl icing on a cake. The gate glowed and shimmered. – Heavenly Music pg 34
As is typical of these types of descriptions, it exists in a realm where words cease to have any meaning.
As for the miracles, it is hard to see any. Don Piper was declared dead. Piper therefore makes the logical leap that he was dead. No room for mistakes allowed in this declaration, despite a number of other mishaps Piper acknowledges during the course of the book. However, it remains unclear how thoroughly the police officers following behind the inmate driven semi, or the EMTs dispatched actually checked him.
The EMTs pronounced me dead as soon as they arrived at the scene. They stated that I died instantly. According to the report, the collision occurred at 11:45 A.M. The EMTs became so busy working with the others involved, that is was about 1:15 P.M. before they were ready to move me. They checked for a pulse once again. – From Heaven to Earth pg 37
Dick Onerecker was the first one to notice Don Piper was alive, and apparently prayed that Piper be delivered from “unseen injuries.” What this actually means is left open to interpretation, as its definition changes throughout the book. Piper initially interprets it to mean no brain trauma or internal injuries. Doctors confirm in the book that he had no injuries to his brain or organs in his thoracic cavity. By the final chapter, Piper just repeats the brain trauma portion of the deliverance. To me, it appears to be a post-hoc rationalization and moving goal posts. It is also perfectly consistent with his survival. He was never, in fact, clinically dead.
At the heart of the book is Piper’s personal transformation, his battle with depression and ever constant pain. The backdrop is set against not the life he had before, but actually experiencing heaven. It is exactly those twists in the details that make this story, which is a moving story in its own right and something I can definitely empathize with, fall completely tone-deaf and flat as a commentary on the human condition. On page 107 Piper describes his depression vanishing. Poof. Piper describes it as a miracle. I describe it as a contrivance. It is clear Piper’s depression didn’t just vanish. It came back to haunt him, in little everyday reminders of things he was no longer able to do. This is by far the most frustrating aspect of the book.
Piper faced finding what he describes as a “New Normal.” It is breaking down the barriers of expectations, letting people help you, and finding ways of helping other people in solidarity. Letting go of your expectations and dreams of your former life and finding hope and happiness in your new condition. If anything, I would expect Piper to recognize there is no way life is supposed to be. It is about adapting and changing. Disaster can come suddenly and at any moment, but the recovery is gradual and a constant struggle. Through it all, there is a love of other people, your friends and your family, your community, even a few people you wouldn’t expect who help with your personal adjustment and give you strength to go on. Which is why, when Piper describes his depression vanishing like turning off a switch I am saddened. It is an incomplete metamorphosis. It is a reversion to the expectations and attitudes that he had before the accident. As I described this aspect of frustration to my mother, she pondered whether or not Piper was planning on writing a sequel to address this deficiency. I can only hope that is the case.
In the end, I think most readers will find what they are looking for when reading “90 Minutes in Heaven.” As far as near-death experiences [NDE] go, Piper admits his attitudes in the final chapter.
I have no intention of trying to solve this [NDE] debate. I can only relate what happened to me. No matter what researchers may or may not try to tell me, I know I went to heaven. – The Why Questions pg 201
In the same way, some may not believe my account; they may think it was some kind of wish fulfillment during a point of severe trauma. I don’t have to defend my experience.
I know what happened to me. For those of us whose faith is in the reality of heaven, no amount of evidence is necessary. I know what I experienced. – The Why Questions pg 205
As Piper mentions throughout the book, he is not a particularly introspective person and doesn’t particularly focus on what happened, but rather why it happened.
I’ve devoted an immense amount of time to considering why it happened rather than what happened. – The Why Questions pg 201
In the final analysis, “90 Minutes in Heaven” is a moving story that is utterly hamstrung and incomplete by its reliance on religion and irrational belief. On the one hand, the organization of the church enabled a great deal of the story, especially help to a family going through a crisis. It also enables Piper to help other people who are going through similar struggles. He has lived their pain. However, much like Piper’s accident, the book is a mess, but the heart of it survives if you are willing to use your brain.