Essays & Images on Cities, Travel and Contemporary Culture. A web journal of James A. Clapp, Ph.D., an UrbisMedia Ltd. Production

Vol.53.3: 90 MINUTES IN HEAVEN, by Don Piper 2004 BR

V053-03_90minutesHeaven, I’m in heaven
And my heart beats so that I can hardly speak
And I seem to find the happiness I seek
When were out together dancing cheek to cheek

Normally, I would never bother with a book like this. But the author was interviewed by some reporter on NPR, so I checked and there was a used copy available for all of $0.01. Why not. After all, it was rather propitious; I was writing a section of a book that dealt with the subject of “heaven,” and here was a guy who claims that he had actually been there. The subtitle calls it a “true story of death and life.” A first-person account.

Don Piper is a Protestant pastor who was in a terrible auto accident in 1989. The EMT’s thought he was dead—Piper claims that he was indeed dead—but a friend came along to “pray over” Piper and noticed that he was stirring under the plastic they had covered him with. They called for the “Jaws of Life,” cut him out and got him to a hospital where he spent 105 perilous and agonizing days with a badly mangled leg and a broken arm. His recovery has been long, painful and incomplete. It is a story of “resurrection.”

But it’s that 90 minutes when he was supposedly dead that Piper’s book is supposedly about. Unfortunately, it isn’t. I had a lot of questions about heaven, but Piper doesn’t answer any of them. For all of his hour and a half visit he has about two paragraphs of celestial memoir. And what he provides is pure el snoro. Most of the book is about his hospital stay and convalescence, about the depression, dependency and pain, especially from a device attached to his leg called a fixator, that has to be cranked to promote bone growth and is excruciating. In that regard it is, save for the frequent references that he would not mind returning to heaven, a conventional story of a recovery from a near-fatal accident.

Here might be several neurological and psychological explanations for—and this is giving him the benefit of the doubt—Piper’s “visit” to “heaven.” The shock of the accident to his system, the pouring of adrenalin, the rush of endorphins, at least were likely to affect his imagination and the state of his cognition and consciousness. So what does Piper’s heave turn out to be? It’s a pastiche of tired biblical and, frankly, tired and silly clichés. After heading down a “tunnel” toward a brilliant light he is met by predeceased family members and friends. Rather than discussing “heaven” we get mini-bios on these beloved ones who welcome Piper warmly. They were the ages they were when they died, but “more radiant and joyful than they had ever been on earth.” He claims that “age has no meaning in heaven.” He uses the word “perfect” a lot. “when they gazed at me, I knew (emphasis his) what the Bible means by perfect love.” What does the Bible mean by perfect love. And there is a lot of very bright light in “heaven” (so bring your sunglasses).

Piper does not claim to meeting up with God, Jesus, or the Holy Ghost. He doesn’t even claim to seeing angels, although he says that “My most vivid memory of heaven is what I heard. I can only describe it as a holy swoosh of wings.” He could also hear music and a lot of praising of God (in English, of course). Do you remember those stories about the “pearly gates?” Piper was looking for the gates, and found them, but they are not quite made of pearls, but they were “pearlescent—perhaps iridescent (emphasis his) . . . To me, it looked as if someone had spread pearl icing on a cake. The gate glowed and shimmered.”
  Wow, Im’, glad that’s cleard up.

Piper didn’t get to go in, but he got a glimpse of what’s inside. “I paused just outside the gate, and I could see it was a city with paved streets. To my amazement, they had been constructed of literal gold. If you imagine a street paved with gold bricks, that’s as close as I can come to describing what lay inside the gate.” (pp. 34-5)

That’s it—heaven. The sort of place that might be imagined by some six-year-old in a Sunday school class, a family reunion outside a pearlescent gate to a golden city. Wow! Now where have we heard that stuff before? Sounds like some sort of Biblical theme park they might build outside of Orlando (there actually is a Holy Land theme park there, complete with daily crucifixion re-enactments).

Piper has returned to his pastoral activities, although for years he told no one about his heavenly visit. He has counseled several people who have had terrible injuries like his own, and that is commendable. But none, as he describes them, have experience death, heaven and resurrection. Piper writes that he is ready, even eager, to go back to heaven. He’s dead certain that, next time, he will pass through the pearly—oops!—make that “pearlescent” gates.

Heaven, I’m in heaven

And the cares that hung around me through the week

Seem to vanish like a gamblers lucky streak

When were out together dancing cheek to cheek. (Irving Berlin)

© 2008, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 11.7.2008)