‘Heaven-tourism’ critics welcome SBC resolution

A former youth minister in Texas says he lost his job for taking a stand essentially identical to an SBC resolution cautioning against belief in “heaven is for real” testimonies.

By Bob Allen

A former youth minister who claims he was fired by a Southern Baptist church for refusing to support a revival led by 90 Minutes in Heaven author Don Piper said he feels vindicated by a Southern Baptist Convention resolution criticizing books and movies for suggesting that near-death experiences prove the existence of heaven or hell.

90 minutes in heavenJim Hammond, former staff member at First Baptist Church in Stockton, Texas, termed a resolution “on the sufficiency of Scripture regarding the afterlife” adopted at the 2014 SBC annual meeting June 10-11 as “sweet vindication” of a stance he says got him fired and his family with two small children evicted from the church parsonage.

Hammond first told the story May 26 in a radio interview with evangelist Justin Peters, a critic of a popular genre that skeptics dismiss as “heaven-tourism” claims.

Hammond said it all started when a girl in his youth group was reading Heaven is for Real — a 2010 bestselling Christian book about the 4-year-old son of a Nebraska pastor who reported that he visited heaven during a near-death experience in 2003 — and asked him what he thought about it.

After checking it out, Hammond said he told the girl he supposed it was OK as long as she understood it was fiction and not the Bible. Afterward Hammond learned that Piper, whose New York Times bestseller makes a similar claim, was coming to his church to preach a revival in October.

Hammond said he told his pastor that if Piper came to do a revival at the church, he and his family would not be there to support it. That led to a meeting with deacons, who offered to accept his resignation.

“I guess they saw it as I was being insubordinate,” Hammond said.

Piper, an ordained Southern Baptist minister since 1984, held numerous staff positions working with youth, education, senior adults, campus ministries and as senior pastor before the fateful day he attended a Baptist General Convention of Texas conference in 1989.

Leaving a Union Baptist Association-owned retreat center on Lake Livingstone north of Houston called Trinity Pines, Piper headed toward South Park Baptist Church in Alvin, Texas, where he was on staff and expected to lead Wednesday night services while the pastor was out of town.

Traveling on two-lane Texas Highway 19, Piper’s 1986 Ford Escort collided head-on with an 18-wheeler truck on the Trinity River bridge.

According to his book published in 2004, 90 Minutes in Heaven: A True Story of Death and Life, Piper was killed instantly and pronounced dead by four sets of EMTs.

During the 90 minutes his broken and lifeless body remained trapped in the wreckage, Piper says he was greeted in heaven by people he had known who had all died during his lifetime, some he hadn’t thought about for decades. Eventually he realized they were all people who had contributed to him becoming a Christian or encouraged his growth as a believer.

Minutes after the accident, the first car happened on the scene. The driver, Dick Onarecker, had started a church in Klein, Texas, and was returning from the same conference as Piper. Onarecker’s widow, Anita Wood, describes watching her husband pray over the man in the red car in her book, Divine Appointment: Our Journey to the Bridge, published in 2010.

“The Lord just impressed on me very emphatically, very urgently, that I was to pray for him,” Onarecker said in an interview before his death in 1996. Piper regained consciousness as Onarecker sang "What a Friend We Have in Jesus" and joined him in singing the hymn.

The SBC resolution doesn’t mention any particular book or movie, but generalizes that many “have sought to describe heaven from a subjective, experiential source, mainly via personal testimonies that cannot be corroborated.”

Some are “not unified and contain details that are antithetical to Scripture,” the resolution says, adding that “many devout and well-meaning people allow these to become their source and basis for an understanding of the afterlife rather than scriptural truth.”

Declaring “doctrines of the afterlife are critical to a full understanding of salvation and repentance,” the resolution affirms “the sufficiency of biblical revelation over subjective experiential explanations to guide one’s understanding of the truth about heaven and hell.”

Hammond said he believes his pastor tended to believe Piper’s story more than other afterlife testimonies because he is a Southern Baptist. Peters said the SBC publishing house adds credibility by selling the books online and in LifeWay Christian Stores.

“When LifeWay sells Heaven is for Real and 90 Minutes in Heaven and all of that, they are giving their stamp of approval,” Peters said. “They are saying that we approve of this. The doctrine in this is good. This will help you in your spiritual life, and yet these books are completely antithetical to the teaching of Scripture.”

During the SBC annual meeting, Thomas McCracken, founding pastor of CommUNITY Church in Salem, Va., offered a motion demanding that LifeWay “cease all sales, support and distribution of Heaven is for Real for “theological reasons.” The motion was ruled out of order for parliamentary reasons, so it won’t be referred as a formal recommendation for consideration to LifeWay’s board of trustees.

After Onarecker’s death, his widow, who remarried in 1997, felt called to ministry, finished college and went to seminary. She completed the M.A. in Christian education from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in 2007 and led women’s ministry work for the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention.

Anita Onarecker WoodAnita Onarecker Wood now works as director of education and evangelism at Memorial Baptist Church in Spring, Texas, described on its website as “a cooperating Southern Baptist Church affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention and supportive of its agencies, boards and schools.”

Wood said she cannot speak to Piper’s experience, but as the only living eyewitness to what occurred that day she can “attest that significant time passed before Dick prayed and the EMS arrived.”

Onarecker died before Piper’s book was published, but he wrote about it in his journal. Wood included his recollections in her own story of “how God used each major decision we made as a part of the puzzle that brought us there that Wednesday, Jan. 18, 1989.”

“What I can verify is miraculous answered prayer that occurred that day,” she said in an email.

Piper did not respond to a request for comment submitted to his ministry website.

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