DALLAS (Christian Examiner) -- Author Don Piper has heard the critics of his claim that he once visited heaven, and he doesn't blame them. If it didn't happen to him, he says, he'd probably be a critic, too.
In fact, some of the most prominent critics are evangelicals, he says.
His "90 Minutes In Heaven" book sold some 6 million copies, placing it on The New York Times' bestseller list, and this Friday a movie based on the book – with the same name – hits theaters.
The film stars big-name talent such as Hayden Christensen (the latest "Star Wars" trilogy) and Kate Bosworth ("Superman Returns"), and tells the story of Piper's recovery following a 1989 car wreck that stopped his pulse. It was during this time he says he saw the gates of heaven, and deceased friends and family members.
It took a total of 13 months in the hospital and 34 major operations for him to recover.
The movie is being released at a time when faith-based movies are gaining mainstream attention. But "90 Minutes" is also coming out an interesting time for heaven-visitation stories.
LifeWay Christian Stores – one of the nation's largest Christian chains – this year pulled it and those with similar themes, such as "Heaven Is For Real," from its shelves after clamoring from some of its congregants.
Piper, a Southern Baptist himself, says the move surprised him. A popular speaker, Piper told Christian Examiner on a personal level the action was "deeply hurtful."
But he does understand his critics' stance.
"I probably wouldn't believe this if it hadn't happened to me," Piper said. "I think that's why it happened to me. I was a Southern Baptist preacher on the way home from a conference of Southern Baptist preachers, and I got killed along the way. I saw heaven. It really happened, and it's the most real thing that ever happened to me. Whether folks believe it or not, I don't really blame them."
A partial transcript of Christian Examiner's interview with Piper, edited for clarity, follows:
Christian Examiner: Tell me about your involvement in the film, and your desire for the film to reflect the book.
Don Piper: I didn't want to do the movie if it wasn't an accurate reflection of the real story. That lingered on for about seven years until [producer] Rick Jackson called me and wanted to see what he could do about getting the movie made. And I told him the same thing that I told everybody else. Other people wanted to embellish the story, they wanted to add things to it, they wanted to take things away from it. My question to all of them was: What is it about the actual story that you feel needs to be altered? People wanted to add a subplot or they wanted not to focus on the spiritual dimension of it. But Rick wanted to do an accurate rendition of the film. That got my attention. I was on the set probably 80 percent of the time. I had a lot of commitments, so I had to fly in and out a lot. I saw the film unfold, and my wife was there about 50 percent of the time. All of our kids got to be on set and meet the people who were playing them. We were very involved in the screenplay. We were very involved in the production and pleased with that, because it really made the film authentic.
Christian Examiner: Why do you think your story has resonated so much with people?
Piper: It's all about hope. Hope for eternal life someday and hope for a better life than we're living, on the way to eternal life. That's what happened, and that's our story. I saw heaven and came back, and when I came back I came back to a gut-wrenching recovery. When I got hit by the truck, we all got hit by the truck. My family, my friends, my church – we had to figure out how to get through this. I am not the person I was before -- physically, mentally, spiritually. But I think I'm better, not bitter. I think everyone could identify with that. They really want to know if there is life beyond this – and there is, Christ is the way to heaven – but I also think you can have a more meaningful life than the one you're having. I often tell people: If you know where you're going, shouldn't you have a better trip on the way? I meet people who are going through bankruptcies and divorces and tornadoes and hurricanes and losses of loved ones. They're trying to figure out how to get through that. I just had to make a decision one morning at the hospital, that even though I had been knocked down I wasn't going to be knocked out, that God could even use what happened to us to bless other people.
Christian Examiner: You didn't want to live?
Piper: No, I didn't. I wasn't suicidal in the least bit, but if you've been there (heaven), you don't want to be here. And why would anybody want to live through what I lived through? It was just a nightmare, frankly, but really for everyone else, too. Everyone had to see me that way. They were taking care of me, and I didn't want them to. I would have just assumed that they all go away. I was a 38-year-old man who couldn't do anything for himself. It was a dark time and a difficult time. But we emerged on the other side. I'm not a hero. I'm a survivor.
Christian Examiner: Once you chose to live and got out of the hospital, how did that experience change your perspective on life?
Piper: Well, I was never particularly frightened of death. I was looking forward to it. I was a pastor. I studied the Bible, and I believed in heaven, and I knew that Jesus was the way to get there. That didn't really change. What changed was a practical thing for me. I don't conduct funerals the way I used to. If I'm standing at the foot of the casket at a service and say 'to be absent with the body is to be present with the Lord for those who know Him' – those people who are in the audience know I know that. I've experienced that. I've seen it, so that can give them hope. If I'm holding somebody's hand in the hospital on a visit who is near death, they know I've seen it. It changes fundamentally my outlook about that. But even though I don't like going over it and over it, here we are 26 years later, and we're still talking about this. This is not something I would have desired. This is not something I wanted. I really wanted to put it behind me, and what happened is that God put it in front of me. It's a miracle I survived. I'm only here because a lot of people prayed that I would live – that I would be functional afterwards. One guy was in the car praying over a dead body. They prayed, and I'm here. That is extremely encouraging to people – to know that God hears and answers prayers. All of us overcame this – not just me. My wife is the hero. I'm the survivor.
Christian Examiner: One popular blogger (Tim Challies) wrote a critique of your book. He wrote, "It seems that Don Piper's heaven is a heaven where we are fulfilled without Christ." He called it a "man-centered" heaven. How do you respond to that?
Piper: Some bloggers are pretty mean-spirited. He's not. I think he's just trying to be observant. You know, it's a question of faith. You either have faith in it or you don't. I probably wouldn't believe this if it hadn't happened to me. I think that's why it happened to me. I was a Southern Baptist preacher on the way home from a conference of Southern Baptist preachers, and I got killed along the way. I saw heaven. It really happened, and it's the most real thing that ever happened to me. Whether folks believe it or not, I don't really blame them. It doesn't bother me. I'm much more focused on getting people into heaven than dealing with critics. I do understand their doubts.
Christian Examiner: What message do you want people to take from this movie?
Piper: It's simple: hope. The hope that there is a better life. Watch the first 10 minutes of any newscast. This is a painful world. We know that the death rate here is 100 percent. "90 Minutes In Heaven" is the story about hope. Thomas asked Jesus, "How do I get to heaven?" Jesus replied, "I am the Way, the Truth and the Life." That's what this movie is about. I wasn't planning to die that day, but thank God I was ready when I did. People won't be able to leave the movie theater without really thinking about: "How do I get to heaven? Am I going?" We want them to ask that question. Jesus is the Way. We also want them to know that regardless of what happens to you – and some really bad things can happen to us here on earth – God is with us. He sustains us. We may not be the way we were before, but we don't have to be bitter. We can be better. So instead of shaking our fists at God for our losses and our pain, why not reach that hand out to someone else and say, "I understand how you feel. Let me help you through this." And when you decide you to that, then it will help you. And you will know why you went through it. It's the question of turning the pain into a purpose, and the test into a testimony.
"90 Minutes In Heaven" is rated PG for thematic material, including some medical situations. It contains no sexuality or coarse language.