The Heavenly Man… or not?

Christian biography is one of my go-to genres for encouragement and refreshment; my delight, with the Psalmist’s, lies with the Saints who are in the land (Ps 16:3). Consequently, I was excited when The Heavenly Man, the story of Brother Yun, was glowingly recommended to me. Perhaps here was another book to add to my list of greats—to place alongside Brother Andrew and Corrie Ten Boom on my shelf of Saints. However, as I worked my way through Yun’s story a strange cadre of emotions followed me; this was a book that left me… uncertain. Let me see if I can explain why.

Brother Yun is a Chinese house church leader, and The Heavenly Man is his story, told with the help of Paul Hattaway. It begins in Yun’s youth when he begins to earnestly pray for a bible. He prays fervently and faithfully—so fervently that his family begins to think him crazy. Then, one day, God miraculously provided a bible for Yun. He began to consume, then memorize the scriptures, and then was almost immediately called to preach. What follows (the remainder of his story) is an amazing account of miracles (among these were healings, miraculous transportation, provision, supernatural wisdom, and multiple divinely planned escapes from the authorities). In short, Yun travels, preaches, brings people to faith, spends time in prison, ministers to prisoners, is tortured, is released, is imprisoned more, is tortured more, and through it all is provided for by God on numerous occasions.

What I say next I want to say carefully: there is nothing wrong with Yun’s book; but there is also something not quite right about it. The cadre of strange emotions that traipsed through his story with me nagged again and again, raising small flags here and there, that something didn’t add up.

Let’s begin with what was right with Yun’s book. First, his life story, as one of commitment to Christ through suffering, is admirable. Yun’s faithfulness is a wonderful testimony to Christ’s goodness. Second, Yun is clear in that he gives glory to Christ for what has happened and not to himself. (Incidentally, Yun’s nickname, “Heavenly Man” isn’t about Yun’s holiness, but about a time when the authorities asked him where he was from. He responded, in order to protect his village, by saying he belonged to Heaven, and the nickname stuck.) Third, and this is terribly important, whenever Yun quoted scripture—whether to teach, to explain a situation, or in defense of his actions—he quoted them accurately. There was no proof texting, but healthy interpretation of the bible. Often, I find that if a teacher is faulty, those faults show up first in the teacher’s interpretation of scripture. So this factor—the accurate use of scripture—is one that gave, to my mind, the greatest credibility to Yun’s story.

But alongside theses goods came, every few pages or so, the red flags which left me uncertain. And the first red flag was Yun’s accounts of miracles. Now before I go on let me be clear—abundantly clear—that I believe in the power of the Spirit to do whatever He wants to do. That is, I have no problem believing in miracles—in transportation, in fasting, in healings, in knowledge, in miraculous escapes. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever; he is the same one who acted in the past, he is the same who acts today. So my concerns about Yun’s book have precisely nothing to do with a prejudiced dismissal of the miraculous. My concerns are different, so let me try to explain them. When I read about Brother Andrew’s miraculously surviving Volkswagen, or his miraculous encounters at hostile borders, there are no questions in my mind. When I read about Corrie Ten Boom’s miraculous bottle of vitamins while in the concentration camp, I am undeterred. When I read about Jack Hayford getting words from the Lord and having visions I am unfazed. And when I read about John Wimber’s miraculous accounts I am encouraged. In each case one factor is consistent: the Spirit within me ratifies His own work. And this may seem unfairly subjective, but I have experienced the Spirit, know what He is like, and recognize the scent of His actions when I encounter them. That flavor was missing from Yun’s book—and that lack of confirmation troubled me deeply. Do I believe that he was miraculously transported from one location to another? I’m not sure. Do I believe that he fasted from food and water for more than 70 days? I’m not sure. Do I believe that he miraculously walked out of a maximum security prison in China? Again, I’m not sure.

Still, my uncertainty shouldn’t negate a book’s testimony—especially without evidence!—otherwise it would just be my word against his. But other elements combined to create a deeper suspicion. One of these other red flags was the frequent use of what I’ll call “everybody” language. Yun preaches, and “everybody” repents. Yun holds a meeting and “everybody” weeps. Yun shares the gospel in prison and “everybody” is enrapt. Now, this is, most likely, a blatant exaggeration. There’s always some Eutychus who nods off, even when the preaching is first-rate. And this idea of exaggeration began to lodge itself in my mind. It is easy, as a preacher, to exaggerate—to make the story bigger, the salvation more poignant, the miracle more miraculous. I began to wonder if Yun had fallen into that trap.

Reflecting on both the miracles and the ‘everybody’ language, a new thought occurred to me: Yun’s book closely resembles the book of Acts. And not just ‘closely resembles’, but appears to be written as a copy of the book of Acts. Yun is saved, set apart for a mission like Paul, is miraculously transported like Philip, is part of healings and radical community like the early church, escapes from the authorities like Paul, escapes from prison like Peter—Yun is even met at the door by a girl who forgets to open it for him after his escape! Through this all my inner eye began to narrow more and more as I scrutinized Yun’s book. Why does this book so closely parallel the story of Acts? Again, I must ask, is it possible for God to do these things? Certainly! But does this all add up?

In the end, I left Yun’s book feeling like I had been fed a story I wanted to believe, as if this was just what I wanted to hear about the underground Chinese church, its size, its miracles, its freshness, its closeness to the apostolic Church of Acts. And because of all this, I’m not sure Yun’s book was entirely truthful. Do I doubt that Yun has a ministry in China, possibly a highly effective one with the Spirit’s power? No. But I’m not sure that this book is an accurate picture of that ministry. And for that reason I don’t feel comfortable recommending it. Sadly, it won’t go on my shelf of saints. Does that mean I won’t be proved wrong? Far from it—nothing would please me more than to learn that I’ve made a misjudment about Yun and his story. But I don’t think that’s the case. And until that time, if you read his book, I suggest you read it with caution.

28 comments on “The Heavenly Man… or not?

  1. Sam Giroux says:

    Thank you for the review. I enjoyed the honesty in your tone and fairness you gave the material.

  2. David M. Decker says:

    Dear jmichaelrios, 08/13/13 I want tell you want happened three days ago with me concerning the prison escape of brother Yun. I have a small personal internet ministry reaching mostly the Chinese by teaching them English through Skype using the bible as the means. A non-Christian policeman that worked mostly in the prison system in China joined our group as we were reading in Acts chapter 12 about Peter in prison. A thought came to my mind. I had read
    ‘The Heavenly Man” and had met Brother Yun here in Los Angeles. I remembered the miracles that happened in the last high security prison where Brother Yun was in Henan province. I asked this young policeman if he had the means to look up internal prison files on Brother Yun’s time in that prison and his escape. He say that he would try. This young man does not want his name published do to possible reprisals against him for offering this information. Brother Yun is still a wanted man in China. My new policeman friend came back a couple of days later with about 100 pages of information about Brother Yun’s time in that Prison. He read that he had his legs broken and that he refused to eat or drink for over 70 days. I was so happy to hear this. The book The Heavenly Man is prohibited reading in China. The escape actually happened as stated in the book and the officials say that Brother Yun had no help to escape. The escape news was on all the media sources, including tv. They mentioned that various prisoners and some officials had become Christians because of Yun’s influence. Some guards have been punished because they did not do their duty and allowed Yun to escape. The manhunt for Brother Yun was fruitless. He was the only prisoner to escape from that facility. This was a big embarrassment for the Chinese government. I hope this helps you to believe in the miracles as Brother Yun stated them. I do now, more than ever.
    By the way, my mother in law was prayed for by Brother Yun that evening when we went to see him preach, and a “shadow” that showed up on her chest ex-ray a couple of days before the prayer was gone upon further examination a few days later. Praise God! When Brother Yun prays, he likes to get down on his knees with the people to pray for them. What a humble man. My mother-in-law was not asked to kneel because of her age (81) and she was allowed to go to the front of the very long line. He took his time with everyone. They must have been there very late into the night.
    There was not a single request for money that I recall. No tickets sold. No admission charge. Books were available for a donation of any amount. They were not being sold and were just on a table in the foyer. The book “The Heavenly Man” was not in sight.
    As far as his preaching goes, he did not have a good interpreter. The interpreter was also Chinese and did not have good interpreting skills. That was a shame. A good interpreter is so important. The personal prayer session later made up for any lack of communication before. I have seen Spirit filled sermons before but never have seen such compassion, empathy in humility for the people as I did that night. I hope that the people that cast aspersions would pluck the beam out of their own eye first so they can see to remove what is in their brother’s eye. Not referring to you and your comments brother Jeremy.
    David Decker

    • Ivan Marečić says:

      Hi David, thank you for your answer, and also thanks to Michael for his text on Heavenly Man. I would like if you can provide your full name and address or at least to what church you attend to validate your claims. The Skype address or web address of service by which you provide your services to Chinese whishing to learn English would also validate your claims.
      I’m not saying you are not speaking the truth but since Tony Antony I’m extra careful.
      Ivan Marečić, Zagreb, Croatia.

    • jmichaelrios says:

      Hi David,

      Thanks for taking time to respond. I’m sorry I’ve taken so long to write on my end. I’ve also been unsure of what to say in response.

      I think I made it clear above that my intention was not to cast aspersions on the ministry of Brother Yun. Rather, I felt the need to process my own experience of reading the book, which did, and still does, leave me with doubts. I’ll continue to keep my mind and heart open to new evidence, but I’ll also continue to urge caution when people read the book. Once again, thanks for sharing–also, praise God for the answered prayers for your mother!

      Peace of Christ,

      Jeremy Rios

    • Dana Roberts says:

      Mr. Decker: I have a few questions. Did you tell your policeman friend anything about brother Yun’s testimony? I worked in China for eight years. Many Chinese like to please foreigners and tell them what you want to hear. They also exaggerate stories. I remember planting a false story about encoding to a branch officer of the Bank of China. Two days later he told me that it was all true.

  3. […] článek na toto téma je možné si přečíst (žel pouze v angličtině) například zde: The Heavenly Man or Not? Autor v něm vyznává své pochybnosti na základě třech věcí, které mu na celém příběhu […]

  4. Horacio T. Sison says:

    Blessings, Jeremy,

    Thank you for this review of Bro. Yun’s book. I will agree that, while “The Heavenly Man” is a gripping read, I seem to remember that there were times when “the ratification of the Holy Spirit” seemed to be lacking. (I read the book round 2007-2008 or thereabouts, not too long before before Bro. Yun visited the Philippines.)

    Have you read “Heaven is So Real” by a Korean-American Choo Nam Thomas? I would like to know how you find this book. I bought a copy within a few months of reading Bro. Yun’s book. I think I will reserve my comments regarding Choo Thomas’ book till after I read your review.

    Blessings upon your ministry!

    Ray (Horacio T. Sison)

    • jmichaelrios says:

      Hi Ray! Thanks for reading. I haven’t read the other book–I’ll add it to my list of books to check out–although you should know my to-be-read list is about 100 books long!

      Blessings,

      Jeremy

  5. Linda says:

    You hit the nail on the head as far as I am concerned. There is something off indeed about this mans story. .

  6. lessie says:

    Thank you so much. Your thoughtful comments remind me to be humble. My feelings as reading this book have been from “what?!” to “dude is crazy” to “this guy is arrogant, prideful, and even a liar.” Your comments remind me to be more judicious and more respectful. As a brother in Christ and as a human being, he deserves more than my dismissal. God loves him and God is capable of all Hun’s claims. I am also grateful for your comments b/c I’ve been thinking…surely I’m not crazy. I also have noted the names you mentioned for future reading. As a lazy, rich North American Christian maybe the greater message to me is to pray for China and surrender to God as Hun has.

    • jmichaelrios says:

      Hi Lessie! I’m really grateful that you feel this way after reading the review. May the Lord bless your continued reading, and may you come to see more and more of Him!

  7. Dana Roberts says:

    My name is Dana Roberts. I have a few degrees from in Religion and New Testament Studies and some post-grad work (Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, Eastern Nazarene College, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School). My first book on Watchman Nee is one of the standard references to his theology. I learned much more by speaking to the surviving members of his church still living in Shanghai. Not a “Spiritual Man” at all. Chinese Christian outside China are divided about his work. Skepticism fights with those who regard him as God’s seer. The facts are there. But you have to go to Shanghai and in the case of Brother Yun you have to got to ZhengZhou City, Henan Province to get the facts. There are Christians in Henan Province, from his own fellowship who have disassociated themselves from him. Why? I don’t know. My own reservations begin with a comparison of Nora Lamb’s ‘China Cry’ with Mr. Yun’s testimony. It has the same level of super miracles. My own estimation is that Yun was persecuted like many Christians there. But the Chinese have a long tradition of making a story better than it is (I knew a Christian Deacon on Hainan Island who exaggerated his own claims.). It’s saying what people want to hear. Outside China it is quite possible that Yun picked up the “want more” cues and added to his story. Why Brother Yun?

    • jmichaelrios says:

      Hi Dana, thanks for reading!

      It’s sad that we feel the need for secondary sources–I don’t personally enjoy having to be critical in this way. Interestingly enough, I was in Shanghai, Fuzhou, and Changsha just last week. I wasn’t in a position to ask any questions about Brother Yun, though :)

      Blessings!

      Jeremy Rios

  8. Nate says:

    Hello. Just came across this blog as I was trying to find out more about the validity of this book. I also remember feeling a bit skeptical as I was reading the book.

    Wanted to share this link for anyone interested – it’s an open letter from Paul Hattaway (author of the Heavenly Man), regarding Brother Yun. I’d like to believe that all of this is true.. I don’t know if we have any good reason to doubt, other than our skepticism.

    http://asiaharvest.org/bookstore/open-letter-heavenly-man/

  9. Simon says:

    jmichaelrios. You should think more before you speak.

  10. Chris says:

    Thank you for your blog on The Heavenly Man. You related more than I found in the book since I put the book down after the tenth chapter. Your observations about parallels to the book of Acts is something I started to notice.
    But what bothered me is that Brother Yun is evidently a man who suffered more torture than the apostle Paul without having any reason in his unbelieving life to warrant such from God, whereas Paul’s suffering was based on his persecution of the church.
    I also found it odd that God hardly ever tempered Yun’s sufferings. Br. Yun suffered often unimaginably, excrutiatingly, without God doing for him what God did for others who suffered far less.
    Finally, it seems that Br. Yun suffered not all, but many or most, of the methods of torture upon himself which Christians have suffered only in small part as individuals. As with experiencing the book of Acts, he seems to have suffered much found in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs all by himself, again without help from God to temper the pain.
    The reason? Either his story is completely true and I really don’t know what help from God for his people means, or he suffered enough that he is psychologically or physically brain damaged so that he no longer knows his own reality as distinct from that of other tortured Christians.
    The book may be fully true, but I cannot believe at this point that it is. It does not match the testimony of other historical Christian experiences that I know of, and doesn’t match the promises of Scripture.

  11. Zacchaues says:

    Acts 3.9. All the people saw him………. I suppose that isn’t true either because someone is usually asleep or gone to the toilet etc. I think you are nitpicking and missing a great work of God

  12. I don’t think articles like this help peoples faith, so why write it? If you don’t have proof (as you said in the blog) then you should not be writing about it. I think its basically like gossiping.

    • jmichaelrios says:

      Hi Donovan,

      I think you raise some points that are worth discussing.

      First of all, in any book review, the “proof” one has is in the book itself. Whether I recommend a book, or condemn it, should be based on the evidence of the book itself. Anything else would be disingenuous (like giving a favorable review because it was a gift, or because you know the author). The very idea of a book review depends on reviewing, well, the book itself. So if we take your logic and apply it across the board, no one should write any reviews except those people with personal experience of the author’s claims. I think that’s a pretty big stretch.

      Second, I have been very careful not to question Brother Yun’s character in this process. I have left the question open as to the veracity of his claims, but you have my opinion that something is off. In other words, in all reviews I make a point of addressing the argument and not the person. That’s simply a principle of good critique.

      Third, gossip is the business of speaking behind someone’s back, and sometimes of sharing people’s secrets when we ought not to. I’m not dealing in hidden things, but in a book that is open and published. Go ahead, you can secure a copy and write your own review as well. Nothing that’s been said is in secret, and we’re not talking behind his back. So this isn’t gossip at all.

      Fourth, what you seem to suggest is that there is no place for Christian critique, or Christian criticism. I think this is also false. And if it were true, mind you, there would be no place for your critique of my critique. So why would you reserve the right to critique my review of Brother Yun’s book, but restrict my critique of his book? I hope you can see how this is self-defeating. Instead, we are called to “test the Spirits,” and to “take every thought captive,” and the Bereans are commended for searching the Scriptures diligently. My intention is to faithfully execute that task, and as for the above review, I continue to stand by my words.

      Blessings,

      Jeremy

      • thinkadapt says:

        Hi Jeremy,

        Gossip is the wrong term – you are correct and I apologise. I still think what you have done is wrong. You can call it a critique, the bottom line is you have put doubt on someones account / character when you do not know for certain yourself – you just have a feeling “that something is not quite right”. You can stand by your words as much as you like – and I will stand by mine. You should not be writing articles that bring doubt on something when you don’t know for sure yourself.

  13. Paul Ehrsam says:

    I completely agree with what ‘thinkadapt’ January 27, 2016 at 11:55 pm says. The Heavenly Man has in no way been shown as lying and the article only causes confusion, doubt, and mistrust. I suggest you check “Open Letter Regarding ‘The Heavenly Man’ ” by Paul Hattaway of Asia Harvest. The enemy “Satan” does not need our help in casting doubt today any more than in new testament times. ie. Trial of Jesus, Early church and character of Apostle Paul — Some books require critiquing I agree, however, personal testimonies are not in that category when it comes to pure speculation, feeling, intuition, or what ever other not factual word you may use. To reiterate, you should not be writing articles that bring doubt on someone’s personal testimony you don’t know for sure yourself.

  14. JFork says:

    I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the fact that, halfway through the book, I just couldn’t shake the fact that something was off. I put off checking on Brother Yun’s credibility as long as I could because I didn’t want it to cast a cloud over my reading of the book. American Christians often hear how powerfully God works in countries where Christians are persecuted, so I’m eager to believe his story is true. But his story of fasting from food and water for 70 days just seems odd. Maybe it’s just the way it’s written. I’m not sure I’m going to finish the book.

    “When I read about Brother Andrew’s miraculously surviving Volvo, or his miraculous encounters at hostile borders, there are no questions in my mind. When I read about Corrie Ten Boom’s miraculous bottle of vitamins while in the concentration camp, I am undeterred. When I read about Jack Hayford getting words from the Lord and having visions I am unfazed. And when I read about John Wimber’s miraculous accounts I am encouraged. In each case one factor is consistent: the Spirit within me ratifies His own work. And this may seem unfairly subjective, but I have experienced the Spirit, know what He is like, and recognize the scent of His actions when I encounter them. That flavor was missing from Yun’s book”

    Having read many of the above-mentioned Christian autobiographies, I agree with this statement 100%. Again, maybe it’s just a matter of Paul Hattaway’s writing style? But something does seem a little off about “Heavenly Man”.

  15. JFork says:

    Also, there is absolutely nothing wrong with verifying a person’s claims. John listed a number of eye-witnesses at the end of his gospel so people reading it could go and verify his claims if they didn’t believe him. There are other examples of warnings to be vigilant against false teachers in the New Testament as well. NOT saying Yun is a false teacher, but the only way to know for sure if someone is true or false is to verify that what they’re saying is the truth.

  16. Mu'allim Dzhan says:

    Hey everybody – just for the record, (since it’s now been erroneously referred to here at least twice), it was a Volkswagen beetle, NOT a Volvo in “God’s Smuggler” — which the (Yugoslav?) mechanic described as a miracle which he couldn’t bear to see Brother Andrew abuse!

    But as someone who himself spent a couple of decades ministering behind the Iron Curtain, who also experienced some divine miraculous leading — for example, God revealing to people in dreams (on different occasions, to both people who’d never heard of me, and to contacts who knew me, but with whom I couldn’t communicate in advance) that I would be coming at such and such a point in time, so that they could travel to meet me, etc.

    I was also personal friends for many years (while they were still alive) with, and spent long hours talking to, and listening to the first-hand testimonies of various believers who had spent long years for their faith in various Eastern European prisons and labor camps.

    But I’ve also worked as a historian and a librarian, and I was also thoroughly acquainted with some of the distortions and discrepancies behind the P.R. stories of many of the leading Eastern European missions at the time, and actual events, including faked biographies with details stolen from other people’s experiences and lyingly reported as something which the author himself had experienced (when in fact he had not!) When challenged as to why he had done this, one of the (lying) authors answered: “Well, it COULD have happened to me!”

    And I too have to say that there was something about “The Heavenly Man” which also put me off…(Subjective though such a statement may be), there was something which simply did not ring true to me about “The Heavenly Man”. Among other things, it was simply too “hagiographic” (i.e., like the Eastern Orthodox “legends of saints”…)

    I’m not saying there was anything in the book which God COULDN’T have done, but I somehow simply failed to be convinced that this man HAD indeed experienced all these things in real life space and time. (–As opposed to the author believing (that God would be glorified and) that believers would be encouraged by believing that God had done these things — cf. again the tradition and genesis of the highly fanciful tales of miracles attributed to saints in the Eastern Orthodox tradition!!! — tales which there too were originally told with the intention of encouraging and increasing the faith of the believers…!)

    Dana Roberts’ comments here are extremely apt and accurate — similar fantastic accounts of Watchman Nee’s miraculous testimony and experiences also circulated widely in the 1970s and early 80s!

    • jmichaelrios says:

      Thanks for the comment, Mu’allim, and sorry about the delay in replying–I’ve recently been through an international move!

      Thanks for pointing out my error about the Volvo–I’ve changed it accordingly! I guess it’s about time I re-read my Brother Andrew.

      Blessings!

  17. Elle says:

    Thank you for this honest review. I’m currently reading and what you’ve expressed here are thoughts I’ve quietly had (and then felt rather guilty about). Many of the books you mentioned have created a similar response in me that they did in you (and there a few I haven’t read, yet…so thanks for the recommendations!). I find myself talking about these books with friends all the time. But this one…I can’t bring myself to talk about it with anyone. All of this to say, I also would like to find that his story is true someday! But I do want to be a discerning, thoughtful reader. Thanks for the execution of that and even the explanations of how you’re approaching it in your replies to comments.

    • jmichaelrios says:

      Thanks, Elle! Curiously, this has been the review I’ve written that has generated the most traffic. From that I might surmise that there are lots of people who have questions regarding the book. I can only hope (and your comment gives me this hope!) that my critique is read and received in a spirit of Christian charity.

      By the way, if you’ve got other books to recommend, I’m all ears!

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