Listen to Heaven is for Real--Or Is It? (18 minutes).
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This podcast is a book review, examining Todd Burpo's Heaven is for Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2010), 162 pp.
Why the story seems genuine
The credibility of the author is enhanced for three reasons.
1. The author (Colton Burpo's father) is a Christian pastor.
2. The writer is highly personable, and shares a lot from his own life.
3. He repeatedly emphasizes how he and his wife tried not to lead their little boy on--not to put words in his mouth.
Moreover, this is a subject nearly everyone is interested in.
1. The story resonates with popular culture: spiritual experiences are in, even if (for many) church and doctrine are out.
2. It's an easy read-- you can finish in a sitting.
The medical context of the “visit to heaven”
62 - During emergency appendix surgery the boy had an unusual experience, while under anesthesia. The visit lasted 3 minutes, according to the little boy, into which it sounds like a day’s activities were crammed.
78 - He did not die
61 - He had knowledge of his parents praying for him, and of his mother being on the telephone, and their being in separate rooms. He rose above his body – a common experience during surgeries and near-death experiences.
63 - Jesus had a rainbow horse. 65 - Jesus wore white clothes and a purple sash. 67 - There were red marks on his feet and palms. 145 - The boy later points out Jesus in a sketch by Akiane Kramarik, Prince of Peace (73). 73 - Jesus has light eyes and streaks in his hair, which appears to be permed (!).
He was with Jesus, whom he recognized, as well as the father (who was “really big”) and even the Holy Spirit. Jesus loves the little children.
72 - There were many other humans in heaven, esp. children, many of whom Colton later named. But what about John 3:13? 73-74 - The dead (humans) sport wings and halos – and sounds like something out of a children’s book, like The Littlest Angel. There are a few other questionable statements, biblically speaking, such as a literal battle of Armageddon.
86 - He saw his deceased grandfather, though as a younger man. (This man had died before Colton was born.) 123 - Later recognized him in a picture of him in his 30s – did not recognize him in later pictures (died in early 60s). 90 - Colton's mother was shocked, because she has not thought her father would be in heaven. He'd apparently "accepted Christ" 28 years before his death, but did not tell his family members.
94 - The boy talks to his dead sister (fetus of 2 months).This really tugs on the heartstrings of the reader (and the boy’s mother). See also 96, 128-129.
100 - There are literal thrones. 101 - Jesus on the right side of God, the archangel Gabriel on the left.
105 - Heaven is the New Jerusalem of Revelation.
126 - He sees power shooting down on his father when he preaches (Spirit) – like the common evangelical notion of being “anointed” by the Spirit whenever a minister preaches the word of God.
133 - Angels carry swords in heaven.
139 - The battle of Armageddon is apparently to be fought with swords and bows & arrows (little boys’ toys?).
152 - There are dogs in heaven.
It's easy to rationalize most of the details. Even the theology: Trinitarian God, for example. A nearly-four-year-old would have heard a great deal of talk about God and the Bible. It's not so easy to account for the details of miscarried sister and grandfather, assuming they are not fictive or exaggerated. Yet we weigh the work as a whole. We are not required to accept everything in the book just because one or two details cannot be explained away.
Why the book fails to persuade (me)
1. All the details sound like they’ve come from children’s Sunday school pictures. The story supports evangelical theology – e.g. immediate transport to heaven, literal battle of Armageddon, taking the picture of the New Jerusalem to be heaven, conversion through “accepting Christ” – not likely to appeal so strongly to other Protestants, Catholics, Orthodox, or non-denominational Christians.
2. The account flatly contradicts the testimony of the Old and New Testament and the early Christian writers. 80 Paul went to heaven – but in 2 Cor 12 Paul goes to paradise. Not a single detail of the experience is related, only its ineffability. Yet Colton Burpo found no trouble describing everything he saw, which makes the passage his father cites as a parallel disconfirm his son’s experience.
3. 88 - The author admits a history of mental illness in the family (his father). Perhaps this is relevant.
4. Although it's certainly a very interesting story, in many places feels hokey
Two experts weigh in
David Bercot (a personal friend and expert on early Christianity):
a. This account contradicts the evidence of the early church.
b. Why didn't Lazarus ever say anything about this death experience (John 11)?
c. Hallucinations are not uncommon when people are under anesthesia.
d. In the past there have been clear instances of fraud, too, though this doesn’t seem to be a case of that.
Gary Habermas (apologist, historian, philosopher of religion), private correspondence:
“I don't say we know exactly where NDErs may go, heaven or otherwise. But there is an incredible amount of evidence that something objective is happening.”
Something happened, and I have no desire to explain it all away, but the details don’t correspond particularly well with the Bible. Despite the often expressed opinions of the pastor-father, I am afraid the account does not impress me as celestial. Whatever little Colton experienced, it was not the “visit to heaven.”