Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Is Heaven for Real?

On November 2, 2010, Thomas Nelson publishers released, "Heaven is for Real: A Little Boy's Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back" - it is currently sitting at #1 on the New York Times Bestseller list.

"Heaven is for Real", written by Todd Burpo (a pastor), is the engaging re-telling of the amazing events that his son, Colton, claims happened to him during his "three minutes" (page 76) in heaven. It was during a life-saving emergency appendectomy in March of 2003 that three year old Colton says he traveled to heaven and spent time with Jesus Christ.

The first eleven chapters of "Heaven is for Real", simply describe the events leading up to Colton's major operation. Colton was on vacation when he became violently ill and had to be hospitalized. A couple of days (and hospitals) later, Colton finally underwent the surgery he needed to fix his previously undiagnosed burst appendix. After several weeks of ups and downs (mostly downs), Colton finally showed signs of improvement and was able to go home and get back to "normal".

Chapters 12-27 of the book narrate Colton's claims about his alleged trip to heaven. It wasn't until four months after his surgery that Colton first talked to his parents (Todd and Sonja) of his experiences in heaven. Colton's out-of-the-blue statements about heaven first came while he and his family were sitting in an Arby's parking lot. It was there that Colton casually remarked that the hospital was "...where the angels sang to me." A few minutes (and probing questions) later, Colton also announced that, in heaven, he was, "...sitting in Jesus' lap."

For nearly two years after this initial claim, Colton intermittently told his parents bits and pieces of his time in heaven. He talked about (among other things) "all the colors" in heaven (page 63), meeting John the Baptist (page 63), seeing "marks" on Jesus' hands and feet (page 67), seeing the throne room of God (page 100), witnessing Satan cast into hell (page 138), spending time with his deceased great-grandfather (Chapter 16), meeting his sister who died in his mother's womb five years before Colton was born (Chapter 17), and seeing lots of animals (page 152).

Make no mistake - the experiences described by Colton in this book are spectacular. But are they true? Did Colton Burpo really get a glimpse into the abode of God?

I see no theological reason to dismiss Colton's story on principle alone. Scripture is full of supernatural events happening to everyday people - including God speaking to unlikely characters (think Balaam's donkey in Number 22); Jesus revealing himself to people in a special way (think the Transfiguration in Matthew 17); people making trips to the "third" heaven (think of the man in 2 Corinthians 12); and people having visions of specific details about heaven (think John in the book of Revelation). Furthermore, most of what Colton says about heaven matches up (or at least doesn't directly contradict) what we find about heaven in Scripture. In fact, Todd Burpo went to great lengths to quote any scripture he was reminded of by his son's stories.

Having said that, I personally walked away from the book with a general distrust regarding the events described in the book. I say this for three main reasons.

Reason #1
Colton was repeatedly asked leading questions.

Colton's parents took great pains to reassure us that they tried to only ask open-ended questions (page 70), and for the most part they did. However, try as they might, Colton's parents did in fact ask many leading/close-ended questions.

After reading a bedtime story to Colton (page 100), Todd (completely unprovoked by Colton) asked him, "Hey, Colton, when you were in heaven, did you ever see God's throne?" Not to insult your intelligence - but this is NOT an open-ended question. Open-ended questions can usually have any number of answers (What type of things did you see in heaven? Who did you see in heaven?) But the question Todd asked, required a simple "yes" or "no". After Colton said he didn't know what a "throne" was, Todd picked up a storybook and showed his son a picture of one! It was only after his dad asked him a leading question, and then showed him a picture that Colton replied - "Oh yeah, I saw that a bunch of times."

They also asked many other leading questions, such as...

"You were in heaven?" (page 64 and 71)
"Did you have wings?" (page 72)
"So you saw Pop?" [Colton's great-grandfather] (page 86)
"Did Jesus say anything to you about your dad becoming a pastor?" (page 90)
"Hey Colton, I bet you asked if you could have a sword [in heaven], didn't you?" (page 133)
"Did you see Satan?" (page 134)

To be fair, Colton's parents did ask open-ended questions. But, I found the number and nature of the close-ended questions startling.

Reason #2
Colton's parents consistently approached him for more information.

Let me quickly say that Colton did offer information about heaven all on his own - without needing third party provocation. But what struck me as I read the book was how many times his dad took the initiative to question Colton for more information.

Here are a few examples...

"I wanted to probe deeper, get him talking again." (page 62)
"Hey Colton, can I ask you something else about Jesus?" (page 64)
After inviting Colton to come and sit on his lap, Todd said, "Remember when you were telling me what Jesus looks like?" (page 71)
"I couldn't stand it anymore and hunted the house for Colton until I found him..." Todd then went on to ask Colton a few questions about heaven. (page 79)
Colton's grandma made a special trip "...all the way from Ulysses to hear what her grandson had to say about her dad." (page 90)
When Colton's parents came across a picture of Jesus, they would ask him, "What about this one? Is that what Jesus looks like?" (page 93)
"We asked Colton about Satan a couple of times..." (page 134)

Of course, it's only natural to expect anyone to be inquisitive of a child who claims he was in heaven. But I got the impression as I read the book that Colton began to enjoy how much attention he was getting whenever he would come up with some new tidbit of information.

Reason #3
Colton continued to come up with brand new information, even two years after his surgery.

To give an brief timeline...

Colton had surgery in March of 2003 (when the supposed trip to heaven occurred)

It was four months later, in July, when Colton first told of an experience in heaven.

From that point on, for two more years, Colton told story after story about heaven.

Now, I don't have any children, so maybe it's a common occurrence for a child to have clear memories from when he was 3 years old, two years after the fact - but I doubt it. Colton was still producing brand new information about Satan, a war at the end of the world, and his great-grandfather even after such a long period of time had elapsed.

Having listed these three reasons, the last thing I want to do is somehow give the impression that the book wasn't compelling.

It was.

There are things that Colton was able to describe that are much harder for me to explain away. In chapter 17, Colton talks of meeting his second sister in heaven - the catch is that Colton only has one sister (Cassie). His mom (unbeknownst to Colton) had miscarried a little girl 5 years before he was born.

Colton also claims to have seen his great-grandfather, Pop, in heaven. He seems to confirm this in chapter 22, when he is able to identify a middle-aged Pop in a picture he had never seen before (when Pop would have been in his "prime"). What's more, Colton didn't recognize the "young version" of his great-grandmother in the same picture. All of this came after Colton was unable to identify a picture of Pop when he was much older.

Throughout the book, Colton was shown several pictures of Jesus to see if Colton could identify what Jesus looked like. Colton rejected several pictures of Jesus he was shown as not the "right" one. However, in chapter 27, Colton finally fixated on one picture, proclaiming, "That one's right." The kicker? The picture was drawn by a girl who also claims to have had visions from heaven. (a fact Colton didn't know)

So if there are things in the book I can't explain - why am I still so skeptical? Why is it so hard for me to believe that all of these things happened to this little boy? Why did I go to all this trouble to dismiss the innocent account of a blond haired, bright eyed kid from Nebraska?

If I won't believe his account, whose account would I believe?

What would it take to convince me that someone went to heaven?

That's a tough question. And one every skeptic of a belief must eventually ask.

To me, it would have taken an unprovoked, sustained narrative from Colton, within just a few weeks after his surgery, describing his time in heaven.

So that's it? If Colton had told his story in that way - I would have believed?

I'd like to think so.

But maybe my skepticism runs deep. So deep that the only thing this book has managed to prove was something, not about heaven - but about me.

So let's pretend for a second that I shed all my suspicion.

And opened my heart.

And believed.

Like a child.

That Colton Burpo spent three minutes in heaven.

To be frank, that still wouldn't bring me much comfort.

Colton may be able to assure me that he was in heaven - but that wouldn't assure me that I've secured a spot there.

Colton may be able to assure me that he saw his great-grandfather in heaven - but that says nothing of mine.

Colton may be able to assure me that there are angels in heaven - but are they watching over me?

Colton may be able to assure me that he got the chance to sit on Jesus' lap - but the only lap I've sat in is my mom's.

See, as inspirational as Colton's story may be, it can do nothing for me.

The only thing it might be able to do is offer a little evidence for the Divine.

But if I wasn't convinced of the Divine by the rising and setting of the sun...

If I wasn't convinced of the Divine by the written Word of God...

If I wasn't convinced of the Divine by the person and work of Jesus Christ...

Then, I'll never be convinced of the Divine.

Not even if Someone rises from the dead.


  1. Wow. I love your conclusion. Thanks for the review!!!

  2. Well put together review. I enjoyed that you found some redemptive elements in a story you did not agree with. Good stuff!

  3. Well done. As I read the review, I couldn't help but wonder towards whom the book was written, and why. As someone who already believes, I don't find any first-hand account more comforting or compelling than the promises in Scripture. If I didn't believe, I sincerely doubt that this narrative would have challenged me to reevaluate my entire world view. I'm left wondering why this book is so popular and what that says about our world. I even wonder if it could be that the author knew that cute kid + hope for the next life = money, so he went ahead and made the whole thing up. Mostly, I think you are bang on with your conclusion. Keep up the good work.

  4. Thanks, Jason. I've been approached by non-believing coworkers about this book (that is how I heard of a few months ago) and my response, having not read the book was skepticism towards his story and confidence in Hebrews 9:27 (And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment) and Jesus' account of Lazurus in paradise (that stories from the grave won't save anyone). Thanks for taking the time to read the book and share your well executed thoughts.

  5. Hey, didn't you ever sit in my lap? Thanks for the thorough review.