I have never seen Heaven. I can’t tell you from experience what it is like. The best I can do is tell you what limited information the Bible has. Well, limited in the details I mean. That is why I, like so many other people, are very intrigued by stories of people who have claimed to have been there and come back. Today, there are no lack of books being published by those who say they have seen heaven. I remember I Saw Heaven. It was published in the 90s I think. It was my first exposure to this genre. Recently, many similar books have made it big: Ninety-Minutes in Heaven, The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven, and Twenty-Three Minutes in Hell (this one about a guy who spent some time in hell, obviously). All of these have topped best-seller lists everywhere. Christians eat these up as it seems to confirm for them the reality of their faith. Not only this, but they hand them out to unbelieving friends hoping that it can be the “I told you so” proof of their faith.
The latest book to top the lists (indeed the New York Times best seller list) is called Heaven is for Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back, by Todd Burpo. It was published in 2010 by Thomas Nelson. It is just over 150 pages. I read it this afternoon.
Colton Burpo, the three-year-old son of Todd (the author) and Sonja Burpo, spent time in heaven and came back to talk about it. Colton’s experience was not the traditional NDE (near death experience) since he never actually died. The first half of the book is the story of the events leading up to Colton’s visit to heaven. His dad, Todd, a Wesleyan minister, gives the nail biting story (especially for those of us who have young kids) of dealing with his son’s stomach ache that was misdiagnosed as the flu. After many days of pain, trips to the doctor’s office, and multiple hospitals, they finally find out that Colton has a ruptured appendix that has been poisoning his body for days. At the edge of death, the doctors rush him into surgery while the parents are on their knees before God.
Colton survived. The medical reports give no indication that his heart ever stopped. While it was a very close call, the surgery was a success.
Over the next months, even years, Colton began, to the surprise of the parents, to explain what happened to him while in surgery. The rest of the book is filled with account after account of Colton telling his bewildered parents about his time with Christ in heaven. Things that Colton should not have known and had never been taught came to the surface as this three-year-old boy processed his faith as confirmed through his time with God.
Let me give you a quick low-down on the parts of the story about heaven that stood out to me most.
- He sat in Jesus’ lap
- He met his sister who died in his mother’s womb (whom his parents had never told him about)
- He saw John the Baptist
- There is a coming battle with Satan (he is a futurist!)
- There are thousands of colors we have never seen
- He met his great granddad (who told him things about his father that his father had never told him)
- He saw Jesus’ “marks” on his hands and feet
- All the people had wings of various sizes (including Colton) and flew around (except Jesus who moved up and down as if on an escalator)
- Jesus had the most beautiful eyes, a beard, a white gown, a purple sash, and a crown
- All the people had a light above their head (halo?)
- Jesus sits on a throne at the right hand of God and Gabriel is on the left
- He sat by God the Holy Spirit (who he could not describe) and explained to his dad that God is a Trinity
- It never gets dark in heaven because God the Father and God the Son are the lights
- There were all kinds of animals everywhere
- Nobody is old in heaven and no one wears glasses
- Jesus “shoots” power down from heaven to his father while he is preaching (like I hope he is doing for me while I am blogging!)
- The gates to heaven were made of gold and pearls
- He was actually only there for three minutes (timelessness in heaven?)
A great book on the topic by Mark Hitchcock
I have often said that left unchecked, experience is the most powerful and compelling source for theology. You can argue with logic, facts, evidence, and the like, but it is almost impossible to argue against subjective experience. However, if our experience comes in direct contradiction with correctly interpreted Scripture, Scripture should always win. That is what we mean by sola Scriptura. The Scriptures are our final and only infallible source of authority. It is the “norm that norm which is not normed.” However, this does not discount experience. Neither does it say that God does not use experience to confirm his truth to his people. We need to tread very carefully with these types of things, opting neither for outright acceptance or complete dismissal.
The Father of Colton and Writer of the Book, Todd Burpo
This was not my experience nor the experience of my son. I am sure that if I had the experience myself or if it was my son’s, I would have a much harder time dismissing many of these things (which is not my purpose). However, one thing that stood out to me immediately was the composure of the boy’s father, Todd. As I said before, he is a Wesleyan minister. I was immediately impressed by his theological astute evaluation of many things. Not all, but many. For example, he struggled with the idea that his son said that this all happened in three minutes. He toys with the thought that heaven may be timeless, but he also seems to understand the implication of God alone existing in a timeless eternity.
As well, most of the events were well reflected upon and compared to the Scriptures. For example, as bizarre as it sounds to say that people’s heads shine (as in having a halo), he does reference many times where people “shine” with a heavenly glow in the Bible.
His more than expected critical evaluation and reflection on what his son described endeared me to the testimony of his son. I don’t know how to take much of what his son said about heaven, but I really appreciate that his father, many times, does not seem to know how to take it as well. That is a mark of authenticity.
I suppose that this is what intrigued me most about this book and the testimony. I have read other books where people claim to have seen heaven and their description is easily written off due to its reflection of common cultural folklore. However, his son was not even four-years-old.
Right now, my son Zach is about the same age as Colton was when these events took place. I cannot imagine him saying the things that Colton said, even after countless hours of trying to teach him about our faith. It is hard enough to get Zach to refrain from saying Chuck-e-Cheese, not God, made him! Those of you who have three-year-old children can relate, I am sure.
This seems to be the position of both the father and the mother. The question that comes up repeatedly is “How does he know this?” How did he know who John the Baptist was? How did he know about his sister who died? How could he talk about “Pop,” his great-granddad, and identify him in a photo? How did he know about the Trinity?
These are all questions that leave me scratching my head.
I found it rather humorous and fascinating when the parents, upon discovery that Colton saw Jesus, were obsessed (my word, not theirs) with finding out what Jesus looked like. For years they pointed to modern pictures of Jesus saying, “How about this one?” only to be shot down by Colton’s critique. After a couple of years, they came across a young girl named Akiane who also claimed to have a vision of Christ and heaven. She was an artist and painted a picture of Jesus. Upon showing this to Colton, he said, “That is it! That is Jesus.” So, this is what Jesus really looks like according to Colton and Akiane Kramarik:
What do you think?
Putting my theological cap on for a moment, let me say a few words.
While there is nothing that is described by Colton that is impossible or that outright contradicts Scripture, there are many things that don’t square with what I suppose to be true about heaven.
First, we must distinguish between the “intermediate state of existence” and the New Earth (both of which we often call “heaven”). The intermediate state of existence is the place people go between death and the resurrection. Christians go to a place called “Paradise”(Luke23:43). It is not entirely improper to call it “heaven”; we don’t want to confuse this place with the New Earth that will be our eternal abode and only appears after judgment. There is not much that the Bible tells us about the intermediate state. We know that we will be with Christ (2 Cor. 5:6; Luke 23:43) and it will be better than being on earth (2 Cor. 5:8). The New Earth does not appear until Revelation 20:1-3. The intermediate state is where Colton would have gone, not the New Earth. However, like with so many of these “I saw heaven” experiences, people describe what seems to be the New Earth which, for lack of a better way to put it, has not been built yet. The streets of gold, gates made out of pearls, and the like, which Colton describes, are attributes, literal or not, of a place that is not yet in existence.
As well, the description of people with wings is very odd. While I am not denying that people could have wings in the intermediate state, this is no where hinted at in Scripture. This, along with people not looking old, while not necessarily problematic, does raise some theological eyebrows. After all, were not Samuel, Elijah and Moses all recognizable (1 Sam. 28:15; Matt. 17:1-9). Did not the witch of Endor recognize Samuel? And upon being asked what he looked like, didn’t she say, “An old man wearing a robe is coming up” (1 Sam. 28:14, emphasis mine).
There were just many things like this that fit better with common folk theology than with biblical testimony. But who am I to say that some folk theology could not be true?
Are They Lying?
This question always has to be asked, doesn’t it? After all, these types of things can get a person rich really quick. I don’t think that either the father or the son is lying. This does not mean that what is being said accurately reflects what we can expect the intermediate state to be like, nor does it dismiss all alternative explanations. It just means that I believe there is no compelling reason for me to say that this story is a fabrication.
Near-Death-Experiences and the Christian Faith
You must understand, there are tens of thousands of “I saw heaven” claims out there. The most famous of which is Emanuel Swedenborg’s (1688-1772), father of the cult Swedenborgianism or The New Church. He claimed to have been given permission to freely visit heaven and hell for 28 years. His testimony is filled with unorthodox beliefs, not the least of which was a denial of the Trinity.
Today, studies of near-death experiences are on the rise and becoming more accepted. The International Association of Near-Death Studies (IANDS) has gathered over 900 accounts with 280 of these just coming last year! These are very nice when they parallel with what you already believe. The problem is that these experiences are not only being testified to by Christians, but Muslims, atheists, Hindus, and those of every faith. Each account has its own unique testimony that fits well within their religious idealism. Muslim’s see virgins. Mormon are comforted by Joseph Smith. Catholics are aided by Mary. Even atheists are found being drawn by a bright light down a long tunnel.
I don’t dismiss these types of things outright. I think they are fascinating. But neither do I hold on to them too tightly. Though I will continue to read about and reflect on people’s “I saw heaven” testimonies, I will never hang my hat on them. Neither should you.
In the book, it is told that a baby sitter heard Colton’s testimony. She was a Christian who was wavering in her faith, riddled with doubt. As the story goes, her faith was confirmed by Colton’s experience. This is the type of stuff that scares me. When our faith is built on this type of tabloid theology, true or not, we can expect to have a tabloid faith. We do not need stories about people who have come back from the great beyond to confirm our faith and we certainly don’t need these as the foundation of our faith. So, from an apologetics standpoint (defending the faith), please don’t hand this type of book out to your unbelieving friends.
Heaven is for Real is a very well written page turner. I look to the Burpo family and sigh in relief that Colton was delivered from death. As a father of four, that testimony itself was encouraging and worth the price of the book. I would also like to thank Todd for being open and honest about his battle with God in the emergency room. That is as real as it gets.
I recommend this book for its ability to cause you to think, wonder, and process. While I don’t think it has much, if any, apologetic value, the truth is that we do believe in an afterlife. Perhaps Colton did catch a glimpse of heaven just as Paul did.
2 Cor. 12:2-5
I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows. 3 And I know that this man was caught up into paradise—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows— 4 and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter. 5 On behalf of this man I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses.