Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Heaven is for Real

Imagine being the parent of a 4 year-old who has survived a medical crisis in which your child was critically ill, to the edge of death, and then survived.  As time unfolds after this emergency the child lets out bits and pieces of information that appear to be a first-hand account of a trip to heaven, a trip that happened as his earthly life appeared to be fading away.  Such a parent is Todd Burpo, who is also a husband, small business owner, community volunteer, and pastor, and whose young son, Colton, is the witness to the story underlying Heaven is for Real. 

Frankly, I was skeptical when I first heard of the book and had the opportunity to read it.  I’m a Protestant Christian, firmly grounded in the theology of the Reformation.  Luther, Calvin and Augustine all believed in heaven.  So did Paul and John the Evangelist.  Jesus believed in heaven too, and if the one I call Lord and Savior believed it, then I will as well.  So of course heaven is for real.  What could I learn from this book that I did not already know from reading The Book? 

On the other hand, I don’t think that my understanding of heaven, which is grounded in my intellect, and its promise of eternal peace in the presence of God, which is firmly embedded in my heart, is the same understanding of heaven that is found in many of our churches or more broadly through American culture.  There seems to be a hunger for knowledge of heaven, or at least a market for that knowledge.  In addition to Heaven is for Real, which I understand to have sold very well, other recent titles are 90 Minutes in Heaven, The Boy Who came Back from Heaven, a refutation titled Heaven is for Real: The Book that Isn’t, as well as a purportedly first-hand account of heaven’s opposite, 23 Minutes in Hell.  So I re-thought my initial position and read this book, for the primary purpose of understanding popular theology and how it may be used as an entry to guiding people to deeper theological truth, the kind of truth that sustains you in the very difficult circumstances that Todd Burpo and his family found themselves in when Colton became ill.

Colton’s story and the knowledge that he learned of heaven unfolds slowly, in small pieces.  First is an incident several months after his illness, where in the firm way in which he expresses his understanding of salvation, albeit in the language of a 4 year-old, (i.e. Jesus has to be in your heart), along with his persistent manner of talking of Jesus in the present tense, that causes Todd, and his wife, Sonja, to suspect that their son may have experienced a supernatural trip to heaven and back.  Over time they tease out details, being very intentional not to ask questions that lead to predictable answers but to let Colton answer in an open-ended manner.  Much of what Colton reports are the kinds of things that the Bible supports directly, or that may be reasonably inferred.  An example of the former is Jesus’ delight in children, while the latter comes in Colton’s description of the vast beauty found in heaven, including the presence of colors that can’t be imagined by those living on earth but could very possibly exist in the dwelling of the divine presence.  One factor that adds credence to Colton’s reports of heaven is that while his information is consistent with the Bible they are not the kinds of things that are taught to 4 year-olds in Sunday school. 
Eventually Colton describes two people he met in heaven, which for his parents is certain evidence that his account is true.  One person is his grandfather, who had been dead for many years.  To verify this Todd shows Colton a number of pictures of the grandfather, but the only one where he recognizes him in is one from his younger adulthood. This also suggests to Todd that the bodies we will have in heaven will be the ones we would consider to be in our physical prime.  Additionally, the news that the grandfather is in heaven eases several minds.  Knowledge of the grandfather’s attendance at a revival meeting shortly before his death, and his confession of faith there, is not widely known and learning that he is in heaven is greeted by his family with great relief.

The other person he meets is his older sister, an unnamed child of Todd and Sonja who was lost in a miscarriage.  Colton appears to have no way of possibly knowing of the existence of this child until he encounters her in heaven.  The experience of losing their baby was a wrenching one, on a level of emotional and spiritual pain that I have never personally known, and quite naturally the Burpo’s find some peace knowing that their grief, and their child, has been held by God all along. 

In the final analysis I find the premise of Colton’s story wanting.  A young boy goes to heaven, comes back, and shares his experience there with his family, and then the world.  But for what purpose?  As Todd tells Colton’s story it seems to me that the story continually points back at us.  We learn of the beauty of heaven.  We are reassured by the people who are present there.  We even get a glimpse of the final battle between the forces of good and evil, learning that all those present in heaven will have a role in it.  Do any of the things that are in Colton’s story really prepare us for heaven?  Do they spark and deepen our desire to be there?

In the Bible there are several first-hand accounts of the experience of heaven.  They are all relatively brief, particularly when compared to the number of books that have been written recently on the subject.  The key texts that come to my mind are from 2 Corinthians 12, Isaiah 6 and the Revelation of John.

In his letter to the church at Corinth Paul writes of knowing of a person who was taken up to heaven, saying in 12:3-4 “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— and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter.”   Paul does not dwell on the knowledge that might be gleaned from hearing a first-person report of heaven but instead considers this to be knowledge that should be kept private, something that is not intended to be shared.

Isaiah’s experience is a bit different, as he tells of being in the very presence of God, where he heard God’s voice and beheld his glory.  What stands out in Isaiah’s account is not what formerly living persons he may have seen or the beauty that we might expect in heaven, but a very real sense of his own unworthiness as a sinner in the presence of a holy God.  And God’s response to Isaiah’s confession was to provide forgiveness.  In v. 7 Isaiah hears “your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.”  In his vision of heaven Isaiah experiences first-hand God’s grace.

And in his Revelation, John the Evangelist gives perhaps the broadest biblical account of heaven, providing several brief sketches of the people present, the physical splendor, and what I consider to be most important, the activity of heaven.  In John’s telling, heaven is indeed beautiful in ways that are beyond our merely human imaginations.  And there are a great many people there, all of whom “have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” (Revelation 7:14)  But more importantly than the place and the people is what the people are doing.  They are engaged in worship.  They are gathered around the throne of God, praising him as they exclaim “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” (Rev. 7:10)

As the book title proclaims, heaven is indeed for real.  God has given us testimony to that fact in the Bible, with enough detail that we can look forward to the time when God will call us to the very place where we will eternally dwell with him.  Books such as this one, and the many others in a similar vein, may make us feel good but they don’t really seem, to me, to be able to deepen our faith.  Reading such books is not likely to encourage us to love God, to serve God, or to long for God, in a way that proclaims his kingdom and his glory in the world in which we live.  Reading God’s word will do this, and in addition it will remind us of his covenant promise to always hold us, through life’s deepest and most painful moments, until the time of his choosing, when he will bring his children to the only place where they are truly home.  Heaven is for real and it is all in God’s hands.  Thanks be to God.


  1. I thought your conclusion was very insightful. It makes sense that looking at who an experience points to is a good discernment method. I am guessing that you are not saying that there is no value in experiences that reassure us but rather that it is this particular experience that has you skeptical. I'm guessing that I would be skeptical as well.

  2. Mike, Sorry for the late reply. I wrote a comment that affirmed your thoughts and added another of mine, but lost it in cyberspace. Still working on this blog thing:) Brad