Yes, Heaven Is For Real
April 29, 2014 § Leave a comment
“The movie will help spread the word about heaven.” —Todd Burpo, author of Heaven Is For Real
Since I read the book a few years ago, I’ve had this conversation going in my head about Heaven Is For Real, working through what I thought about Todd Burpo’s story about his son Colton’s trip to heaven and back when he was 4 years old. Now that the movie version is out and conversation has resurged, I wanted to give my perspective on why I think the evangelical world’s excitement over this story is a bit misdirected.
The author and others behind this story obviously intend for it to mean more to people than just a heartwarming story; they want to help others through loss and teach a theological message about Colton’s afterlife experience, advertising that “Heaven Is for Real will forever change the way you think of eternity, offering the chance to see, and believe, like a child.” Other titles emerged from the project, including versions of the book for younger children, a self-help book about dealing with trials, and a DVD-based small group Bible study. For this reason it’s been critiqued on a different level, and should be.
The book was hard to put down. Colton’s trauma through his emergency appendectomy and what his parents went through is an ordeal anyone with children or little siblings can relate to. And the boy’s recollection of his experience in heaven was fascinating. However, based on what the Bible says on the espoused theology of heaven, I don’t believe that little Colton actually went there and back, mainly for two reasons rooted in Scripture.
1. YOU HAVE TO DIE TO GO TO HEAVEN
Colton didn’t actually die during the surgery during which he claimed to visit Heaven and meet Jesus. To see heaven, at least the heaven at issue (as opposed to the air or heavenly bodies in space), you cannot be alive. “People are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment.” (Hebrews 9:27). Those who are covered by the blood of Christ and are passed over in judgment “will not perish” spiritually (they have already died physically) “but have eternal life” in heaven (John 3:16). Heaven is an eternal state, and our bodies are not (2 Cor. 4:16-18). Heaven is where God dwells and where Christians will dwell with Him (John 14:1-3; 2 Peter 3:10-13), something that is not possible on this earth. Heaven is incompatible with the curse of sin, imperfection, pain and tears of this physical creation that our earthly bodies would bring into heaven. When we are there with God, “we shall be like Him” (1 John 3:2). We will be given new, glorified spiritual bodies that are “imperishable” (1 Cor. 15:42-53). If we are alive in this world, we can’t be in the next, which will be more than heaven. We look forward to a brand new, restored creation (Revelation 21).
2. PEOPLE DON’T GO TO HEAVEN AND COME BACK
Another reason is that the Bible, our complete revelation from God, doesn’t show us that people go to heaven (or hell) and return. In fact, there seems to be the opposite view. Jesus, in His “born again” conversation with Nicodemus in John 3, is marveling at the inability of this great teacher of the Law of Moses to understand earthly things, let alone heavenly things. “If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except He who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.” (vs. 12-13). Jesus says of men on earth at that time, that He Himself is the only one who has been to heaven and lived to tell about it.
Granted, there are numerous people (about ten specifically identified individuals) in Scripture who are miraculously raised from the dead. Where exactly did these folks “go” while they were dead? Did these resurrected souls go to heaven, hell, or some type of purgatory or limbo state and then get called back?
The Bible doesn’t directly say. For the dying thief on the cross next to Jesus, heaven was going to be immediate when he died (Luke 23:43), and Paul says to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord (2 Cor. 5:8). But Jesus also says He will raise believers up in the Last Days when He returns (John 14:2,3). But then Paul writes that at the Lord’s return, Jesus will “bring with Him those who have fallen asleep,” (1 Thess. 4:14-17) so their souls would be in heaven already, and it would be our earthly bodies that are resurrected. That’s when we will receive a new “spiritual body”, bearing the image of God. (1 Cor. 15:42-53).
So I’m content to say I don’t really know what happened to the souls of those who died and were raised in the Bible. However, none of them are recorded talking about heaven or meeting God in some afterlife experience. Lazarus was a target for the Pharisees after Jesus raised him from the dead, but the Bible doesn’t say why. We only know that it was “because on account of him (Lazarus) many of the Jews were going away and were believing in Jesus.” (John 12:9-11). This likely indicates that Lazarus’ mere presence after being dead for a period of time too long for anyone to argue that he merely fainted, absolutely proved Jesus was God—which was a great threat to the Pharisees. Eliminating the living proof was probably their intent. Either way, I think it’s important to note that none of the ten or so accounts of resurrected people included any reports of anything they saw while dead. It’s also important to note that we are looking at a story of a boy who didn’t even die.
HEAVEN IN THE DETAILS?
If we gathered together all of the Bible’s details about heaven, we could fill probably not much more than a page or two. Does it make sense that God, whose Word is supposed to be His final and complete revelation and authority to us, gave us that little information about heaven in the Bible and then chose to reveal a book’s/film’s worth of additional details about heaven to a 4 year old boy in 2003? Or Alex Malarkey in 2004? Or to Marvin Besteman in 2006? Or to Don Piper in 1989? Or to many others who claim to have experienced heaven (or hell) and came back? We have to be very careful with claims of special revelation from God, and this is an awful lot of special revelation.
Does this mean that Todd Burpo was lying about this story? I wouldn’t say that. I am compelled to think the author is reporting what he really thinks Colton experienced to the best of his (and young Colton’s) recollection. I also think that the potential for unintentional embellishment is huge. I’m a father and I know the propensity of my mind to add details to a memory of something my son says or does, and my wife would probably not dispute the added details, as long as it made for a better story. Colton began talking about his near-death experience five months after he had it, and while I’m not sure when his father started writing it all down, the book wasn’t published for another seven years, leaving plenty of room for the story to evolve in the re-telling.
Many people seem to be convinced this story must be true from two particular details: That Colton described a grandfather he never saw and a sister he never knew about (she had been lost in a miscarriage). I honestly can’t guess how these details might have “evolved” into truth as the story was developed for print, and I admit they are compelling if they are true. But I am even more compelled to believe the Bible’s account of heaven over any man’s. “Let God be true, and every man a liar.” (Romans 3:4)
Todd Burpo has done some interviews since the production of the Heaven Is For Real movie, and some things he said make me think he’s had some long term misconceptions about heaven and the Bible. Todd told The Blaze, “I’ve always had high regard for Scripture but the Bible is confusing about heaven at best. There’s verses here and there and they’re all kind of mixed up. They don’t draw out a very good picture. You know you have to trust God. You know hell is way worse than heaven. But what is heaven like? Streets are gold, gates are made of pearl. But it is very minimal on details.”
Maybe I’m reading too much into this pastor’s choice of words, but calling the Bible “confusing” and verses about heaven “mixed up”—that “they don’t draw a very good picture”—makes me wonder if Todd has his own expectations about what the Bible should be saying but isn’t. I agree that heavenly details are minimal, but I’m satisfied with the picture I do have from God’s Word. It’s in there because it’s exactly what God wanted to reveal to us.
Then I read what Todd told Alabama Media Group, “I grew up in church not knowing anything about heaven. We have a lot of kids growing up who don’t look forward to heaven because they know nothing about it.”
I’m not sure what to think of this statement. Was it Todd’s church in particular that didn’t teach what the Bible says about heaven? Or is he again hinting that the Bible doesn’t teach enough about heaven, leading “a lot of kids” (or maybe just himself) to not look forward to it? Considering what he told The Blaze, it seems very much like the latter! I believe Colton had a dream during his trauma, but his father’s ideas of what the Bible should have said about heaven makes me think he filled in the blanks of Colton’s stories with his own hopes for what heaven is like.
It’s very likely Colton had an near-death experience and many of the things people experience during NDE’s, sensations like floating, moving down a tunnel toward light, are impressions from the brain trying to reconnect with reality following trauma or oxygen depravation. And of course, memories and dreams can enter into the experience, often in a very lucid way. I’ve talked with a teenager who claimed to have gone to heaven while he was in a coma from a serious head injury (much of his frontal lobe had to be removed). He told me about floating, the tunnel, a few details about heaven, and about meeting Jesus. I asked him what he learned from the trip to heaven, and if Jesus said anything to him. He said that Jesus told him to “go back and tell everyone about Him.” I thought, there’s a great commission… but didn’t Jesus already tell us to do that in Matthew 28?
In a recent interview on BeliefNet with Colton himself, now 14, he admits that his memory has faded but much of the experience he had is still very clear in his mind. His message for fans: “God really does love you. He wants you to go to heaven.” A marvelous and basic truth… but didn’t Jesus already tell us this in John 3?
Todd Burpo’s Heaven Is For Real story is entertaining, well-intended, and does include the Gospel message, which is a wonderful and essential thing. I believe Todd intends to point us to Jesus. I believe Colton’s recovery is a miracle. I am sure Heaven Is For Real Ministries is winning souls for Christ and we should praise God for that. However, I think it’s also true that the barometer for whether something is all good is not how many people are saved or helped in some other way though it. God will use all kinds of people and all kinds of ministries to accomplish His will and work, and we won’t stop Him by having some confused theology. We still have a responsibility to convey all Biblical truth in a truthful way.
We can’t start with the idea that God’s Word isn’t enough. There is something fundamentally wrong when we need a sensational new book turned ministry turned movie to get us excited about heaven. If we are excited about Jesus and what He did for us, we will be excited about heaven. This story doesn’t really tell us anything new about heaven anyway.
My hope is in the eternal salvation provided by God’s grace alone, revealed in His Word, freely given to me upon the repentance of my sin, and my acceptance, through faith alone, in the loving sacrifice of Jesus Christ for my sin on the cross and the defeat of death itself in His resurrection. Probably the most amazing thing that we already know about heaven is that we in Christ will truly and finally be in the presence of God Himself there forever, and we can tell others how to get there too. I am excited about heaven with or without Heaven Is For Real, because we already have a Book that tells us it’s real.
“…no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love Him.” —1 Corinthians 2:9
“‘Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.’ And He who was seated on the throne said, ‘Behold, I am making all things new.’ Also He said, ‘Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.'” —Revelation 21:1-5
UPDATE Jan. 16, 2015: Here is an interesting story about 17-year-old Alex Malarkey, co-author and subject of the book “The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven” (published in 2010, just a few months before Burpo’s book) recanting his story of his trip to heaven after a car accident 11 years earlier. In an open letter to book retailers and marketers, he admits to making up the story for attention and includes an appeal to pull the books from store shelves. The letter also bears this admonishment: “I want the world to know that the Bible is sufficient. Those who market these materials must be called to repent and hold the Bible as enough.” The book’s publisher, Tyndale House, and Christian retailer LifeWay have agreed to stop selling it.