Most people are aware of the recently published and extremely controversial book by Rob Bell entitled Love Wins. But that book has drown out much engagement with other controversial books that have recently been released, including the one I speak of in this article. This book is not so much about a theology of heaven or hell, it’s rather an account of a nearly 4-year old boy’s trip to heaven. And, thus, you have the title, Heaven Is For Real.
So what’s the story?
It all centres around an extremely painful (both physical and emotional) event occurring one day in the life of little Colton Burpo (please lay aside any chuckling at the last name, as I will use it somewhat regularly). Following the bursting of his appendix in late February 2003, with neither his parents nor doctor realising such had happened for 5 full days, Colton finds himself intensely ill and on an operating table. It is during that time that Colton made his trip to heaven, a rather quick one from a human standpoint (3 minutes), but seemingly much longer from a heavenly perspective.
Of course, as I said, this is not nearly as contentious as Bell’s Love Wins. But it has still caused concern for some (i.e. here), with much of the controversy probably revolving around 2 main areas: 1) some of it’s possible theological ideas and 2) building theology on someone’s experience, especially that of a 4-year old. So I will address these two areas as I review the book, though they will probably bleed together.
Here we have a book written by Colton’s father, Todd Burpo, though he is assisted by best-selling author, Lynn Vincent (most known as a co-author in Same Kind of Different As Me). One thing of import to note is that Todd Burpo is actually a pastor. He leads a small Methodist congregation in the small town of Imperial, Nebraska. But what is also of interest is that Colton’s story is being told by Todd, a father recounting the unique ways of how he came to learn of his son’s own supposed visit to heaven.
What you must understand is that this was just as much a struggle and challenge for Todd, and his wife, Sonja, as it will be for some Christians to read and believe this was an authentic visit to heaven. From the first time Colton tells of his visit (about 4 months following all of the surgeries) through to the present day, both parents have to ‘work through’ some things themselves.
So, if you read the book (or my review), don’t think you are the only one struggling with some of the things Colton says about heaven. His parents are walking through it much more than you and I, especially noting Colton’s father is a solid, evangelical believer (as far as I can tell from reading the book).
Some of the theological ‘problems’ in the book are not major ones as I understand theological problems. Probably the most difficult one, at least for evangelicals to swallow, is when Colton explains that all people in heaven have wings that help them fly and lights above their heads (think more of a shining brightness and not a gold circle as portrayed in cartoons). This is one of those places where Todd, the father, shares his struggle:
I couldn’t remember angels having lights over their heads specifically – or halos, as some would call them – but I also knew that Colton’s experience of angels in storybooks and Scripture did not include lights over angels’ heads. And he didn’t even know the world halo. I don’t know that he’d ever even seen one, since our bedtime Bible stories and the Sunday school lessons at church are closely aligned with Scripture. (p72-73)
I think it is interesting to consider this statement – ‘And he [Colton] didn’t even know the world halo.’
Todd makes similar statements a few times throughout the book, which seems to point to the fact that he does not want to manipulate what his son shares about the visit to or vision of heaven. Matter of fact, early on in the book’s account, Todd shares how one of his questions almost led Colton to answer in a certain way. Mr. Burpo did not want to walk down that road, but instead try to understand his 4-year old’s explanation of heaven. This could be a strong pointer that authenticity is quite likely.
Outside of the wings and lights above the heads, I don’t believe there were any other statements that challenge evangelical Christian beliefs (as if Colton even knows what theology or evangelicalism is).
One of the more personally challenging aspects of the book is Colton’s explanations of what he saw in heaven. They seem to come straight out of more ‘literal’ reading of Revelation – i.e. as if heaven really has streets of gold, as if we really will be hanging out in the clouds, etc.
For Todd, the father, these more literal descriptions seem to be a point of confirmation that Colton’s visit to heaven was real. But, for me, the main problem is that I see the book of Revelation, and other such Hebrew apocalyptic and prophetic visions, as just that – visions.
Revelation uses a lot of imagery to describe a greater reality of the kingdom of heaven. Thus, the pictures and the images and the numbers are more ‘symbolic’ or ‘figurative’, if you will. I’m not trying to strip Revelation of it’s truth as God’s word in Scripture. It literally means what it literally means. John really meant what he meant in describing that heavenly vision. But we have to ask what the heavenly vision literally meant and pointed to as God gave the vision to John, the apostle.
But what brings me solace, at least from a more theological standpoint, is that I realise that God has always accommodated himself to those to whom he reveals himself. Some of us might know of John Calvin’s description of God’s revelation being like baby-talk. If God spoke God-talk to 4-year old’s, or 34-year old’s or 74-year old’s, we wouldn’t understand him. Therefore, God accommodates to our level, speaks our language, makes himself understandable with where we are at, all to help us get glimpses of who he is in all his glory.
And so, for Colton to describe what he saw in the way he did, as if from a more ‘literal’ or ‘traditional’ sense (better words fail me right here), I have no problem with such. Again, though his father is a pastor, remember that, at just under 4-years old, there is not too much of a chance that Colton had been indoctrinated with what I might identify as a ‘traditional’ mentality of heaven – Jesus riding on actual white horse, people wearing white robes with sashes, everyone (or just angels) with wings, lights above people’s heads, even a future cosmic war to come (as if to support premillenialism). And so I very much believe Christ came to a young boy, a pure and simple-hearted young boy, and revealed himself in a way that Colton would understand.
And, if heaven happens to literally look like what Colton explains, then I’m fine with it. But I still think this is more vision-imagery explaining a greater reality. But my theology has been known to be wrong in other places.
I think there are some other telling factors that contribute to this being an authentic visit-vision. One is that, while in heaven, Colton says he met Todd’s grandfather who was affectionately known as Pop. Now, this might not seem a biggie, but the thing is that Pop had died almost 25 years before Colton was born. Colton had never met his great-grandfather and didn’t know anything about him. So, for Colton to tell his dad about Pop, well, you can imagine the shock of such. See more details in the book, p85-91.
Another interesting factor, maybe even more mind-boggling, is when Colton came up to his parents and said, ‘Mommy, I have two sisters.’ But, at that time, all he had was one older sister, Cassie. They thought he was also talking about his female cousin. But Colton replied, ‘No. I have two sisters, You had a baby die in your tummy, didn’t you?’
Well, lo and behold, Sonja Burpo had had a miscarriage. And they had never mentioned this to Colton (who would to a 4-year old), not to mention that a 4-year old would not even know what a miscarriage is. Needless to say, that was an extremely emotional and stirring night in the Burpo family. See see p93-97 for more.
There are a few other interesting accounts such as how Colton knew about his dad’s calling to be a pastor (p90-91).
But one of the more mind-boggling accounts is Colton’s confirmation of what Jesus physically looked like. Since the visit to heaven, when Todd and Sonja would see pictures of Jesus, they would ask Colton if that is what Jesus looked like. Every time Colton would answer in the negative. Yet, one day, Todd received an email from a pastor friend in Colorado. The email was forwarded about a young Lithuanian-American girl named Akiane Karmarik. She, too, had claimed visions of heaven, all subsequently leading to her atheist mother becoming a Christian.
But even more interesting is the fact that, following some of the visions, Akiane painted a portrait picture of Christ (now quite famous). You see, Colton had given negative responses to each picture of Christ that his parents had asked him about. But, after Todd called for Colton to come look at the picture in the email, asking if this picture was a correct representation of Christ, Colton just stood there in shock for a long moment without saying anything. Finally, after his dad nudged him in the arm, Colton responded, ‘Dad, that one’s right.’
No doubt, for some, this might seem more Twilight Zone than reality. And this leads to one of the major hang-ups with the book – building our beliefs and theology around someone’s experience, especially a 4-year old’s. Let me just go ahead and say that my desire is to not build my beliefs around Colton’s experience, just as I would not expect people to build their beliefs and theology based upon some of the personal revelations, prophecies and 2 or 3 more prophetic dreams God has given me in my life. It’s not worth doing such, though it also isn’t worth approaching every single account with cynicism.
But, with Colton’s situation, I believe Christ accommodated to a little 4-year old to reveal himself. God accommodates to me as a 31-year old pastor. God accommodated to a 100-year old man in Abraham, a life-threatening persecutor of God’s people in Paul, a strong-willed one in Peter who denied Christ at such a time as he did, and on and on. I am not trying to say Colton and Abraham or Colton and Paul are to be considered one and the same. Even Todd and Sonja, his parents, argue this. All I am saying is that understanding God has always been in the context of God making himself known to people where they are at, in their language, within their grasp, i.e., in baby-talk.
So I have no problem in believing that God brought little Colton to heaven, or gave a vision of heaven, during those pained and life-threatening days of multiple surgeries in early 2003. I am not going to stick this book somewhere between Galatians and Ephesians as what needs to be recognised as canonical revelation in the Bible. But I personally think it a beautiful account of God’s grace to not just a young little boy, but to a family. And I suppose the book can become an encouragement to others as well.
So, for me, it was great to read this account of little Colton’s visit to heaven.
I end with a saying from one wise man long ago:
Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.