That said – let me plunge on into it.
Heaven is For Real, is the (supposed) account of Colton Burpo – son of Todd Burpo, a pastor in Imperial Nebraska. When I use the word “supposed” in parentheses above, I do not wish to imply that there is any kind of fraud being perpetrated in this story. I use it only because a lot of what is reported in the book (beyond the verifiable historical facts), is all dependent upon what may or may not be the genuine experience, or dreams, or hallucinations or combinations of these – of 4 year old Colton Burpo. I do not use it either to impugn the sincerity of the Burpo family in any way. I use it because “experiences” are tricky things. And how we interpret our experiences may or may not be accurate. And herein rests a key problem with this little -quick reading and fun book.
The story line is pretty simple, and there appears to be no question regarding the general circumstances themselves. Due to an undiagnosed (for 5 days) burst appendix in little Colton (who by all accounts seems to be an utterly charming and normal little guy), the lad nearly lost his life. Sometime later, after his (by all accounts) miraculous recovery – Colton begins to let slip certain facts about an experience he relates as having had while so gravely ill. The experience ultimately being uncovered as some indeterminate (though by Colton’s reckoning – 3 minutes, be it Earth or Heaven time) amount of time spent in Heaven. I will not labor the reality that much is made of Colton’s high fever issues during his illness – but nothing of how such things effect dreams and perceptions.
As the next several years unfold, Colton relates to his parents how he saw his long deceased grandfather there (ending long speculation on whether or not he ever became a Christian), his miscarried older sister he presumably knew nothing about until he saw her there and wrestled with why she had no name (but whom later he has a very emotional sense of missing), Jesus, Jesus’ horse, lots of other children and animals and even (inserted with special reference by Todd for his Catholic friends) the Virgin Mary, assorted animals and lots of people with wings.
The book goes on to catalog the blessing all of this has been to Todd, his wife and many others. Why? And please – I need to say this firmly, but completely without malice: Because Colton’s “revelations” seem to meet some need in them, that God’s own Word through the ministry of the Holy Spirit cannot or does not. They seem to need categories of information God does not seem to have found necessary to reveal previously. And this makes me ask a lot of other questions.
Now I read a lot of books. I do so for various reasons. Some I read just for personal enjoyment. Others because I think they are important to the ministry. Still other because they simply interest me – but quite a number because people either ask me about them, and/or I think they may be books which will become part of the Evangelical landscape and thus need perused and analyzed somewhat given my own pastoral role. Heaven is for real fits this last category. I had no interest in the book personally, and would have passed it over but that I’ve been asked by several people what I think about it. It is a book also that is gaining a lot of pop-Christian attention, and thus it seemed prudent.
To be honest however, I come to books like this (dealing with near-death, death or supernatural experiences) with a load of skepticism. Why? Simple. Because the only authoritative book on these subjects – especially Heaven, has already been written – by God. And if we needed something more on this topic, the proper way to proceed (on safe ground anyway) is to carefully study what the Scripture has already revealed on it. I would suggest something like Randy Alcorn’s “Heaven”; or drawing from an earlier age – Richard Baxter’s “The Saint’s Everlasting Rest.”
You see, we are never to draw our theology from experiences. Instead, it is God’s Word, and the theology in it which is to be used to interpret our experiences. Whenever the experience cart gets in front of the Scriptural horse – speculation, rather than revealed truth rules the day. And when that happens, we slowly undermine the authority of Scripture, and will inevitably undermine our own faith. How so? Because faith, real, Biblical, saving, soul-affirming faith, can only be a by-product of the revelation of God and His character, or trust in His promises IN His Word.
This then is THE primary problem I see with this (in and of itself) innocuous little tome. The problem is NOT whether Colton might have had some genuine sort of experience of Heaven or not. The problem is (as is evidenced both in the book itself several times – AND by one or two people I’ve spoken with personally) that we are willing to find more comfort and encouragement about the reality of Heaven and some of its supposed features – from the subjective experience of a gravely ill little boy – than we are from the Bible and God’s own revelation of these things. It is as though the Holy Spirit’s revelation is inadequate for us.
The problem isn’t as much with the book and its material itself – the problem is what it reveals about us! That we know so little of what the Bible teaches about this subject, and are so little interested what God has to say about it – or are so little comforted by it – that we will find our hope rather in Colton’s experience.
So, if you have read the book, and have found your “faith” bolstered by it or your soul encouraged by it, my question to you is – Why? Why not the Bible? Why this story – and not the authoritative one? What does this say about your own attitude toward Scripture? What does it say about your understanding of Scripture? What does it say about your approach to truth – and how it is found, discerned and processed? Why does this strike a chord with you God’s own Word to you does not?
So, would I recommend the book? Not really. But neither would I say one shouldn’t read it. While it is truly light on the Gospel (especially in light of its declaration that the meaning of the Cross – indeed the gospel is summarized by Jesus saying “I had to die on the cross so that people on earth could come see my Dad” – true enough but notice how it side-steps the sin issue altogether) – I reiterate that it is not its content I find disturbing. That is – IF – one takes it for what it is – just a 4 year old’s subjective experience. Perhaps a fever, or medicinally or physiologically induced experience. Who knows?
The BIG question one must ask themselves is HOW do I respond to this – and WHY?