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Thoughts on Heaven is for Real: Biblically faithful or dangerously false?

In 2010, Todd Burpo and Lynn Vincent published Heaven is for Real: A Little Boy's Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back (Thomas Nelson), a book that details the astonishing story of Colton Burpo (Todd’s son). Four-year-old Colton, while in the hospital struggling for his life, allegedly died and went to heaven before being revived. In subsequent months he began to open up to his family about what he saw there. Earlier this week, on April 16, the film adaptation of Heaven is for Real was released in theatres.

There are plenty of books out there written by non-Christian authors regarding trips to heaven and some that are written by professing Christians that lack credibility because of their bizarre character. Consider, for instance, Heaven: Close Encounters of the God Kind written by prosperity gospel preacher Jesse Duplantis (Harrison House, 1996). What sets Heaven is for Real apart is that it is written by an evangelical pastor within a respected, orthodox denomination (he is the pastor of Crossroads Wesleyan Church in Nebraska). Jo Anne Lyon, General Superintendent of the Wesleyan Church, was quoted recently on a Nazarene blog pouring lavish praise on the book: “God has chosen to speak to us in this twenty-first century through the unblemished eyes of an innocent child.”

What else sets the story apart? It is not the story of an adult who may have the sullied motive of wanting to cash in on an alleged vision. It is the story of a four-year-old boy who would hardly be expected to make something up just to get his parents fortune and fame. According to a USA Today article published shortly after the publication of the book, there were three things that convinced Colton Burpo’s parents that their son’s heavenly encounter was legitimate. First, Colton knew where his parents were when he was being operated on, although they had never disclosed this to him themselves. Secondly, Colton said that he met a sister that he had never even known about (his parents had lost a child due to miscarriage, but had never told this to Colton). Third, he said he met his great-grandfather, and afterwards could easily identify him in photographs of him taken at a young age, although Colton’s great-grandfather had died 30 years before Colton’s birth.

Colton says that he met Jesus, John the Baptist, and the Virgin Mary. He says he recalls angels singing “Jesus Loves Me” and “Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho” to him as he sat in Jesus’ lap. As might be expected, the book and movie do have some detractors. This week, The Aquila Report, a popular online news site, published a blog written by PCA pastor Timothy Hammons, and in his article Hammons raises what he considers to be several red flags.

We will explore Hammons’ criticisms and try to determine whether or not they are fair.

1. Hammons alleges that the book unscripturally makes heaven “more palatable for those who are lost”. Unfortunately, Hammons doesn’t spell out precisely how Burpo’s book does this so it’s hard to answer his charge. Burpo’s book portrays Jesus as being the central figure in heaven and never implies that people enter heaven by any other means than through the blood of Jesus Christ. How then does it present a watered down version of heaven?

2. Hammons charges Burpo’s account of heaven with being, unlike the Bible, not “focused purely on the Triune God’s glory”. He says Biblically people in heaven are “not focusing on one another, but on God Himself. They are not getting chummy with each other, but praising God, singing the praise of Christ and rejoicing at the grace He showed us for getting there.” Again, it’s hard to see how this charge sticks to Burpo’s book. Yes, Colton claims to have met his great-grandfather and sister, but how does this detract from the glory of God? Is Hammons insinuating that heaven will never in any sense consist of fellowshipping (“getting chummy” as he condescendingly puts it) with loved ones?

3. Hammons contrasts Colton’s visit to heaven with the prophet Isaiah’s encounter with God in Isaiah chapter 6—“Does Isaiah get all chummy with the LORD, i.e., did he go and sit on His lap like this 4-year-old boy supposedly does…? No, he falls as a dead man before the LORD and cries out: ‘Woe is me, I am undone! Because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, The LORD of hosts.’”

Assuming visits to heaven are possible, it seems unfair to assume that everyone who encounters heaven will have precisely the same experience. Yes, Colton’s experience in heaven was different from Isaiah’s, but the important question is does it contradict it? Isaiah lived before God became Incarnate, before he died and rose again, before he instituted his church and sent his Holy Spirit. God is, of course, as holy today as he has ever been. Any encounter with the holy God will be an earth-shattering thing for any sinful mortal. That said, the apostles themselves got “all chummy” with the incarnate Jesus in ways that the Old Testament prophets could’ve never imagined doing with God.

The Jews of the Old Testament were afraid to even utter the name of God. Jesus’ disciples dared address God as “Abba”, an intimate fatherly term comparable to the English word “Daddy”. The people of Israel during Moses’ time feared that, after hearing the voice of God speaking from Mount Sinai, they would be struck dead. Contrast this with John the apostle at the Last Supper. He reclined against Jesus’ breast during the meal and spoke with him as intimate friend.

What’s the point? Jesus opens a way for a degree of intimacy with God that was incomprehensible to the people of God during the time of Isaiah. Little children sat on the lap of Jesus during his earthly incarnation. Is it so implausible that Jesus, meek and mild as he is, would suffer a child in heaven to come and sit in his lap? Of course, even in the New Testament we see Jesus portrayed as he is in Isaiah 6. In Revelation 1, John sees Christ in his resurrected glory and this same John who had reclined against Jesus’ breast at the Last Supper now falls on his face as though dead.

The point is that God is holy, unutterably holy, but he is also intimate with those he knows. Colton was in a saving relationship with God through Jesus Christ at the time of his alleged heavenly journey. Therefore, he could dare to approach God’s throne because Christ’s blood had covered all of his sins. Our intimacy with God shouldn’t foster a “chumminess” with God that overlooks the fact that he is still a “consuming fire”, that he is, in the words of C.S. Lewis, “not a tame lion”. Hammons doesn’t convincingly show, though, how Burpo’s book crosses the line in this regard.

4. Hammons goes so far as to suggest that Colton’s encounter could’ve been demonic in nature. “I do not for a moment doubt that this little boy had an experience of some kind,” he said. “But it wasn’t heaven.”

It’s hard to see how a book that is orthodox (nothing about it contradicts the Apostles’ Creed or the historic doctrines of Christ’s deity, atonement, resurrection, ascension, virgin birth, etc.) could be open to charges of demonic origin. Even if the book comes across as far fetched at times, it does not in any way present a portrait of Jesus that is incompatible with the Biblical Jesus (which is what one would expect from a book with demonic influence).

Plugged In Magazine’s review of the film points out that the film doesn’t “offer an explanation for how we can go to heaven when we actually do die.” The film doesn’t offer theological reflections on the subject. This is not the same thing, though, as offering false ones—which is practically what Hammons insinuates.

5. Hammons references the apostle Paul’s journey to heaven in 2 Corinthians, drawing the conclusion that because Paul said it would’ve been unlawful for him to discuss what he saw, it would be unlawful for anyone who theoretically had a heavenly journey to talk about it. This is a very unwarranted conclusion. Paul explains that he was not permitted by God to discuss his vision, but he never remotely suggests that it would be wrong, as a universal, general rule for someone in the same situation to discuss his or her vision. In writing a book about his son’s journey to heaven, Todd Burpo didn’t violate any express rule of the apostle Paul’s.

In conclusion, Hammons says, “If you want to know what heaven is like, and know it for real, read the Bible. What the Bible tells us about heaven is authoritative. It is not speculation or imagination. It is what Jesus told us it would be.”

No disagreement there. Todd Burpo himself would certainly agree that the Bible is the authoritative place to go to learn about the Bible. Yet the Bible itself never precludes the possibility of heavenly visions. Affirming the Protestant principle of “Sola Scriptura” does not inherently rule out any possibility of people having heavenly visions. Throughout Christian history, there has long been a mystical tradition of people claiming to have heavenly visions (consider medieval saints such as Joan of Arc and Lady Julian of Norwich). Hammons is right to say that such visions must always be tested up against Scripture and dismissed if they teach anything contrary to Scripture. However, he doesn’t effectively show how Colton Burpo’s heavenly journey contradicts Scripture in any way.

As the book was controversial and somewhat divisive, the movie is likely to be as well. Christians must prayerfully discern for themselves whether to affirm or deny Colton Burpo’s claims. However, whatever decision we make, let us commit to not be grouchy about it, to remember that the heaven of the Bible is precisely the kind of place where Jesus, in his deep love for children, may very well invite them to sit in his lap.

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