Stories about the afterlife have always been popular. We read them in The Epic of Gilgamesh, Greek and Egyptian mythology, and perhaps most famously in Dante's great religious epic, The Divine Comedy. It's natural to be curious about something as powerful, universal, and mysterious as death, and it's also natural for people to write about what it might be like.
Interestingly, the Bible doesn't talk much about what the afterlife is actually like. That there is one is deeply embedded in the biblical worldview, and that believers spend it with Christ in paradise and unbelievers under God's judgment in Hell, but how the New Earth and the Lake of Fire look and feel is never really discussed except in the vaguest terms.
Why is this? The simple answer (and no less true because it's simple) is that God in his infinite wisdom has chosen not to reveal these things to us. But there's another reason—the afterlife is so substantially different from this one that we don't have the mental categories or capacity to understand it. We are not resurrected, and cannot understand pure spiritual reality.
So what do we do with so-called firsthand accounts of heaven? Once again, the simple answer is sufficient—we dismiss them as mythology, the imaginings of people trying to make sense of what they don't and can't comprehend. But what if the account comes from a little kid? Are you going to just say that the kid is lying?
Not necessarily, but a person can tell untruths without lying. We don't know which is the case for young Colton Burpo, but we do know that whatever he saw or thinks he saw isn't an accurate representation of Heaven. How can we be sure? Because, while the Bible isn't clear about the exact nature of Heaven, it does tell us about God and his character, and the things Master Colton reveals are found wanting when weighed against Scripture.
In Heaven Is for Real, Colton's father Todd Burpo writes a standard scenario: his son, on the operating table, leaves his body in a spiritual sense and spends time with Jesus in heaven (his vitals never flatlined). Todd assures us that it took him some convincing to believe his son's tale, but when the boy revealed knowledge of things he could not have known, he believed.
It's interesting what Mr. Burpo considers knowledge his son could not have known. Burpo pastors a Midwest Methodist church which is attended by his wife and children. Why is he suprised that 4-year-old Colton demonstrates knowledge of the book of Revelation? And why is it strange that Colton knows things about his great-grandfather (whom he never met) and his mother's miscarriage?
As a pastor, does Mr. Burpo never talk to his family or preach about the book of Revelation? As a family, is there never any discussion about what Grandpa might have been like, or of painful experiences? It seems a little much to accept that there's absolutely no way a boy, even a very young one, would have no knowledge of any of those things given his family situation.
But these reservations alone disprove nothing. Many stories that are perfectly true that still make us raise our eyebrows, if not in disbelief, at least in suspicion. So what is it that makes us reject Colton's story? It's that his depictions of God and angels are not consistent with those presented in the Bible.
Colton says he saw the Holy Spirit "shoot power down" on his dad while Todd was preaching. But we are told in Scripture that God is a spirit, and no man can see him. How exactly did he see the Holy Spirit carry out this operation? Some may argue that since he was in heaven Colton could see God. But his father also assures us that Colton's unresurrected, living body was on the operating table.
In another place, Colton tells his dad that he'll have to fight with a sword in the battle of Armageddon. Aside from demonstrating a dubious grasp of eschatology, this particular story leads us to ask if Colton Burpo should be counted among the prophets. If this vision he claims to have had is true, then it should be part of biblical revelation, and Colton should be given his own book in the Christian canon.
Which is really the crux of the issue. If this boy has really been to heaven, then he's had direct revelation on a level that none of the biblical writers ever did. If that's true, this book isn't just allowed to be a book, it must be raised to the level of Scripture. But would God really reveal to anyone that Jesus colors with kids in heaven? Or that a little chair was brought for the boy to sit on....right beside the Holy Spirit? In this same section, he claims God the Father is enormous, and appears to have a body.
Many of Colton's supposed heavenly experiences merely reflect folk beliefs concerning heaven and what it's like, but many others strain the bounds of all credulity, particularly those that denigrate the majesty of the triune God or that indicate that Colton had some kind of special role or treatment while he was in their presence. Why didn't the boy fall on his face when face to face with the Father? Why do we get the sense that life in heaven as he claims to have experienced revolved around Colton?
These are essential questions. Heaven Is for Real doesn't answer any of them satisfactorily, instead asking us to rely on the veracity of a young boy and the cross-examination his father apparently gave him to make sure his facts were right. Believe that we can know heaven is real—but because God has revealed it in his Word, not because a boy's father wrote this book.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here
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