a book review of
Heaven is For Real:
A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back
by Todd Burpo and Lynn Vincent
(Thomas Nelson, 2010)
This article first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 34, number 4 (2010). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal please click here.
Many wrestle with the question of life after death; however, Colton Burpo believes heaven is for real. In March of 2003 at the age of four, while undergoing an emergency appendectomy, he purports having a three-minute out-of-body experience, which included a voyage to heaven and a vision of Jesus Christ.
Colton’s father, Todd, who serves as a Wesleyan minister, became convinced his son had an extraordinary out-of-body experience because of the boy’s unexplainable knowledge of certain facts. Colton, for example, purports leaving his body and seeing his father praying in one hospital room with his mother praying on the phone in another room (pp. xx–xxi, 61). Colton also alleges to have interacted with deceased family members whom he had never met before, namely his great grandfather “Pop” who died over a half-century earlier (85–92, 120–23), and a sister who passed away as the result of a miscarriage (93–97, 127–30). Colton’s story was eventually published as a book coauthored by his father Todd and Lynn Vincent entitled Heaven Is for Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back, which has since become a no. 1 New York Times bestseller.
Is Colton’s story for real? Alternatively, is he an intuitive and gifted storyteller with parents who gullibly misconstrued their child’s fantasy for reality? What are Christians to make of these stories?
Dr. Jeffrey Long, founder of the Near Death Experience Research Foundation, believes Colton had “an experience consistent with a near-death experience (NDE) while under anesthesia” (ii). Todd Burpo likewise admits, “We’d never received any kind of report saying Colton had ever been clinically dead,” but believes his son is one of those “people who had seen heaven without dying,” like Paul in 2 Corinthians 12:2–4 and John in Revelation 4:1–3 (79–80).
The Scriptures presuppose the body/soul dualism of humanity—the mind is more than physical brain activity. Death marks the separation of the body and soul, but the soul continues in a conscious state after the body dies, as in the case of the rich man and Lazarus the beggar (Luke 16:19–31). It may be possible for those in the “shadow of death” to have a glimpse of eternity without crossing over into death but reviving with an NDE memory. NDEs, however, are experienced by people of many different faiths, and religious beliefs affect their interpretation.1 NDEs corroborate the body/soul dualism; however, they alone cannot be game changers in answering the question of which view of the afterlife corresponds to ultimate reality. Heaven is for real; but we know this through the special revelation God provides through Jesus Christ and the Scriptures.
Colton’s NDE has peculiar elements, such as Jesus’ appearance resembling a portrait by Akiane Kramarik, a Lithuanian-American who painted her visions of heaven (141–45). The Lord’s rainbow-colored horse, which Colton had the opportunity to pet, is also peculiar (63).
There are also unscriptural elements to Colton’s NDE. For example, Colton recalls, “Everybody’s got wings” in heaven “except for Jesus” (72); however, Scriptures teach the believer’s resurrection is patterned after Christ—the Second Adam (Rom. 5:12–21; 1 Cor. 15:20–28). Since the perfect humanity in the Incarnation was wingless, one must expect the perfect humanity of believers raised to eternal life also to be wingless.2
Colton purports, “Jesus told me if you don’t go to heaven, you don’t get a new body” (136); however, God’s Word teaches the future resurrection of all people, the righteous to eternal life and the unrighteous to eternal condemnation (Dan. 12:2; John 5:25; Rev. 20:11–15). Believers who pass away, moreover, are presently absent in body but present with the Lord (2 Cor. 5:8), awaiting their resurrection at the second appearance of Jesus Christ (Heb. 9:27–28).
Colton, moreover, describes the heavenly throne room with God sitting on the biggest throne, Jesus to the right, and the angel Gabriel to the left (100), with the “kind of blue” colored Holy Spirit sitting elsewhere (102–3). Visions of the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of God are found in Scripture, which one would expect in a Christian vision; yet, the imagery is not about Christ’s location, but His status. It communicates Jesus’ vindication and exaltation as the divine Messiah (Matt. 22:41–46; 26:57–68; Acts 2:29–36; cf. Ps. 110:1; Dan. 7:13–14, 27). The most disturbing element of this vision is Gabriel at the left hand of God. Not only is the image absent from Scripture, it suggests Gabriel’s equality with the Son and superiority to the Holy Spirit. The biblical writers never give angels such an exalted status.
One might grant that Colton had an extraordinary out-of-body experience; however, some of his NDE memories are quite peculiar whereas others are unbiblical. Furthermore, in light of the sufficiency of Scripture (2 Tim. 3:15–17) and the closure of the biblical canon, any claim that he received a new revelation of Christ is seriously problematic. Our knowledge of heaven must not derive from unreliable personal experience, but solely from sacred Scripture. —Warren Nozaki
Warren Nozaki holds an MDiv. from the Talbot School of Theology and is a researcher for the Christian Research Institute.
- Michael Sabom, “The Shadow of Death (Part 1),” Christian Research Journal 26, 2 (2003): 12–21 (http://www.equip.org/PDF/DD282-1.pdf); Michael Sabom, “The Shadow of Death (Part 2),” Christian Research Journal 26, 3 (2003): 42–51 (http://www.equip.org/PDF/DD282-2.pdf).
- What this means for the perennial human dream of flying is not discussed in Scripture and so is beyond our ability to say. We trust that whatever God has in store for us in the resurrection will be perfectly suited to our needs and desires at the time.