26 April 2014
I have been looking to write an article on this topic of the lastest Christian Blockbuster, ‘HEAVEN IS FOR REAL’ , seeing the movie based on the book, has been released over the last couple of weeks. It has been a hard task because I have been looking for some assistance from those who should be in the know, and who should able to offer some discernment on this matter. I even got my titles mixed up seeing there have been so many books and movies out on this topic recently.
Most have offered up weak arguments, and ‘off the cuff’ generalities.
I have found the following article from Nathan (who even stole my title), and then some additional comments from Tom McMahon of The Berean Call.
Is “Heaven is For Real” for Real?
by Nathan of Thesobermind
The story of Colton Burpo’s near death experience has become a national phenomena. Let’s think soberly about it.
– I like to use sarcasm.
– I in no way want to diminish any good that may come about in the Kingdom of God by the Burpo family’s experience and ministry.
– Nor do I want to diminish the reality of their suffering through Colton’s sickness, which almost killed him.
– I do want to challenge some of the basic premises of the book Heaven is for Real.
– I have read the book. I have not seen the movie.
– The movie earned $28 million in its first three days in the box office.
– The book just hit its 178th week on NY Times Nonfiction Paperback Best Sellers list.
– I’m writing primarily to fellow Christians.
– I want everyone to know Heaven is for real.
Did Colton Go to Heaven?
Simply, no. Do I think that Colton and his Dad are liars or charismatic money hungries who lured T.D. Jakes into producing a film with a $12 million budget so they could make a dime? No. I think they mean well. I think they experienced something–what exactly I am not sure. But I think the Bible does not give us room to think that a four-year-old boy, or anyone but Jesus, has gone to heaven without dying and come back. Colton did tell his Dad he “almost died.” The book itself does not claim outright that little Colton actually went to Heaven. Colton’s Dad wrestles with this. But the book’s full title is “Heaven is For Real: A Little Boys Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back.”
What does the Bible say? Two passages to think about:
Luke 16 – Jesus tells the story of a rich man and Lazarus who die. The former goes to hades and the latter to Abraham’s bosom. In it, Abraham tells the rich man, “And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here (Abraham’s bosom) to you may not be able, and none may cross from there (Hades) to us.”
John 3:13 – “No one has ascended into Heaven except he who has descended from Heaven, the Son of Man.” Nicodemus began this conversation by telling Jesus, “You are from God and God is with you.” To which Jesus replies, “Unless one is born again, he cannot see the Kingdom of God.” Born again? Jesus continues by explaining that conversion by the Holy Spirit is the only way you enter the Kingdom of Heaven (rebirth). “How can these things be?”, Nicodemus asks. Jesus’ reply (3:13) is basically, “No one has been to Heaven but me- and I came from Heaven…so I know how these things can be”.
In the book, Todd Burpo is ambiguous. He doesn’t say his boy did go to Heaven. He doesn’t say that he didn’t (I think he leans toward “did”). He flirts with the idea but doesn’t put a ring on it (chap 14). He likens Colton’s experience to the man Paul mentions in 2 Corinthians 12 (who is probably Paul himself). This man was given a revelation of Heaven as he was taken there–whether in the body or out of the body, Paul does not know. Todd also likens Colton’s experience to that of John in Revelation. John was given revelation by God for the Church’s hope and perseverance in persecution. That Revelation became scripture. We call it “revelation” not “going to Heaven.”
At best, the Bible gives room for Colton to have had a vision or a dream. I believe this happens more often than evangelicalism is known for being comfortable with. But not revelation in the terms of the biblical sense nor a quick three-minute trip to Heaven. Be clear, in the book, Todd Burpo (to my recollection) does not explicitly say that little Colton went to Heaven. But he doesn’t say that he didn’t. We need to be clear. He didn’t. It’s the near-death experience that changes things for us. If it was a regular healthy day, I think Todd Burpo would call it a dream.
Are their exceptions in the Bible? Yep. Enoch (Genesis 5) and Elijah (2 Kings 2) went to Heaven without dying. But they did not come back and tell us anything.
(Editors Note: We can read The Book of Enoch if we wish to see something of Enoch’s Heavenly Vision)
They went, and we have not heard from them since. And we get nothing from Lazarus who was dead for four days and resurrected (John 11). Nor from the little girl Jesus resurrected (Mark 5). Nothing from those who resurrected when Jesus was resurrected (Matthew 27). Nothing from the young man who fell asleep then fell to his death listening to a sermon (Acts 20).
I won’t say nothing happened to Colton. But I’ll only go so far as to agree with his Dad when he said, “Clearly, something had happened to Colton” (pg 73).
Get Off The Box, Bro!
Some might be thinking, “Get off the soap box. What is the big deal?” The big deal is: what has authority in our lives and what is our ultimate source of truth? The Bible is given the authority of God as his words. It is inspired by the Holy Spirit, breathed out by Him (2 Tim 3:16). It’s for real and really for everybody. Because of this, we hold the words and message of the Bible as truth above all other words and even above our experiences. We are to hold the apostles’ testimony above even detailed visions and even angel testimonies (Colossians 2:18, Galatians 1:8). What is at stake is the sufficiency of God’s revealed word for our faith. Do we need something else?
What exactly did Colton see? Here is a short synopsis.
- Met John the Baptist who was “really nice.” (63)
- What did he do in Heaven? Homework. (71)
- Got to pet Jesus’ rainbow horse. (63)
- Saw Jesus whose “eyes are so pretty.” (65)
- Colton got wings, but was “glum” because his weren’t very big. (71)
- Everyone looks like angels with a light above their head. (72)
- He saw his grandpa “Pop” but as a younger man with “big wings”. (Chap 16)
- Met previously unknown miscarried sister. (Chap 17)
- Saw the Holy Spirit who is “kind of blue.” (102)
- Angels sang “Jesus Loves Me” and “Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho” to him. (118) NOTE: He requested “We Will, We Will Rock You”. But the angels said “no”. ($10 bucks that is in the movie and gets a laugh from the audience).
- Colton also says he had seen Jesus shoot down power to his Dad when he is preaching. (124)
- He saw Satan who is “not in hell yet”. (133)
- He saw Jesus throw Satan into hell. (136)
It just doesn’t do it for me. It’s not weighty enough. I’m not encouraged to persevere in the gospel ministry of saving souls from hell so they can pet Jesus’ rainbow horse. It doesn’t have the ring of truth or the weight of the Heaven described in the Bible. In the OT, two men were given visions of Heaven for prophetic purposes. Each vision came with a message for the people of God to repent and glorify a holy God.
Isaiah saw The Lord on his throne and said, “Woe is me.” A loose colloquial equivalent might be “uh-oh….I’m in trouble.” Above the throne, Isaiah saw two six-winged figures (seraphim) who called to one another, “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” (Isaiah 6)
Ezekiel has a prophetic vision too, and he fell on his face because of it. He described freakish unearthly creatures. He called what he saw “the likeness of the glory of God.” (Ezekiel 1)
John in Revelation sees the throne. What does he see? Creatures with six wings giving glory to God. (Revelation 3).
I just don’t hear the Heaven of the Bible in “Heaven is for Real”.
It’s like he is describing a cartoonish earth rather than a holy Heaven. The Biblical authors seem to have trouble describing what they saw (having never seen anything like it).
John, in fact, was told what to write down. Colton, his Dad says over and over, recalled everything matter of factly regarding without hesitation for description.
Colton’s account is centered on his experience and feeling rather than on God’s glory. Jesus had the angels sing to him so he would feel better. Colton never mentions God being glorified or worshipped in Heaven. He never mentions heavenly creatures, people from all nations, or elders worshipping God in Heaven. Not all of that is included in every biblical account of Heaven. But, where is any of it? Isaiah, Ezekiel, and John all record God being worshipped by heavenly creatures–God being the center of everything. Colton recalls Jesus asking angels to sing VBS songs to him.
In the Bible, creatures of other-world description worship God. Colton’s vision includes angels who “look like Grandpa Dennis” (p. 6) [But it wasn’t Grandpa Dennis! Grandpa Dennis has glasses.]
This feels less like a revelation of the throne of God and more like Dorothy waking up and saying, “But it wasn’t a dream….and you and you and you were there.” On that note, the Bible never lets us know who is in Heaven the way Colton does, by name. In Revelation, John simply says there are two books with names in them, the book of Life and another book. We don’t get to know whose names are in them.
The Gospel in Heaven
The gospel is not only for us to preach now to get people saved, but it is what the saved will sing forever. Colton, to his Dad’s surprise, commented about Jesus’ “markers”. The red spots on Jesus’ palms and his feet. Todd Burpo mentions the fact of Jesus’ crucifixion. That, I believe, was the most perfect moment to share the gospel–that Jesus was crucified to save sinners. John saw Jesus as a lamb who was slain and was worshipped for it–called him worthy (Revelation 5). He will be worshipped as such forever. It will be remembered forever that Jesus died for sinners and that through faith and repentence in Jesus crucified we have forgiveness, cleansing of our sin, and everlasting joy in the presence of God because Jesus was crucified. Crucifixion was not just to give him markers.
Heaven is the place that those who have trusted in him as savior, to our endless joy, get to fall down at the feet of Jesus and forever worship him for dying for our sin. Believe he did and you will see him in Heaven (John 3).
Understanding the Bible for Real
Throughout the entire book, Todd Burpo references scripture (31 scripture references are recorded in the notes). But it is nearly always to affirm Colton’s words and experience in some way. He uses it like this: “Colton saw Heaven….well so did John (quote Revelation)…so I guess Colton is telling the truth and maybe he did go to Heaven.”
Without saying too much about the hermeneutic employed here (a method for reading and understanding the Bible), Todd Burpo seems to throw around some very weighty and complex passages which could use more careful attention–not to mention biblical context.
It’s almost as if the book is suggesting that scripture is true because of Colton’s vision, rather what I think he is trying to say (that scripture supports Colton’s vision).
Mass Cultural Engagement Does Not Replace Personal Evangelism
How many of us ‘evangelicals’ have taken our non-Christian friends to see “God is Not Dead” or “Heaven is for Real”? What about “Noah” (wait, scratch that, forgot that is a non-Christian movie about a biblical story by an atheist…Whatever you do don’t let your non-Christian friends see that one!)? I warned about the sarcasm. Seriously though, the gospel message, themes of redemption, and the glory of God belong in the arts and media.
But we we have one imperative when it comes to spreading the gospel. That is to proclaim it while while we live it. We are to make and mature disciples. Yes, all sorts of mediums can support sharing the gospel. But nothing replaces us telling our neighbors about Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection for our sins. We’re not building up the body of Christ in our context by default because a Christian movie is out there.
Straight Up Hypocrisy
We might need to repent of hypocrisy. Many have been perturbed by Darren Aronofsky’s “Noah”, citing it as unbiblical. I haven’t seen “Noah” yet. But from the previews, articles, and friends who have seen it, I can gather it diverges from the theology of the Bible and significantly changes the biblical plot as well.
What about “Heaven is For Real”? Is it biblical? Because it is labeled “Christian,” does it get a free pass?
Have we scrutinized it to be able to say, “this is biblical”? Can we say, “the gospel is herein?” I get the feeling that we are so itchy to get some street credit in the movie industry that we will make a banner out of anything that is called “Christian”, which includes angels with wings (or someone being touched by an angel), mentions Jesus at least once, and is of course produced by Christans.
(Editor: However a number of leaders who have endorsed this latest movie, have only just finished their second or third viewing of Noah)
We need to be better biblical theologians. If we really looked at the Bible passages noted in “Heaven is for Real” with sober minds, could we do better than “hey, this book about a near death experience is a little more biblical than the other books about near death experiences!”?
How Do We Know Heaven is For Real?
We know Heaven is for real because Jesus looked to the man on the cross next to him and said, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23). We can know Heaven is for real. We can know because the Bible says Jesus went to Heaven when he resurrected (Luke 25). We can know because Christ appeared there on our behalf as our salvation (Hebrews 9). We can know Heaven is real because John saw it and recorded it for us by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit (Revelation 21). We can know because we have been sealed with the Holy Spirit as a guarantee of our inheritance (Ephesians 1).
“I’m concerned there are a lot of Christians out there who have no knowledge, and little hope of Heaven.”
That is partly my responsibility as a pastor, at least to my church. We are either not reading our Bibles, not understanding them, or not believing them. Are we really running around desperate, hoping God would reveal something about Heaven so we can know its real? What has kept this book on the NY Times best sellers list for 177, wait, 178 weeks?
Hello! There is whole book by an Apostle called Reveal-ation (it’s words are trustworthy and true, Revelation 22:6).
Todd Burpo ends the book with a quote from his mother:
“I love the way Mom sums it up, ‘Ever since this happened…I think more about what it might really be like in Heaven. I accepted the idea of Heaven before, but now I visualize it. Before, I’d heard, but now I know that someday I’m going to see.’” Any time real faith is encouraged about the real Heaven it’s good!
But the Bible helps us do more than “accept the idea” of Heaven. The Bible gives us measurements of Heaven, colors of Heaven, description of Heaven’s light, rivers, the tree of life, angelic creatures (with wings), people from all nations, God’s throne, city gates, high walls, thunder, fire….it’s all there. The center of it all? God. God himself is what we will really get in Heaven. In Heaven, the glorious Creator, who is unlike anything we could ever imagine, is worshipped and enjoyed forever by the redeemed from every nation.
Until we see it……
1 Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb
2 through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.
3 No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him.
4 They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads.
5 And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.
6 And he said to me, “These words are trustworthy and true. And the Lord, the God of the spirits of the prophets, has sent his angel to show his servants what must soon take place.”
7 “And behold, I am coming soon. Blessed is the one who keeps the words of the prophecy of this book.”
A Real Exercise in Discernment:
Heaven Is for Real is a non-fiction account that documents the experience of a three-year-old boy who believes that he visited Heaven. The story is told by the boy’s father, an evangelical pastor. He and his wife initially seem to be rather startled by their son’s revelations, which he shares over a period of about three years. There is nothing not to like about this Christian family, and much that is quite admirable. The little boy is a typical three- or four-year-old–hardly precocious, but simply matter of fact in relating what he seems to have experienced.
That experience took place when three-year-old Colton was undergoing emergency surgery for a ruptured appendix. Not too long afterward, he told his parents that he saw them praying for him outside the operating room. When they asked how he knew what they had been doing he said, “Cause I could see you….I went up out of my body and I was looking down and I could see the doctor working on my body. [Scripture tells us that death takes place when the spirit vacates the body. Yet there was no medical report of a clinical death during Colton’s surgery.] And I saw you and Mommy. You were in a little room by yourself, praying; and Mommy was in a different room, and she was praying and talking on the phone” (pp. xx-xxi). The accuracy of Colton’s disclosure rocked his parents to the core. But that was just the beginning of revelations that far and away defy natural explanations.
Colton’s other revelations included:
- Angels singing “Jesus Loves Me” to him;
- his sitting on Jesus’ lap;
- meeting John the Baptist and the angel Gabriel;
- petting Jesus’ rainbow-colored horse;
- his descriptions of Jesus’ wounds and attire,
- crown with a pink diamond that Jesus wore;
- the prevalence of kids in Heaven;
- his description of everyone there having wings like the angels–all except Jesus, that is;
- his being recognized by his great grandfather, who died decades before Colton was born;
- the description of God as “really, really big.”
Although most of Colton’s observations in Heaven are not outside the realm of possibility of what could take place there, they are nevertheless extra-biblical insights and information, some being more problematic than others.
For example, Colton explains that “Everyone kind of looks like angels in heaven,” sporting wings (the size of which are dependent on the individual’s size) and a halo. Since the resurrection of believers’ transformed physical bodies has yet to take place, their form now in Heaven must lack physical attributes. Hence the need for wings of whatever size makes no sense. Moreover, other than the descriptive visions of the heavenly creatures known as cherubim and seraphim and the decorative designs in the Temple and upon the Mercy Seat, angels that appear to humanity are never described as having wings.
Many supporters of the book claim that any and all objections pale in the face of the supernatural knowledge that Colton reveals–things that were humanly impossible for him to know. For example, he said that he had met his other sister in Heaven. When told by his mother that Cassie was his only sister, his shocking response was, “No….I have two sisters. You had a baby die in your tummy, didn’t you?” (p. 94).
Colton had never been told of the “painful episode” of the miscarriage, and his parents never knew the gender of the fetus. Colton added, “In heaven, this little girl ran up to me, and she wouldn’t stop hugging me….She said she just can’t wait for you and Daddy to get to heaven” (p. 96). That revelation seemed to be the most convincing for Colton’s parents that their son had indeed visited Heaven: “We had wanted to believe that our unborn child had gone to heaven. Even though the Bible is largely silent on this point, we had accepted it on faith. But now, we had an eyewitness: a daughter we had never met was waiting eagerly for us in eternity” (p. 97).
Was Colton truly an eyewitness in Heaven to everything he described?
Much of it is quite mindboggling, notwithstanding the fact that all of it is extra-biblical. Yet it provides alleged insights about Heaven; e.g., a girl dies as a fetus, grows into a little girl in heaven, and then is eagerly awaiting her parents’ arrival. What if one or both parents reject the gospel? Would there then be disappointment in a place of perfect bliss?
Consider how Colton’s father mentioned that “the Bible is largely silent” on a certain issue. It is also completely silent on the specific things that Colton has revealed. This raises the question as to why God would leave out something of value for us in His inerrant Word, which was given through His prophets “as they were moved by the Holy Ghost” (2 Peter:1:21)–only to reveal it later through a little boy (as well as many others who make similar claims). On the back cover of the book we read, “ Heaven Is for Real will forever change the way you think of eternity, offering the chance to see, and believe, like a child.”
The Bible is God’s precise, absolute, and eternal communication to mankind (Luke:21:33; Hebrews:4:12). It did not come by nor was it left up to the will or imagination of man (2 Peter:1:20). Paul writes, “For this cause also thank we God without ceasing, because, when ye received the word of God which ye heard of us, ye received it not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God, which effectually worketh also in you that believe” (1 Thessalonians:2:13). Our faith can be childlike, but it is faith placed in God’s Word, not in anyone’s alleged “eyewitness” account, be they a child or an adult. Peter was an eyewitness to an incredible event. He saw Jesus supernaturally transfigured before his very eyes and heard the voice of God. We can be sure that the personal experience he had was true because it’s reported in Scripture. Nevertheless, he tells us that his personal experience (or anyone else’s) is not as trustworthy as the Word of God : “We have also a more sure word of prophecy; whereunto ye do well that ye take heed” (2 Peter:1:19).
At the time and in the years following Colton’s experience, his dad was very interested in having him describe Jesus. He wrote that “as a pastor, I wound up spending a lot of time at hospitals, in Christian bookstores, and at other churches–all places where there are lots of drawings and paintings of Christ….When we came across a picture of Jesus we’d ask Colton, ‘What about this one? Is that what Jesus looks like?'” (p. 93). Time after time, Colton would reject the dozens of misrepresentations. Then, nearly three years after Colton’s surgery, he was shown a portrait of Jesus painted by a young girl named Akiane, who also claims to have have visited Heaven beginning at the age of four. Colton’s reaction was, “Dad, that one’s right.” His confirmation convinced his father: “Knowing how many pictures Colton had rejected, Sonja [his mother] and I finally felt that in Akiane’s portrait, we’d seen the face of Jesus. Or at least a startling likeness” (p. 145).
In Exodus, we find a definitive statement against anyone attempting to make an image of God (Exodus:20:4-5). That applies to images of Jesus, whether of statues or great religious paintings or on the silver screen. One of the many problems is that they inevitably lead to idolatry, which in turn breeds superstition and occultism. Another related problem is that they must all be false representations because they have no basis in Scripture–other than being condemned. Jesus therefore could not encourage a young girl to paint His portrait.
Those who believe that He did encourage Akiane (because she could then point people to Him through her amazing art skills and her testimony concerning Him) need to compare with Scripture what she, at age 16, says about Jesus: “Jesus shared with us: ‘I am the way, the truth and the light. No one comes to my Father, but through me.’ I feel that he invited us to participate in the divinity. Each of us is one of kind [ sic ] original path to the way of truth and light, and without our individual love and effort we cannot understand and reach God” (http://akiane.com/blog/?tag=akiane). (Much of her art is new age in flavour.)
Her interpretation rejects Jesus as being the only way for mankind to be reconciled to God. It opposes what Jesus taught in favor of Satan’s promise of divinity to Eve (Genesis:3:5). Akiane’s paintings and words clearly reflect “another Jesus.”
What puzzles many people is how Colton, as a three-year-old at the time of his experience, could attain information, most of which was completely foreign to him at his young age. His parents don’t know for sure but believe their son received the visit to Heaven as a gift from God. Their “faith,” however sincere and biased toward their little boy, does not have the support of Scripture.
How, then, was he able to describe what he did without the input gained from actually being in Heaven? No one can say for sure–not even little Colton. He was in an operating room, surrounded by attending medical personnel, and under the influence of an anesthesia-produced altered state of consciousness.
What we do know about that and other types of drug-induced conditions of mind (even dream states, meditation, and an overworked imagination) is that multitudes of people have reported experiences that seem to validate everything from clinical or near-death events to past-lives journeys to abductions on UFOs. They also reveal information for which they had no basis of knowledge prior to their experiences. It may be that an altered state of consciousness creates a condition in which the mind is like a blank screen, open to outside input. Spirit entities, whose goal it is to undermine the Word of God and deceive the world, might have that ability to program the blank screen and could therefore take advantage of anyone in such a highly susceptible condition (see Dave Hunt, Occult Invasion , pp. 187-90). But again, no one knows for sure how such things take place.
The critical issue for discernment is not “how it works” but “what is being communicated.” All that a Bible-believing Christian can do in ascertaining the truth of a matter is to be vigilant by “searching the Scriptures” to see if what is being presented is true to the full counsel of God’s Word (Acts:17:11). If we don’t do that, whether we are young believers or mature in the faith, we are just as vulnerable to false teachings as those whose circumstances have directly opened them to deceptive experiences.
A believer’s life in Christ is shaped by a great many experiences that the Lord allows for our growth in Him. It begins with one’s believing the gospel, to which sound doctrine is added. As we abide in Christ’s teachings, our discernment will increase, thus protecting us from “being carried about with every wind of doctrine” (Ephesians:4:14). Let us therefore take to heart Paul’s warning: “I have laid the foundation [of the gospel], and another buildeth thereon. But let every man take heed how he buildeth thereupon” 1 Cor 3:10