“Heaven Is For Real will forever change the way you think about eternity,” says the back cover of my copy of Heaven Is For Real.
Watch out for any book that makes that claim.
Though published in 2010, Heaven Is For Real is again #1 on the “Paperback Non-fiction” category of the New York Times Best Sellers list (as of the time of this writing). I suppose the lure of extra-biblical revelation will always be tantalizing to many.
Written by Todd Burpo, a “pastor” at Crossroads Wesleyan Church, Heaven Is For Real is a story about his then 4-year-old son Colton Burpo who had a ruptured appendix. Apparently, after he was rushed into surgery, Colton briefly died and visited heaven. Then, a few months later, Colton starts telling his parents various stories of his experiences, including meeting his sister (who was miscarried), his great grandfather (“Pop”), and Jesus. Colton’s parents then waited 6 or 7 years before deciding to write it down in a book.
I picked this book up with a desire to believe it. I wanted this book to be plausible. And as I read it, I was thinking of ways to reconcile the story with Scripture.
For example, while I am naturally skeptical of all accounts of out-of-body experiences, I put my skepticism aside due to the fact that Heaven Is For Real is about a 4-year-old boy (as opposed to an adult). Do children go to heaven? Yes (cf. Matt. 18:3). Sin had not yet separated young Colton Burpo from God (cf. Isa. 59:1-2). Contrary to what Calvinists teach, children do not inherit sin (Eze. 18:20) – they are not born into a condition of total hereditary depravity. Therefore, knowing a 4-year-old would go to heaven if he really did die, I read this book with an open mind.
It did not take me long to smell a rat. Somewhere between Colton saying he experienced fear while in heaven (p. xix) (cf. Rev. 21:4) and Colton saying that he witnessed the Holy Spirit (described as being “kinda blue” p. 102) “shooting down power” to his dad when he was preaching (p. 126), I realized this book is hogwash.
Notice some of the major problems with Heaven Is For Real:
God’s Word does not give us many glimpses into heaven (only Isaiah, Ezekiel, Paul, and John record their visions) but when it does, each account is fixated on the glory of God. The only thing the inspired visions can focus on is the awesome image and majesty of God and His surroundings. This is in contrast, of course, to Heaven Is For Real, where Colton Burpo is the center of the story in heaven. Everyone – with their wings and halos (p. 72-73) – is just floating around, existing. Heaven Is For Real joins the ranks of nearly every other ‘gone-to-heaven-and-now-I’m-back’ story in that the narrative is very selfish.
Going to heaven and back
The Bible teaches that no one goes to heaven and then come back to talk about it (Prov. 30:4). Even those who were raised from the dead during the age of miracles did not speak about their experiences. Paul, who did not know whether he had gone to heaven bodily or had just seen it in a vision, was reluctant to talk about what he saw (cf. 2 Cor. 12:4-6).
Talking to the dead
The Bible forbids communicating with the dead (Isa. 8:19):
And when they say to you, “Inquire of the mediums and the necromancers who chirp and mutter,” should not a people inquire of their God? Should they inquire of the dead on behalf of the living? (ESV)
Relying on the witness of the dead, rather than relying on the testimony of God Himself about the spiritual realm, is sinful. The fact that millions of copies of Heaven Is For Real have been sold is an indictment of the lack of faith many so-called “Christians” have in God. Subsequently, there is plenty of money to be made by peddling fanciful accounts of the afterlife.
Consider the kind of industry you would be supporting if you are considering purchasing a ticket to the movie based upon this book (set to be released April 16).
Lies about who will be present
Colton Burpo claimed to see “Pop,” his great-grandfather in heaven (p. 86). The only problem is the fact that the book presents Pop as obeying a false gospel. Todd Burpo writes that Pop “was a guy who went to church only once in a while” and that he was “worried about whether Pop went to heaven.” As it turns out, two days before his death, Pop attended a special church revival and during the meeting the “Church of God” preacher witnessed Pop “raise his hand” and “give his life to Christ” (p. 90).
There is only one kind of saving faith, and that is obedient faith. The Bible tells us that we must repent and be immersed in water for the forgiveness of sins (cf. Mark 16:16; Acts 2:38; 22:16; &c) in order to be saved. It is at the point of baptism where the blood of Jesus cleanses us from all sin (Rom. 6:3-4). The Bible does not teach that simply mentally accepting Jesus as one’s ‘personal savior’ will save anyone; such would be salvation apart from the blood of Jesus.
Any book that claims people will be in heaven who haven’t repented and been baptized into the Body of Christ for the remission of sins is a fraudulent book.
Stop Being Fooled
Either the Burpos are sincere, or they are a bunch of liars. Between the two, I hope they are sincere. But either way, they are wrong. Since the apostle Paul himself would not talk about His experience in heaven (cf. 2 Cor. 12:1-4), I don’t care what a little boy told his parents (based upon their own recollection) what he thinks he saw.
If you need Heaven Is For Real to prove that heaven exists, I pity you. You are like the Jews who – after witnessing Jesus miraculously feed the 5,000 and listening to Jesus preach about His divinity – asked for another sign (cf. John 6:30). And when Jesus wouldn’t bow to their demand, they left Him (John 6:66). Perhaps your insatiable lust for these kinds of stories is a sign that you have already walked away from Jesus. If God’s written revelation is not enough for you, then neither will the testimony of someone who has returned from heaven (Luke 16:31).
“But Heaven Is For Real Strengthens My Faith!”
Sometimes people say that stories of near-death experiences strengthen their faith. They say, “I already believed in heaven, but these books just confirmed my belief.” Todd Burpo evidently wants you to feel this way about his book. He writes, “Colton’s story […] strengthened [his baby-sitter’s] Christian faith” (pg 130). Obviously, Colton’s story is more powerful to some than the very words of God (cf. 2 Tim. 3:16-17).
I believe books like Heaven Is For Real actually weaken one’s faith because they elevate unreliable claims of supernatural experience over the sure testimony of Scripture.
Yes, heaven IS for real. But we already knew that (Rev. 21:1-22:5). Scripture has revealed everything God wants us to know. The Bible is more than all-authoritative – it is also all-sufficient. Christians believe in heaven – not because of what Todd Burpo claims his son told him, but because of what God has revealed to us in Scripture.
The Bible is true; Colton’s story is not – regardless of how much it appeals to our emotions. Satan loves catering to the feelings of unsuspecting victims and tugging at their heartstrings. He can transform himself into “an angel of light” and “his servants also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness” (2 Cor. 11:14-15). Right now he is hoping you will enjoy Heaven Is For Real so much that you will not bother to verify the story with Scripture.
Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons (1 Tim. 4:1).
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