Heaven, Is it for Real ? ~~ A book/movie review
Review and Commentary
Of the recent bestselling book:“Heaven is for Real” by Todd Burpo
In his book “Heaven is For Real” Todd Burpo ( A Christian Pastor and small business owner) recounts a series of dramatic revelations given by his four year old son – Colton, after experiencing a grave illness requiring an emergency appendectomy and painful treatments for peritonitis. Colton was misdiagnosed at first and suffered a prolonged physical deterioration until the true problem was properly identified and treated. Pastor Burpo recounts how his small son had “the look of death” just prior to the life saving surgery. The book details, over a protracted period of time, how Colton relayed experiences which suggest that he visited heaven for some unknown period of time. While in that place (or state) Colton describes Christ, His garments, His eyes, His demeanor and various other specific details including the marks left by His wounds. Throughout this period of revelation, Colton is adamant that none of the pictures we have of Jesus properly depict his actual appearance – as it truly is – except for one painting by a little girl who also claims to have experienced a similar event.
This very young boy describes what heaven looked like including the throne of The Father, Jesus Christ and what he describes as “The Holy Spirit”. Colton describes vivid colors he saw that simply are not present in this dimension of life as we know it. He also describes seeing many children and animals. Amazingly, Colton also describes a sister he met there who he never knew in that she was never born and miscarried by his Mom. Colton was only four years old and was never told about the miscarriage. He also describes in great detail what his grandfather looked like when he was a very young man having never known him as such and having never even seen a picture of him as a young man. Colton was only aware of pictures of his grandfather at age 61 taken just prior to his death in an automobile accident. Colton reports that no one is “old” in heaven – everyone is young and healthy and there are many children.
Beyond what he experienced, Colton also makes statements which suggest that he saw into the future and was aware of a coming “battle” (Armageddon is suggested) where his Dad would actually fight against Satan using a “sword” and/or a “bow and arrow” given to him by God. Colton claims to have seen God “shoot down power” to his Dad as he gave his sermons in church and that Jesus has heard and answered many of his Dad’s prayers – even when his Dad was angry with God for Colton’s near death experience in the hospital. This was a very specific and private moment Mr. Burpo never shared with his son or anyone and about which Colton could not have known.
As these revelations unfold over time, Pastor Burpo quotes many of the scriptures which he suggests corroborate the things that he believes his son witnessed when he was in heaven. His excellent choices for scriptural text clearly reflect his education and theology and form a basis of his interpretation of the things Colton told him. But, of all of the information given by Colton, surely the awareness of a sister he never knew he had and the perfect physical description of his grandfather at a young age when it was impossible for him to know those details are most intriguing. As an ordained minister myself, I do not question that Colton did indeed have an experience of a spiritual nature far beyond anything we know or understand. I would offer that an objective view of the details given in the book suggest a mixture of things Colton “could have known” even as a four year old who lived in a “church environment” but also things which are clearly “extra-normal”.
My concern for the book is that it could easily be used by some to do more than attempt to prove the existence of (a state of) heaven or refute preconceived ideas about heaven, but rather to claim another purpose – that is to establish evidentiary proof for certain doctrinal beliefs which may or may not be wholly accurate. In this review, I would like to focus on several of the things Colton described – particularly, the description of The Holy Spirit, and whether Colton actually went to a place we call “heaven”. Also, I will offer some scriptural support of my own for what Colton may have experienced. It is my intent to show that some of the scriptural texts presented by Pastor Burpo show that his interpretation of the things Colton saw may have been innocently “molded” to fit a doctrinal theology rather than truly taken at face value alone.
It makes perfect sense to me that Pastor Burpo would have drawn the conclusions he did considering his training and belief system. He merely explained what Colton told him in the terms he knew and understood as best he could as anyone would. I should also say that I believe, from his own reports, that the good Pastor did his very best to avoid “leading” Colton to say things that fit his own preconceived ideas about heaven and the afterlife. At least the book purports that the Pastor held to this type of discipline. I do not overtly detect any attempt on the part of Pastor Burpo to use these revelations to support an “agenda” for his belief system. He does however; use his belief system – as anyone would, (and selected scriptural context) to attempt to explain what Colton was relating. But, from the vantage point of someone who does not perfectly agree with Pastor Burpo’s doctrinal beliefs, I can see how there might be a “bleeding of doctrinal interpretation” into what Colton reported he saw. We must remember that Colton was four years old – an age of curiosity, awakening, and typically a stage of life when a child questions everything in his environment. Who among us has not had a four year old child continually ask “why” when you try to explain something we commonly take for granted? It is important to remember that he lived in a “church environment” and in a pastor’s home. Things like the concept of a “trinity” – God in three persons (sung in a very popular Christian hymn) and the idea of “going to heaven” were surely commonly spoken in his hearing and easily remembered even at his young age. These ideas are a “big deal” and for many, have a level of acceptance that “goes without saying”. They are commonly the first things taught and emphasized (in a simple form) to the very youngest children who regularly attend most Christian Churches, have parents who read bible stories to them, or attend even a “kindergarten level” Sunday school.
So what did Colton Experience? Well, there is no way to know for sure – we can only take the report on face value and not try to make what he has told us “force fit” our theology. But that is difficult to do when one considers the very point of the book is to show that a “belief system” about heaven is REAL. If Colton truly met his unborn sister and also his grandfather restored to his younger form – we can only conclude that Colton had a highly unusual experience and may have actually glimpsed into a dimension where we presently have no easy access. At the very least, he was given spiritual information the rest of us simply do not have.
Did Colton “go” to heaven – to a place or a state of existence we know as heaven? Well, (and this is important) Pastor Burpo himself alludes in the book to the possibility that the concept of “time” in heaven (or what we refer to as heaven) is not lineal. Scripture tells us that a day with God is as a thousand years and a thousand years with God is as a day. 2nd Peter 3:8 “But, beloved, be not ignorant of this one thing, that one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.” He actually uses that quote in the book. There is clear evidence in scripture that he is absolutely correct that God is not in any way restrained by time as we know it.
Time is a created thing made for the physical universe and God is Spirit living in a Spiritual dimension – unrestrained by time. So if Colton visited that dimension – he would have experience the “rules” of that dimension which are vastly different than the “rules” that govern our physical existence such as the limits of time. This would explain why he was able to experience things that seemed to have taken vast amounts of time when he was only in a hyper-critical medical state and under anesthesia for a short period of time as described in the book.
The bible says that the Kingdom of Heaven is actually coming to the earth in the future when Christ actually returns to establish his Kingdom here. We see in Zechariah 14:4 “And his feet shall stand in that day upon the mount of Olives, which is before Jerusalem on the east, and the mount of Olives shall cleave in the midst thereof toward the east and toward the west, and there shall be a very great valley; and half of the mountain shall remove toward the north, and half of it toward the south.” That period of time is what we commonly refer to as the millennium lasting a 1,000 years which is later replaced with a “New Heaven and a New Earth” at the end of that time period.
Revelation 21:1-2 “And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea. And I John saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband”
Scripture also says clearly and specifically that “no man has ascended to heaven” (a surprise to most Christians). Notice this spoken by Christ Himself making it abundantly clear that NO ONE has gone to heaven. He says this very clearly and directly in John 3:13 “And no man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of man which is in heaven” At the time Christ spoke these words many righteous men had previously died. But He Himself says that no one has ascended up to heaven.
So, what do we make of Colton’s experience or the common belief that people “go” to a place called heaven? If we look to scripture to find a similar situation, we find that the bible speaks of an event where a person was “caught up” (in a vision) into what is called the “third heaven” where God resides 2 Corinthians 12:2 “I knew a man in Christ above fourteen years ago, (whether in the body, I cannot tell; or whether out of the body, I cannot tell: God knows;) such an one caught up to the third heaven.” So from this, we can conclude that there are at least three different places identified in scripture as heaven. The other heavens are what we understand to be “outer space” and the heavens which make up the atmosphere just above the Earth (the clouds) through which Christ ascended while the “men of Galilee” stood watching.
So scripture identifies “three heavens”. But, beyond that, it also identifies the Kingdom of Heaven which comes first to the earth and then is ultimately replaced by another version of heaven referred to as a “New Heavens and a New Earth”. So, we need to ask, which version of “heaven” did Colton visit if at all?
Well, if God is in a dimension unrestrained by time (and we are allowing that Colton may have miraculously visited that dimension) we cannot rule out that Colton was projected into the future (or spiritual dimension) when a dimension of Heaven is indeed established that is an actual place populated with people, children, animals, and such. Therefore, if a miracle happened and Colton was somehow able to visit another dimension of time and space we know as "heaven" -- the "dimension of time and place" Colton seems to have visited has to be last of the possibilities because it is then when the "throne of the Father" is present when Christ surrenders his throne in the Kingdom to HIS Father. 1Co 15:24 "Then cometh the end, when he shall have delivered up the kingdom to God, even the Father; when he shall have put down all rule and all authority and power." These events are yet out into our future and have not been established in this dimension of our present time.
A careful study of the bible on the issue of human death and resurrection shows that at the moment of death – essentially, all the rules of conscious time stop for that individual and they are “as asleep”. Here are the words of Christ on the subject:
John 11:11- 14 “These things said he: and after that he saith unto them, our friend Lazarus sleeps; but I go, that I may awake him out of sleep. Then said his disciples, Lord, if he sleeps, he shall do well. Howbeit Jesus spoke of his death: but they thought that he had spoken of taking of rest in sleep. Then said Jesus unto them plainly, Lazarus is dead.”
1 Corinthians 15:51 “Behold, I show you a mystery; we shall not all sleep, but we shall be changed,”
The next moment of consciousness is in the resurrection and into the Kingdom of Heaven. When people say someone is "going to heaven" that is simply not supported by scripture in a literal sense. However, in a “sense” that people cease consciousness at death and then after the passage of unrealized time are later resurrected into the Kingdom of Heaven -- for that person -- it seems that they "go" at death into the Kingdom of Heaven immediately as they were completely unaware of the passage of any time in the grave. They are not going anywhere at the moment of death but “awaiting unconsciously” a change at the time of their resurrection. Certainly, there is an actual “time line” involved but the person who has died is completely unaware of the passage of this time.
In prophetic scripture – the Kingdom of Heaven is described in great physical detail in the words of the bible including descriptions of countries like Egypt and how Jesus will require them to come up to Jerusalem to keep the Feast of Tabernacles. Zechariah 14:18 “And if the family of Egypt go not up, and come not, that have no rain; there shall be the plague, wherewith the LORD will smite the heathen that come not up to keep the feast of tabernacles”.
In scripture we see that both Prophets and Apostles did indeed see into this dimension on occasion.
Revelation 21:10 “And he carried me away in the spirit to a great and high mountain, and showed me that great city, the holy Jerusalem, descending out of heaven from God,”
Revelation 1:10 “I was in the Spirit on the Lord's day, and heard behind me a great voice, as of a trumpet,”
Daniel 7:13 “I saw in the night visions, and, behold, one like the Son of man came with the clouds of heaven, and came to the Ancient of days, and they brought him near before him.”
Did something like this happen to Colton? With the evidence of his sister and his grandfather – it would seem to be that something similar did indeed take place for this young boy. But it also seems to be the case that despite the Pastors valiant efforts to protect the purity of the information Colton was relaying -- the influences in Colton’s own (even though very young) life did indeed “color” the interpretation and his “framing of the explanation” for what he saw and experienced. This also appears to be the case for his dad even as he meticulously and honestly tries to explain Colton’s revelations to us. I firmly believe that this would be the case for each and every one of us in such a dramatic revelatory circumstance. Colton did his best to describe and explain what he experienced based on the things that he knew and understood about life and about God and heaven and so forth. The Burpo’s like any one of us could only frame what they were hearing from Colton based on what they knew of God and the bible and how they have been taught and what they believe. I conclude the book is an honest portrayal from that vantage point. But, it must also be viewed, not just in the light of what is being told, but also in the light of all the life experience, and influences of those telling the story.
Certainly, it is impossible to expect that the influence of the Burpo family’s experiences, knowledge, and “church family” environment cannot be easily filtered out in explaining these events by Colton, and his family. For instance Colton relays that there are “three Persons” in the throne room of heaven. Colton mentions Jesus, and the Father but, the only third person he actually names is the Angel Gabriel. He never actually describes a third person in authority as God is in authority – only some mysterious “blue” ambiguity. This description is being portrayed by the pastor in a “goes without saying” way that “The Holy Spirit” (a third person in a trinity) is present in heaven when scripture does not support this concept.
Objectively, If Colton was being made aware of a spiritual power he describes in some mysterious blue form – he may simply be framing it in the only terms he knew. It is clear that the idea of a trinity and the concept of “God in three persons” is a very strongly portrayed idea in most church cultures. Colton is simply describing things in “terms” he understands just as he described the wounds on Jesus in the only terms he knew – “red markers”
Certainly, God’s Holy Spirit does indeed exist and is the very essence of God (The Father & Jesus Christ’s) power. But scripture clearly defines this Holy Spirit of God as the “para-kletos” – or “advocate” – or “intercessor” – the same title that Jesus has for Himself. It is referring to HIM – not something different or something separate than Himself. If it were an actual third person (never once mentioned in scripture by the way) Jesus would have at some point acknowledged a power of this significance in His prayers and especially in the prayer he prayed the night before he was crucified. He didn’t do that – not even an oblique reference to such a third person. This was clearly, His most passionate and powerful prayer—yet he directed it ONLY to the Father – there was no other third being mentioned here or in any other place in scripture – not even once! Later, Colton indeed describes how God deploys this power accurately when, in his four-year-old way, he says that God “shoots down power to his dad” when Mr. Burpo is giving his sermons at church.
In careful review of the details portrayed by Colton – a case could be easily made that all he has said can indeed be verified by scripture if the “whole loaf” of the body of scripture is employed and not isogetically used to prove this doctrine or that one in an attempt to support one’s own theology. Whether he had an “inspired dream” or actually went miraculously “in the spirit” into a dimension of heaven cannot be definitively proven. Therefore, I would conclude that Colton Burpo did indeed experience something “extra normal” and perhaps “extra spiritual” in nature – the meaning of which will have to be resolved over time as God reveals more about His plan for mankind and the coming Kingdom of Heaven, a window through which, young Colton Burpo may truly have glimpsed. ~~~