Heaven is For Real

I read Heaven is For Real by Todd Burpo with Lynn Vincent (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2010).  There is an accompanying website for the book.  Heaven is for Real is a story about a four-year-old boy named Colton Burpo who slipped from consciousness during emergency surgery, went to heaven, and then returned.   Following this harrowing ordeal Colton makes passing comments about death and heaven that pique his parent’s interest.  The book is a collection of conversations that took place over several years between Colton and his parents. 

This is my first read of an “I died and went to heaven and here’s what I saw” genre of books.  I still haven’t read Don Piper’s 90 Minutes in Heaven and I don’t plan to.  These books are simply not compelling to me.  Why?  Because I already have an eyewitness account of heaven from the Apostle John.  He wrote a book on what he saw too, it’s called Revelation.  In short, the Bible tells me all I need to know about heaven.  These accounts will simply corroborate what’s already stated in Scripture.  At least they better.  Otherwise, they’ve lost all credibility.

As I read the book, I had a nagging sense that something just was not right.  For instance, toward the end of the book Colton claims he saw the final battle of Armageddon. How could this be?  Did Armageddon play out in reality when Colton saw it only to happen again in the future?  Another example is extra-biblical information (i.e., it adds to what we know in God’s word).  Colton said he met his unborn sister who knows his name and hugs him.  This section of the book was certainly emotionally evocative for parents who have suffered through a miscarriage (as Julie and I have) but on what grounds can we accept this as authoritative?  Now, who am I to say that what Colton Burpo allegedly saw was not real?  I can’t with 100% certainty say the events detailed in the book did not happen or are not true.  God can show whatever He pleases to whomever He pleases whenever He pleases.  At the same time, however, I am not at all obligated to take everything in the book as irrefutable truth any more than I am required to swallow hook, line, and sinker someone’s story about seeing an image of Mary on a piece of toast.  After all, how does one really know what Mary looked like?

In the end, I have two major concerns with the profitability and to some degree the validity of this book.  First, whatever may have happened to Colton Burpo it is doubtful that such an experience is intended to be recorded and widely distributed.  In 2 Corinthians 12:1-4 Paul tells of “a man” (perhaps Paul himself) who was caught up to the third heaven (v. 2) or Paradise (v. 4).  Upon his return, what did he do with the information he saw?  He didn’t write a book about it.  Instead he said “and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter” (v. 4).  Simply put, we don’t know all the events of this excursion to Paradise because God was pleased to keep it from us.

Second, whatever may have happened to Colton Burpo, his experience is not intended to serve as the basis of our belief in heaven.  Frankly, from my pastoral perspective, I would be concerned if someone had a newfound confidence in heaven as a result of reading this book.  Is the Bible not good enough?  Our hope ought to rest on the firm and objective foundation of Scripture rather than the unstable and subjective groundwork of personal experience.  My mind goes back to Luke 16 to the account of the rich man and Lazarus.  The rich man wants his brothers to avoid the horrific fate that he himself is suffering.  He asks Abraham to send Lazarus because what can be more compelling than a person who died, has a taste of the afterlife, and then tells people about it?  Abraham’s answer should inform our response to this book and other books like it.  “If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets [i.e., written revelation], neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead” (Luke 16:31).  The beloved hymn, “How Firm a Foundation” echoes the primacy of the written word as our basis of hope in the life to come because of Christ’s cross-work:

How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord,
Is laid for your faith in His excellent Word!
What more can He say than to you He hath said,
You, who unto Jesus for refuge have fled?

I do not recommend this book.  Interesting as it is, read passages of Scripture that talk about heaven instead.  It will be time much better spent.

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4 thoughts on “Heaven is For Real

  1. Hi Doug.
    Questions to your post. I have not read the book and do not intend to, but just curious as to what you think about my questions that relate to what you wrote.

    Our hope ought to rest on the firm and objective foundation of Scripture rather than the unstable and subjective groundwork of personal experience.

    Why is the scripture firm and objective, is it not interpreted and written, is it not a personal experience?

    “If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets [i.e., written revelation], neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead” (Luke 16:31).

    Can we not have modern day experience that can influence and teach us?

  2. Hi Chris,

    These are good questions that are foundational for understanding the nature of the written word as well as how the written word and personal experience work together. So I’ll take a stab at answering your questions.

    I’m going to rephrase your first question for my own sake, i.e., to make sure I understand what you’re asking. Is your first question basically asking, since the Bible had human authors how can we apply the objective label when human authors bring some degree of subjectivity to what he writes? I’ll wait to hear back from you on this one. But let me give you one passage in the Bible that addresses, at least in part, what you are asking. It’s found in 2 Peter 1:19-21 (English Standard Version):
    “And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, [20] knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. [21] For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.”

    As far as your second question, modern day experiences can influence us, yes. They can encourage us. They can motivate us. We have all at some point encountered a person who was inspired us in our life journey. I have been stirred and influenced by the life of many people in history. Yet another’s experience has its limit, especially when it comes to what place it has as an authority in my life. In other words, I affirm that the Bible is the final authority for my faith and practice. Consequently, I can and will find tremendous encouragement from the experience of others but the weight of this person’s influence will always fall below the my highest authority, which is the Bible. So to tie this in to the subject at hand, I have a choice to make when I read a book like this one. Do I believe in heaven because of this four-year-old boy’s experience or do I believe in heaven because the Bible says there is a place called heaven? In my totem pole of authority, it’s the latter.

  3. I’ve just been reading some of the reviews. Even though I’ve been a christian for many years I recently wholeheartedly gave my life to our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. I’ve found a sudden urge to want to know more about the Kingdom of God. Yes some parts of the book might be questionable but hey I look at the ultimate message these books provides which is “there is better life after this but we can only get there by accepting Jesus Christ has our Lord and Saviour and live our lifes by the word of God.” I honestly must say reading the Holy Bible for the first time can be quiet difficult to understand because of the way it is written (which was many years ago) but I noticed reading about these peoples encounter with Jesus gives me a greater anticipation to want to read the bible and it gives me a better way of understanding the Bible. Just my opinion. One thing for sure, if their books inspires one to live a Christian life and dig into the word of God then I personally dont see anything wrong with their books. All praises to our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

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