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.