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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Otsego Festival Question Series: What is it Like in Heaven?

To begin with the word “heaven” or “heavens” is used in two ways in the Bible.  First, “heaven”/”heavens” is used in the sense of the expanse of space above the earth: the blue sky above us and the black sky even further above us (e.g., in Genesis 1:1; Psalm 19:1; Matthew 5:18; 11:25).  Second, “heaven”/”heavens” is used in the sense of the eternal dwelling place of God and the final destiny of all believers.  I am assuming that the question uses the word “heaven” in the second sense.

So what is heaven like?  There is no place more magnificent than heaven.  The notion of heaven is almost universally embraced—and understandably so.  It is the hedonist’s paradise.  But why is it so glorious?  We want to be careful about confusing the benefits of heaven with the sine qua non of heaven.  For instance, Revelation 21:4 explains that tears, death, mourning, crying, and pain will be no more in heaven.  These, as precious as they are, are the benefits of living in a reality where the presence of sin is banished.  But what makes heaven heaven?  The Bible gives a clear answer to this question.  Heaven is heaven because God is there.  God is the sine qua non of heaven.  God is heaven’s Temple and God’s glory provides heaven’s light according to Revelation 21:23,

And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. [23] And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb.

Without God, there is no heaven.  Just as physical death is separation of the spirit from the body (Ecclesiastes 12:7; James 2:26), so spiritual death is eternal separation from God (2 Thessalonians 1:9).  Heaven is delighting in the presence of God for all eternity.  Believers will live in unspeakable bliss in the presence of God forever (1 Thessalonians 4:7).  Heaven also offers believers the assurance that they will be reunited with infants and believing loved ones who died before them.  Jonathan Edwards, the 18th century American pastor and theologian wrote,

The progress of time does but bear them on to its blessedness; and us, if we are holy, to be united to them there.  Every gem which death rudely tears away from us here is a glorious jewel forever shining there.  Every Christian friend that goes before us from this world, is a ransomed spirit waiting to welcome us in heaven.  There will be the infant of days that we have lost below, though grace to be found above.  There the Christian father, and mother, and wife, and child, and friend, with whom we shall renew the holy fellowship of the saints, which was interrupted by death here, but shall be commenced again in the upper sanctuary, and then shall never end (Jonathan Edwards, Heaven—A World of Love, 18).

The only way we can authoritatively know what heaven is like is by discovering what the Bible says about it (not by interviewing people who’ve had near-death experiences or even someone who has spent 90 minutes there, as intruiging as this might be).  There is no better place to turn to for this information than Revelation 21-22:5,

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. [2] And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. [3] And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. [4] He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” [5 ] And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” [6] And he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment. [7] The one who conquers will have this heritage, and I will be his God and he will be my son. [8 ] But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.” [9] Then came one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues and spoke to me, saying, “Come, I will show you the Bride, the wife of the Lamb.” [10] And he carried me away in the Spirit to a great, high mountain, and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God, [11] having the glory of God, its radiance like a most rare jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal. [12] It had a great, high wall, with twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels, and on the gates the names of the twelve tribes of the sons of Israel were inscribed— [13] on the east three gates, on the north three gates, on the south three gates, and on the west three gates. [14 ] And the wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them were the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb. [15] And the one who spoke with me had a measuring rod of gold to measure the city and its gates and walls. [16] The city lies foursquare, its length the same as its width. And he measured the city with his rod, 12,000 stadia. Its length and width and height are equal. [17] He also measured its wall, 144 cubits by human measurement, which is also an angel’s measurement. [18] The wall was built of jasper, while the city was pure gold, clear as glass. [19] The foundations of the wall of the city were adorned with every kind of jewel. The first was jasper, the second sapphire, the third agate, the fourth emerald, [20 ] the fifth onyx, the sixth carnelian, the seventh chrysolite, the eighth beryl, the ninth topaz, the tenth chrysoprase, the eleventh jacinth, the twelfth amethyst. [21] And the twelve gates were twelve pearls, each of the gates made of a single pearl, and the street of the city was pure gold, transparent as glass. [22] And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. [23] And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb. [24] By its light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it, [25 ] and its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. [26 ] They will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. [27 ] But nothing unclean will ever enter it, nor anyone who does what is detestable or false, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.[22 :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. 

Finally, it is absolutely critical that we understand one final point.  Jesus is the only way to heaven! Jesus said in John 14:1-6,

Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. [2] In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? [3] And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. [4] And you know the way to where I am going.” [5] Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” [6] Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me (emphasis added).

Who would not want to go to heaven based on what the Bible says about it.  But there is only one way to get there—through Jesus Christ.

Otsego Festival Question Series: Is There Truly An Afterlife?

The Bible is absolutely clear on the answer to this question.  However, before I tell you how the Bible answers this question, I want to provide the following observations:

  • Ancient Egyptians believed there was an afterlife.  Excavations reveal that Pharaohs were buried with mind-boggling wealth, supplies, food, slaves, and even children to take with them to the next life (think King Tut).  Ancient Egyptian papyri also depict the journey to the afterlife.
  • Two prominent cults, Mormonism and Jehovah’s Witnesses, teach that there is an afterlife.
  • Islam teaches about heaven in Sura 55:54-60 and Sura 56:15-25.  It is interesting to note that the Quran fashions heaven from the view-point of a desert-dwelling male.
  • Hinduism affirms a “revolving door” approach called reincarnation.  It is always upward, not downward.  The ultimate state is Nirvana which means one has been absorbed into the great unconsciousness of the universe.  It takes multiple times of living well and dying well to achieve Nirvana.  Hindu scholars say it can take up to 600,000 times.
  • Buddhism came out of Hinduism.  Nirvana is achieved by enlightenment.  This can be achieved as a human (as opposed to a non-human reincarnation)
  • Greek philosophers expected a life beyond this one.  In Plato’s Phaedo, the author recounts the final days of Socrates, including the death scene when he drinks the hemlock and dies.  Just before Socrates drinks the hemlock he declares, “ . . . yet I may and must pray to the gods to prosper my journey from this to that other world . . .”

I offer these observations to prove a single point: historically, people of all colors and cultures have believed that there is an afterlife.  In recent decades the phenomenon of so-called “near-death experiences” has heightened our interest in what happens after we die.    

Now to return to the core of your question, the Bible answers your question unequivocally: Yes, there is truly an afterlife.  Let me give you a sampling of Bible verses that teach this:

  • In what many Biblical scholars understand to be the earliest book of the Bible written, Job confidently exclaims, “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. [26] And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God, [27] whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another. My heart faints within me” (Job 19:25-27)!
  • Ecclesiastes 12:7 states, “and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.”
  • In the Gospel of Luke 16:19-31 there is an account of a rich man and a poor man named Lazarus.  After they die they find themselves in the next life, Lazarus in Paradise and the rich man in hell.  
  • Hebrews 9:27 says, “And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment.”
  • 1 Timothy 4:8 teaches, “for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.”

So very clearly the Bible teaches that there is truly an afterlife.  We must make one more important observation about the afterlife.  The Bible makes it plain that there are only two destinies after this life: heaven and hell, both are real and eternal.    

  • Daniel 12:2 “And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.”
  • Matthew 25:46 “And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

Jesus spoke about final destinies this way, “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. [14] For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Matthew 7:13-14).  How do we enter the way that leads to life?  Through Jesus Christ.  John 14:6 says, “Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’”  

In conclusion, historically, the existence of an afterlife has been universally embraced.  The Bible is crystal clear that there is truly an afterlife.   Finally, the Bible teaches that there are only two destinies after this life: heaven and hell, both are real and eternal.  The only way to heaven is through Jesus Christ.  If you want to know more about going to heaven I invite you to watch this video: “Bad News/Good News.”  The most important thing any person can do is to prepare for the life to come.