Back in about 2010 or so, a book came out called Heaven is for Real, written by Todd Burpo and discussing the experiences of his son, Colton Burpo, who supposedly went to heaven and experienced many things there. It has now been released as a major motion picture, and both book and film have reportedly done very well on the market (the book itself was a #1 New York Times Bestseller).
I knew the book existed, but I chose not to read it, as I had generally lost interest in supposed trips to heaven or hell after hearing Bill Wiese’s and Mary K. Baxter’s accounts. Most of them read like what I call “bad Dante Alighieri fanfiction,” and I was always of the opinion that I had the Bible, which was written by the One who lived in heaven, therefore why would I need anyone else’s account? Nonetheless, many people I knew or encountered had read the book, and swore up and down that they loved it. When the movie came out, I realized just how far this had gone (consider that, at the time of this writing, there isn’t a movie for The Shack out in theaters…thank God). I decided to purchase it and read it for myself, and present a review for my readers. I know that other people have already written critiques, and some of what I say will probably be beating around the bush, but I hope this post will prove edifying for someone.
Surprisingly, the book was very easy to read. I actually finished reading it in one day. The chapters are short, it’s only 154 pages, and, as I said, it reads quite easily. It also doesn’t read like “bad Dante Alighieri fanfiction,” but rather is presented in a kind of piecemeal fashion, with Colton’s parents asking what happened, and him providing information bit by bit.
Nearly half of the book (perhaps just over two-fifths) is a description of the calamities that befell the Burpo family, leading up to the visions Colton had. Shortly after Todd Burpo, a pastor in the Wesleyan Church, has suffered from a broken leg, kidney stones, and breast cancer, he and his wife Sonja discover that their son, Colton, has appendicitis. Because this had been misdiagnosed by the doctors they originally went to, much of the dangerous fluid from his appendix had already seeped into most of his body. Taking him to a hospital further away from home, the parents begin to pray and hope that Colton will get better. Miraculously, he does.
Four months after the ordeal, Colton begins to make offhand comments about a visit to heaven, where he got to see Jesus. It gets more serious when he talks of meeting with his deceased great-grandfather, nicknamed “Pop,” as well as meeting the child whom Sonja had miscarried with (something he reportedly had not been told about). Todd, curious about this, pries into Colton’s mind, getting more and more information from him. Colton’s claims and descriptions become the focus of the rest of the book.
Colton’s Claims versus the Bible
It should be noted here that Todd Burpo has made a response to many of the critics who have already spoken out against his son’s story:
“The Jesus in the Bible is the same Jesus who did this for Colton. If Christians don’t like that they must be Pharisees… Christians and sinners still appreciate miracles. Pharisees never have and never will… In the Bible, Pharisees used to call themselves Jews. Today they call themselves Christians… The people who say Colton’s trip to Heaven can’t happen, I say, ‘Read your Bible.'” [source]
Well then…it’s only fair that we follow Burpo’s advice and “read our Bible.” Therefore, let’s review some of the major claims made by Colton regarding what he saw in heaven, and see whether they confirm what is taught in scripture:
1) Jesus has a rainbow horse
One of the first big things Colton talks about is that Jesus has a rainbow horse. He explains to his dad that Jesus has a “rainbow horse” he got to pet (pg. 63). Later on, Colton even tells his grandmother about “Jesus’ rainbow horse” (pg. 90).
Nowhere in scripture, however, is Jesus ever described as having a rainbow horse. The only part which comes close is the description of Christ riding a white horse (Rev 19:11), unless one counts Zechariah’s vision of the pre-incarnate Christ riding a red horse (Zec 1:8). We would have to therefore simply accept Colton’s words as extra-scriptural revelation regarding Christ owning a specific rainbow horse.
2) Colton’s description of Jesus’ face and clothes
Colton describes Jesus as having “brown hair and…hair on his face” (meaning a beard), with eyes that are “so pretty” (pg. 65). He goes on to explain that Christ wore a white outfit with a purple slash going across his chest, from his shoulder to under his arm (ibid). Colton even explains that “Jesus was the only one in heaven who had purple on” (ibid). On top of this, Jesus had a golden crown on his head with “this diamond thing in the middle of it and it was kind of pink” (pg. 65-66).
Of course, what has been pointed out throughout history is that there are no concise descriptions of Christ in his earthly ministry within scripture. The only exception is perhaps Isaiah 53:2b, which reads regarding the coming messiah: “he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him.” This would contradict one description from the book that Jesus is “very masculine, really strong and big” and “his eyes are just beautiful” (pg. 143).
Within the New Testament itself, the only descriptions of Christ are found in his post-ascension state, such as what is found in Revelation 1:12-16. Here, Christ is described as having white hair, a golden sash around his chest (literally around his chest like a high priest – not worn like a sash, as Colton describes), eyes of flame, feet like furnished bronze, and having a voice like the roar of many waters. This is nothing like the down to earth vision that Colton had of Christ. To be fair, most take John’s vision here to be entirely representational – however, no depiction of Christ after the resurrection and ascension has Jesus in this tamed expression so common in “trips to heaven” accounts. After the ascension, Christ always appears in the midst of his full glory.
Similarly, nowhere is a crown described as being seen on the resurrected, glorified Christ, save perhaps for one moment in Revelation, where it is simply described as a golden crown (Rev 14:14). Nowhere is a crown described with a pink diamond. Again, we would have to accept Colton’s words here as extra-scriptural revelation.
3) Colton’s description of Christ’s wounds
In addition to Christ’s facial features and clothes, Colton likewise described the wounds he saw on Christ’s body. He initially calls them “markers” (pg. 65), saying they are red in color, and then gives the following description after his father asks where he saw these wounds:
Without hesitation, he stood to his feet. He held out his right hand, palm up and pointed to the center of it with his left. Then he held out his left palm and pointed with his right hand. Finally, Colton bent over and pointed to the tops of both his feet. [pg. 67]
To this, his father thinks in his head, “He saw this. He had to have” (ibid).
Had I been told this, however, I would have readily believed that he was absolutely wrong, because of the fact that Christ wasn’t crucified in the palms, but in the wrists. The Greek word used in the New Testament that is often translated as “palms” or “hands” actually refers to not just the hand (as we know the word to mean today), but the wrist as well. Also, history proves that Romans crucified people at the wrists because it kept the arms up better that way – had they crucified the palms, the weight of the human body would have torn easily and the hands would not have stayed on the cross.
This should be evidence alone that, whatever Colton experienced, it was not a true vision of Christ.
4) Children in heaven do homework
When Todd asks Colton what he did in heaven, his son readily replies, “Homework… Jesus was my teacher… Jesus gave me work to do, and that was my favorite part of heaven” (pg. 71-72).
Nowhere is this “homework” explained. Likewise, nowhere does scripture speak of any “homework” being given in heaven, either at this moment or after the resurrection. This sounds more like a child’s religious fantasy than an account that can be confirmed by scripture. If we are to accept it as true, then we must accept it as extra-scriptural revelation of what happens in heaven.
5) Colton’s description of people in heaven
Colton claims that “everybody’s got wings” in heaven, and with them they can fly (pg. 72). The size of the wings differs – Colton says he had little wings (ibid) while his deceased great-grandfather had big wings (pg. 87). He likewise claims that “all the people have a light above their head,” (pg. 73). He likewise explains that all wear white garments, and wear sashes, of various colors, although angels wear yellow (pg. 75).
No such description, however, is found in scripture regarding those who have passed on. Wings are only described in regards to angels, and often involved more than two wings (see, for example, the six wings on the Seraphim in Isa 6:2). Nowhere are wings or bright light attributed to those humans who have passed on. When Samuel rises at the behest of the witch of Endor, he is described as being in a robe and nothing else – no wings or halos (1 Sam 28:14). When the apostle John describes believers standing before the throne of God (Rev 7:9-12), they are only described as having white robes, and no other distinguishing features – again, no wings or halos, let alone multicolored sashes.
Todd attempts to prove his son’s account by citing the account of the man Daniel encounters (Dan 10:4-6). However, this was an angel, not a believer in heaven, and the “gold” that he wore was clearly said to be (by Burpo’s own translation) “around his waist,” not worn like a sash as Colton describes. Todd runs into a similar problem when he cites an angel in Revelation (Rev 10:1), which describes an angel but does not confirm Colton’s statement that believers in heaven look like angels. Likewise, Todd appeals to the angel at Christ’s tomb (Matt 28:3), who is described as having an “appearance like lightning,” but which matches nothing described by what Colton had told him – and, once again, it does not describe believers in heaven.
The one passage Todd turns to that does talk about a believer, and not an angel, is Acts 6:15. Quoting from the NLT, he says: “[Stephen’s] face became as bright as an angel’s” (pg. 73). Appealing to this passage, however, presents several problems. For one, Stephen wasn’t dead and in heaven – he was still alive, and on earth. For another, Todd Burpo is clearly choosing a translation (and honestly, not a very good one) that conforms with what he wants to prove: the original Greek literally renders “all in the council saw the face of his as the face of an angel.” It says nothing about Stephen’s face shining in the same way an angel does, and while some commentators have thought of it as such (hence the NLT’s rendering), others have pointed out that it is a way of speaking about inward discernment (as similar phraseology is found in Gen 33:10, as well as in rabbinical literature). We must also remember that, contextually speaking, Stephen is about to begin speaking at length to the Sanhedrin about the past of the Jewish people, and the history of salvation, and the coming judgment upon them. Stephen is not shining in the face (for no one reacts to him as if he were), but rather he is appearing before them as a true and holy messenger of God (the word “angel” in the Greek also referring to “messenger”).
Even stranger is that the book emphasizes that Colton wasn’t dead when he experienced all these visions…why, then, was he made to look like people who had died? Todd cites the apostles Paul and John as examples of people who went to heaven while still alive, but neither of those men immediately grew wings, nor described themselves as being transformed into what a dead person becomes once they cross over.
In the end, Colton’s description of people in heaven fits more into a Hallmark Christmas card – it does not fit into a biblical understanding of what angels or the deceased look like.
6) What time means in heaven
Colton tells his father that he was in heaven altogether for about three minutes (pg. 76). Todd is confused by this, as Colton seemed to have done a lot in those three minutes, but shrugs it off with: “Maybe there is no time in heaven. At least not as we understand it” (pg. 78).
Predictably, he turns to 2 Peter 3:8, where the apostle writes that, to the Lord, “a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day.” However, this passage is not saying that one 24-hour day to the Lord is literally like a thousand years to us. When you look at the full context, Peter is speaking about judgment, and the supposed slowness of God’s judgment. Peter is saying that we shouldn’t be shocked if it takes God one year or a hundred years to deliver judgment upon a group of people, as a hundred years to God is really nothing, unlike what it means to us.
In order for us to accept that there is a weird understanding of time in heaven, we would have to accept Colton Burpo’s claims as extra-scriptural revelation.
7) Gabriel sits at God’s left hand
On Christmas of 2003, Colton began to tell his dad about seeing the throne room of God. Ge describes it as “really, really big, because God is the biggest one there is” (pg. 100). He likewise describes “Jesus’ chair is right next to his Dad’s” (ibid). Todd then asks who sat on the other side of God’s throne, to which Colton replies, “Oh, that’s easy, Dad. That’s where the angel Gabriel is. He’s really nice” (pg. 101).
Todd Burpo attempts to prove his son’s account by citing Luke 1:13-15a, 18-19, specifically Gabriel’s statement “I stand in the presence of God.” Of course, scripture says that lots of angels stand in the presence of God (cf. Rev 7:11; 8:2), and Gabriel nowhere says “I sit at the left hand of God” (notice that, in the passage Burpo himself cites, Gabriel doesn’t even use the word sit). In order to believe that Gabriel sits at the left hand of God’s throne, you must simply accept Colton’s account as extra-scriptural revelation.
8) What does the Holy Spirit look like?
While continuing the discussion from the previous point, Todd asks Colton where he sat in heaven. Colton says that he sitting by God the Holy Spirit (pg. 102). Todd asks Colton what the Holy Spirit looked like, to which Colton replies, “Hmm, that’s kind of a hard one…he’s kind of blue” (pg. 103).
At this point, I seriously had to put the book down and let my mind settle on what I had just read. The Holy Spirit is “kind of blue”? What passage in all of scripture confirms that? What passage of scripture even hints at that? I seriously almost stopped reading the book at this point – the musings of a young child had suddenly turned so goofy that I was amazed Todd and Sonja were still taking anything he said seriously.
Again, in order to believe that the Holy Spirit is blue, one would have to accept Colton’s claim as extra-scriptural revelation. Then again, who in their right minds would do that? Unfortunately, it seems millions of people already have.
9) Nobody is old in heaven
When shown a picture of what his great-grandfather looked like younger, Colton says that this is what he looked like in heaven, and states matter-of-factly, “Dad, nobody’s old in heaven. And nobody wears glasses” (pg. 121). At the end of the same chapter, Todd tells the reader: “The bad news is that in heaven, we’ll still look like ourselves. The good news is, it’ll be the younger version” (pg. 123).
This is rather interesting, given that, when Colton saw his miscarried sister, he described her as being as old as his current sister (who was very young at the time), only “a little bit smaller” (pg. 95). He likewise describes children being in heaven, seen in a childlike age. Why, however, are they seen as children and not full grown adults? Why are people not old, and yet they still are, in some circumstances, incredibly young? Do people grow up in heaven like they do on earth? Do they stop getting older at a magical age? Why are they not allowed to be old? This presents a contradiction with Colton’s story.
In either case, nowhere in scripture does it explain how old we will be, or what we will look like. The apostle Paul does speak on our bodies after the resurrection, but merely says they will be glorified (1 Cor 15:42-49) – he doesn’t say we will be a certain age, or that no one will appear elderly. One would therefore have to accept Colton’s specific information as extra-scriptural revelation.
10) Angels have swords to keep the devil out
After watching the film The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Sonja comments to Colton that he won’t have to worry about swords in heaven. Colton quickly replies, “There are too swords in heaven!” (pg. 132) When asked why they need swords in heaven, Colton says, “Mom, Satan’s not in hell yet…The angels carry swords so they can keep Satan out of heaven!” (pg. 133).
Nowhere in scripture are angels recorded as needing swords to keep Satan out of heaven, let alone is it even described that angels stand guard to keep Satan out of heaven. Job 1:6 even describes Satan walking about heaven and coming before the presence of God, with no sign that he had to avoid sword-wielding angels to do it. Todd cites Christ’s statement that he saw Satan fall from heaven (Luke 10:18), though this merely speaks of Satan being cast out of heaven, not about angels walking around heaven with swords to keep him out. One would have to, yet again, simply accept Colton’s words as extra-scriptural revelation.
11) When do we get our glorified bodies?
One thing I noticed reading this book was that there seemed to be very little talk of the resurrection. Initially I thought there was only one real mention of a resurrection in the entire book, and that is when Colton says of his great grandfather: “He’s in heaven. He’s got a new body. Jesus told me if you don’t go to heaven, you don’t get a new body” (pg. 136). However, I later realized that this couldn’t be about the resurrection, as Colton was talking of a new body while you’re in heaven, and that his great grandfather already had this new body.
While Paul does speak of us inheriting an “imperishable body” that will “bear the image of the heavenly,” it is only given to us at the resurrection (see 1 Cor 15:42-49). Nowhere is it said that we receive this upon death, or when we get to heaven. Therefore, unless Pop has been resurrected already and then ascended into heaven, Colton’s claims about what “Jesus” told him are completely contradictory to the biblical teaching.
12) There will be a Battle of Armageddon at the end times
Humorously enough, Colton apparently was given insight into the future as well as the past or present. He described witnessing the supposed Battle of Armageddon at the end times:
“Dad, did you know there’s going to be a war?… There’s going to be a war, and it’s going to destroy this world. Jesus and the angels and the good people are going to fight against Satan and the monsters and the bad people. I saw it… In heaven, the women and the children got to stand back and watch. So I stood back and watched… But the men, they had to fight…” [pg. 136]
When asked what the monsters were, Colton explains “like dragons and stuff” (pg. 137). As for those fighting the monsters, Colton says they “either get a sword or a bow and arrow, but I don’t remember which” (pg. 138).
Todd cites two passages to confirm what Colton was saying: Revelation 9:6-10 and 20:1-3, 7-10. However, in the first passage (regarding the strange locust creatures), no one is recording fighting them, only that they are plaguing humanity. In the second passage, no monsters are mentioned, only that Satan will seduce the nations, turn them against the saints of God, and then God will come down and destroy them with fire. There is no mention of believers fighting monsters or dragons or the like.
Colton’s description fits well with pop Dispensationalism or popular notions of the end times that you find in bookstores, but, again, it doesn’t describe anything talked about in the Bible. We would have to accept it as extra-scriptural revelation about the end times.
13) Animals are in heaven
In addition to the rainbow-colored horse, Colton claims that while in heaven he saw “dogs, birds, even a lion – and the lion was friendly, not fierce” (pg. 152).
Nowhere does scripture say animals are in heaven. Some will probably point to passages like Isaiah 11:6 and 65:25 (the famous “lion and the lamb” passages), however, these are generally believed to be about the new creation after the resurrection, when peace will settle on the earth. In order for us to believe there are animals in heaven, we would have to take Colton’s word for it, in which case we’d have to accept it as extra-scriptural revelation.
14) The Virgin Mary still functions as Christ’s mother
In a peculiar section at the end of the book, Todd gives an answer to a popular question asked by Roman Catholics:
A lot of our Catholic friends have asked whether Colton saw Mary, the mother of Jesus. The answer to that is also yes. He saw Mary kneeling before the throne of God and at other times, standing beside Jesus. “She still loves him like a mom,” Colton said. [pg.152-153]
At this point, I began to wonder if some of the stuff Colton was claiming was just stuff he made up on the fly. It almost feels as if Colton is, at this point, merely accommodating the desires and needs of various people who ask him questions.
In any case, there is no evidence in scripture that the Virgin Mary functions in this role in heaven. We would have to accept Colton’s description as extra-scriptural revelation.
The Gospel of Colton Burpo
As one can tell already, much of the focus of the book is on heaven. Nothing is said of a resurrection, the new creation when Christ returns, and the like. The message is almost entirely a cheerful one. Of course, there is mention of Satan, and at one point Colton Burpo says that someone recently deceased “had to know Jesus or he can’t get into heaven” (pg. 57). However, there’s no talk of eternal punishment. There’s no talk of sins. There’s no talk of judgment. There’s not talk of mercy in spite of the judgment deserved. Even with the discussion of the end times battle, there’s no mention of what will happen afterward to the bad guys after that.
How important is the resurrection? The apostle Paul connected it to the resurrection of Christ (1 Cor 15:12-13), going on to say “if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” (1 Cor 15:14). Christ’s resurrection was “the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Cor 15:20), meaning that Christ was the first to be raised in order that the future resurrection would be made possible (cf. 1 Cor 15:21-26). In fact, the apostle Paul portrayed Christ’s resurrection as an important part of the gospel (1 Cor 15:1-4). This resurrection, however, is blatantly missing from any part of Colton Burpo’s presentation of the afterlife – indeed, it almost seems meaningless.
One of the greatest dangers from this is what the Gospel is presented as. When Todd asks his kids why Jesus died on the cross, Colton says that Jesus told him “Jesus died on the cross so we could go see his Dad” (pg. 111). Granted, I can try to be gracious and say (as Todd Burpo says throughout the book) that Colton is a little child, and hence is speaking from the plain language of a little child…although Colton’s claiming Jesus himself said this. The greater problem is that Colton’s father – who is a pastor – treats his religious opinion as the norm, and even seems to accept his wording as what Jesus himself desires people to know:
In my mind’s eye, I saw Jesus, with Colton on his lap, brushing past all the seminary degrees, knocking down the theological treatises stacked high as skyscrapers, and boiling down fancy words like propitiation and soteriology to something a child could understand. [ibid]
Todd calls his son’s words “the simplest and sweetest declaration of the gospel I had ever heard” (ibid), going on to ask Colton, “Hey, do you wanna preach on Sunday?” (pg. 112). This watered down, simplified version of the Gospel, therefore, is presented as something Jesus wants every Christian to believe in. One can almost hear the kind of snide attack against most organized theology, as if Colton Burpo’s Jesus is telling people, “Just throw out church history, your confessions, your creeds, your study of the original language, and just enjoy this message.”
One complaint that has been lodged against most visits-to-heaven accounts, or near-death experiences, is that they often forgo concerns about our sin and our righteousness before God, and focus instead on the therapeutic concerns of most individuals. We can readily see that here, where the Gospel is distilled into the feel good message of “Jesus loves you.” While Christ certainly loves his flock, this presents problems with how the people who believe in this will understand scripture. For example, Colton Burpo emphasizes how much God loves children, and presents the idea that all children who die go to heaven…how, then, would Colton (let alone his father Todd) explain the places in scripture where children (even infants) are clearly killed by God in judgment, either in the flood, the tenth plague in Egypt, the invasion of Canaan, etc. For those who have studied and looked at God’s holiness and justice, this isn’t an issue…for people who adhere to a simplified gospel like that presented by Colton Burpo, however, this will present them with problems. It is these kinds of people who atheists that have actually studied what the scripture says will snatch up or make to look like a fool when the tough questions get asked. How will they reconcile Colton Burpo’s promise that God “loves” literally all children every where, and then in the Old Testament judgment is clearly being passed in the form of what atheists call (erroneously) genocide and murder? They won’t be able to, because their understanding of God’s love is not a biblical one, but one found in the private revelations of a four-year old boy.
The fact is, Christ’s love for us is love in a certain context. Christ loves us because we are given to him by the Father, and so he atoned for our sins, and bore the punishment that we deserved for those sins. That’s something even a child can understand without using the big terms, and unfortunate this is not the gospel we are being told from the Burpo family.
Todd Burpo’s Discernment
Todd Burpo, we must remember, is an ordained pastor. Therefore, it is part of his job to test all things, and make certain that they conform with the teachings of scripture. When his son began to tell him things about heaven and his visitations with Jesus, how did he react?
Personally, I was rather shocked with just how easily he and Sonja seemed to accept his son’s testimony. In the prologue, when Todd explains the first time Colton hinted at his other-worldly experience, Colton says to his mother, “I remember [the hospital]. That’s where the angels sang to me” (pg. xvii). Todd describes this as being something that sent him and his wife into a deep shock, when I think most parents would have just figured, “My kid had a nice little dream while he was under.” They later state they can’t be certain if it was a dream, since “he seems so sure” (pg. xx). At this, I have to wonder just how many children the Burpos have run into over time. When I was a little boy, I at one point claimed to my parents that, one Christmas night, I saw Rudolph’s nose. I was certain of it. I said it in a tone that fully believed I had seen Rudolph. If my parents had been the Burpos, they might have gasped, eyed each other, and then whispered in shocked tones later on, “Did he see Rudolph? He just seems so sure!” (Heck, I’m even reminded of the Cottingley Fairies, where two young girls were absolutely sure they had taken photos of fairies, and to their dying day insisted that at least some of the photos were real). Similarly, Todd recounts how, while he and Sonja were going over the bills and what to pay, Colton comes up and says, “Jesus used Dr. O’Holleran to help fix me…You need to pay him” (pg. 54). Again, the parents are absolutely shocked their son would think this way…despite the fact I could name Christian parents who can tell similar stories about cute things their children have said, and in similar circumstances.
Even sillier is when Colton is telling his father of all the details in heaven, and his father acts as if the vividness of Colton’s account is strange, saying “little boys don’t exactly come up and offer you long, detailed histories” (pg. 62). I could point to a few little boys in my church alone who, if you gave them the chance, would spin you a yarn that would humble George R. R. Martin. While Colton did present information that he could never have possibly known, it just seemed like the Burpos were acting shocked and awed in situations that most parents would have brushed off. In some points, it was almost comical how quickly they reacted with awe at their young son doing what many young boys have done.
Even more comical is how Todd and Sonja seem to submit themselves to the theological lessons from their four-year old son. Talking about how he wanted to ask Colton questions about his so-called experience in heaven, Todd writes: “if he had really seen Jesus and the angels, I wanted to become the student, not the teacher!” (pg. 62) Often when Colton starts to go into an explanation of what he saw or heard, Todd will often tell the reader that he considered this a “new information alert” or “new information time” (which hints that he was aware something about his son’s experiences were new or different). The Bible clearly outlines the mother and father as the spiritual leaders of the home, but in the Burpo household things seemed to become reversed.
What is unfortunate, however, is how Todd Burpo (who again, is a pastor) seems to handle scripture in this regard. As the previous notes show, he will almost always take something his son says, find a vague reference to it in scripture, or a loose connection to it in scripture, and immediately assumes that Colton’s claim must be true. So, for example, Jesus saying that he saw Satan fall from heaven is somehow proof for Colton’s claim that angels walk around with swords to keep the devil out. Likewise, the fact that the Bible uses the word “rainbow” or various forms of colors is proof that Colton, who saw various colors (including a rainbow horse), really did go to heaven. To illustrate how fallacious this interpretation of scripture is, imagine this following scenario:
Kid: “I had an out of body experience where I went to Texas.”
Me: “Oh yeah? What was going on?”
Kid: “Well, I met the Queen of England in front of the Eiffel Tower and Godzilla was in the Kremlin next door, and it was raining hard…”
Me: “GASP! It rains in Texas! That must mean he really was in Texas!“
This is literally how dialogue and so-called “scriptural examination” happens in the book. Never mind, of course, that only part of the kid’s account was based on truth, or that the rest of the information contradicted the possibility, or added to that reality – nope, because two minor points matched up with each other, the account must have been true. This contradicts the claim made on the back of the book that Colton gave “obscure details about heaven that matched the Bible exactly.” Todd comes across as ready to compartmentalize the discrepancies and specifics of his son’s account for whatever vague connection can be made to scripture, as seen in one instance where his son gave a description contradictory to what the Bible says, and yet he takes it as a description that “matched Scripture in every detail” (pg. 66). Sometimes (such as with the Holy Spirit being blue), there isn’t even an attempt to prove Colton’s words are compliant with scripture – his words are just taken at face value.
The problem may come from the fact that Todd seemed completely and utterly willing to immediately believe that Colton had entered heaven. He writes after his very first round of questions with Colton: “It dawned on me that maybe we’d been given a gift and that our job now was to unwrap it, slowly, carefully, and see what was inside” (pg. 64). Even Sonja, his wife, seems excited by this, and ready to accept whatever Colton has to say. Whereas most parents might present some reasonable hesitancy, none of this is seen in Todd and Sonja.
There is also no sign that Todd thought to himself that, if his son really did have an experience, there was a possibility it was from spiritual deception. The apostle Paul warned us that “Satan disguises himself as an angel of light” (2 Cor 11:14), and Christ himself gave warnings of signs and wonders passed off as legitimate works of God (Matt 7:22-23; 24:24). One need only look to the history behind Mormonism, Islam, and countless other false religions and heresies to see that spiritual deception is very, very real. If Colton Burpo really did have a spiritual experience, then – given the contradictions with scripture, or strange visions that are nowhere confirmed in scripture – we would have to accept that it was a false experience.
By What Authority?
As the previous notes have suggested, a lot of Colton’s claims cannot be substantiated from scripture. As a result, much of it (if not nearly all) is extra-scriptural revelation. Oftentimes, scripture even gets interpreted through the lens of what Colton says, so that we are presented with a new understanding of how to interpret certain passages. This leads us to an important question: who’s authority are we going by? Are we going by scripture…or by Colton Burpo?
What shocked me as I read more and more of the book is just how much emphasis was not really being placed upon Christ and the Bible, but rather on Colton and his experiences. Over and over again, phrases like “because of Colton’s story” or “due to what Colton said” or “thanks to Colton” were used in reference to someone feeling better, or feeling at peace with eternity. Todd’s mother tells him: “Ever since this happened, I think more about what it might really be like in heaven…before, I’d heard, but now I know that someday I’m going to see” (pg. 150). If you look at the Praise for Heaven is for Real section at the very beginning of the book, you’ll notice a comment by Jo Anne Lyon, General Superintendent of the Wesleyan Church, which says, “God has chosen to speak to us in this twenty-first century through the unblemished eyes of a child, revealing some of the mysteries of heaven.” Even Todd says that he and Sonja, through Colton, “had a glimpse through the veil that separates earth from eternity” (pg. 148).
This all confirms what we have been suggesting all along: that Colton Burpo has presented us with direct revelation from God Himself. He therefore has the same status and authority as the prophets of old, such as Isaiah and Jeremiah, as well as the apostles of Christ’s time. The logical conclusion of this is that anyone who even thinks of challenging Todd and Colton Burpo are challenging God Himself, and will be judged for it. Even if Todd Burpo has never said this (although his attitude towards critics is rather telling), it is, again, the logical conclusion from the statements made. There is no middle ground for “thus sayeth the Lord,” or even “thus showeth me the Lord.” Christians might as well purchase Heaven is for Real and add it to their Bibles, because that is how seriously many people take Colton’s account.
Perhaps one final thing that alarmed me, near the end, was how people began to equate these supernatural experiences with belief in God. While speaking about a Lithuanian-American girl who had similar experiences to Colton, Todd describes that “her mom began to accept that Akiane’s visions were real and that therefore, God must be real” (pg. 143). He also makes the alleged story that a nurse said to him, after Colton’s recovery, “there has to be a God, because this is a miracle” (pg. 148). He likewise tells the story of a babysitter who heard some of Colton’s testimony about his miscarried sibling, and says “Colton’s story about his sister strengthened her Christian faith” (pg. 130). Todd even places talking about his faith in God on equal with talking about his son’s experiences:
As a pastor, I was always comfortable talking about my faith, but now, in addition, I talk about what happened to my son. It’s the truth and I talk about it, no apologies. [pg. 153]
This again places Colton Burpo and Heaven is for Real on the same level as the Bible. What was it the apostle John wrote about his own gospel? “These have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name” (John 20:31). The apostle Paul likewise wrote: “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ” (Rom 10:17). Yet we might as well change the wording to: “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Colton Burpo.”
Of course, all of this completely contradicts the doctrine of sola scriptura, and the concept of the absolute sufficiency of scripture. The apostle Paul wrote: “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3:16-17). The phrase “man of God” is harkening back to the concept of an Old Testament messenger from God. The point the apostle Paul is making is that everything in inspired writ is what we need for our spiritual needs – we don’t need a little kid coming back from heaven and telling us about Christ’s rainbow horsey. To understand God, understand His plan of salvation, and understand what parts of the afterlife we need to focus on, we have the Bible – anything else is simply fluff.
Todd Burpo told his critics to “read their Bible.” Well, I have read my Bible, Mister Burpo, and I have held your son’s testimony to the light of scripture…and I’m sad to say, your son’s account has come out wanting. Your son was most likely facing the effects of delirium from the anesthetic (a side effect that can be so strong the victim actually believes something happened), most likely with some demonic deception thrown in. You need to forsake your presupposition and truly read your Bible to see if your son had a legitimate experience. Then, you must repent of leading people astray with these so-called experiences of heaven. I’m sure you love your son, and I’m sure you want to help people, but you must realize the spiritual damage you do – especially when you respond to any form of discernment by calling your critics Pharisees.
When I began reading this book, I put a little note on one of the first pages: “Question – Will this book deal with Luke 16:27-31?” After finishing it up, I had to go back and write my answer: “Nope.” To explain, this passage takes place in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus: both men have died, and Lazarus is up in heaven, while the rich man is down in hell, suffering torment. At this point, a dialogue occurs between the rich man and Abraham:
“And [the rich man] said, ‘Then I beg you, father, that you send him to my father’s house—for I have five brothers—in order that he may warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’ But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ But he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent!’ But he said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be persuaded even if someone rises from the dead.’” [Luke 16:27-31]
This passage completely contradicts nearly every near-death experience, or so-called visits to heaven and hell, that are out there on the market. The rich man wanted to do what Bill Wiese, Mary K. Baxter, and Colton Burpo all claimed to do: come back with supernatural experiences about the afterlife and tell people about it for their benefit. What does Abraham say? Basically, Abraham says, “Look, they have their Bibles, don’t they? If the Bible isn’t sufficient enough, what good is your experience in the afterlife going to do?” Yet with all these accounts and experiences, we are supposed to believe that, after almost 2000 years, Christ apparently changed his mind.
Some might contend here, “But people have been helped by this book!” In what way? By coming closer to God? Which God? The apostle Paul warned of the possibility of people being swayed by “another Jesus,” “a different Spirit,” and “a different gospel” (cf. 2 Cor 11:4). As we have seen, Colton Burpo could not have been learning from the real, true God, as the real, true God would not contradict His word in such a way. If anyone has been “helped,” it has only been in a superficial, emotional way, and not one according to biblical truth. We should not forsake the teachings of scripture for an argument from pragmatism fallacy.
Ultimately, the seduction of this book is that it supposedly offers answers to questions many people have regarding the afterlife. The problem is, much of it is already answered in scripture. It pained me in the book when people make literal pilgrimages to Colton to ask if their believing family member is in heaven, when they can simply read Romans 8, Ephesians 1, Colossians 3, etc., and see for themselves that, if their loved ones have died in faith, they are secure in the arms of God. The problem is that for many in our society the Bible is not enough. They cannot agree with the words of the apostle Paul in 2 Timothy 3:16-17. They want more. They want something else. They want an extra kick to their fix. They want something spiritual that appeals to them and their personal emotions. The devil knows this, of course…and that is why the devil is only too happy to present himself as an angel of light to present some kind of “revelation” to give the people something sweet and tender that leads them away from a sufficiency in God’s word.
Brothers and sisters, we must not permit Satan to seduce us in such a fashion. We must be like the Psalmist when he said to God “I will delight in your statutes” (Psa 119:16). To permit ourselves to be influenced by contrary visits to heaven are part of what the apostle Paul warned about he mentioned those who “will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths” (2 Tim 4:4). Let us look to the word of God for knowledge of our salvation, and let us look forward, most of all, to the coming resurrection, in which we shall be brought forward before Christ, blameless and holy, counted righteous not for anything we have done, but for what Christ did.