It is no surprise that holding down the top spot on bestselling book lists for weeks now is a book about a little boy who claims that he saw what heaven looks like. People are fascinated with stories about the supernatural realm beyond the world we know, and for many (including Christians and non-Christians alike) these stories tickle their ears and give them ideas about God and heaven that simply are not biblical. I have not read the book myself nor do I plan to, but I know that it is very popular and I would like to offer what I believe are biblical words of wisdom, full of truth and communicated with grace.
Troy Nicholson was my youth pastor at First Southern Baptist Church in Bryant, AR from the time I was in 10th grade until I graduated High School. A couple of years ago Troy and his family moved to Tuscaloosa, AL to start a church plant where they live and do ministry now. I would say if there is one person who, to this day, has helped shape my theology and approach to ministry the most - it has been Troy. I say all of that to show that I know him personally and have the utmost respect for him no matter what area of life it comes to. So, I was pleased to come across and read Troy’s book review of Heaven Is Real on Facebook because I think he hit the nail on the head and offered a caring pastoral response. Click the link to read more.
Heaven is for Real - Reviewed by Troy Nicholson
A Note of Context:
Perhaps it is necessary to confess up-front, “I am a skeptic”. If you were to tell me the shirt that I am wearing is blue, rest assured I will look down to make sure. Whether this is a byproduct of contextual influence during the formative years of my life or a gift associated with the role of pastor/shepherd will only be revealed in Heaven - which is a great segue into our topic.
Heaven is for Real follows the life of the Burpo family with specific emphasis on Colton, a four-year old boy, and his father Todd. In a nutshell, Colton gets very sick and, after a series of frustrating events and days, the family finds out emergency surgery is needed for a ruptured appendix in February of 2003. Todd is already discouraged due to his own broken leg, breast cancer scare, financial troubles, and strenuous life as a school coach/fireman/pastor/overhead garage door installer. Colton has surgery and the recovery was not void of troubles either. Eventually, the boy is released, the community surrounds the Burpos, God provides for their needs, the family learns valuable lessons, and others begin to be encouraged by the story. Why? Because Colton begins to leak out bits and pieces of a journey to Heaven he experienced while in surgery (perhaps dead - perhaps not). Thus the book finds its flow: Colton shares something - Dad thinks about it - Dad remembers a Scripture - Dad leaves Colton to digest his thoughts alone or with someone else - Everyone waits for the next opportunity to probe Colton for more details. 6 or 7 years later, upon being encouraged by others, Todd writes the book detailing the events of the journey. This short-fun-easy read is a 17+ week #1 on the NY Times Bestseller list … and seems to be gaining more momentum. An edition for children will be available in the Fall, so don’t be shocked when it comes out in 3-D at your local theater.
A Note of Content:
The book is filled with intriguing moments and fascinating details. The boy’s out of body experience allows him to see his dad praying in another room and his mom on her cell phone. He meets his great-grandad “Pop”, an unnamed sister who had been miscarried, John the Baptist, and the Virgin Mary. The mother of all moments is his interaction with Jesus, who not only talked with him and showed him his scars but also gave him “homework”. Jesus wears a white robe and purple sash but has no wings. Conversely, everyone else wears different color sashes, colors we’ve never seen, and sport wings of varying sizes. He saw the pearly gates, glowing aura’s around people, pet Jesus’ horse, tons of children, and even swords to keep Satan out of heaven. Nobody was old and nobody wore glasses. God Himself was seen, the biggest person there, as was the Holy Spirit, who was only identified as a “blue” something. Power was “shot” to his dad, Todd, when he preaches and his (Todd’s) prayers are the reason that Jesus made Colton go back. Again, this book is saturated with mind-blowing details that stir emotional fibers. All details that the Apostle Paul surely saw … but was instructed to never utter … lest he be found boasting (2 Cor 12).
A Note of Care:
Call it cynical or call it shepherding (I feel strongly about one of those) but here is where a side of me arises from the “field of flowers” sensation of this book and assumes a defensive stance. Trust me, this book in no way poses threat to evangelical theology like “The Shack”, but it does have that same strange allurement. An allurement to get more excited about someone’s story instead of the Text of Scripture.
Four Notes of Concern:
1. The gospel is lacking. In one section, Colton is uncontrollable in his concern that a deceased man “knew” who Jesus was. “He Had to know Jesus” is repeated several times at the funeral home, to the point where the mom is forced to remove him from the facility. Here lies my concern: How did Colton (who went to heaven) “know” Jesus in a way that the older man did not “know” Jesus (and the reader is left to decide his fate). I am going to avoid the debate here over childhood salvation - but raise the question “is this book helpful or harmful to the adult who has a head knowledge of Christ but has never understood sin, substitution, wrath, atonement, etc”? In other words, does that individual walk away encouraged because he/she at least has the same child-like faith of Colton? Statements like “I’m not perfect but I talk to Jesus all the time” - “Me and God have our own thing going” - “I was baptized when I was…” - “I walked the aisle at age…” are justified with books like this. Satan whispers in individual’s ears, “See, if Colton got to go to heaven then you are okay”. Paul used his heavenly experience to BOAST in the gospel. He used it to urge people to repent of their sin - not be encouraged by ethereal cloud hopping.
2. Experiences are communicated as truth. I will admit up front, most of these are not necessarily contrary to Scripture. However, they are not Biblical either. They fall into some sort of grey, blurring the lines between vision and truth (more on that later). In other words, a 5-minute Google search on “near death experiences” will give you all the heavenly moments you can handle but I am not ready to bank on “having a water fight with Jesus in the River of Life” because someone said so.
• The great grandfather spends eternity as a young 30 year old and the little miscarried girl is bound to the age of 4ish. Is the girl growing older year by year? Is she stuck at 4? Is the man getting younger? Is he stuck at 30? Will they both experience heaven in those states for all eternity?
• Everyone has wings in heaven…except for Jesus. This is absolutely not taught in Scripture and even calls into question several passages where angels and mankind are clearly distinct from one another. (Is 6, 1 Cor 6, Heb 2, Revelation)
• Swords are needed in heaven to keep Satan out…yet Colton saw Satan. Did the swords not work and Satan made it in? Did Colton go to where Satan was? Is God not powerful enough to keep Satan out without swords? Conversely, and most importantly, wasn’t Satan allowed in the presence of God in the Book of Job?
• Staying on the sword theme, Colton wanted to hold a sword but Jesus wouldn’t let him because it was “too dangerous.” Why? Who was he going to hurt? Was he going to hurt himself? Was he going to hurt someone else? Remember, he was in heaven … no tears, no pain, no death (Rev 21:4) … but danger?
• The Holy Spirit “shoots” his dad power when he preaches and Colton saw it happen. Trust me, every preacher alive will say “AMEN” to that. However, remember, he was in heaven for 3 minutes. His dad wasn’t preaching in those three minutes, right? So apparently Colton was able to see the future … yet the martyrs in Rev 6:10 are not allowed to see the future.
• Did the boy die or not? Colton suggests he did but the doctors say he did not. If he did die, did God not know it was his time? (Ps 139:16). Did He change his mind, send him back, and re-allot a new amount of days?
• Colton saw Jesus and confirmed His likeness as portrayed in a painting by a child prodigy whose parents are atheist. This is a massive portion of the books appeal. The family asks him over and over and over and over and over to confirm images they find. Todd makes it a point to keep this repetitive theme going throughout the book in an attempt to build his case. However, the case falls just as easily with one question: Who is to say Colton’s acknowledgment of Akiane’s depiction INVALIDATES every other visionary depiction that has been produced from those claiming to have seen Jesus? Why do we choose this one over others? Because he was 4 and she was 8? Illogical to me.
Again, my issue is not necessarily with what was said but the fact that it is presented as truth. To state it bluntly, there is nothing in this book worthy of canonization. This is not the missing 23rd chapter of Revelation and people are ready to defend it as such.
3. The father writes from a 6 or 7 year delayed perspective yet in a very detailed and descriptive fashion. We all fall victim to filling in the gaps as details are lost. We also fall victim to filling in the gaps with more colorful content when details are lost. Furthermore, leading questions produce led answers. Those who have read the book balk, “Troy, the dad said he did not lead Colton on”. (A) I have questions about that process coming later. (B) I am also equally concerned with the bestselling co-authors questions to Todd in the production of the book. As a professor once told me, “Pay careful attention to who endorses, publishes, and helps co-author a book before you read it.”
4. Scripture is reduced to a “back up what Colton said” and never “question what Colton said” answer key. I will forgo discussion on this area for the sake of time and my blood pressure. However, if you can tell me Colton Burpo’s heavenly experience and cannot tell me about Isaiah’s, Stephen’s, Elijah’s, John’s and Paul’s then I beg you to put down this book and pick up your Bible. Don’t get excited about heaven because of what a 4 year old boy said, get excited because of what is said by Jesus in the Gospels.
A Note of Concession:
So the million dollar question: Did Colton go to heaven? Maybe…maybe not. There is adequate wiggle room for the believer as well as the skeptic. “But how did he know all this stuff?” Simmer down, easy, take a breath. Get mad at one another if you disagree on Scripture, not the Burpo’s experience. Rest assured, Colton has learned a ton as the son of a pastor. I can relate to this on two levels. First, as a pastor’s son, my parent’s did not know all the things I was exposed to in Sunday School, Training Union, and Wednesday night classes. They did not know all the conversations I overheard. They did not realize how much I absorbed with each and every sermon I heard - especially when it came to swords, horses, rainbows, eternity, Satan and Heaven. Second, as a pastor with two sons, I have influenced answers with “leading questions” even when I was trying my best not to use “leading lingo”. Pastors have passions. When a discussion of the Bible emerges I get excited - and inadvertently use semantics that fuel the conversation. Start a conversation with me about politics and I will count the seconds till the conversation ends offering little in return for your efforts. Start a political conversation with a politician and he will be naturally catalytic to continued dialogue - influencing your thoughts with each and every word. Add to that the high fevers and medicines Colton was being exposed to and the potential for “heightened visionary phenomenon” is fostered.
With that said, God indeed speaks in “visionary language” all throughout Scripture. Whether speaking through a donkey, in a wrestling match, by placing dew on the ground, on the top of a mountain, or through a witch - He manifests Himself in specific ways for the needs of specific people. Therefore, I have no problem with God meeting this child in imagery that he could understand … TO point Colton to the fact of His existence, eternity, Christ, and even begin preparing him for something to come in his future.
This is vital to my heartbeat concerning the book: Visionary experiences are just that…visionary experiences. The details are NOT equal with Scripture, NOR to be communicated as practical TRUTHS. Saul’s conversation with Samuel via the Witch of Endor does not give us permission to build a theology of prayer around utilizing psychic mediums. If you have read this book and embraced it as a theology of heaven, even accidentally, (and most people who ask me about the book start by celebrating the experiences rather than heaven itself) then I urge you to rethink your excitement. If you were strangely drawn to Jesus Christ as the sole provider of access to eternal co-existence with the God that created you through the power of the Holy Spirit - then read it again!