A GLIMPSE OF HEAVEN? An Assessment of “Heaven is for Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back”

A GLIMPSE OF HEAVEN? An Assessment of “Heaven is for Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back”

© 2014, by John Tors. All Rights Reserved.

Introduction

Heaven is for Real,[1] Pastor Todd Burpo’s story of his son Colton’s alleged “trip to heaven and back” has certainly caught the public imagination.  As of this writing, the book sits in top spot on The New York Times’ Print/Paperback Nonfiction Best Sellers list, a list on which it has appeared for an astounding 186 consecutive weeks.[2]  It has sold more than 8 million copies.[3]  The inevitable Hollywood movie version, which opened in theatres April 16, has as of June 19 pulled in $89,631,956 in domestic receipts, a 647% return on its $12 million dollar production budget.  It is safe to say that Heaven is for Real is immensely popular.

This appeal is perhaps not surprising, as it definitely seems to be a feel-good story.  Its structural formula is quite similar to that of the fiction mega bestseller The Shack: a brief opening chapter ends with a shock meant to hook the reader, followed by a detailed back story that liberally pushes emotional buttons, which in turn is followed by a section in which heavenly revelations are presented, and then finally there is a brief closing.

A Brief Summary of the Story

Heaven is for Real begins with the Burpo family of small-town Imperial, Nebraska.  Pastor Todd Burpo, his wife Sonja, and their children Cassie and Colton, are heading out on a family trip about three and a half months after the end of a nightmarish ordeal in which little Colton had nearly died.  Passing the hospital where he had been treated, Sonja asks him whether he remembers the hospital, and Colton answers, “Yes, Mommy, I remember.  That’s where the angels sang to me.[4]  The Burpo parents find this stunning: “Inside the Expedition, time froze.[5]  As they question him, little Colton claims that angels sang to him and that he sat in Jesus’ lap.  When he further says that he saw his father praying in a little room by himself and his mother praying and talking on the phone during his surgery, Todd is “rocked … to my core.[6]

The narrative then switches to the back story.  Poor, hard-working country pastor Todd Burpo has been hit by a string of disasters – a shattered leg, kidney stones, and a breast cancer scare, leading to lost work opportunities and financial difficulties – all within a seven-month period.  After this time of trial seems over, he departs with his family for a trip, but during this trip little Colton becomes violently ill with a missed burst appendix.  For seventeen days his condition is critical and for a time he hovers near death.

After Colton recovers and returns home, he manifests “quirky” behaviour, including insisting that Jesus had told him he had to be good and a concern as to whether a dead man “had Jesus in his heart.[7]  Eventually, Colton claims that he had actually gone to heaven where, inter alia, he had sat in Jesus’ lap, seen Jesus’ rainbow horse, met John the Baptist, did homework in heaven with lots of kids, all of whom had wings, and met his great grandfather.

Colton’s parents quickly become convinced that their son had indeed gone to heaven and done all these things, and the balance of the book outlines further revelations little Colton makes about what heaven is like, all eagerly accepted by Pastor Todd, who tries to find Biblical justifications for the various claims.

The story about little Colton’s claims begin to spread, and he becomes the authority on what heaven is like, answering such questions as whether there are animals in heaven.  Pastor Todd assures everyone that “The answer is yes!  Besides Jesus’ horse, [Colton] told us he saw dogs, birds, even a lion – and the lion was friendly, not fierce.[8]  As the book presents it, by this time there is no reason to doubt that little Colton is qualified to give us actual answers about heaven that Scripture doesn’t give us.  And then comes the idea to write a book about Colton’s experiences, and that’s the end of the story – until, of course, the movie deal comes along.

Is It Real?

Test all things; hold fast what is good. (1 Thessalonians 5:21)

Despite the widespread appeal and acceptance of Heaven is for Real, and regardless of how much we may want to believe it, we have ask, is it real?  Did three-year-old Colton Burpo actually go to heaven and sit in Jesus’ lap and see and do all those things he claims?

Certainly, these extraordinary claims cannot be accepted simply because they are asserted.  If that were our practice, we should have to accept the claims of, inter alia, Buddha, Muhammad, Joseph Smith, and Sun Myung Moon.  Yet they cannot all be telling the truth.  What we have to do is put them to the test by looking at the evidence they offer as proof of their claims.  Such extraordinary claims require good and sufficient proof if they are to be believed.  Jesus Himself applied this standard to Himself, when He said,

“If I do not do the works of My Father, do not believe Me; but if I do, though you do not believe Me, believe the works, that you may know and believe that the Father is in Me, and I in Him.” (John 10:37-38)

If Jesus Himself is to be subject to the test of evidence, no one can legitimately object if we require this of Colton Burpo also.

Our examination will consist of three parts.  First, we will look at the evidence Pastor Todd adduces to verify his son’s claims.  Second, we will look in detail at the various pronouncements made by Colton Burpo, to see whether they are consistent with what is known from Scripture.  Third, in light of what we see in the first two parts, we will attempt to reach a conclusion as to the best explanation for the claims put forth in Heaven is for Real.  Finally, we will look at the fruits of the Heaven is for Real phenomenon.

The Proof Adduced for Colton Burpo’s Claims

Pastor Todd adduces five events that he claims proves that little Colton really did all the things he claimed he did, including going to heaven and sitting in Jesus’ lap.  It is clear, though, that the first one by itself was already sufficient to convince Pastor Todd.  These five events are as follows:

PROOF #1: Colton knew that during his surgery his dad was praying by himself in a room while his mom was praying and talking on the phone.

According to Pastor Todd, Colton told him that

When I was with Jesus, you were praying, and Mommy was talking on the phone … I went up out of my body and was looking down and I could see the doctor working on my body.  And I saw you and Mommy.  You were in a little room by yourself, praying, and Mommy was in a different room, and she was praying and talking on the phone.’[9]

Pastor Todd’s reaction to this was,

Our little boy had said some pretty incredible stuff – and he had backed it up with credible information, things there was no way he could have known.  We had not told him what we were doing while he was in surgery, under anesthesia, apparently unconscious.  Over and over, I kept asking myself, How could he have known?[10]

Assessment of Proof #1: While knowledge of things that one could not possibly know does constitute powerful evidence,[11] that is not what we have here.  Despite Pastor Todd’s claim that “there was no way he could have known,” that is not true.  First, and most obviously, it was four months between the time of Colton’s surgery and his announcement that he had been to heaven.  Even if Pastor Todd had carefully monitored everything Colton heard after this announcement, having been alerted to the fantastic claim, there is no way he could possibly know what Colton may have heard or overheard in the preceding four months.  So it is simply not true that “there was no way he could have known”; it is entirely possible that he heard or overheard someone talking about these things.

Interestingly, Pastor Todd himself initially asked, after Colton mentioned that he’d almost died

Had he overheard the medical staff talking?  Had he heard something the surgical team said, despite the anesthesia?[12]

Yet, strangely, after raising this real possibility, the pastor makes no apparent effort to investigate whether this explains what Colton said.  The possibility is simply ignored after this.  It is not clear why Pastor Todd did not explore this possible explanation further, but simply chose to believe little Colton’s incredible claim.

The second thing that should be noted is that Pastor Todd and his wife are no doubt people of prayer.  To imagine that he was praying in a room was a reasonable guess, as well as to imagine that Sonja was praying and talking on the phone, if indeed she had ever done such a thing before.  What is particularly noteworthy, though, is that Pastor Todd did do something at the time that was out of the ordinary, and, in fact, unprecedented, for him:

“I found a small room with a door, ducked in, and slammed it shut behind me.  My heart raced.  I couldn’t get my breath.  Desperation, anger, and frustration washed over me in waves that seemed to squeeze away my breath.  When everybody’s freaking out, they all look to Dad – especially when Dad’s a pastor.  Now I was finally in a room where no one was looking at me, and I began raging at God.  ‘Where are you?  Is this how you treat your pastors?!  Is it even worth it to serve you?’Tears of rage flooded my eyes, spilled onto my cheeks.  ‘After the leg, the kidney stones, the lumpectomy, this is how you’re going to let me celebrate the end of my time of testing?’  I yelled at God.  ‘You’re going to take my son?’”[13]

Now, this was not normal for Pastor Todd, and had little Colton said he’s seen his dad raging against God, this line of evidence may have been marginally more impressive.  Yet he did not.  It is interesting that Pastor Todd writes that,

the way we knew he wasn’t making it up was that he was able to tell us what we were doing in another part of the hospital: ‘You were in a little room by yourself praying, and Mommy was in a different room and she was praying and talking on the phone.’   Not even Sonja had seen me in that little room, having my meltdown with God … I thought I had been alone, pouring out my anger and grief in private.  Staying strong for Sonja.  But my son said he had seen me …[14]

It is certainly hard to miss the fact that Pastor Todd mentions his “meltdown with God” twice here and asserts that “my son said he had seen me,” yet the meltdown is precisely what the son did not see.  What he did say he saw he could have learned through other means (indeed, someone could have seen Pastor Todd going into the little room, and it would be an obvious supposition that a pastor would be praying in there).[15]  The one thing it would have been difficult to learn by other means[16] is the one thing he didn’t see!

Indeed, Pastor Todd could have settled the issue right then and there by asking Colton, “What exactly was I doing in that little room besides praying, son?”  It is truly unfortunate that he did not do so.  Instead, he simply continues to reiterate that “He had authenticated [his claims] by telling us things he couldn’t have known,[17] and again “He had already authenticated his experience by telling me things he could not otherwise have known.[18]  As we have seen, that is simply not correct.

PROOF #2: Colton said that “Jesus said he went to Daddy and told him he wanted Daddy to be a pastor and Daddy said yes, and Jesus was really happy,” which accords with Pastor Todd’s own perception of his calling.

Assessment of Proof #2: Pastor Todd tells us that when he was thirteen, he attended an evening meeting at a summer youth camp at which “Rev. Orville Butcher delivered a message about how God calls people to ministry … He challenged a group of 150 teenagers that night: ‘There are some of you here tonight whom God could use as pastors and missionaries’,[19] and later “I felt a pressure at my heart, almost a whisper: That’s you, Todd.  That’s what I want you to do.  There was no doubt in my mind that I had just heard from God.[20]

This utterly fails to come up the standard of proof.  I have yet to meet a pastor who does not believe that he was personally called by God, and said yes.  Such an idea is common currency in evangelical circles, and it is easy to suppose that little Colton had heard such a thing and applied it to his dad, or, indeed, had heard it actually being applied to his dad.

Furthermore, Pastor Todd goes on to tell us that Rev. Butcher said “that if any of us had heard from God that night, if any of us had made a commitment to serve him in ministry, we should tell someone about it when we got home so that at least one other person would know.[21]  After Todd had returned home, he told his mom “‘when I grow up, I’m going to be a pastor.’”[22]  Pastor Todd then tells us,

Since that day decades before, Mom and I had revisited that conversation a couple of times.  But we had never told Colton about it.[23]

If that is supposed to impress us it fails, because little Colton said nothing about that private conversation Pastor Todd had had with his mother, but only offered the platitude that God had called Todd who’d said yes.

PROOF #3: Colton knew that his mother had had a miscarriage before he himself was born.

Pastor Todd tells us that in October of 2003, some seven months after Colton’s surgery, the little boy told Sonja that

”I have two sisters.  You had a baby die in your tummy, didn’t you?“[24]

Pastor Todd reports that they had not told Colton about Sonja’s miscarriage,[25] which had happened eleven months before Colton was born.[26]  Furthermore, when Sonja asks Colton, “What was her name?  What was the little girl’s name?” the little boy correctly answers, “She doesn’t have a name.  You guys didn’t name her.[27]  Pastor Todd wonderingly asks,

How did he know that?[28]

Assessment of Proof #3: As we have said, knowledge of things that one could not possibly know does constitute powerful evidence, but “could not know” is a high standard, and in this case, too, it is not met.  Pastor Todd tells us that

We had explained [about the miscarriage] to Cassie; she was older.  But we hadn’t told Colton.[29]

Now, if they told Cassie then the possibility certainly exists that either he overheard it, or that Cassie had subsequently mentioned something about it to him, perhaps without remembering later that she had done so, or possibly he overheard the parents talking to each other or to someone else about it.  So it is certainly possible that Colton did know about this.

Furthermore, if little Colton did overhear news of the miscarriage and never heard a name mentioned for the baby, “You guys didn’t name her” would be a reasonable assumption on his part.  At any rate, he has to give an answer and he doesn’t know the name, so this is a good guess.  The fact that it turned out to be correct is not surprising, since most women do not give names to a miscarried baby, so there was a far better than 50% chance that his answer would be right.  Finally, the only other answer he could have given would be, “I don’t know,” which certainly would not have caused the Burpos to doubt his story.

PROOF #4: After claiming to have met a young “Pop,” Pastor Todd’s grandfather, in heaven, Colton identifies a picture of him taken when he was at the age of twenty-nine.

Five months after his surgery, little Colton claimed that he had saw Pop “and I got to stay with him in heaven.[30]  Sometime later, Pastor Todd shows him a picture of the elderly Pop, but Colton doesn’t recognize him and tells his dad

Dad, nobody’s old in heaven.[31]

Pastor Todd then obtains a picture of Pop when he was much younger from his mother, and when he shows it to Colton, the boy recognizes it.

Assessment of Proof #4: This alleged proof, too, is unconvincing.  Little Colton claims to have met Pop in heaven, but when Pastor Todd asks him to describe Pop, all Colton can offer is, “Oh, Dad, Pop has really big wings[32] and ascribe to him the usual outfit: “‘He had white on, but blue here,’ he said, making the sash motion again.’[33]  Even the credulous Pastor Todd has to admit that “it was kind of bugging me[34] that “when I asked him what Pop looked like, Colton would talk mainly about his clothes and the size of his wings.  When I asked him about facial features, though, he got kind of vague.[35]

Now, while Pastor Todd says “mainly” and describes Colton’s description as “kind of vague,” if Colton gave any description at all of Pop’s face, Pastor Todd has omitted that from the book.  Yet this fact cannot be brushed aside; if Colton could not give any actual description of what Pop looked like, that indicates strongly that he did not, in fact, see Pop.

What happened later with the picture does not override this.  Colton claimed to have seen Pop and must have realized his dad was very interested in this after he failed to identify Pop and then explained it by saying that no one in heaven is old.  The very next time he is asked to identify a picture it is now of a young man, and it would not have been difficult to connect the dots and guess that this was a picture of a younger Pop.  Too, Pastor Todd’s body language, repressed excitement and anticipation, is something that a young child may easily have sensed.

Had Pastor Todd been more careful, he would have put out a dozen or more photos, all of men of approximately the same young age and with no clear distinguishing marks among the photos themselves, and then asked Colton to pick out the young Pop.  Had he done that, it might have been impressive.  But he did not, and so correctly identifying the one picture he was shown does not override the fact that little Colton could not give any facial description of Pop after supposedly having met him in heaven, which is a strong indication that he did not, in fact, meet him.  This is especially significant in light of the fact that he gave such a detailed picture of his miscarried sister[36] that one person commented that “Hearing him describe the girls’ face … it wasn’t something that a six-year-old boy could just make up.[37]  It is a coincidence that a detailed description is given only when it cannot be checked?  We have no way of knowing whether the miscarried baby was even a girl or not.

PROOF #5: Colton saw “lots of drawings and paintings of Christ” but insisted that none of them was right,[38] until he saw a portrait of Jesus made by a Lithuanian girl, Akiane Kramarik, who claimed to have been receiving visions of heaven. Of this portrait he said, “Dad, that one’s right.”[39]

Assessment of Proof #5: First, since we do not ourselves know what Jesus looks like, there is no way to verify whether Colton’s endorsement of this portrait is valid.  Second, it should be obvious that before this could possibly constitute proof, there must be some examination into the claims of the Lithuanian girl to determine whether they are credible.  The absence of any such investigation – and the Burpos do not seem to have done any investigating but simply accepted the claims at face value – is enough to disqualify this as evidence, even it if all else were acceptable.  And it is not.

The fact is that there is no compelling reason to believe that the Lithuanian girl’s portrait actually shows Jesus.  Furthermore, when we look at the portrait (below, centre), we see that the “Jesus” in it has green eyes, highly unlikely for a 1st-century AD Jew, and his hair is permed,[40] which is not just unlikely but is impossible for a 1st-century AD Jew.

In fact, it is interesting to compare the three pictures below.  On the left is a forensic reconstruction of what a typical 1st-century AD Jewish carpenter looked like,[41] in the centre is the portrait painted by Akiane, and on the right is 1970s pop music star Barry Manilow.  Does Akiane’s portrait more resemble the typical 1st-century AD Jewish carpenter or the pop star?  Manilow wins on the structure of the forehead, the shape and colour of the eyes, the thin lips and even the specific smile, and the nasal structure.[42]  Manilow is the clear winner, and it is too much to ask us to believe that the real Jesus looks like Barry Manilow.

In sum, then, we have examined the five proofs offered by Pastor Todd Burpo to authenticate the claim that his son Colton visited heaven and sat in Jesus’ lap, and we have found them unconvincing.  They have not met the standard of proof required for such extraordinary claims.[43]

A Detailed Look at Colton Burpo’s Specific Claims

We know that Jesus truly died on the cross (e.g. John 19:30, 33) and that on the third day afterwards He rose from the dead (e.g. Luke 24:36-43), which fully authenticated His claims (John 2:18-22), including His status as the Son of God (John 9:35-38) and His claim to have been in heaven with the Father (e.g. John 3:13), as well as His claim that “Scripture cannot be broken” (John 10:35b).  The upshot of all this is that what Scripture says about Jesus in heaven is certainly true, and all other claims must be measured against this, as per Acts 17:11.

We shall now examine little Colton Burpo’s descriptions about heaven in the order given in the book.  We are looking to see whether they are consistent with the Biblical testimony, which is the crucial test, as per Isaiah 8:20:

To the law and to the testimony! If they do not speak according to this word, it is because there is no light in them.

After that, we shall be looking to see whether there is something else with which these descriptions may be consistent and whether the circumstances in which they were made shed light on how they may have come about.  Let us proceed.

It is in chapter twelve that Pastor Todd begins asking little Colton Burpo for details about heaven.  Almost immediately, the little boy tells him that

Jesus has a horse … a rainbow horse.  I got to pet him.[44]

Pastor Todd tells us that at this point

it was dawning on me that not only was my son saying he had left his body; he was saying he had left the hospital![45]

Now, before we look at what Pastor Todd did next, let us note that he had already stated that

If Colton really had a supernatural encounter, I certainly didn’t want to ask him leading questions.[46]

That is certainly a good policy, but the pastor utterly failed to live up to it.  What did he do when “it was dawning on him” that Colton “was saying he had left the hospital?”  This is what he did:

“‘You were in heaven?’ I managed to ask.”[47]

Now, that, folks, is a leading question.  “Colton, where were you when saw the rainbow horse?” would not be a leading question.  “You were in heaven?” with a ready answer supplied, is a leading question.  And, unfortunately, despite the good pastor’s stated desire not to ask leading question, he does it again and again.

Pastor Todd then asks what Jesus wore in heaven, and little Colton Burpo answers, “His clothes were white, but it was purple from here to here” while indicating a sash with his hand.[48]  He adds, “And he had this gold thing on his head …[49] as “he put both hands on top of his head in the shape of a circle.[50]  In response to another leading question from his dad (“Like a crown?“), Colton then asserts, “Yeah, a crown” with a “kind of pink” diamond in it.[51]  (Colton obviously knew the word “crown” and the fact that he didn’t say it suggests that perhaps he was imagining a diadem, tiara, or turban, but now we’ll never know.  Dad said “crown,” so “crown” it is.)

Dad is flabbergasted.  He’s “amazed.[52]  His “mind reeled.[53]  Why?  Because “here was my kid, in his matter-of-fact voice, telling me things that were not only astonishing on their fact, but that also matched Scripture in every detail.[54]

Only they didn’t.  They did not match Scripture in every detail.  And it is rather disturbing to see Pastor Todd casting about for justifications to try to make Colton’s descriptions match Scripture, as we shall see.

First, Jesus does not have a “rainbow horse.”  Jesus’ horse is white (Revelation 19:11).  Pastor Todd seems to be moving the goalpost when he writes that the things little Colton was telling him “matched Scripture in every detail, right down to the rainbow colors described in the book of Revelation.[55]  Rainbows are mentioned in Revelation, but little Colton Burpo specified not just rainbow “colors” but a rainbow horse, which is not mentioned in Revelation.

Second, little Colton told his dad that Jesus wore white, with a purple sash, and adds,

Jesus was the only one in heaven who had purple on, Dad.  Did you know that?[56]

Pastor Todd rhapsodizes that

In Scripture, purple is the color of kings.[57]

He is wrong again.  Purple is associated with kings only six times in the OT, and every time it is with pagan kings,[58] and once with idols.  It is never associated with the kings of Israel, let alone the true King, God.  Nor is purple ever associated with kings in the NT.[59]

Furthermore, while the colour of Jesus’ clothes is not mentioned in Revelation, in His glorified state at the Transfiguration He is wearing only white.[60]  In the NT, then, Jesus as King is shown wearing white, not purple.  In fact, He wears purple only when it is put on Him by the soldiers to mock Him prior to his crucifixion.[61]  And the only one who wears purple in Revelation is the whore of Babylon.[62]

Third, in Revelation 14:14b we read of “One like the Son of Man, having on His head a golden crown, and in His hand a sharp sickle,” and in Revelation 19:12b “on His head were many crowns.”  This does not accord well with what little Colton says he saw.  If he saw only one crown, where was the sickle?  If there was no sickle, why did he not see many crowns?  Furthermore, these are the only places in the Bible in which crowns are mentioned in connection with Jesus, and neither mentions a “kind of pink” diamond in it.  In fact, no crown anywhere in the Bible is said to have a diamond in it, let alone “kind of pink” ones.

We should also note that, while Pastor Todd seems to think we should be impressed that little Colton Burpo described Jesus wearing a sash though he did not know the word “sash,” there is no reason to think that Jesus ever wore a sash.  According to historians, the typical outfit of Jewish peasants in the time of Jesus was as shown below.  Nary a sash among them.

While these may seem to be minor details, the fact is that Colton’s descriptions notmatch Scripture in every detail.”  They differ from the details in Scripture.  (There is a further significance to this that we will discuss later.)

It gets worse.  Little Colton tells his dad that

Jesus has markers … Markers, Daddy … Jesus has markers.[63]

When Dad inquires further, asking, “Well, what color are Jesus’ markers?”  Colton tells him, “Red, Daddy.  Jesus has red markers on him.[64]

Pastor Todd is simply astonished:

At that moment, my throat nearly closed with tears as I suddenly understood what Colton was trying to say.[65]

Pastor Todd has already decided that little Colton is referring to the crucifixion wounds of Jesus!  “Colton, where are Jesus’ markers?” he asks.[66]

Little Colton Burpo replies:

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.  “That’s where Jesus’ markers are, Daddy,” he said.

Dad’s reaction?

I drew in a sharp breath.  He saw this.  He had to have.[67]

Yet his conclusion is unwarranted.  The crucifixion certainly inflicted grievous wounds on Jesus’ hands and feet that the risen Jesus retained,[68] but it is highly doubtful that He retains them in heaven.[69]  And if He did, Colton should have seen large, ugly, gaping wounds, not “red markers.

Furthermore, while the wounds were in His hands and feet – “ἴδετε τὰς χεῖράς μου καὶ τοὺς πόδας μου” (Luke 24:39a) – in Koine Greek, χειρ (“hand”) can include the wrist, forearm, or even the entire arm, and “the nails commonly were driven through the wrists rather than the palms.[70]

The nail was driven “between carpals and radius … with probable transection of median nerve and impalement of flexor pollicis longus, but without injury to major arterial trunks and without fractures of bones.[71]

Now, it is true that some Roman Catholic apologists argue that it is possible that the nails were driven through Jesus’ palms, but even if it is theoretically possible, there is no reason to suppose that that was what happened.  And it is further unlikely in light of the amazing prophecy in Psalm 22:16:

For dogs have surrounded Me;

The congregation of the wicked has enclosed Me.

They pierced My hands and My feet[72]

Hebrew does have separate words for “hand” (יָד yad) and “palm” (כַּף kaph), and the word used in Psalm 22:16 is the word for hand, not the word for palm.

In light of all this, then, Pastor Todd Dad’s reaction – “I drew in a sharp breath.  He saw this.  He had to have.” – is clearly unwarranted.  Colton’s description of Jesus’ “red markers” makes his claims less credible, not more credible, let alone certain.

As matters progress, little Colton Burpo’s claims become increasingly far-fetched, and Pastor Todd’s attempt to rationalize them from the Bible become correspondingly outlandish, although when Pastor Todd asks his son “Well, what did you do in heaven?” and the little boy answers, “Homework,[73] the pastor wisely does not even attempt to find a proof-text to support this.[74]

Nor does Pastor Todd attempt to justify little Colton’s claim that “Everybody’s got wings” in heaven, and that even little Colton had wings “but mine weren’t very big.[75]  According to the Bible, birds have wings,[76] cherubim have wings,[77] seraphim have wings,[78] and the mysterious four heavenly living creatures have wings.[79]  People, on the other hand, do not have wings and never will![80]

But then little Colton Burpo tells his dad that everyone flew in heaven except Jesus, the only one without wings;

Jesus just went up and down like an elevator.[81]

Pastor Todd actually tries to justify this:

The book of Acts flashed into my head, the scene of Jesus’ ascension … the Scripture says, Jesus ‘was taken up before their very eyes’ … ‘This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.’   Jesus went up.  And will come down.  Without wings.  To a kid, that could look like an elevator.”[82]

Yet Jesus “will come down” at the Second Coming.  This is not a reference to His mode of travel in heaven!  (By the way, did Jesus just move vertically in heaven, according to little Colton?  Because if Jesus moved from place to place laterally, it no longer looks like an elevator, does it?)

Then little Colton Burpo vouchsafes that

“Everyone kind of looks like angels in heaven, Dad.”

Dad asks, “‘What do you mean?’” and little Colton answers, “‘All the people have a light above their head.’[83]  Pastor Todd’s attempt to rationalize this one is risible.

First, he tells us,

I racked my brain for what I knew about angels and light.[84]

He comes up with three examples of “dazzlingly bright” angelic appearances.[85]  One is Matthew 28:3, about the angel that rolled back the stone from Jesus’ tomb (“His appearance was like lightning …”).  The other two are noteworthy.  He cites Acts 6:15, which says about Stephen that “his face became a bright as an angel’s.[86]  Yet that is not what Acts 6:15 says.  It says

And all who sat in the council, looking steadfastly at him, saw his face as the face of an angel.

(και ατενισαντες εις αυτον απαντες οι καθεζομενοι εν τω συνεδριω ειδον το προσωπον αυτου ωσει προσωπον αγγελου)

Even the NIV,[87] which Pastor Todd uses throughout the book, correctly reads,

All who were sitting in the Sanhedrin looked intently at Stephen, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel.

Why does Pastor Todd switch here to the NLT,[88] a loose paraphrase that inserts the word “bright” although there is no such word in the original Greek?

The third proof-text cited by Pastor Todd is Revelation 10:1, which reads, “the angel’s face ‘shone like the sun.’”[89]  Here again the pastor resorts to the NLT; neither the Greek nor the NIV says “shone,” but only that “his face was like the sun” (“το προσωπον αυτου ως ο ηλιος”).

It should be noted that there are very few passages in the Bible that describe angels as bright in any sense.  The reality is that there are many mentions of angelic appearances in the Bible, none of which describe them as shining, let alone “dazzlingly bright.[90]  A few examples: Genesis 16:7-14; 19:1-22; Numbers 22:31-35; Judges 2:1-4, 6:11-24; 2 Samuel 24:17; 1 Kings 19:5; Matthew 4:11; Luke 1:11-19, 1:26-38.  And in none of the cases in which angels are described as shining is there ever a light above their heads.

Pastor Todd does admit that “I couldn’t remember angels having lights over their heads specifically,[91] though that seems weak; as a pastor he should know that there is no such phenomenon anywhere in Scripture.  He offers up the claim that “I also knew that Colton’s experience of angels in storybooks and Scripture did not include lights over angels’ heads,[92] but that is thoroughly unconvincing.  The image of angels with haloes is so ubiquitous, on everything from Christmas cards to classical artwork, that it is impossible for Pastor Todd to know with certainty that little Colton had never encountered it.

Interestingly, Pastor Todd later tells us that

I wound up spending a lot of time at hospitals, in Christian bookstores, and at other churches – all places where there are lots of drawings and painting of Christ.  Often, Sonja and the kids were with me.[93]

Did this only happen after Colton’s “revelations”?  Did they go to any of these places before the little boy claimed that angels had lights above their heads?  Because he certainly would have seen such images “at hospitals, in Christian bookstores, and at other churches.

Pastor Todd keeps trying; now he appeals to “a friend of ours, the wife of a pastor at a church in Colorado” who had once told him that her three-year-old daughter Hannah had asked her, “Mommy, why do some people in church have lights over their heads and some don’t?[94]

It is not clear what the point to this is.  There is no reason to believe that Hannah was seeing any supernatural phenomenon, and unsubstantiated claims made by one three year old do not add weight to the unsubstantiated claims of another three year old.  Furthermore, Colton was talking about people supposedly in heaven, not people “in church.”  The pointlessness is underscored by the fact that Pastor Todd now goes off on a tangent about “childlike faith,” asking “whether [Hannah] had seen it because, like my son, she had a childlike faith.[95]  How having a “childlike faith” leads to seeing things that have no Biblical basis and that we have no reason to believe are actually there is also not clear.

It continues.  Colton then announces that angels “‘have yellow from here to here,’ … making the sash motion again, left shoulder to right hip.[96]  Pastor Todd tries to justify this one by appealing to “the ‘man’ who appeared to the prophet Daniel … ‘with a belt of the finest gold around his waist.’[97]  However, it is obvious that a belt “around his waist” is not a sash from “left shoulder to right hip,” while “yellow” is not “the finest gold.

Now, it may be true that these glaring errors of Colton’s to this point concern only minor details (though that does not change the fact that it is not even remotely true, contra Pastor Todd’s assertion, that the things the little boy was saying “matched Scripture in every detail.”[98]).  But now things take a darker turn.

It begins when Pastor Todd asks his son another leading question, “Hey Colton … when you were in heaven, did you ever see God’s throne?[99]  Colton answers, “Oh, yeah!  I saw that a bunch of times![100]  He avers that it was big and that “Jesus’ chair is right next to his Dad’s![101]

Pastor Todd is so impressed!

That blew me away.  There’s no way a four-year-old knows that.  It was another one of those moments when I thought, He had to have seen this.[102]

Nevertheless, he is going to test the little boy, and so he asks, “Colton, which side of God’s throne was Jesus sitting on?[103]  When little Colton Burpo correctly answers that Jesus’ throne was on the right hand side, Pastor Todd gushes,

Wow.  Here was a rare case where I had tested Colton’s memories against what the Bible says, and he had passed without batting an eye.[104]

Really, Pastor?  For one of the “rare cases” in which you test Colton’s memories against Scripture you pick a question on which he has a 50/50 chance of getting it right under any circumstances?

Pastor Todd then avers that

I was pretty sure he had never even heard of the book of Hebrews.[105]

Even if that is the case, might he at some time have heard “He ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty”?[106]  And even if little Colton Burpo “had never even heard of the book of Hebrews,” might he at some time have heard Matthew 22:44, Mark 12:36, Mark 16:19, Luke 20:42, Luke 22:69, Acts 2:34, Roman 8:34, Ephesians 1:20, or Colossians 3:1, all of which describe Jesus as sitting at the right hand of God?  Or Acts 2:33, Acts 5:31, Romans 8:34, or 1 Peter 3:22, all of which describe Jesus being at the right hand of God?  He never heard mentioned at any time in church or at home that Jesus sits at the right hand of God?  That is exceedingly difficult to believe.

And then the darkness:  Pastor Todd asks another leading question, “Well, who sits on the other side of God’s throne?[107]  The entailment meaning is that there must, in fact, be someone sitting “on the other side of God’s throne,” and little Colton Burpo comes up with, “Oh, that’s easy, Dad.  That’s where the angel Gabriel is.  He’s really nice.[108]

Pastor Todd’s reaction?

Gabriel.  That makes sense.[109]

No, Pastor, that does notmake sense”!  The Bible never speaks of or even hints that anyone is sitting at the left hand of God.  But if there is, and God the Son sits at the right hand of God the Father then the only one who could possibly be at the left hand, on that level, is God the Holy Spirit.  To give the angel Gabriel pride of place over the Holy Spirit is not just wrong, it is outright blasphemy.[110]  No doubt a four year old doesn’t understand this, but a pastor should.

Incredibly, Pastor Todd tries to justify little Colton’s proclamation, saying,

I remembered the story of John the Baptist and the moment when Gabriel arrived to deliver the news of John the Baptist’s coming birth … “The angel answered, ‘I am Gabriel.  I stand in the presence of God'”.[111]

Just so – Gabriel, a servant of God, stands in the presence of God as His servant; he does not sit at God’s left hand.

Pastor Todd actually quotes this again – “‘I stand in the presence of God,’ Gabriel told Zechariah” – and then he adds, “And now, more than two thousand years later, my little boy was telling me the same thing.[112]  No, Pastor Todd, he is not telling you “the same thing.”  He is not telling you that Gabriel stands in the presence of God; he is telling you that Gabriel sits at the left hand of God, having pride of place over the Holy Spirit.  This is a completely unjustifiable error.

Then, to finish off this Grand Guignol, Pastor Todd asks little Colton Burpo, “What does God look like? … God the Holy Spirit?” and little Colton Burpo answers, “Hmm, that’s kind of a hard one … he’s kind of blue.[113]  Really, folks?  God the Holy Spirit, the Third Person of the awesome Triune Godhead, the God who is “the blessed and only Potentate, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality, dwelling in unapproachable light, whom no man has seen or can see”[114] is … “kind of blue”?

There is a breathtaking chutzpah, then, in Pastor Todd’s assertion that little Colton has provided “pictures of heaven that seemed uncannily accurate from the descriptions we all have available to us in the Bible.[115]  In fact, the exact opposite obtains.

Our purpose in this section was to examine little Colton Burpo’s pronouncements about heaven, to see whether they are consistent with the Biblical testimony.[116]  This we have done, and found that he has utterly failed the test.  His claims differ dramatically from the Biblical testimony, from minor details to fundamental errors.  We conclude that it is completely unreasonable to believe that little Colton Burpo went to heaven and sat in Jesus’ lap.

A Possible Explanation for the Claims of Heaven Is for Real?

In Heaven is for Real, the claim is put forth that three-year-old Colton Burpo made an actual trip to heaven, during which he sat in Jesus’ lap, and returned bearing all sorts of information about what heaven is like.  We examined the evidence offered as proof for these extraordinary claims and found it insufficient to prove the claims.  We then examined the specific details of the information about heaven provided by little Colton Burpo and compared them to what Scripture reveals about the topics addressed by the little boy.  The inconsistencies and discrepancies are sufficient to conclude that the idea that little Colton Burpo made an actual trip to heaven and sat in Jesus’ lap is simply not believable.

How, then, should we account for these claims?  What is the most likely explanation for them?  There is one incident in the book that may provide the key to answer this question.

After little Colton tells his dad that his sojourn in heaven lasted only three minutes, Dad casts about for an explanation,[117] and in the process of this he recalls the postoperative report on Colton’s surgery[118] and then “A thought hit me like a brick:  Colton didn’t die.[119]  And he wonders, “How could he have gone to heaven if he didn’t die?[120]  After a couple of days, he confronts the boy, saying,

You said you went to heaven.  People have to die to go to heaven.[121]

Immediately little Colton responds,

Well, okay then, I died.  But just for a little bit.[122]

Problem: Pastor Todd knows that

Colton hadn’t died.  I knew what the medical record said.  Colton had never ceased breathing.  His heart had never stopped.[123]

Another person, catching Colton saying something that did not accord with verified fact, might have begun to question his fanciful claims, but not Pastor Todd.  He “remembered that the Bible talks in several places about people who had seen heaven without dying.[124]  He adduces “a Christian [Paul] knew personally who was taken to heaven” and John, the writer of Revelation.[125]

This resolves the dilemma for Pastor Todd, who “realized that Colton, in telling me he had died ‘for a little bit,’ had only been trying to match up his pastor-dad’s assertion with what he knew to be the facts of his own experience.[126]  Pastor Todd then reiterates this, saying,

I had this tidy little box that said, ‘People have to die to go to heaven,’ and Colton, trusting me, concluded, ‘Well, I must have died then, because I was there.’[127]

It is possible that this may, in fact, be the key to understanding what really happened with little Colton Burpo.  Almost everyone who has children is familiar with the fact that small children (say, three year olds and four year olds) will often launch into an imaginative account of things they saw or did, sometimes fantastic things; sometimes it is based on a vivid dream and sometimes it comes from pure imagination.  The accounts are often detailed, and when parents ask them questions about these putative accounts, the children are usually instantaneous with their answers.  They treat the accounts as if they were real, and it is not always clear whether they know they are simply stories or still think that saying them makes them real.  Parents often humour the children by asking questions, but the idea that the accounts may be true never enters the heads of the parents.

But what if some parent, for some reason, actually reacted as if he believed the account was real?  As Pastor Todd indicates, children of that age implicitly trust their parents, and if the parents are treating the account as real, might not the child “match up” his parents’ reaction with his own view of the story?  In other words, if the parent treats the story as something that really happened, might not the child, trusting him, conclude that “Well, the story must have really happened”?  This seems to be a possible explanation for the events recorded in Heaven is for Real.  Let us test this explanation.

We have already noted that little Colton’s descriptions of things in heaven do not accord with the descriptions in Scripture.  If, on the other hand, they do accord with images and items the boy could reasonably have been expected to see, even in passing, here on earth, then our explanation is strongly buttressed.  So let us revisit Colton’s various claims.

We recall that little Colton Burpo told us Jesus had a rainbow horse.  While there are no rainbow horses in the Bible, there are rainbow horses in My Little Pony (below left) and in Rainbow Brite (below, right), and in other sources.

It seems eminently possible that the  little boy saw one of these on TV, while channel-surfing, or in a toy store or bookstore.  Alternatively, another child might have brought a My Little Pony toy rainbow horse or book to Sunday School.  There are, in fact, many different possible ways in which little Colton might have encountered the image of rainbow horse prior to the time he first claimed that he’d seen such a thing in heaven.

Little Colton Burpo also told us that Jesus wore a sash.  While, as we have seen, the historical evidence indicates that it was unlikely that the real Jesus wore a sash, there is a Jesus who does wear a sash: Action Figure Jesus! (“With poseable arms and gliding action!”)

Jesus is also shown wearing a sash in any number of kids’ books about Jesus (below).

It strains credibility to insist that Colton could not possibly have seen such an image in, say, a kids’ Bible book, perhaps one brought to church by another little child.  Someone may even have brought an Action Figure Jesus to church.

Little Colton Burpo also told us that Jesus wore purple.  We do not see that in the Bible.  We do see that in kids’ books about Jesus.

And while the image of a jewel in Jesus’ crown is absent from the Bible, it is present elsewhere.

Furthermore, as we have seen, the “markers” that Jesus supposedly has, according to little Colton Burpo, which so impressed Pastor Todd, are not, in fact, consistent with the crucifixion wounds of Jesus.  However, they match precisely what is seen on every Roman Catholic crucifix:

The same sort of crucifixion wounds are shown in a multitude of children’s Bible books:

So the crucifixion wounds described by little Colton Burpo as “markers” are not consistent with the actual wounds suffered by Jesus, but they are consistent with images that are so common that it is exceedingly difficult to believe that the little boy had never seen even one before.  These images, therefore, seem to provide a more likely explanation for Colton’s description of the “markers” on Jesus than does the idea that he actually saw them on the real Jesus in heaven.[128]

Regarding the lights over the heads of angels (“halos, as some would call them”),[129] even Pastor Todd couldn’t find such a thing in the Bible.  Again, however, such imagery is very popular in sources ranging from Christmas cards to children’s Bibles.  And again, it seems unreasonable to believe that little Colton had never seen even one example.

Then there is little Colton Burpo’s claim that people receive wings in heaven.  We have already seen that that idea is utterly alien to Scripture, but it is a very common misconception, featured in such widely popular stories as The Littlest Angel.

Even if little Colton had never seen read or seen The Littlest Angel or any other source promulgating this misconception, it is possible that some friend in church or Sunday School had, and had told him about it.

And regarding little Colton Burpo’s claim that the Holy Spirit is “kind of blue,the Holy Spirit is notkind of blue,” though plenty of spirits and ghosts in popular culture arekind of blue.

Perhaps the best example in support of the idea that little Colton Burpo was drawing on images he’d seen on this earth rather than in heaven comes when he tells his dad about a war that is supposedly coming.  He proclaims that

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.[130]

Next, he declares that

In heaven, the women and children got to stand back and watch … But the men, they had to fight.  And Dad, I watched you.  You have to fight too.[131]

When Pastor Todd asks what weapon he will be fighting the monsters with, the little boy annunciates,

You either get a sword or a bow and arrow.[132]

Poor Pastor Todd is disheartened:

My face fell.  ‘You mean I have to fight monsters with a sword?[133]

Then he tells us that

Colton was describing the battle of Armageddon and saying I was going to fight in it.[134]

Yet Colton was not describing the battle of Armageddon.  According to the Bible, we will not be fighting monsters with swords and bows and arrows.  In the first battle, before the Millennium, when “the beast, the kings of the earth, and their armies, gathered together to make war against Him who sat on the horse and against His army,”[135] it is the Lord Himself who will slay them, and He will do so without any help from Pastor Todd or from any of “the men.”  In the second battle, after Satan is released subsequent to the Millennium and gathers his army for battle, fire will come down from God out of heaven and devour them;[136] no swords, no bows or arrows, no monsters to fight, and no help needed from Todd Burpo.

So little Colton’s pronouncement about the battle of Armageddon is not consonant with what the Bible says, which by this time is no surprise at allThere is, however, something with which it is in perfect accord: the climactic battle scene from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.  Just about everything is there: the “good guys” having to fight, fighting with swords and bows and arrows, and fighting against monsters.

Even the part about women staying out of the battle is in the book:

“Susan, Eve’s Daughter,” said Father Christmas.  “These are for you,” and he handed her a bow and a quiver full of arrows and a little ivory horn.  “You must use the bow only in great need,” he said, “for I do not mean you to fight in the battle.” … Last of all he said, “Lucy, Eve’s Daughter,” and Lucy came forward.  He gave her … a small dagger … “the dagger is to defend yourself at great need.  For you also are not to be in the battle.”

“Why, sir?” said Lucy.  “I think – I don’t know – but I think I could be brave enough.”

“That is not the point,” he said.  “But battles are ugly when women fight.”[137]

So nothing in little Colton Burpo’s description of the battle of Armageddon matches what the Bible says.  What it does match very closely is the climactic battle between Aslan’s forces and the White Witch’s forces in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.  And, quelle surprise, what happened a few short months before little Colton Burpo brought forth this revelation that so impressed Pastor Todd?

From a kid’s perspective, maybe the best thing that happened in 2005 was the release of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.  During the Christmas season, we took the kids to see the movie on the big screen … Colton was more excited about a movie that featured good guys fighting bad guys with swords.[138]

And as if that weren’t enough,

In early 2006, we rented the DVD and settled into the living room for a family movie night … Colton, then six, was really getting into it.[139]

Can we now guess where the little boy got his picture of the battle of Armageddon?

How does Pastor Todd overlook this possibility?  He actually says that in the middle of Colton’s narration

his voice was sort of cheerful, as though he were talking about a good movie he’d seen.[140]

Now, could that possibly be because he wastalking about a good movie he’d seen”?

We now reach the conclusion of the matter.  We have found that the claim that little Colton Burpo went to heaven and sat in Jesus’ lap is not credible because not only is the evidence adduced in support of it of inadequate probative worth but also because the little boy’s descriptions of what he allegedly saw in heaven do not match what the Bible says in a variety of ways, some quite serious.  We found, on the other hand, that his descriptions do match images that are available and often very common in our earthly surroundings.

This combination of factors, and especially in light of Pastor Todd’s interpretation of why little Colton so readily attested that he had died when he had not died, leads us to propose the following possible explanation for the events of Heaven is for Real.

  • About three and a half months after leaving the hospital following surgery to treat a life-threatening medical condition, Little Colton Burpo tells an innocuous tale about angels having sung to him there (possibly, though not necessarily, based on a vivid dream).

  • Under questioning by his dad, the boy runs with the story, as three-year-olds are wont to do.

  • The fateful moment comes when the boy mentions that his dad was praying in a room by himself while his mom was praying and talking on the telephone.  This convinces Pastor Todd that his son is describing a genuine experience – indeed, he mentions this “proof” again and again – though, as we’ve seen, it does not require a supernatural explanation.

  • From then on, the parents treat Colton’s stories as if they were genuine experiences and are obviously excited about it.  Three-year-old children trust their parents implicitly, and it is in the realm of possiblity that the parents’ obvious conviction that these stories are true convinces little Colton that they are, in fact, true.

  • From then on, it becomes a self-perpetuating phenomenon.  Leading questions elicit responses from Colton’s imagination or from dreams, responses based on images he has encountered or things he has heard, and Pastor Todd tries to find Biblical justifications instead of noticing how much Colton’s claims deviate from Scripture.  The belief and excitement of the parents further solidifies little Colton’s belief that he has genuinely experienced the things he says.

  • Three more proclamations from the little boy that have plausible naturalistic explanations are taken by the parents as further proof that the boy had had a supernatural experience, and the self-perpetuating phenomenon continues.

This seems to be a plausible explanation for the events described in Heaven is for Real and it is not laced with the many problems we have seen with the alternate explanation that little Colton Burpo actually went to heaven and sat in Jesus’ lap.  We cannot know with certainty that it is the correct explanation, but it may indeed be the best explanation.

The Dark Fruit of Heaven Is for Real

Does it matter?  After all, Heaven is for Real is a feel-good story that so many people enjoy, so does it really matter whether little Colton Burpo actually went to heaven and sat in Jesus’ lap or whether it was all just an honest misunderstanding?  Regrettably, it does matter – very much so.  This whole phenomenon is bearing some very dark fruit.

The first indication we get of this is the account of Ali the babysitter.[141]  Ali babysits for the three Burpo children[142] on “one Monday evening in 2005.[143]  When the parents return, Sonja finds Ali visibly upset and crying.  Ali tells her that she had heard little Colton crying earlier in the evening and when she asked him what was wrong, he answered, “I miss my sister.[144]  Ali thought he was talking about Cassie, but he explained, “No, I miss my other sister.[145]

Ali is understandably confused, so little Colton tells her, “When I was little, I had surgery and I went up to heaven and saw my sister.[146]  Ali is shocked by this and later “told us that for the next two weeks, she couldn’t stop thinking about what Colton had told her, and how Sonja had confirmed that before his surgery, Colton hadn’t known anything about Sonja’s miscarriage.[147]

And then, this:

Ali had grown up in a Christian home but had entertained the same doubts as so many of us do: for example, how did we know any one religion is different from any other?  But Colton’s story about his sister strengthened her Christian faith, Ali said. ‘Hearing him describe the girl’s face … it wasn’t something that a six-year-old boy could just make up,’ she told us.  ‘Now, whenever I am having doubts, I picture Colton’s face, tears running down his cheeks, as he told me how much he missed his sister.’[148]

This is wrong in so many ways.  First, what are the churches doing to ground their young people in the certainty of Christianity?  “How did we know any one religion is different from any other?” is a very basic question that should have been answered for Ali long ago.  One can find out that “any one religion is different from any other” by spending about five minutes looking at what the different religions teach.  Or if what Pastor Todd meant to say here is how do we know that Christianity is the true religion, we should note that Jesus’ claims are backed up by His fulfillment of ancient prophecies, His miracles, and especially His resurrection from the dead, things which no one else claiming to bring God’s message has ever done.  That is how we know that Christianity is the truth, not because a six-year-old boy tells a story of seeing his miscarried sister on his trip to heaven.

Second, what is going on in our churches if the Scripture, the word of God authenticated by Jesus Himself (John 10:35b) and showing marks of divine authorship through fulfilled predictive prophecy and advanced scientific knowledge, is worth less for allaying doubts than the words of a six-year-old boy who says he went to heaven?

When John the Baptist was in prison, he began having doubts about Jesus and sent two disciples to Him to ask,

“Are You the Coming One, or do we look for another?” Jesus answered and said to them, “Go and tell John the things which you hear and see: The blind see and the lame walk; the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear; the dead are raised up and the poor have the gospel preached to them.”[149]

That is the proper response to doubt: a focus on Jesus and the proof He offers for His claims.  Is it advisable that, instead of doing this, a Christian, “whenever I am having doubts,” should “picture Colton’s face”?[150]  And what will happen to such a person’s faith if it turns out that our proposed explanation for Colton’s claims turns out to be true?[151]  And why, in God’s name, is a pastor apparently approving of finding assurance of faith in the words of little Colton Burpo rather than in the word of God?

Certainly, it continues full bore.  In January of 2007, we are told, a young mother whose child was stillborn comes to Pastor Todd and asks, “Would your son know if my baby’s in heaven?[152]  One would hope that a pastor would point this lady to the word of God, inasmuch as “we through the patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope,”[153] instead of endorsing her coming to inquire of Colton Burpo as if he were some sort of “Oracle of Imperial.”[154]  But no; she is comforted on the basis of what the little boy claimed to have seen in heaven.[155]  And then Pastor Todd actually ascribes this approach to the Holy Spirit![156]

Next, we hear of a nurse, who, after little Colton’s recovery, told Pastor Todd that “They didn’t think Colton was going to make it.  And when they tell us people aren’t going to make it, they don’t … There has to be a God, because this is a miracle.[157]  The pastor tells her that “we believe this was God,[158] and “then she left.  I think maybe she didn’t want to hear a sermon from a pastor.  But the truth was, she didn’t need a sermon – she’d already seen one.[159]  Actually, yes, Pastor, she did need a sermon.  Mayhap she now believes in God, but that is not enough:

You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe—and tremble![160]

She needs to hear the saving Gospel of Christ; the idea that “she didn’t need a sermon” because she had encountered the Oracle of Imperial is risible.

And then we hear of Pastor Todd’s “mother, Kay, who after twenty-eight years of wondering, finally knows she will one day meet her father again.[161]  So twenty-eight years of studying the word of God can only lead to wondering, but one proclamation from the Oracle of Imperial is enough to settle the matter?  She “finally knows” that she will meet her father again because little Colton Burpo says so?

It gets worse.  Pastor Todd tells us that

Because I had a lot of questions that I didn’t have answers for, I didn’t spend much time thinking about heaven on a personal level.  But I do now.  Sonja and I both do, and we’ve heard from a lot of people that Colton’s story has them thinking more about heaven too.  We still don’t have all the answers – not even close.  But now we have a picture in our minds, a picture we can look at and say, “Wow.”[162]

So the pictures of heaven that are given in the word of God are not adequate for this pastor and his wife, but the pictures given by the Oracle of Imperial are – even though they deviate significantly from what the word of God says!  How is this not seriously problematic?

It gets still worse.  Pastor Todd actually tells us that

I’ve always been very conscious about what I share about heaven from the pulpit, and I still am.  I teach what I find in Scripture.[163]

Yet a mere three pages later, we hear this:

Kids, especially, want to know whether Colton saw any animals in heaven.  The answer is yes!  Besides Jesus’ horse, he told us he saw dogs, birds, even a lion – and the lion was friendly, not fierce[164].  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.[165]

It certainly seems that, when it comes to heaven, Pastor Todd is not just teaching what he finds in Scripture.[166]  It certainly seems that he is at least adding to Scripture the pronouncements of the Oracle of Imperial.[167]  It is as if he has traded in Sola Scriptura for Scriptura et dicta parvi Coltonis Burponis.

It is difficult to know which is more distressing, these things or the fact that so many professing Evangelicals are lapping it up without any apparent hesitation or critical thought.  This is apparent not only from the huge number of book sales and the success of the movie, but from the fact that

On an average Sunday, our little church has about 100 souls in the pews.  Now we are being asked to speak about Colton’s story before thousands – to travel across the United States and even to faraway countries to share with countless other people who have questions about life after death, including those who have lost loved ones, especially children.[168]

So “about 100 souls” want to hear the word of God as expounded by Pastor Todd, whereas thousands want to hear the story of little Colton Burpo.  Apparently local pastors, apologists, Christian books, and, oh yes, the Bible are not sufficient to answer “questions about life after death” for these people; what they want is to hear is the decrees of little Colton Burpo.  Apparently the word of God is just too old and tired and boring for Evangelicals now; like the locals and foreigners in ancient Athens, they seem to want “nothing else but either to tell or to hear some new thing.”[169]

And it continues: We hear of

People suffering incredible pain and incredible loss, who have received comfort from Colton’s story.[170]

Not from the word of God, but from Colton’s story.  And again:

Men wrestle more privately with their grief.  Somehow, Colton’s story has reached them and helped them move forward.[171]

Apparently the word of God can’t reach them or help them move forward, but Colton’s story can.  There is something seriously wrong with this.

Interestingly, the added material in the “Special Movie Edition” of Heaven is for Real contains statements that could be interpreted as responses to certain challenges to the validity of little Colton’s story.  We read,

According to Scripture, heaven is huge, magnificent, and beyond anyone’s ability to describe it.  And yet there was my four-year-old trying to do just that.  He said Jesus rode a rainbow horse, and I struggled with that.  It sounded kind of cartoony, to be honest.[172]

Yes, indeed; as we have already noted, it sounds just like “My Little Pony.”

Pastor Todd tries to explain this, appealing to the fact that

Colton is a little kid with a little kid’s vocabulary.  What would look like a ‘rainbow horse’ to a little kid?  A horse surrounded by an aura of refracted light, maybe?[173]

This cannot be taken seriously.  Little kids know exactly what a “rainbow horse” looks like!  Shows such as “My Little Pony,” “Rainbow Brite,” and the new “Rainbow Horse” are not adult shows; they are made for kids as young as Colton was at the time.  There is no reason to think that by “rainbow horse” a “little kid” means anything other than a rainbow horse.

Pastor Todd then resorts again to saying that

I did know that after his near-death experiences, Colton knew things that he couldn’t possibly have known unless he was telling the truth about his experience.[174]

As we have already seen, however, the things that Colton knew are not sufficient to validate his extraordinary claims, and the fact that his descriptions repeatedly contradict Scripture is an insurmountable obstacle to his claims.

It is definitely fatally problematic that little Colton Burpo’s descriptions of heaven vary so greatly from the descriptions in the Bible.  Pastor Todd tells us that a little boy “doesn’t try to explain why he saw something or why his account doesn’t align with what the grown-ups think.  He just says, ‘This is what I saw.  I don’t know about that … but this is what I saw.[175]  This is unacceptable.  The problem is not that little Colton’s account doesn’t align with what “the grown-ups” think; it is that it does not align with what the God-breathed Scriptures say!  This is what Pastor Todd must explain – and doesn’t.

Instead, Pastor Todd tells us that

a young child is a pure witness … [who] isn’t contaminated with adult-think.[176],[177]

This sounds so nice, but it is not really so; scientific research shows that young children can readily testify to things that did not happen, based on how they are interviewed.[178]

Pastor Todd finishes off by saying,

We just tell people, ‘This is what Colton heard from God; this is what he saw when he was in heaven.’   Now people are free to ask themselves, Okay, what am I going to do with that?[179]

The answer to that question should be obvious to every Evangelical: “In obedience to God’s command in 1 Thessalonians 5:21 to ‘Test all things; hold fast what is good,’ I will examine the claims of Heaven is for Real carefully in light of what the Bible says, searching the Scriptures to find out whether these things are so, per Acts 17:11.  And when I do that, I find that the claims are simply not credible.”

Conclusion

Heaven is for Real has been weighed in the balances and found wanting.  It seems to be a feel-good story, but no Evangelical should feel good about it.  The cavalier dismissal of inconsistencies with Scripture, the use of the unsubstantiated proclamations of the Oracle of Imperial, and especially the almost complete lack of critical thinking on the part of Evangelicals with regard to this book is a cause for profound dismay and concern.  The ready embrace of what sounds like Scriptura et dicta parvi Coltonis Burponis in place of Sola Scriptura, as if comfort is not to be gained from the words of God but from the words of little Colton Burpo, is frightening.  This is surely an indication of the increasing irrelevance of Scripture to the Evangelical church in North America and, indeed, the growing hebetation of that church.  And they wonder why society does not take them seriously.


Endnotes

[1] Burpo, Todd with Lynn Vincent. Heaven is for Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back. Nashville, TN: W Publishing Group (an imprint of Thomas Nelson), 2010.

[2] The New York Times Book Review, June 22, 2014, p. 29.  The list represents sales from the sales period of June 1-7.

[3] Schwartzel, Erich. “‘Heaven Is For Real’ Poised for Strong Box Office This Weekend.” Posted on April 19, 2014, at http://blogs.wsj.com/speakeasy/2014/04/19/heaven-is-for-real-poised-for-strong-box-office-this-weekend/

[4] Burpo, op. cit., pp. xvi-xvii

[5] ibid., p. xiv

[6] ibid., p. xvii

[7] ibid., pp. 59-60

[8] ibid., p. 152

[9] ibid., pp. xvi-xvii

[10] ibid., p. xvii.  (Bolding added.)

[11] The fact that in Job 26:7 it is revealed that the Earth hangs suspended in space does constitute powerful evidence for the inspiration of the Bible, as no one in the days of Job knew or even suspected this counterintuitive fact, nor could they have known it with the state of their technology.  See Tors, John. “Evidence of Divine Authorship of the Bible in Job 26” at https://truthinmydays.com/evidence-of-divine-authorship-of-the-bible-in-job-26/.

[12] Burpo, op. cit., p. 43.  This is an actual phenomenon, known as “anesthesia awareness.”

[13] ibid., pp. 39-40

[14] ibid., p. 61

[15] It is quite possible that he overheard things and in his addled state of mind thought he was seeing them.

[16] Since “Not even Sonja had seen me in that little room, having my meltdown with God”

[17] Burpo, op. cit., pp. 64

[18] ibid., p. 77

[19] ibid., p. 91

[20] ibid.

[21] ibid., pp. 91-92

[22] ibid., p. 92

[23] ibid.

[24] ibid., p. 94

[25] ibid., p. 95

[26] ibid., p. 155

[27] ibid., p .96

[28] ibid., p. 96

[29] ibid., p. 95.  Cassie is Colton’s sister, older than he by two years and nine months.

[30] ibid., p. 86

[31] ibid., p. 121

[32] ibid., p. 87

[33] ibid.

[34] ibid., p. 121

[35] ibid.

[36] ibid., p. 95

[37] ibid., p. 130

[38] ibid., pp. 93-94

[39] ibid., pp. 142-145

[40] And possibly even streaked, though that may just be the lighting

[41] “And here is the portrait of Jesus from the article in Popular Mechanics.  Here was their method (in brief): Richard Neave, a retired medical artist from the University of Manchester, assembled a team of archeologists and forensic anthropologists.  Using standard forensic methods, they worked with three first-century Jewish skulls to create a three-dimensional composite “average Jewish man” model.  Since Jesus was a carpenter who worked outdoors, they decided Jesus was probably a bit more muscular and a bit darker than average.  Jewish men cut their hair short in the first century, so Jesus probably did also.” (Manning, Jr., Gary. “Pictures of Jesus.” Posted on http://thegoodbookblog.com/2012/oct/19/pictures-of-jesus/)

[42] This was suggested by a contributor going by the name “Extralien” to a blog thread posted on February 16, 2008, at http://www.abovetopsecret.com/forum/thread334482/pg1

[43] See also Matthew 27:50; Mark 15:37, 44; and Luke 23:46.  The fact that “one of the soldiers pierced His side with a spear, and immediately blood and water came out” (John 19:34) is proof that He was actually dead.

[44] Burpo, op. cit., p. 63

[45] ibid., pp. 63-64

[46] ibid., p. 62.  (Bolding and underlining added.)

[47] ibid., p. 64

[48] ibid., p. 65

[49] ibid.

[50] ibid.

[51] ibid., p. 66

[52] ibid.

[53] ibid.

[54] ibid.

[55] ibid.

[56] ibid., p. 65

[57] ibid.

[58] Judges 8:26; Esther 8:15; Ezekiel 23:6; Daniel 5:7, 16, 29

[59] Except indirectly, when Jesus is being mocked by the soldiers.

[60] Matthew 17:2; Mark 9:3; Luke 9:29

[61] Mark 15:17, 20; John 19:2, 5

[62] Revelation 17:4-5

[63] Burpo, op. cit., p. 65

[64] ibid., p. 67

[65] ibid.

[66] ibid.

[67] ibid.

[68] Luke 24:36-40; John 20:24-28

[69] The sole basis for assuming He does seems to be Revelation 5:6a, which reads, “And I saw in the midst of the throne and of the four living creatures, and in the midst of the elders, stood a Lamb as though it had been slain,” the assumption being that looking “as though it had been slain” indicates that the wounds of the crucifixion were still there.  However, the entire verse says, “And I saw in the midst of the throne and of the four living creatures, and in the midst of the elders, stood a Lamb as though it had been slain, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven Spirits of God sent out into all the earth,” which rather suggests some heavy symbolism here.  Meanwhile, 1 Corinthians 15:35-57 explains at some length that the resurrection body is raised in incorruption, in glory, and in power; it is raised as a spiritual body and will be in the image of the heavenly Man, Jesus.  None of this sounds as if wounds we received in this life will be carried over into the resurrection body.

[70] Miller, William D., Wesley J. Gabel, and Floyd E. Hosmer. “On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ.” Journal of the American Medical Association 255:11 (March 21, 1986), pp. 1455-1463.  Quote from p. 1459.

[71] ibid., Fig.4 caption.  This latter point is significant, inasmuch as John tells us that “when they came to Jesus and saw that He was already dead, they did not break His legs … For these things were done that the Scripture should be fulfilled, ‘Not one of His bones shall be broken.'” (John 19:33, 36.  Bolding added)

[72] This is particularly noteworthy since it was written by David around 1000 BC – which was about five hundred years before crucifixion was invented by the Persians!

[73] Burpo, op. cit., p. 71

[74] Hebrews 4:9-10 tell us that we will not be doing mundane work in heaven: “There remains therefore a rest for the people of God. For he who has entered His rest has himself also ceased from his works as God did from His.”  Of course, little Colton was supposedly only in heaven temporarily, but the idea of a “sneak-peek” trip to heaven to do homework is outré.

[75] Burpo, op. cit., p. 72

[76] e.g. Genesis 1:21

[77] e.g. Ezekiel 10:5

[78] e.g. Isaiah 6:2

[79] e.g. Ezekiel 1:5-6; Revelation 4:8

[80] Wings are ascribed to others symbolically (even to God e.g. Psalm 17:8) and in visions (indeed, it is not clear whether the four living creatures actually exist or are simply part of a vision).

[81] Burpo, op. cit., p. 72

[82] ibid., pp. 72-73.  (Bolding added.)

[83] ibid., p. 73

[84] ibid.

[85] ibid.

[86] ibid.

[87] New International Version

[88] New Living Translation

[89] Burpo, op. cit., p. 73

[90] ibid.  (Bolding and italics added.)

[91] ibid., p. 74

[92] ibid.

[93] ibid., p. 93

[94] ibid.

[95] ibid.

[96] ibid., p. 75

[97] ibid.

[98] ibid., p. 66

[99] ibid., p. 100. “Hey, Colton, what did you see when you were ‘in heaven’?” is not a leading question.  “Hey, Colton, when you were in heaven, did you ever see God’s throne?” is a leading question, as it sends the clear message that God does, in, fact have a throne in heaven that the little boy should have seen.

[100] ibid.

[101] ibid.

[102] ibid., pp. 100-101

[103] ibid., p. 101

[104] ibid.  Should not Pastor Todd have tested Colton’s claims against Scripture more frequently?

[105] ibid.

[106] From The Apostles’ Creed

[107] ibid.

[108] ibid.

[109] ibid.

[110] I know many Evangelicals will recoil at the word “blasphemy,” but it is a reality that is mentioned a number of times in the NT as something seriously bad (e.g. Matthew 15:19; Colossians 3:8; 2 Timothy 3:2), and so we cannot just ignore it.

[111] Burpo, op. cit., pp. 101-102

[112] ibid., p. 102.  (Bolding added.)

[113] ibid., p. 103

[114] 1 Timothy 6:15b-16a

[115] Burpo, op. cit., p.103

[116] Per Acts 17:11

[117] Burpo, op. cit., pp. 77-78

[118] ibid., p. 78

[119] ibid., p. 79

[120] ibid.

[121] ibid.

[122] ibid.

[123] ibid.  (Bolding and underlining added.)

[124] ibid., p. 80

[125] Revelation 1:10, 9:17

[126] Burpo, op. cit., p. 80.  (Bolding added.)

[127] ibid., p. 81  (Bolding added.)

[128] Even seeing an image once can lodge in a child’s memory if it makes a particular impact on him.

[129] ibid., p. 74

[130] ibid., p. 136

[131] ibid.

[132] ibid., p. 138

[133] ibid.

[134] ibid., p. 139

[135] Revelation 19:19b

[136] Revelation 20:7-9

[137] Lewis, C.S. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. London: The Folio Society, 1996, pp. 102-103.  This point may have been excised from the politically correct movie, but that does not mean little Colton could not have heard of it.

[138] Burpo, op. cit., p. 131

[139] ibid., pp. 131-132

[140] Ibid.  (Bolding and italics added.)

[141] ibid., pp. 127-130

[142] By this time, another Burpo baby, little Colby Burpo, has joined the family. (See ibid., p. 157)

[143] ibid., p. 127

[144] ibid., p. 128

[145] ibid.

[146] ibid., p. 129

[147] ibid., pp. 129-130.  Actually, Colton’s mention of his “other ‘sister’” (we have no way of knowing whether that child was actually a boy or a girl) came seven months after his surgery, which was another seven months for him to have learned this fact.  Why Sonja only talked about what he knew “before his surgery” is not clear.

[148] Burpo, op. cit., p. 130

[149] Matthew 11:3b-5

[150] Burpo, op. cit., p. 130

[151] By the way, any average six year old can certainly make up a vivid description of a girl’s face or draw the image from elsewhere.  It goes without saying that there is no way to verify Colton’s description.

[152] ibid., pp. 145-146.  Quote from p. 146

[153] Romans 15:4b

[154] Imperial, Nebraska, that is.  Cf. the Oracle of Delphi

[155] Burpo, op. cit., p. 146

[156] ibid., pp. 146-147

[157] ibid., pp. 147-148.  One would think that a nurse would know that occasionally people who seem at the brink of death do recover naturally, and so what happened to little Colton does not fit the definition of “miracle.”

[158] ibid., p. 148

[159] ibid.

[160] James 2:19

[161] Burpo, op. cit., p. 149

[162] ibid., pp. 149-150.  (Bolding added.)

[163] ibid., p. 149

[164] This couldn’t be Aslan from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, could it?  Oh, wait, it could.

[165] ibid., pp. 152-153

[166] Or are there different standards, depending on whether one is speaking “from the pulpit” or not?  If so, should there be?

[167] One also wonders whether Pastor Todd is preaching the gospel to his “Catholic friends,” who are putting their faith in a different gospel which is no gospel at all and in which there is no salvation.  See “Roman Catholicism” at https://truthinmydays.com/roman-catholicism/.

[168] Burpo, op. cit., p. 159 (in the “Special Movie Edition”)

[169] Acts 17:21b

[170] Burpo, op. cit., p. 165 (in the “Special Movie Edition”).  (Italics added.)

[171] ibid. (in the “Special Movie Edition”).  (Italics added.)

[172] ibid., pp. 161-162 (in the “Special Movie Edition”)

[173] ibid., p. 162 (in the “Special Movie Edition”)

[174] ibid. (in the “Special Movie Edition”)

[175] ibid., p. 167

[176] ibid., p. 166

[177] Pastor Todd doesn’t tell us what this horrible “adult-think” is that “contaminates” people as they grow older.

[178] e.g. “when the interviewer contradicted the script, children’s stories quickly conformed to the suggestions or beliefs of the interviewer; by the end of the first interview, 75% of children’s remarks were consistent with the examiner’s point of view, and 90% answered the interpretive questions in agreement with the interviewer’s point of view, as opposed to what actually happened.” (“The Suggestibility of Children: Evaluation by Social Scientists” (From the Amicus Brief for the Case of State of New Jersey v. Michaels (1994), Presented by Committee of Concerned Social Scientists).  From http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/mcmartin/suggestibility.html.  (Bolding and italics added.))

[179] Burpo, op. cit., p. 167

Comments: 2

  1. Boblewes says:

    Have you assessed a recent broadcast on the Bible Answer Man, Hank Haanagraff,s radio call in where he has covered this, and it seems as though Colton Burpo has stated that none of this is fact, it was only for attention

    • John Tors says:

      Actually, it was not Colton Burpo who said this. It was Alex Malarkey, the subject of another book about a boy who supposedly went to heaven. The book is called The boy who came back from heaven, and it is billed as “A remarkable account of miracles, angels, and life beyond this world.” It was written by Kevin & Alex Malarkey and published by Tyndale Momentum in 2010. Prominently on the cover is written “a true story,” but recently Alex Malarkey announced that it was not, in fact, a true story, but something he’d made up for attention. The Burpos continue to stand by their own account

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