Heaven Is for Real is a father’s account of his son’s near-death experience, and the journey to heaven he later told his parents he took while his body was on the operating table. Todd Burpo, a pastor at a Wesleyan church in western Nebraska, recalls the events leading up to his three-year-old son’s unexpected hospitalization that led to an emergency appendectomy in 2003. While he was never pronounced dead, little Colton’s struggle to survive was quite serious, and Burpo reveals with sincere transparency the physical, emotional, and spiritual challenges he and his wife, Sonja, faced during this traumatizing time.
Four months later, just as “normalcy” seemed to appear on the horizon, Colton surprised them with the news that, while he was in surgery, he went to heaven. Over the next few years he revealed to them, in matter-of-fact statements and innocent anecdotes, that not only did he go to heaven, but he also met Jesus and John the Baptist, as well as his great-grandfather who died before Colton was born, and the child Sonja miscarried before Colton was born, who introduced herself to Colton as his sister. He saw God the Father on his throne, and the Holy Spirit—who, in case you were wondering, is blue. (Blue in color, not in disposition.) He saw Jesus’ rainbow horse and people with wings and angels with swords and even Satan himself. . . .
Have I lost you yet? Or are you just rolling your eyes?
Throughout his narrative, Burpo is honest about his own personal difficulties digesting this story from his son. However, what ultimately convinces him—and what he mentions time and time again to reassure the reader—is that Colton spoke of both people and events he had no prior knowledge of, as well as information he was too young to have yet learned either at home from his parents or in a church setting. Burpo also provides biblical passages that either specifically confirm, or at least loosely support, Colton’s stories.
As is to be expected, Heaven Is for Real has received mixed reviews, some readers finding it hopeful and encouraging, others finding it lacking in biblical credibility and easy to dismiss along with all the other near-death experience tales that speak of the unseen. My own thoughts are twofold.
The first is, why can’t we simply take this book for what it is? What it is, is the story of a little boy who says he went to heaven. While he was there, he says, he learned just how much God loves us, just how much Jesus loves children, and that Jesus “died on the cross so we could go see his dad.”
Maybe he didn’t go. Maybe it was really all a dream. Maybe he has the biggest imagination since that one guy who wrote those books about magic wardrobes and talking lions. Or maybe Todd Burpo made the whole thing up just to pull a fast one on all us ignorant Christians and any other saps who go in for this sort of thing, knowing he could make some big bucks and milk the morning news show circuit.
I doubt that is the case. But even if it is . . . so what?
As Paul said, “It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill. The latter do so in love. . . . The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely. . . . But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice.” (Phil. 1:15-18)
Of course we need to be able to discern truth from error, and we need to be clear on what we believe: Christ and Him crucified. No more. No less. But when in doubt, aren’t we supposed to look at the fruit? And the fruit of Heaven Is for Real is that Christ is preached. This is the important thing. And because of it we should rejoice.
My second thought has to do with the nature of most of the reservations I came across—namely, that much of what Colton claims he saw is just too far-fetched to stomach. To that I say: Of course it’s far-fetched! It’s supernatural! As are many of the other things we say we believe, by the way. Talking donkeys . . . the earth pausing in its rotation around the sun for the sake of a battle victory . . . a giant fish swallowing—but not eating, mind you—a man and then spitting him back out . . . fiery chariots appearing in the sky and taking men up to heaven . . . the list goes on.
And that’s just the Old Testament. We haven’t even gotten to the New Testament. Let’s see here: We’ve got a virgin birth . . . Jesus walking on water . . . all those healings . . . and Christ’s actual resurrection from the dead. We are so used to speaking of these things, recalling the inexplicable, unbelievable, we-walk-by-faith-and-not-by-sight happenings of our faith in the same way that we recall what we had for dinner last Thursday night. But then, when we are presented with ideas that are no more outlandish but simply not as familiar, we suddenly purse our lips, push up our glasses, and say in very educated tones, “I don’t know about that . . . it sounds a little . . . far-fetched.”
We believe that Jesus Christ, the God-Man, is going to appear in the sky, and that we are going to meet him there, while simultaneously getting new bodies. Read that again. It’s outrageous. It’s audacious. It’s miraculous. It’s, dare I say, ubernatural?! And it’s true or we’re crazy. “For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised your faith is futile. . . . If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.” (1 Cor. 15: 16-19)
So, if I’ve gone so far as to step out in faith and believe in Jesus and His promises, even the ones that sound really far-fetched, why not at least be open to the idea that He rides around heaven on a rainbow horse? After all, “no eye has seen, no ear heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him.” (1 Cor. 2:9) If he has a rainbow horse prepared for me, I’m going to be really excited.
Annie Provencheris a teacher-turned-barista-turned-nanny-turned-wordsmith. She graduated from James Madison University and, after many years of fear and denial, has finally faced the inevitable and accepted that she is, in fact, a writer. Her (admittedly long-winded) personal musings on life can be found at http://birdfalling.blogspot.com.
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