Heaven Is For Real
by Todd Burpo
Embarking on a short tour of the afterlife is all the rage, it seems. Don Piper got it started with 90 Minutes in Heaven, a really bad book that sold millions of copies. Then there was23 Minutes in Hell, another bestseller and another awful book. And now hot on their heels comesHeaven Is For Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back. It’s currently sitting atop the New York Times list of bestsellers and has over a half million copies in print. I wonder if I’m the only one who finds it a mite suspicious that now that these books are selling like proverbial hotcakes, more and more people find that God wants them to tell their stories of heaven and hell. Probably not.

Heaven Is For Real is written by pastor Todd Burpo and it tells the story of his son Colton who, at age 4, visited heaven. His visit came while he was on the operating table after suffering a burst appendix. He told his parents his story several months later and his parents then waited 6 or 7 years to record it in a book. That book has shot to the top of the charts, resulting in many of you sending me emails to ask, “Have you read it?” So I went ahead and read it. Because that’s the kind of guy I am.

You will probably not be surprised to learn that this is not a good book. What I want to do here is offer a very brief review and then I want to tell you why you can legitimately dismiss this book and all the others like it, because I think that’s where many of us feel the tension—what gives me the right to dismiss another person’s experience?

I’ve already given you the broad outline. Colton dies (or something close to it) and visits heaven for an unknown period of time. He returns to his body and over the months and years that follow tells his parents about his time in heaven. He tells about spending time with Jesus, about meeting the sister he never knew he had, about fluttering around with wings, about the pearly gates, and on and on. Along the way you’ll get descriptions of Todd’s various afflictions and you’ll read the fine details of Colton’s battles with constipation and the great relief he experienced passing gas. Riveting stuff, this.

Every one of Colton’s experiences, or very nearly every one, follows a pattern. He tells his father some little detail. His father experiences a gasp or feels his heart skip a beat. “I could hardly breathe. My mind was reeling. My head was spinning.” A Scripture verse comes to dad’s mind that validates the experience. Colton gets bored and runs off. Repeat.

The story is told with short chapters and grade school-level writing. Fine literature it is not. The point of it all is to encourage you that heaven is a real place. Colton went there and his experience now validates its existence. Just like Don Piper went there and his experience validates its existence. Just like Bill Wiese went to hell and can speak with authority to tell you that you really, really don’t want to go there. Just like the Apostle Paul went there and told us all about it in order to…oh wait.

Now, what do I do with a book like this one? It seems to me that there are only a couple of options available to me. I can accept it, agreeing that this little boy is legitimate—he went to heaven and is now telling the tale for our edification. Or I can reject what this boy is saying—he did not go to heaven and this book is fictitious. If I go with this second option (which is exactly what I am doing) I now have two choices before me: either the boy (and/or his parents) is a liar or he genuinely believes he experienced something that he did not actually experience. I know which way I would lean, but I suppose that’s neither here nor there.

Either option is very uncharitable and each one leaves me with a further problem: on what grounds can I dismiss this as fiction, as a book that is completely unprofitable?

If I wanted to disprove Colton’s experience on grounds of logic or consistency I might point in a couple of different directions. In the first place, Colton is a toddler who speaks like an adult. His verbatim quotes sound nothing like a 4-year old, and I think I can say this with some authority as the father of a 4-year old. I’d also point to the fact that dad routinely remembers circumstantial detail that there is very little chance he would remember 6 or 7 years after the fact, something that, at the very least, tells me that he is filling in details where he feels he needs to. But there are better grounds.

The better strategy, I think, is to look to the Bible.

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