Before we look at Todd Burpo’s record and interpretation of his son’s experience found in “Heaven is for real,” I want to preface it by simply reminding each believer of the necessity of biblical scrutiny in such matters. In a world where truth, generally, and the truth of the Gospel, particularly, is under constant attack, we cannot relinquish our role as defenders of The Faith. We must view every man’s claim, every form of entertainment, and every book through biblical glasses, and just because the work has a Christian author gives it no right to a free pass.
Essentially, we must be like the men of Berea who, as Luke tells us, “…were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so” (Acts 17:11). The primacy of the Word of God was paramount with the Bereans as it should be with every believer today.
While this essay is not all inclusive, I have extracted those issues and concepts that I believe deserve the most attention. In doing so, I have divided it into two separate categories, namely, “The Possible” and “The Impossible.”
The Possible: A Minimal Approach
The first issue I will address is the possibility of such an experience as Colton’s, and hence with a few questions. Are people more than mere physical creatures? If so, is it possible for them to survive death and then observe activity and/or conversations apart from their bodies? Is it possible to see heaven, see those who preceded us in death, and even see Jesus as Colton claimed to have done? Is there any basis at all for anything that Colton said he saw, heard, did, or said?
For starters, and foundational to Christian teaching, Scripture tells us that human beings are unique. We consist, in fact, of material and immaterial properties, and were, as the Bible tells us, created in the image of God (Genesis 2:7). Having been created physically from the dust of the ground and then spiritually in His image, we are much more that the sum of our total parts. This reality affirms, then, both the existence and logical possibility of the post-mortem survival of man’s immaterial part to eventually be reunited with a new body at the resurrection at some point in the future (John 5:29).
With this reality in mind, we could easily discuss the death of a rich man and a contemporary of his named Lazarus. Both men died, the text tells us, with Lazarus being taken to paradise while the rich man opened his eyes in hell. It is there that Jesus tells of the rich man begging “Father Abraham” for a mere drop of water to cool his parched tongue as he suffered the pangs of his God-less existence (Luke 16). Not only does this point to the survival of their souls apart from their bodies but there is obvious consciousness.
We then have the transfiguration of Jesus and his meeting with Moses and Elijah, a phenomenon witnessed by Peter, James, and John (Matthew 17). Both men gave up their terrestrial abode when Moses died and Elijah was “translated” as 2 Kings 2:11 tells us. The point is, both men, though recognized in some form, were called from paradise, the abode of the righteous dead, to meet Jesus, and as with the rich man and Lazarus, still await their eventual and new resurrection body. Again, both very much alive in some post-mortem state.
We also have John’s testimony concerning the Spirits of those slain for the word of God during the tribulation period serves as more evidence (Revelation 6:9). These disembodied folk cried, in fact, for revenge upon those who, still on earth, perpetrated their demise.
While Scripture is clear and consistent on the existence of the soul, some corroborating extra-biblical evidence also exists and has been documented by Gary Habermas in the book he co-authored with J.P. Moreland, “Beyond Death.” Therein he gives several examples of “near death experiences,” that, given their numbers coupled with the unique information gathered from them, give significant credence to their legitimacy.
It must be noted, however, that these “near death experiences,” (NDE’s), while interesting, only confirm some very general realities, namely, the existence and viability of the immaterial part of man apart from the body. In this sense alone, they correspond to the scriptural model. By that I mean that while some general and confirmable claims emerge from such experiences many specifics of such claims contradict both scripture and each other.
In other words, people involved in said experiences knew and described things impossible to know otherwise. Some saw people in other rooms and were able to give specifics concerning some posture or activity. Others also described clothing, the placement of surgical instruments, the particulars of specific conversations, all of which would be impossible unless witnessed. These are the minimal confirmable realities about which I speak.
In some cases, according to Gary Habermas, the persons even saw loved ones they did not know had died (Beyond Death, p. 161). One such case involved a woman who, near death, saw a man named Tom and “exclaimed, ‘Why Tom, I didn’t know you were up here!'” Later that night, the woman’s husband received a call telling him that their friend “Tom” had died in an automobile accident, a fact to which the woman was oblivious.
In another case, a family was involved in a fiery car crash, and according to Habermas,
“The mother died at the scene, and her two sons were taken to different hospitals. As the doctor watched over the youngest child, he awakened from a coma and told the doctor the following, “Yes, everything is all right now. Mommy and Peter are already waiting for me.”
Shortly thereafter, the boy died. Habermas continues,
“But he had not been told that the other members of his family had already expired. Then as Kubler-Ross (Dr.) walked past the nursing station, she was told that a call had just come in from the other hospital telling them that Peter, the older brother, had died just minutes earlier” (Beyond Death, p. 163).
There are many others, but the point I want to make here is that with the testimony of Scripture as our basis, the testimonies involving near death experiences offer another line of evidence concerning the existence and viability of the immaterial part of man apart from the body.
It is possible then, that Colton experienced something, but again, while NDE’s do help affirm the existence of man’s material and immaterial part, great caution should be exercised in the acceptance of those acclaimed particulars beyond that and especially those that intersect with Scriptural ones. In other words, such experiences only attest to the validity of our dualistic nature, the body and soul, and nothing else, and when it comes to those specifics that cross scriptural ones, we must diligently compare the two. This is where we can call the Burpo’s on the legitimacy of some of Colton’s claims, and as noted above, nobody gets a free pass, particularly when many of the acclaimed particulars stand in contradiction to Scripture. Those are the particulars we can verifiably call impossible.
This section is a bit different, because it deals with what I believe to be the “impossibles” of Colton’s experience. It is impossible, for example, that Jesus would say something to Colton that would inherently diminish or nullify the Gospel. Nor would He say one thing to Colton after having told the Apostles something entirely different as recorded in the Gospels. That is exactly what we find, however, when we compare those concepts and conversations that Colton supposedly had with Jesus with those same concepts and conversations found in Holy Writ.
Gospel Subtly Diminished
The first problem I must address is akin to the one I found in Rob Bell’s work, “Love Wins.” Therein, Bell reflects a subtle, disturbing, and growing tendency to eliminate the name of Jesus from one’s encounter with God, hence the very Gospel that necessarily includes it. According to Bell, people can savingly encounter God by simply “honoring their God given goodness and humanity” and without ever hearing the name of Jesus, and that is the very kind of emphasis I discovered in “Heaven is for real” when Colton’s father, Todd, tells us that God has his children even “with no mention of God or his name.”
“You have to be good?”
Many things Colton said about his experience are questionable, but when he claims that Jesus told him certain things, we must take special note. It is then that we must compare the biblical record of Jesus’ words with those supposedly spoken to Colton. Such is the case when, according to Colton, “Jesus ‘told’ him he had to be good” (p. 60).
Now I’m not saying that instructing a little boy to be good is necessarily a bad thing, but the emphasis in scripture, at any juncture, isn’t to be good, but to understand humanity’s inherent sin problem and then find redemption in the substitutionary work of Christ. In fact, this runs counter the biblical message altogether, and while being good is a noble goal for a little boy in relation to his parents, siblings, and friends, transformation through personal faith in Christ is primary.
As I pondered these words, I did everything in my power to give Colton the benefit of the doubt. After all, this is a four-year-old boy at the time, right? Then I did a little more homework and found a recent interview in which Colton, now fourteen, was in the spotlight. It was then that my suspicion was confirmed. The trend continued as the interview with Elisabeth Hasselbeck on “Fox and Friends” on April 8, 2014 revealed. In that interview, Hasselbeck wanted to know if he “feels a great responsibility” because he talks to kids who think that this has happened to them and asked what people should take away from the film. Colton preached that “God really does love you” and “wants you to be in heaven with him.” And he knows because he’s “been there and experienced how he feels towards us, but the problem is that we’re too attached to things of this world and because we’re attached to that thing, we can’t go to heaven.” http://www.newshounds.us/20140408_elisabeth_hasselbeck_pimps_movie_about_divine_journey_to_heaven#ueV7dJuCYxUpMBzY.99
Note the last few words. Colton tells Hasselbeck that the “problem is that we’re too attached to things of this world and because we’re attached to that thing, we can’t go to heaven.” Note them carefully, because he describes what he perceives as the “problem.” Now fourteen years old and with a perfect chance to define the real problem as biblically noted, he did just the opposite. The “problem,” per Colton, was our attachment to one earthly thing or another. Really? Where is the mention of sin, the holiness of God, the substitutionary death of Jesus, and the need for personal faith in his finished work – a simple reference to John 3:16 would have sufficed – anything that included the name and work of Christ. I’m not looking for a theological treatise here, but the problem is sin and the only remedy is personal faith in the work of Jesus in our behalf.
Comparatively, then, where did Jesus ever tell anyone on earth, child or adult, that they “had to be good” or had to just release your hold on worldly things to inherit heaven? One might as well tell others to just “honor your God given goodness and humanity” as did Rob Bell. The admonition to be good or to exert any human effort at all to gain divine favor in no way, shape, or form resembles Gospel, and any attempt to pass it off as such undermines the true Gospel of Jesus Christ. Thus the words of Paul to the Ephesians,
8 For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: 9 Not of works, lest any man should boast.
Note Paul’s words carefully, because he tells us forthrightly that the grace of God is our only means of salvation via the channel of personal trust in Christ’s finished work, a reality that eliminates any idea that favor with God might be earned. It is a gift. Then he tells the Galatians,
6 I marvel that ye are so soon removed from him that called you into the grace of Christ unto another gospel: 7 Which is not another; but there be some that trouble you, and would pervert the gospel of Christ. 8 But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed. 9 As we said before, so say I now again, If any man preach any other gospel unto you than that ye have received, let him be accursed.
Here, Paul tells his readers that the source does not matter. In other words, be it himself or an angel from heaven, the conclusion is the same. If anyone comes to you with any other Gospel, said Paul, “let him be accursed.” Strong words again, but it reveals the necessity of maintaining a pure Gospel as the souls of men and women hang in the balance.
“No mention of God or his name”
In this instance, the problem is as serious as the above, because it serves as a means of confirmation for the Burpo experience. This statement emerges amidst the discussion about a young girl named, Akiane, who supposedly made multiple visits to heaven. While her many visits to the realm of glory are problematic, it is the emphasis upon her lack of knowledge concerning God, Christ, and the Gospel inseparably linked to the name of Jesus that draws my attention here.
Here, then, is the problem. Akiane, although the daughter of an atheist living in a household in which the name of Jesus had never been spoken, she had “begun having ‘visions’ of heaven at the age of four” (142). As Burpo told the story, he noted the following, “Akiane’s story showed that God can reach anyone, anywhere, at any age – even a preschool girl in a home where the name had never been spoken” (143). Of course, here, he refers to the name, “God,” but the deprivation logically extends to the name of “Jesus” as well. The point is, the little girls experiences stood unquestioned despite the atheistic atmosphere the parents deliberately created with no mention, and hence, no knowledge of God, the gospel, or faith in Christ at all.
Read those words again, “Even when the name had never been spoken.” Don’t let that idea slip past your biblical senses, because another man, Rob Bell, in fact, makes a similar claim, saying, in fact, that people can positively encounter God apart from knowledge of Jesus and the Gospel that bears his name. While I will not compare Burpo’s intent to that of Bell’s, I must note the increasing tendency of even well meaning Christians to legitimize spiritual experiences that either minimize or avoid the name of Jesus in the process, and that is essentially what Burpo does here.
For those who have read the book, you will recall that Akaine made frequent and unquestioned visits to heaven and, finally, her drawing of Jesus at age 12 that Todd and his wife cite as confirmation of Colton’s experience. She is presented as one with something akin to heavenly “frequent flier” miles, with each painting serving as some supposed verification of her many “trips” to the realm of glory. But notice the absence of any reference to a relationship with God in Christ still. With no conversion experience emerging in her life, even after several years of heavenly encounters, Akaine’s experiences are necessarily suspect, making the Burpo dependence upon it for validation of Colton’s experience troubling at best.
Claiming to have seen Jesus, Colton began to notice different paintings and pictures of Jesus and without hesitation or exception, according to his father, dispelled the accuracy of them all. In fact, after seeing “literally dozens” of pictures of Jesus since 2003, Burpo tells us, “Colton had still never seen one he thought was right” (144). This typical response changed however, upon seeing the painting by Akaine, and on this one occasion only, Colton told his dad that “that one’s right” (145).
So, the emphasis placed on the fact that neither God’s name nor the name of Jesus had ever been spoken in the girls house coupled with the fact that the name of Jesus seems eerily irrelevant to the little girls “heavenly” experiences, is troubling indeed. Of course, Burpo tries to justify Akiane’s experience in order to bolster Colton’s story, and he does so by citing Jesus’ words to, “Let the little children come to me” (143). The problem with such rationalization, however, emerges in the fact Jesus told the disciples to “let them come unto ME” (Matthew 19:14). There’s no lack of information concerning the name of Jesus even implied here. In fact, the statement inherently implies at least some basic knowledge and desire to come unto, well, Jesus, the “me” of the text.
Contradiction: Jesus said vs. Jesus said
Can you say, “contradiction?” At this juncture, I will simply compare biblical statements with some of the direct statements from Colton about the “Jesus” he supposedly encountered. In this case, however, I will compare the words of Jesus in heaven as reported by Colton verses the words of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels. First we will look at the words of Colton concerning the bodies of the departed dead and his conclusion, per his supposed conversation with Jesus, that those who go to heaven receive a new body while those who don’t go do not receive one. The problem, if not obvious to those who read it, arises from the fact that if Jesus did indeed tell Colton that only those who go to heaven get a new body, then he contradicts himself when compared to the biblical accounts dealing with the same topic.
Don’t miss this point. Colton’s experience supposedly included conversations with Jesus and one such exchange included the nature of those who enter eternity, both heaven and hell. According to Colton, Jesus told him that those who go to heaven enjoy the benefits of a new body, while those who don’t go do not get a new one. In Colton’s words, as noted above, “Jesus told me if you don’t go to heaven, you don’t get a new body” (p. 136).
Now, note Jesus’ words concerning both those who go and those who “don’t go to heaven” as recorded by the Apostles.
“And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.”
What Jesus said here, fits quite snuggly with what John recorded of Jesus’ words in both his Gospel and the book of Revelation. In John 5:29, for example, Jesus mentions “two” resurrections with one being unto life, also called the “first resurrection,” and the other being a “resurrection” unto damnation. In Revelation, he speaks as an eyewitness to the resurrection of the unredeemed and their eventual demise in the lake of fire. Said the books of John’s Gospel and Revelation respectively,
“And shall come forth; they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation.”
“12 And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works. 13 And the sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them: and they were judged every man according to their works. 14 And death and hell were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death.”
I am convinced that in John 5:29, no other conclusion can be drawn, at least without some interpretive sleight of hand. It is the body of man that dies and it is the body that requires resurrection, whether it be unto life or unto death as noted here by Jesus. Here, John refers to the bodily resurrection of both the redeemed and the unredeemed, meaning, of course, that each group receives a new body fit for their respective destinies. The redeemed receive bodies fitted for eternity in the presence of God, while the lost receive bodies fitted for the torments to which they will be forever confined.
Then in Revelation 20:12-14 John the Revelator witnesses the raising of the unredeemed dead, both “small and great.” Some will be called from the “sea,” while others will be raised from “death and hell,” with the primary point being that all places gave up their dead in order to receive their new bodies fit for the torment they faced in the lake of fire.
Note both sources carefully, because the conclusion is the same. Jesus declared, via both Disciples, that the redeemed and unredeemed receive new bodies, while Colton reports that Jesus told him something totally different. Shouldn’t such contradiction trouble us? Shouldn’t it concern us that someone’s experience actually contradicts Scripture and still gains the approval and applause of Christians who claim that the Bible is their final authority?
While gathering my thoughts on this issue, I also spent time pondering the logical options we actually have when considering the words of Jesus as reported by Colton verses the words of Jesus as reported by both Matthew and John. In fact, we have at least three options: (1) We can believe that Matthew and John are right and Colton wrong, (2) We can believe that Colton is right, but Matthew and John are wrong, or, (3) We can believe that both accounts tell us exactly what Jesus said with Jesus contradicting himself by saying one thing to the Apostles and another thing entirely to Colton.
The only right answer should be obvious. The disciples got it right while Colton got it wrong. There is no middle ground.
Before closing, I want to note another experience corroborated by three very well respected men. This experience involved the transfiguration of Jesus as well as the post-mortem appearances of Moses and Elijah right before their eyes. As these men testified of seeing Jesus changed and crowned with glory before them and then Moses and Elijah joining the Lord Jesus as if in some private conference, they immediately wanted to raise altars to all three. Contrastingly, this experience surpasses by far the experience of Colton.
They saw Jesus transfigured right before their eyes. The text tells us that “his face did shine as the sun, and his raiment was white as the light” (Matthew 17). This was a once in a life time experience, or better yet, a once in a human history experience. Nobody else ever saw Jesus changed before them and nobody else ever saw him in conference with the likes of Moses and Elijah either. In fact, so excited were the disciples about their experience, Peter suggested they build three altars, one to Moses, one to Elijah, and yet another to Jesus! Such an experience was worthy of supreme reverence, right? Seeing the Son of God instantly clothed in glory should be shouted from the first century housetops, shouldn’t it?
Ironically, there was no book or press release, and certainly no movie that might allure their world into the sensational. Christ, his finished work, and the physical resurrection was the focus of early Christianity, as was the written Word. In fact, Jesus demanded the disciples’ silence until after the resurrection, and even then, it seems tucked away as a barely mentionable.
It is mentioned in the Gospel of John, for example, but only in his emphasis upon the incarnation. It is there that the beloved John refers to the incident, saying it, in fact, this way, “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth) (John 1:14). Here, however, is the point. Despite an experience unlike any other, and despite seeing Christ in his glory, and despite the effect it had on all three disciples, this is its only mention by John apart from the historical record itself.
Peter also mentions it. Reminding his readers that he was there when he heard the words of the Father from heaven honoring His Son, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (2 Peter 1:17). This was his experience, as it was the experience of James and John, but he mentions it only in passing in order to stress that which he considered far more important, namely, the written Word of God. We have, he said, “a more sure word of prophecy.” The point is simple. Even with the certainty, the rarity, and the glory of their experience, he points us to a “more sure word of prophecy.” He points men and women to Scripture which is of no private interpretation like such experiences, even if, like this one, true.
As a Christian, I am convinced that the glories of heaven will surpass anything I might imagine, but my confidence is neither founded nor bolstered by the questionable experience of a child from either a Christian or atheistic home. My confidence, then, cannot rest in an experience in which the Gospel is minimized, Jesus speaks in contradiction, or corroborating evidence emerges from a young girl raised in an atheistic home, encounters the divine apart from either knowledge of trust in Jesus Christ, and yet enjoys frequent visits to heaven. My confidence, rather, is founded and confirmed in those biblical accounts available to us and verified by the physical resurrection of the Lord Jesus.