HEAVEN IS FOR REAL, a Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back, by Todd Burpo with Lynn Vincent (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2010), 162pp, paper, $16.99).

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The movie Heaven is for Real opened in theaters on Wednesday, April 16 taking second place in the movie boxoffice for the week. This has renewed interest in the book which had already sold over eight million copies prior to the movie.

Heaven is for Real is based on the 2010 best-selling book of the same title, which has moved back to the top of the New York Times bestseller list at #2 in in the “combined print and e-book nonfiction” category and #1 in the “paperback nonfiction” category. On Amazon.com, the Kindle version of the book is at #1 in the “Eschatology” category and #1 in the “inspirational” category. For the paperback version, Amazon.com has it at #2 in “Eschatology,” #4 in “Christian Living,” and #4 in “Religion and Spirituality.” These are astounding numbers for a book that has been on the market this long.

The description for the book on Amazon.com begins as follows:

Heaven Is for Real is the true story of the four-year old son (Colton Burpo) of a small town Nebraska pastor who during emergency surgery slips from consciousness and enter heaven. He survives and begins talking about being able to look down and see the doctor operating and his dad praying in the waiting room. The family didn’t know what to believe but soon the evidence was clear.

In preparation for my weekly interview with Jimmy DeYoung (during which we discuss current theological issues), I went to see the movie on Friday, having read the book a week earlier. In addition to this book and movie, I also began researching other “near death experiences” (referred to as NDEs). For this research I read three books by people who claimed to have an NDE and the specific NDE portions of two additional books. One of these books was a compilation of approximately twenty NDE stories, for a total of about twenty-five NDEs with which I’m now familiar.

Heaven is for Real

1. Colton Burpo (the young boy who says he went to heaven), according to the hospital records, did not die. If he did not die, then how did his soul go to heaven? The claim and belief is not that this was not a God-given dream or vision, but an actual visit. However, if the soul actually leaves the body, then the person is dead in this world.

2. Colton was only three years old at the time of his “visit” to heaven and while his descriptions of heaven fit what one might expect from the imagination of a child this age, they don’t fit what we find in Scripture.

The things he saw and experienced include:

3. Everyone has wings, both angels and humans (including Colton himself) – although only the Cherubim and Seraphim among the angelic host are described as having wings and there is no biblical reason to think that humans will have wings either before or after the resurrection.

4. Jesus has a horse that is all the colors of the rainbow – although the horse on which Jesus will return to the earth is described as being white in Revelation chapter 19.

5. Colton was given a little chair to sit beside the Holy Spirit, who he describes as being “kind of blue” – although He is pure spirit and only appears once in all of Scripture, and then as a dove at Jesus’ baptism.

6. Colton meets and talks with Jesus personally, and sits on his lap – although according to the CIA Factbook, over 100 people in the world die every minute, and even with a conservative estimate of 5% being born-again Christians, this comes out to one Christian entering the Lord’s presence every twelve seconds – while in Colton’s account, there is no mention of anyone entering heaven while he is with the Lord.

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Additional Issues

7. Colton only gives a few details about heaven at a time, with apparently weeks passing between the times when he mentions a new detail – and the book indicates that his parents never just sat down and asked him all the things he saw – so the story develops over a fairly long period of time.

8. Colton reveals that there are no old-looking people in heaven, with his grandfather (who died when his father was a young boy) being about 25 years old – although he says he met his sister who died in the womb and she was apparently about eight years old in heaven, meaning that she apparenty would have gone to heaven as a fetus and then grew older while there.

9. Colton rejects all the painted pictures of Jesus he is shown, except for one painted by a child prodigy who also claims to have gone to heaven and has ongoing visions and dreams. He says that picture is what Jesus looks like.

10. Although the book indicates that faith in Jesus is the requirement to enter heaven, the movie definitely communicates a universalistic sense of salvation. This is especially troubling because there really are some genuinely powerful “tear-jerker” moments in the movie (bringing tears to my eyes, as well, as was the director’s intention), which means that it is going to affect most viewers emotionally, while giving many a false sense of security who have never entered into a personal relationship with the Lord.

11. Colton’s father is the pastor of a Wesleyan church and both at home and in Sunday School, Colton had already heard many Bible stories and seen many illustration of those stories during his young life.

12. Colton’s account contains very extensive extra-biblical revelation.

Other Near Death Experiences

1. One of things frequently found when researching NDEs is that many say they must be real (at least many of them) because of the similar things nearly everyone experiences, such as leaving and floating above one’s body, going through a tunnel, approaching a bright light, etc. However, these are fairly superficial similarities when compared with all the radical differences in the details. Of the 25 or so NDEs I studied, there were NO TWO that matched in terms of either what was seen or experienced. If all these people really went to heaven, then what we would expect is that everyone would see the same things or at least many of the same or similar things. If this were true, then it would make considering alternative explanations much more difficult, but this is not at all the case.

2. On the other hand, the similar experiences of going to heaven, feeling loved and accepted, going through a tunnel, being in the presence of a bright luninous being, etc. are reported by everyone, whether the person is a Christian, belongs to a different religion or is even an atheist. In fact, there are reports of a significant number of those who have had NDEs and who attended conservative, Bible-believing churches, yet ended up leaving those churches because of the “narrow” exclusive message of salvation being only in and through Jesus Christ.

3. One book is the account of a man who grew up in a Christian family and understood the gospel, but had openly and staunchly rejected it. However, when he reached the point that he felt he would likely die, he very sincerely prayed to the Lord, seeking forgiveness of sins and asking to be saved. Based upon what he clearly states in his book concerning the gospel, everything he understands is completely biblical. However, when he had his NDE, he first went to hell for some time—a place he describes as intensely cold and dark, where nothing could be seen at all. Yet, the apostle Paul says that to be absent from body is to be present with the Lord. Furthermore, as Jesus gives the account of the rich man and Lazarus, the rich man is tormented, not in intense cold, but in intense heat by flames of fire. Also, rather than not being able to see anything, the rich man in hell was able to see both Lazarus and Abraham.

4. In the above account, the young man, who survived his ordeal, continued to be harassed by demons who showed up at night, came to his door and window trying to get to him and entice him to come with them, and in one instance a spear was even thrown through his window.

These are just some of the many issues surrounding these accounts.

The number of books describing NDEs and trips to both heaven and hell is multiplying quickly, with many millions of volumes already sold and with many more books undoubtedly on the way. It is very troubling that untold numbers of unbelievers are finding hope and assurance that “everything will be okay” in the end—and that so many conservative evangelicals are also apparently accepting these stories in large numbers.

By David James, Executive Director of the Alliance for Biblical Integrity

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