Originally published in the Spring 2013 edition of Around the Word.
“Heaven is for real” tells the story of three year old Colton Burpo’s “trip to heaven and back” during an emergency appendectomy during March, 2003. The book, told from the perspective of Colton’s father Todd, relates Colton’s memories of what happened during that surgery. He describes an experience where he “went up out of his body” and could see what was going on throughout the hospital, like how his father was praying behind closed doors during the surgery. It is also during this surgery that Colton says he went to heaven, where he met John the Baptist (whom he describes as “nice”), sat in Jesus’ lap, and got to pet Jesus’ rainbow-colored horse!
The book is easy to read and engaging. The family’s experience of almost losing their son is described in heartbreaking agony. There is some question throughout the book of whether Colton actually died and went to heaven or merely had a vision of heaven. In either case, the book’s basic claim—to offer a new vision of heaven—is not compatible with orthodox Christianity, though there is nothing in the book that suggests the Burpo family is intentionally trying to mislead people.
Scripture continually warns us to be on guard against those who would seek to add to the Biblical message. Hebrews 1 acknowledges that God has, in the past, in many and various ways, spoken to His people of old through the prophets. One thinks of the dreams of Joseph or Daniel, or the visions of Amos and Isaiah. However, in these last days, God has spoken (past tense) to us through His Son, the Word made flesh. Everything we need to know about God and heaven has already been revealed to us in His Word. As Abraham tells the rich man in Hades, “They have Moses and the prophets, let them hear them,” (Luke 16:29). Even the apostle Peter considers the written Word more sure than hearing the voice of the Father directly from heaven (which, incidentally, he did when he was with Jesus on the mount of transfiguration; see 2 Peter 1:18–19). Nothing else will bring us to repentance and faith, not even if someone should come back from the dead to warn us (Luke 16:30-31), not even new visions of heaven.
God speaks to us today only on the basis of His revealed Word, to which Scripture encourages us to “hold firm” (Titus 1:9), not deviating from it “to the right or to the left” (Deuteronomy 5:32, 28:14). Jesus says, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word,” (John 14:23). Revelation ends with a warning to any who would claim to add to what God has already said in Scripture (22:18). The Church must always be on guard against “new” prophecy, be they from Muhammad, Joseph Smith, or even a well-intentioned 3 year-old Christian boy.
The devil is constantly trying to get us to put our trust in something other than God’s Word. He is more than happy to let us “find God” in our experiences or in the experience of others. The further we get from God’s Word, the better. God’s Word alone creates faith (Romans 10:17). If our faith is founded on the shifting sand our experiences rather than the sure Word of God, our faith will never take root and the devil can easily snatch us up (Matthew 13:3–9; 18–23).
One of the dangers of this book is inadvertently highlighted by an endorsement which appears inside the front cover. It says, “Colton’s story could have been in the New Testament—but God has chosen to speak to us in this twenty-first century through the unblemished eyes of a child, revealing some of the mysteries of heaven.” Colton’s father perpetuates this view, who views his son’s experience as a gift they’d been given by God to unwrap (64). He repeatedly compares his son’s experience to other visions of heaven in Scripture, such as those related in 2 Corinthians 12 and the book of Revelation. We are left to conclude that “Heaven is for Real” is a reliable source of knowledge about heaven, that we can safely put our faith in young Colton’s words alongside the words of Scripture. The clear impression that is left is that this indeed “could have been in the New Testament,” which is all the more reason to be cautious of it. Christians should be careful to guard against anything that claims to speak for God apart from His Word.
In addition to the problem of new prophecy in general, there are some specific issues with Colton’s experience that are inconsistent with the teachings of Scripture. For example, the first time Colton goes to a funeral after his “vision”, he has a serious concern over whether the deceased “had Jesus in his heart.” His father Todd describes his son’s reaction to the casket by saying,
“Suddenly, Colton’s face gathered into that same knot of intense concern. He slammed his fists on his thighs, then pointed one finger at the casket and said in a near shout, “Did that man have Jesus?!… He had to! He had to!” Colton went on. “He can’t get into heaven if he didn’t have Jesus in his heart!”” (58-59)
This sudden concern for whether one had “decided for Christ”, of course, was a result of Colton’s “trip to heaven.” Scripture teaches, however, that God alone creates faith, that we “cannot by [our] own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ or come to Him,” as Luther explains in the Small Catechism. Ephesians 2 describes our pre-conversion state as being one of “death”, and that they way we are made alive (that is, brought to faith) is by the working of God, who “made us alive together with Christ” even when “we were dead in our trespasses,” (Ephesians 2:5). Likewise, as St. Paul teaches, the only way we can confess our faith in Jesus (that He is our Lord), is by the working of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:3).
There is also a difference between Colton’s description of the risen Christ and the Bible’s. While Colton is correct in his claim that Jesus continues to bear the scars he endured on the cross (John 20:19–27, Revelation 5:6), he incorrectly identifies the location of Jesus’ scars. In describing Jesus’ wounds to his father, Colton “held out his right hand, palm up and pointed to the center of it with his left.” Despite Christian artwork commonly depicting Jesus on the cross with nails in the center of his palms, this is not how the Romans performed crucifixions. As Biblical scholar D.A. Carson notes, “When the Romans crucified someone, they either tied or nailed the victim to the cross. If the latter, they drove the nails through the wrists; the hands would not have supported the weight. But both the Hebrew word for hand and the Greek word can include the wrist and the forearm,” (The Gospel According to John. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), emphasis added.
Colton’s reaction to the glorified Christ also isn’t what we would expect, Biblically speaking. He describes a casual encounter, which included him sitting in Jesus’ lap. The common Biblical reaction to the glorified Lord is to fall down before Him in worship. When John saw Him, he “fell at his feet as though dead,” (Revelation 1:17). Both Balaam and St. Paul fell to the ground when they saw the Lord (Numbers 22:27, 31; Acts 9:4, 22:7). When Isaiah sees the Lord, he cries out, “Woe is me! For I am lost; I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” (Isaiah 6:5). Such a reaction to the glorified Lord is never reported in “Heaven is for Real.”
In addition to describing Jesus inaccurately, Colton also describes the people he sees in heaven in a non-biblical way. For example, he says that everyone has halos and wings in heaven and that we’re able to fly around. This is probably based on the popular misconception that when we die, we become angels. However, the Bible does not teach that we will be transformed into something different in heaven, but that we will be fully human, body and soul, only that now the body will no longer be subject to the corruption of sin. “So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable,” (1 Corinthians 15:42). Colton’s description of heaven also promotes a wrong view of when the resurrection of the body takes place, for in his vision, everyone has bodies (plus wings!). However, the resurrection of the body hasn’t happened yet. When Scripture describes the state of believers in heaven prior to the Last Day, it describes them as being disembodied souls (Revelation 6:9), who are awaiting the resurrection of the body.
Christians do well to seek Christ in the places where He’s promised to be. New visions of heaven are not only contrary to what Scripture teaches, but they are also unnecessary. For as our Lord promises, He is with us always, until the end of the age (Matthew 28:20). In particular, He brings heaven to earth when His Church gathers around His Word and Sacraments, where Jesus is truly present with us forgiving our sins and strengthening our faith. And where Jesus is, there is heaven.