Heaven is, indeed, real, but not because a cute 4 year old boy tells a story about going there and petting a rainbow horse.
And, yes, believers should find comfort in the contemplation of the heavenly, eternal state in which we enjoy uninterrupted, unimpeded fellowship with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, but not because of a sweet story in which a child identifies the “correct” portrait of Jesus.
In Heaven is for Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back (Thomas Nelson, 2010), Todd Burpo tells the story of his son, Colton, who claimed to have visited heaven during a severe illness when he was four years old. Beginning approximately four months after the hospital stay, and continuing until he was about seven years old, Colton leaked out bits and pieces of information about his heavenly trip. Colton’s description touches on matters ranging from the number of colors in heaven, to how big God’s throne is, to meeting a miscarried sister that he did not know he had.
Many — including believers and unbelievers — find great appeal in this and other such stories. But what are we to make of them? My aim is not to discourage anyone from reading Heaven is for Real, but to read with a discerning eye. We must recognize first that our authority on heaven is not the subjective experience of a four year old boy, but the word of God, the Bible. Furthermore, we must resist the urge to accept, without reservation, the validity of such experiences simply because the one telling it seems sincere. And we must be aware of our own predisposition to find comfort, joy and hope in such stories rather than in the pages of scripture, and why.
My reservation about this particular story extends to several issues.
1). Todd Burpo is a pastor, but continually seems surprised that his son is aware of biblical teaching. This leads him to conclude that Colton’s descriptions must have resulted from direct, personal observation of heaven and its occupants. This even includes his amazement that Colton would know where on his body Jesus received wounds from the crucifixion. Aside from being a poor example of family biblical instruction, it is not a legitimate conclusion to reach.
2). Colton supposedly experienced heaven, rainbows, painted horses, saw prior departed family members, and met Jesus himself, but was apparently so indifferent to the adventure that he didn’t speak of any of it until four months later. Many aspects of his story weren’t told for years.
3). The “comforts” of heaven — the assurances that others derive from Colton’s story — focus primarily on being reunited with friends and family. Our bent is naturally to wonder whether those with whom we spend so much time on earth will be will us in eternity. But the Bible speaks very little of such matters, and presents the glory of heaven not in terms of what humans we will recognize there, but in terms of being able to see the very face of God. Stories like the Burpos’ cater to our natural bent for heaven to be ‘familiar’ on our own terms.
4). The gospel is entirely absent. Worse than that, it is confused in the telling of this story. Nothing is said of whether Colton had expressed repentance and professed faith in Christ, either before his trip to heaven or after. We are left with the picture of a person who has not professed faith as described in scripture gaining access to heaven and then describing for us things that are not in scripture. Nothing is said of sin, judgment, or salvation in Christ alone, except for a general description of the “good guys” fighting “monsters” in the battle of Armageddon. The hope of eternity is presented not in whether a person has repented and believed, trusting Christ alone for salvation, but instead in whether our loved ones will be there.
Perhaps we are collectively so ready to receive stories of heaven like the Burpos’ because we are so unfamiliar with what scripture teaches about it. Perhaps pastors would do well to spend more time preaching on the glories of heaven from the Bible, and where our comforts and hopes lie, so that we aren’t tempted to cling so readily to the subjective experiences of others and to the vicarious hope they provide.