In the past several weeks I’ve had a number of folks come up to me and ask me about the book titled Heaven is for Real written by Todd Burpo. Surely you’ve seen it – it’s the one with the yellow cover and the little boy on the front. And you can find it everywhere! Not only will you see it covering entire walls of Christian bookstores, but you’ll also find it at places like Amazon.com (the #8 bestseller currently) and Barnes & Noble. It’s safe to say that this is one popular book!
I was recently handed a copy of this book and asked for my thoughts on it. It is a very quick read – both short and written at a popular level (in fact, I picked it up just this morning and am posting this review at the end of lunch time). While there are certainly better reviews than mine (for a good, albeit blunt, review see this one), what I will attempt to do here is hit some of the high points as well as some of the concerns that this book should raise for Christians. I do this for two reasons in particular:
(1) This is an emotional book – it’s always tough to read about little children going through massive health issues. It’s even tougher when you read the parent’s account of it. That said, we are to keep our God-given emotions in check. The Bereans in the Scriptures weren’t commended for “hoping that what Paul said was good and it made them feel good about themselves,” but instead they were commended for checking all of what Paul said against the Scriptures (Acts 17:11). Just because we might hope for something to be true or because we think that God will act in a certain way isn’t enough – we need to turn to the Scriptures, rather than our own feelings, for answers that last.
(2) As a pastor, I am concerned about many trends in the churches these days. One (measuring things by experience rather than by the Bible) I’ve already addressed above but there’s something else that I think is an area that we all need to grow in: discernment. Asking and answering the questions “what is true?” and “what is false?” by going to the Scriptures and saying “what does the Bible say?” So, with those points in mind, let’s turn to the review itself…
Let me start off with the good:
It is clear that the Burpo’s are a very normal family in most respects – even to the point of being considered an “idealized” family, kind of like a Leave it to Beaver of the 21st century. Mr. Burpo is the pastor of a Wesleyan church in Nebraska and his wife is a homemaker and office-manager. The story itself centers around a tragic health event involving their son Colton in which he had an emergency appendectomy amongst other procedures (p.xx) which was misdiagnosed at first (p.14-15). Things start to turn a little odd when Colton apparently recounts events which he seemingly would not have had any first-hand knowledge of (what his parents were doing while he was in surgery, apparently seeing angels and Jesus, etc.) . The rest of the book recounts the story in detail.
As well, as a father of a little one, I can certainly understand the parent’s confusion as they tried again and again to figure out what was wrong with Colton. It is easy to relate to this family because, as I’ve said before, they are in most ways a very “normal” family.
The numerous concerns that this book raises:
(1) This book is merely the newest release in a whole genre of books involving going to heaven. While the story itself is unique, there really isn’t anything different between this and other books along the same lines. The basic premise of these books is usually something along the lines of “see, heaven really is true and you want to go there!” And while I’d agree that there certainly is a heaven and there certainly is a hell, it is concerning to me that folks would seek proof or evidence of that from somebody’s personal account (which cannot be verified to be true) rather than from the Scriptures themselves.
(2) There is no example in the Scriptures (some would say Paul himself, see the linked article for further explanation of why that still doesn’t pan out) of God taking somebody from the earth to heaven and then returning them here for the express purpose of telling us what heaven is like. You might say, “What about Christ?” Yes but Christ came first from heaven to earth, then returned to heaven. The whole order of things is different. Not to mention the fact that He is fully God and fully man. Instead, we should see that the pattern given in the Scriptures is that a person will “die once before judgment” (Hebrews 9:27-28). The pattern given in this book and others like it goes directly against the pattern given in the Scriptures. Proof of heaven isn’t needed for those who trust God – His promise is enough. That is the very essence of faith. On page 80, Mr. Burpo says that others such as John saw heaven and wrote about it in Revelation. What he fails to mention however is that John was given a dream in which he saw these things – John never claimed to have actually gone to heaven and came back.
(3) Numerous times throughout the text we see Colton saying some sort of ambiguous statement about Jesus or about faith (see p.56, for example) and then Mr. Burpo interpreting it. Frankly, I’ve worked with a lot of young children in my life (and I have a degree in Child and Family Services) and I just don’t quite buy it. While I’m not accusing anybody of being less than honest, I do think that we repeatedly see smoothing over of what Colton said as well as harmonizing what he said with random verses in the Bible to try and make a point. Could Colton have meant each and every one of those things in exactly the manner taken by the book? Possibly, but highly unlikely. It seems to me that many times Colton’s words could have been taken very differently (and much more normally for his age) – for example, Mr. Burpo wonders repeatedly about his son speaking of Jesus using the doctor to “fix him” (p.60) – why is this so miraculous? Frankly, I’m not surprised in the least that a child brought up in a Christian family would say something like this. But that’s when Mr. Burpo jumps in and uses these words to start building a case that perhaps Colton knows something more than he’s letting on. We see the same sort of editorializing comments added after another of Colton’s thoughts on Jesus’ family (p.63). In another description of Jesus, we see that Colton describes Christ in terms that the Bible doesn’t specify, even down to the color of His eyes (which are noted to be “pretty”, p.65 – odd since we see in the Scriptures that He wasn’t one that would be considered to be “pretty,” Isaiah 53:2-3). All of this begs the question – since even the author admits that Colton was in Sunday School regularly, that they studied the Bible as a family, and that they even read books to Colton which spoke of heaven in terms of the Scriptures, why does any of this mean that Colton must have necessarily been physically in heaven as opposed to remembering what he has been taught?
(4) We see a defective understanding of the Scriptures in that Jesus’ words regarding “ask whatever you wish and it will be given to you” is somehow to mean that we can ask anything at all of God and it will be given (in the case of p.109, a rainbow) when instead the context demands that Jesus is really speaking of those who abide in Him who would subsequently ask of things which are in accordance with God’s will (John 15:7) – this is a far cry from asking whatever is in our own will.
Another Scriptural problem is that Colton’s descriptions of heaven don’t always add up. We see on p.72 that supposedly everybody has wings and that they fly to get around. But where is that found in the Scriptures? It makes even less sense when you think of the heavenly city being a physical place which will come down to earth as seen in the Book of Revelation. Why wouldn’t we be walking just as we are now? And, according to the story, Jesus is the only one without wings because He “goes up and down like an elevator.” The author connects this to Jesus’ ascension, but this would beg the question again: is that what Colton saw and is trying to describe or not? Especially since he seems to be already filling in some of the details with stereotypical pictures of heaven that aren’t found anywhere in the Bible.
A further assumption comes on pages 101-103 in which Colton describes the throne of God with Jesus sitting at His right hand (which the author takes as showing that Colton’s story must be true, never mind that he had a 50/50 chance of the right answer). Again, Mr. Burpo goes beyond Scripture when he says that the angel Gabriel is sitting on God’s left. The author tries to back this up with a Scripture quotation, but that quotation says nothing of his position (if any) in the heavenly throne room. Again and again we see that Mr. Burpo’s use of Scripture is both misleading and incorrect.
The author’s description of “child-like faith” on p.75 is not helpful. He would describe this as meaning that we should be “willing to accept reality and call things what they are even when it is hard.” Where is that in the Scriptures? Instead, the picture of child-like faith doesn’t mean to become a child in our faith, but rather to trust and believe as a child does (this is the difference between the trust of a child as opposed to being childish in your faith, which is condemned in the Scriptures as seen in Hebrews 5:12).
(5) A troubling trend that we see continued throughout the book is Mr. Burpo filling in the “details” to Colton’s stories. One in particular involves a grandfather that he never knew (starting on p.85). Repeatedly, it seems as if Colton knows details he shouldn’t. But when you strip away Mr. Burpo’s commentary, all Colton is really saying is that he thinks he met somebody who would be a great-grand parent to him. My question is this: why does this have to be real? Colton is, after all, a little kid with a very well developed imagination (see the numerous references in the book to pretending to fight with swords, etc.) and it would make perfect sense for him to incorporate what he has heard of deceased family members. As well, any parent knows that children, especially young children, have little concept of time and yet on pages 76-77 Mr. Burpo seems to believe implicitly that Colton knows exactly how much time he supposedly spent in heaven. We see this sort of reasoning in the book again and again: because Colton said something with a straight face, it must be true. But that’s not the way to know truth. Instead, we should seek to match up circumstances not with experience, but instead with what the Scriptures say because only they are the standard of what is true.
The Final Verdict
To be honest, I’m not sure how best to end this review. On the one hand, I’m excited that people have a desire and a hope for heaven. I certainly do not want to dissuade that per se. My primary concern is that this book portrays itself as solid fact rather than as fiction. Were it to claim to be fiction, then I wouldn’t have felt the need to write this review; however, when you deal with claims to truth – especially Scriptural truth, they can be evaluated and so I feel that I must do so here.
I worry that people desire heaven like they desire a new car or a big house: it’s something to acquire. Something that you can say “well, now I’ve got my heaven question all solved” rather than seeking what we really should: God, the creator of heaven and earth. Do we merely want the goodness of life in heaven without the Giver Himself? That’s a view that certainly seems to be running rampant throughout America today and, Biblically, that view doesn’t hold water. Frankly, that view is promoted by this book and others like it.
As well, I am deeply concerned anytime folks turn to anything outside of the Scriptures for truths about God, heaven, etc. Frankly, it’s not a very sound manner of knowing about God (sort of akin to learning about God from Wikipedia rather than from the book that He Himself inspired) and I think it’s very dangerous to build our theology on that which is not found in the Bible.
This is becoming increasingly popular in our experience-based culture – as if our own personal experiences equate to general truth for everyone. The problem with this sort of view is that we become the foundation for what is true and what is not; objective truth, such as the Bible, is then minimized if not outright denied. When we are the standard (sin filled as we are) then truth devolves into meaninglessness. If that is the case, who are we to say that the racial and morally-bankrupt theories of any number of despots are wrong? Afterall, they believed that they were correct. What about religious leaders such as Joseph Smith – he gave “first hand accounts” of what the Church of Latter-Day Saints believe, so wouldn’t he be credible? The answer to these questions is, of course, no – the Bible is the standard, not any given person.
Should you read this book? In my own opinion, that answer would be no. Frankly, though it is a story that is heart-warming it is also a story that uses Scripture inaccurately time after time and goes against what Scripture says in many others. Instead, I would say simply this: do you want to know that heaven is for real? Do you want to know what it’s really like? Read the Bible. You’ll find a far better, grander, more amazing and hopeful picture there than you will find in any work of man. And you know what the best part of all this is? You’ll be seeking God – not as we want Him to be, only to be disappointed later – but instead as He is. That’s what is real.