Heaven Is For Real
Embarking on a short tour of the afterlife is all the rage, it seems. Don Piper got it started with 90 Minutes in Heaven, a really bad book that sold millions of copies. Then there was 23 Minutes in Hell, another bestseller and another awful book. And now hot on their heels comes Heaven Is For Real: A Little Boy's Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back. It’s currently sitting atop the New York Times list of bestsellers and has over a half million copies in print. I wonder if I'm the only one who finds it a mite suspicious that now that these books are selling like proverbial hotcakes, more and more people find that God wants them to tell their stories of heaven and hell. Probably not.
Heaven Is For Real is written by pastor Todd Burpo and it tells the story of his son Colton who, at age 4, visited heaven. His visit came while he was on the operating table after suffering a burst appendix. He told his parents his story several months later and his parents then waited 6 or 7 years to record it in a book. That book has shot to the top of the charts, resulting in many of you sending me emails to ask, "Have you read it?" So I went ahead and read it. Because that's the kind of guy I am.
You will probably not be surprised to learn that this is not a good book. What I want to do here is offer a very brief review and then I want to tell you why you can legitimately dismiss this book and all the others like it, because I think that's where many of us feel the tension--what gives me the right to dismiss another person's experience?
I've already given you the broad outline. Colton dies (or something close to it) and visits heaven for an unknown period of time. He returns to his body and over the months and years that follow tells his parents about his time in heaven. He tells about spending time with Jesus, about meeting the sister he never knew he had, about fluttering around with wings, about the pearly gates, and on and on. Along the way you'll get descriptions of Todd's various afflictions and you'll read the fine details of Colton's battles with constipation and the great relief he experienced passing gas. Riveting stuff, this.
Every one of Colton's experiences, or very nearly every one, follows a pattern. He tells his father some little detail. His father experiences a gasp or feels his heart skip a beat. “I could hardly breathe. My mind was reeling. My head was spinning.” A Scripture verse comes to dad's mind that validates the experience. Colton gets bored and runs off. Repeat.
The story is told with short chapters and grade school-level writing. Fine literature it is not. The point of it all is to encourage you that heaven is a real place. Colton went there and his experience now validates its existence. Just like Don Piper went there and his experience validates its existence. Just like Bill Wiese went to hell and can speak with authority to tell you that you really, really don't want to go there. Just like the Apostle Paul went there and told us all about it in order to…oh wait.
Now, what do I do with a book like this one? It seems to me that there are only a couple of options available to me. I can accept it, agreeing that this little boy is legitimate--he went to heaven and is now telling the tale for our edification. Or I can reject what this boy is saying--he did not go to heaven and this book is fictitious. If I go with this second option (which is exactly what I am doing) I now have two choices before me: either the boy (and/or his parents) is a liar or he genuinely believes he experienced something that he did not actually experience. I know which way I would lean, but I suppose that's neither here nor there.
Either option is very uncharitable and each one leaves me with a further problem: on what grounds can I dismiss this as fiction, as a book that is completely unprofitable?
If I wanted to disprove Colton's experience on grounds of logic or consistency I might point in a couple of different directions. In the first place, Colton is a toddler who speaks like an adult. His verbatim quotes sound nothing like a 4-year old, and I think I can say this with some authority as the father of a 4-year old. I'd also point to the fact that dad routinely remembers circumstantial detail that there is very little chance he would remember 6 or 7 years after the fact, something that, at the very least, tells me that he is filling in details where he feels he needs to. But there are better grounds.
The better strategy, I think, is to look to the Bible.
I offer two ways of going about this. First, the Bible gives us no indication whatsoever that God will work in this way and that he will call one of us to heaven and then cause us to return. It is for man to die once and then the resurrection. To allow a man (or a boy) to experience heaven and then to bring him back would not be grace but cruelty. The only biblical example we have of a man being caught up to heaven is Paul and it’s very interesting that he was forbidden to tell anything about it. And the reason he even mentioned this experience was not to offer encouragement that heaven exists, but to serve as a part of his “gospel boasting.” He saw heaven and was told to say nothing about it. This was a unique experience in a unique time and for a unique reason.
The second ground refers to the reason each of these authors offers--that through their experience we now find confidence that what God says is true. This kind of proof is exactly the kind of proof we should not need and should not want. Blessed are those who do not see and yet believe. Don Piper insisted that he was called to be the Minister of Hope. If hope is to be found in any person, it will be found in the person of Christ. It is the Spirit working through the Word who will give us confidence in our faith. And what is faith? It is simply believing that what God says in his Word is true. We do not need tales of heaven or stories of those who claim to be there.
If you struggle believing what the Bible says, but learn to find security in the testimony of a toddler, well, I feel sorry for you. And I do not mean this in a condescending way. If God’s Word is not sufficient for you, if the testimony of his Spirit, given to believers, is not enough for you, you will not find any true hope in the unproven tales of a child. This hope may last for a moment, but it will not sustain you, it will not bless you, in those times when hope is waning and times are hard.
So reject this book. Do not read it. Do not believe it. And do not feel guilty doing so.