People are talking about Todd Burpo’s Heaven Is For Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back, and they tend to say one of two things. The book, a pastor-father’s account of his 4-year-old son Colton’s trip to heaven, is either fabricated or practically gospel.
So I wanted to pick up a copy and decide for myself. It wasn’t hard to find the book; a New York Times bestseller, this Thomas Nelson publication is seemingly everywhere, from Costco to Christian book stores. (And in many of my friend’s houses, too. On the church retreat I just attended, two of the ten women in my bunk were reading it, and another bought it during the retreat.)
Heaven is for Real is not a theology tome. Rather, it’s an easy-to-read, quick account which centers on a dramatic event in the life of young Colton Burpo. When he was four (in 2003), a doctor repeatedly misdiagnosed Colton’s burst appendix, and it took five days for another doctor to determine Colton’s life was in danger. While Colton was on the operating room table, he visited heaven (without the benefit of dying) for three minutes, which in heavenly time took quite a bit longer.
Heaven as Colton describes it is a wonderful place, where Jesus is the first person you see, and His presence (and His eyes) are dazzling. Colton met his great-grandfather and miscarried sister, whom he never knew about, and described them (or in his sister’s case, her situation) with astonishing accuracy. He describes Jesus’ hands and feet (which Burpo insists Colton, as a non-Catholic child, wouldn’t have known about) and the “blueness” of the Holy Spirit.
Todd Burpo, with the help of author Lynn Vincent, relates Colton’s experiences in snippets, just as Burpo says Colton related them to him and his wife. Burpo states he and his wife did not coach or coax the information, but waited for it to come out gradually. Burpo then follows up the description with Scripture to back up the account.
A danger in forming theology based on someone’s experience is present, as some readers may confuse the emotion of Colton’s story with the Word of God (and apparently have done just that). Personally, knowing all things are possible with God, I would hope readers would be encouraged by the account, just as they would by another’s testimony.
Another criticism comes from those who find Burpo’s appearance on talk shows and news programs suspect. Some wonder if he has fabricated the story or manipulated his son in order to earn money or promote himself.
I have no problem believing that Colton truly experienced Jesus; whether or not his parents are cashing in on his experience or fulfilling an obligation to the publisher to promote the book, I cannot say. But I can say with certainty that I was encouraged by part of the message of the book: Heaven is real, God hears our prayers and is active in our lives, and Jesus loves us. They’re all Biblically-based concepts, all true, and all areas I sometimes struggle with accepting.
My favorite part of the book, however, is the story about Akiane Kramarik’s painting Prince of Peace, a portrait of Jesus completed when Akiane was just eight years old, which Colton claims is the only picture of Jesus that looks “right.” (Akiane is a child prodigy whose visions of heaven converted her atheist mother.) I loved this portrait of Jesus and was grateful to be introduced to it. Jesus appears rugged, masculine, and kind, as his eyes seem to pierce through to my heart with love and compassion.
Whether or not this book will change how you feel about eternity, I cannot judge. It didn’t change how I viewed it. But I did find encouragement in the reminder that God hears and loves us.