Heaven is For Real: Review

Heaven is for Real: A Little Boy's Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back"Heaven is For Real" by Todd Burpo has been getting quite a bit of publicity recently. A friend encouraged me to read it and review it and I agreed before I really understood what I was getting myself into.

The book is a touching, endearing, well-written story about a father's (Todd Burpo) conversations with his son (Colton) as Colton describes an experience from when he was 4-years-old and in the hospital suffering from a ruptured appendix. Colton claims to have visited heaven and is able to describe his experience in a way that convinced his father, a pastor with at least some degree of Bible training.

According to the author, Colton described being able to see scenes within the hospital that he would have had not knowledge of, described heavenly scenes that are described in Scripture but had not been described to Colton, and perhaps most chillingly, described a sister in heaven who had been miscarried by Colton's mother.

Now, in the interest of fairness, I should probably give a couple of disclaimers:

First, I entered the book with (I think) an acceptable degree of skepticism. To be blunt, if the apostle Paul was given a glimpse of heaven, warned not to describe it, and then given a thorn in the flesh as a reminder to stay humble (2 Corinthians 12:1-10), it is hard for me that God is going to take a 4-year-old there so that his dad could write a book about it. Obviously, God can do whatever God wants to do, but I feel like some degree of skepticism is justified anytime someone claims to have been to heaven.

Secondly, it's impossible to argue against a person's experience, no matter how outlandish. Todd and Colton Burpo will always carry a trump card in any conversation that says, "Say what you want; I experienced it." I get that.

I don't know what happened to Colton Burpo. It's a fascinating story. However, from a Scriptural standpoint, I have a couple of concerns.

1. The first (and most significant to me) is a throwaway line toward the end of the book that doesn't reflect part of Colton's trip to heaven but is extremely important to take into account. Talking about the crucifixion, Mr. Burpo writes, "The Scripture says that as Jesus gave up his spirit, as he sagged there, lifeless on that Roman cross, God the Father turned his back. I am convinced that he did that because if he had kept on watching, he couldn't have gone through with it." Those two sentences contain a grave misrepresentation of God's character (as a God who could have lacked the power to comply with His own sovereign will) as well as the truth about the reason for the cross in the first place. God did not just turn His back - He "forsook" his Son who had "become sin on our behalf" (2 Corinthians 5:21). God didn't lack the will to see the cross through; His moral character demanded He forsake the embodiment of sin. Unfortunately, the mis-characterization of that event goes right to the heart of the Gospel which is awfully important when dealing with a book about heaven.

2. With regard to Colton's account, many of the things Colton mentions are fascinating observations for a 4-year-old. I completely understand why this book has been so popular. However, several of Colton's descriptions of "heaven" are actually descriptions of a place that has not yet been created; only described in Revelation 21 as existing after the first heaven and earth have passed away (Revelation 21:1). I understand (and Mr. Burpo makes the point) that God's conception of time is different from ours. However, Colton's descriptions of heaven mix the old heaven with the new heaven. Although there might be a dimension in which the future is the present in heaven (a discussion for another day), Scripture seems to be very clear that the new heavens and earth and the first heavens and earth are different places. They don't coexist.

Again, I don't know what it is the Colton experienced. But, after reading the book I remain skeptical that it was heaven. As a result, I have a hard time recommending the book to someone else. It's tempting to run with a story because (a) we want to believe it is true, and (b) so much of the story is plausible and nothing validates the existence of God like verifiable supernatural events. However, we've got to be discerning because nothing invalidates the testimony of Christians as quickly as our tendency to jump on board something that doesn't turn out to square with Scripture. We've got to be careful.