Though Jerry and I don’t know Todd Burpo and his wife, Sonja, I assume we’d have an instant connection if we met. We have the shared experience of going through a traumatic health experience. Jerry, Todd and Sonja could talk about the helpless feeling of standing by a hospital bed watching a loved one struggle for their life. Together we could marvel at how well bodies can recover from trauma.
And I’d love to talk to them about the recent book, Heaven is for Real which Todd wrote about their son’s ‘heaven’ experience. Amazon describes the book as … the true story of the four-year old son of a pastor who during emergency surgery slips from consciousness and enters heaven. He survives and begins talking about being able to look down … The family didn’t know what to believe but soon the evidence was clear. Colton said he met his miscarried sister, whom no one had told him about, and his great grandfather who died 30 years before Colton was born … (complete description here)
Recently Michael Hyatt (then-CEO of Thomas Nelson, the book’s publisher) admitted on his blog that he was skeptical about Heaven is for Real before he read it. But after reading it, he liked it and was giving away copies of the book to 150 blog readers who left a compelling comment.
I wrote this comment:
Michael, I wasn’t planning to read the book, because I’m skeptical about it, but maybe I should … and maybe I’ll be won over like you were.
The reason I should read it is because people are asking whether my experience of almost dying matches any of it. After receiving severe injuries in an accident, I spent about 48 hours hovering between life and death. I have some foggy memories that I could wrap in Heaven language, but I don’t feel comfortable doing so. My body was in a traumatic situation and I was heavily medicated … so why would I trust anything I thought/saw/experienced at that time?
While I realize the book brings comfort to the family (and many others) my biggest doubts are with the certainty placed in a 4-year old, especially while in a traumatic situation. (plus, when else do we base major beliefs on what a 4-year old says?)
Also all the experiences I’ve heard he had confirmed what the family already believed. What if he had ‘come back’ with new information that would have challenged what they believe or cost them something, such as: if he had said Jesus really does want them to sell everything and give all to the poor?
I guess that was a compelling reason, because I won an audio copy … so I listened to it.
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Early in the book there is a scene that happens about a week before Colton’s surgery and alleged heaven visit when the family visits an insect museum. Colton’s older sister received a sticker for holding a tarantula. Colton wanted a sticker, but the spider scared him. Todd and Sonja encouraged him, “Are you sure you don’t want to?” They repeatedly asked him, but he refused. Hours later before they were ready to leave the museum, they asked him again. In the end, Colton held the spider to get a sticker. As good parents do, Todd and Sonja showered Colton with accolades as he received his sticker.
Parents, you totally understand that scene. Preschoolers will do almost anything to please their parents. (As my friend noted, this scene is a “tell” which is a term gamblers use when someone gives something away without realizing it) Throughout the book, there seems to be an intentional effort to make the reader feel that Colton wasn’t pressed for details, but that scene suggests otherwise. I assume that is what happened with Colton and his ‘heaven’ experience.
Colton seems like he was a curious, energetic toddler with a great imagination … and I’m sad for him. For three weeks after my accident, I was on morphine and had major hallucinations. I would hate to have told my memories to someone and then after pressing me for more details, they’d write a book about them. (and with the hallucinations I had, it would have made a great book!)
Four months after his surgery, Colton mentions angels singing over him while he was in the hospital. This could have been a memory from a story or song … or it could have happened (I have memories of being engulfed in a pure, peaceful white light) Colton’s mention of the angels began a series of conversations (spanning the next few years) where Colton mentions one small detail about Heaven (details that always match up to popular children’s Bible stories or songs) and each time, Todd “marvels, is astounded, doesn’t know what to say, etc.” Then after Todd composes himself, he “ponders what questions to ask, so that he doesn’t lead Colton on.” The repeated attempts to convince the reader that Colton’s conversations were spontaneous and that Todd didn’t ask leading questions adds to my doubts.
Todd claims Colton said that God is “big enough to hold the whole world in his hands.” How could Colton see God if he was that big? If Colton truly saw God and he truly was that big … Colton won’t even have come halfway up God’s big toe, so how could he see that he had the whole world in his hands?
Todd claims Colton saw “the battle of Armageddon” (though Colton was only in ‘heaven’ a few minutes, this is explained by the fact that time doesn’t exist in heaven) Women and children stood back, while men fought monsters with bows, arrows and swords. Considering our wars aren’t fought with weapons like that today, if Armageddon is a literal battle, why would it be fought with them? (by the way, as a young boy, Colton loved having ‘battles’ with his action figures)
There’s a few ‘impossible-to-know-details’ that Todd claims Colton experienced … where Todd was praying while Colton was in surgery and meeting his miscarried sister “which no one had told him about.” Parents … how many of you have had a child overhear a conversation you didn’t realize they did?
I don’t assume to know Todd’s motives in writing the book and I’m not saying they were negative. It seems he’s honestly convinced himself that the experiences were real … probably because it brought major comfort to him and confirmed some doubts he’s had. (along with other personal faith-boosters, Todd writes that Jesus told Colton that he “called his daddy to be a pastor”)
After early sales of the book did well, it seems Thomas Nelson (the publisher) upped the promotion for the book … and it continues to do well. Todd and Colton have done numerous interviews. In the book and in many interviews, Colton mentions that Jesus has “markers” which Todd describes as “the scars from the nails.” In an early interview, Colton also mentioned that Jesus has blue eyes. After that interview aired, a few skeptics pointed out that if Jesus still had his scars, then he still had his earthly body. Jesus was born in the middle-east, where people don’t have blue eyes. In later interviews, Colton describes Jesus’ eyes as amazing, but doesn’t give a color.
The book has confirmed many beliefs people have about heaven. It has brought major comfort and hope to many, especially those that have lost loved ones. Nothing wrong with that, I’m all about comfort and hope.
But isn’t it odd that every experience that Todd claims Colton had lines up exactly with the typical American evangelical interpretation of the Bible? And an overarching theme of the book seems to be to encourage people to simply trust these interpretations and not question them. (I almost expect to see a new bumper sticker The Bible says it, Colton confirmed it … just believe it.) Speaking of the Bible … is it Biblical that anyone will go to Heaven and come back again?
And I can’t help but wonder … how much stock would the Christian community give the experiences of a young child from any other faith that ‘confirms’ a version of their faith?
There’s been a number of reviews on Heaven is For Real … some sing its praises and others don’t. I wrote most of my review about two weeks ago, then recently read this review by pastor/writer Tim Challis. Some of our thoughts about the book are similar, so I’ll close with a few thoughts borrowed from him.
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 … (read his full review here)
Tim also says, “Reject this book. Do not read it. Do not believe it. And do not feel guilty doing so.” I say read the book, if you want to. But for heaven’s sake, don’t base your view of heaven on it!
Have you read the book? If so, what are your thoughts about it?
Whether you agree or disagree with this review, you might enjoy these posts,
~Educating this little Mennonite Girl
~Today I can run… so I will
~How Does a Religion Begin?
~ When Life Sucks … Renewal is Needed