In this New York Times Bestseller, Todd Burpo draws together an account of his son’s recollections of an out of body experience which apparently occurred within three minutes whilst he was fighting for his life and being operated on with a burst appendix. Colton was three when he was given surgery and at the age of four onwards, he began to describe, in a matter of fact way, what he believes to be a visit to heaven. Last year a film was also produced.
Colton’s story includes the following. Angels sang ‘Jesus loves me’ and ‘Joshua fought the battle of Jericho’ but they turned down his request of singing ‘We Will, We Will Rock You’. He saw his Grandpa in heaven, but Grandpa wasn’t wearing glasses because people in heaven don’t wear glasses, and he was sitting in Jesus’ lap. Meanwhile, he saw his dad praying for him and his mum talking on the phone.
He meets John the Baptist and pets Jesus’ rainbow horse and recalls what Jesus looks like and what clothes He wears, including a crown with pink diamonds, and what he describes as ‘markers,’ and Burpo interprets as nail prints in His hands and feet. Colton then meets lots of kids and everyone flies around since they have wings except for Jesus who moves around up and down as if in an elevator. All people look like angels and have a light above their head. Jesus sits on one side of God’s throne and Gabriel sits on the other, and the Holy Spirit is blue. Colton talks about swords and fighting in heaven which Todd relates to the battle of Armageddon.
Questions of Authenticity
Todd and his family come across as likeable, genuine and sincere, which I have no doubt they are. Todd is mindful of the need to avoid asking leading questions which would otherwise possibly create the opportunity for a youngster with a limited vocabulary and wide imagination to unintentionally and innocently embellish his account. Todd, therefore, sensibly asks open-ended questions. However the means by which Todd evaluates the information his son presents to him needs to be carefully considered.
It was that conversation in which Colton said that he “went out of his body, that he had spoken with angels, and had sat in Jesus’ lap. And the way that we knew he wasn’t making it up was that he was able to tell us what we were doing in another part of the hospital: “You were in a little room by yourself praying, and Mommy was in a different room and she was praying and talking on the phone.” (Todd Burpo, Heaven if for Real (HIFR) (Thomas Nelson; Nashville, 2010, p.61)
Although this is an interesting piece of information, it is by no means a reliable indicator to determine whether Colton’s account was accurate. Also it is a massive claim. It could have been a dream which, in view of the stress of his acute physical symptoms and being under sedation, would make it difficult for Colton to make sense of his experience. There could be other explanations regarding what he had been taught or heard from other children or adults. Also, and most imperatively, with any claim like this one, it should always be carefully compared alongside the word of God which is the trustworthy means of testing whether something is actually from God.
‘I hung up and leaned against the kitchen counter, processing. Slowly, I began to wrap my mind round the possibility that this was real. Had our son died and come back? The medical staff never gave any indication of that. But clearly, something had happened to Colton. He had authenticated that by telling us things he couldn’t have known. It dawned on me that maybe we’d been given a gift and that our job now was to unwrap it, slowly, carefully and see what was inside.’ (HIFR, p.64)
It is easily possible that somehow and at some stage, Colton may have been aware that his mum and dad had been praying for him in different rooms. After all, he would probably have met and spoken to lots of people following his operation, particularly since there was an abundance of people praying for him and numerous well- meaning folk who helped contribute towards the medical costs and were, needless to say, eager to see him.
More importantly, however, a visit into heaven to meet Jesus sitting at the right hand of God has some serious theological implications. John 1:18 states ‘No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him.’ This clearly questions even the possibility of what he thought he saw, with Jesus and Gabriel sitting at the right hand of God, being a reliable or accurate account. This also applies regarding the idea of gaining access into heaven. John 3:13 confirms, ‘No one has ascended to heaven but He who has come down from heaven, that is, the Son of Man, who is in heaven.’
Todd continues his discussion concerning people who have lights over their head and recollects a previous conversation that concerned another three year old.
‘Still, what he said intrigued me for another reason: A friend of hours, the wife of a Pastor at a church in Colorado, had once told me something about her daughter, Hannah, when she was three years old. After the morning service was over one Sunday, Hannah tugged on her mom’s skirt and asked, “Mommy why do some people in church have lights over their heads and some don’t?” (HIFR, p.74)
I remember attending an Evangelical Christian school, aged six or seven, and the headmaster asked what Jesus was like. I understood that to mean in a very literal sense, what he physically looked like, so attempted to recall Revelation 1, though I was a little confused and stated that Jesus may have something like a ‘golden head’. I meant to refer to ‘His head and hair were white like wool, as white as snow, and His eyes like a flame of fire. (Rev. 1:14). I was entirely genuine, although the headmaster graciously said, “I don’t think it says that!” Nonetheless he may have thought I was trying to recollect some artwork that wouldn’t have been helpful, nor contributed to an understanding concerning what the Lord Jesus is actually like. But children think this way.
Todd then goes on to discuss having childlike humility, which obviously is a great virtue, and which he describes as, not the lack of intelligence, but lack of guile. The issue is, however, when Colton describes something, Todd tries to fit it alongside a biblical account or compare Colton’s testimony with other children, to verify it.
Colton had been asked on so many occasions whether pictures or depictions of Jesus were like the one that he saw, that his parents even began to question, what is wrong with this one or these ones? This was until he saw the portrait of Jesus by Akiane Kramarik, who, at the time, was a child prodigy and drew the famous painting of Jesus aged eight.
‘We were pretty sure no painting could ever capture the majesty of the person of the risen Christ. But after these three years of examining Jesus pictures, we did know that Akiane’s rendering was not only a departure from typical paintings of Jesus; it was also the only one that ever stopped Colton in his tracks. Sonja and I thought it was interesting that when Colton said, “This one’s right, “he hadn’t known the portrait, called Prince of Peace: The Resurrection was painted by another child-a child who had also claimed to have visit heaven.’ (HIFR, p.145)
What Does The Bible Say?
I have already mentioned John 1:18 and John 3:13 which indicate that we cannot simply ascend into heaven and see God and then return. Isaiah 8:19 and Deuteronomy 18:10-11 also remind us that we are not to attempt to converse with the deceased; so apparent conversations with even individuals mentioned in Scripture, or our loved ones, are forbidden. This simply means that irrespective of whoever has said they have communicated with someone that has died, you shouldn’t listen to them and it is greatly displeasing to God!
Very few biblical characters, such as Isaiah, Ezekiel, Micaiah, Paul and John were privileged to have a vision of God, and Stephen saw the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God immediately before he was martyred, though note he doesn’t describe what he saw (Isaiah 6:1-8; Ezekiel 1:1-28; 2 Chron. 18:18; 2 Cor. 12:1-6; Rev. 1:1-20; Acts 7:55-56). Paul’s vision of paradise is particularly helpful since his words, more often than not, immediately contradict many more recent out of body experiences or dialogue with God in heaven.
‘It is doubtless not profitable for me to boast. I will come to visions and revelations of the Lord: I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago-whether in the body I do not know, or whether out of the body I do not know, God knows-such a one was caught up to the third heaven. And I know such a man whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows how he was caught up into Paradise and heard inexpressible words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter. Of such a one I will boast; yet of myself I will not boast, except in my infirmities. For though I might desire to boast, I will not be a fool; for if I will speak the truth. But I refrain, lest anyone should think of me above what he sees me to be or hears from me.’ (2 Corinthians 12:1-6)
The apostle Paul is incredibly careful neither to boast, nor even mention what he saw, since what he saw is not lawful for man to utter. Consider that Paul was also given a thorn in the flesh lest he should become exalted beyond measure by the abundance of the revelations. He states these facts in such a way that draws the attention away from himself and is the exact opposite of many high profile individuals giving testimonies, that are keen to gain an audience and circulate their stories. There are occasions when some individuals will go into great detail and have no hesitation in recalling everything they assume is on the level with what Paul, or John, witnessed.
There is also the question of apostolic authority. Remember that the apostles demonstrated the signs of an apostle in signs, wonders and mighty deeds (2 Cor. 12:12) and had to have seen the risen Lord Jesus (Acts 1:21-22; 1 Cor. 9:1-2). The testimony of an individual is not on the same level as that of the apostles and should be evaluated first to see whether it is in agreement with scripture.
The apostles were involved in writing the New Testament as holy men were inspired and moved by the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:21-22). Therefore any apparent visitation to heaven should be weighed carefully alongside the parameters of what Scripture allows (1 Thess. 5:21; 1 John 4:1). We should also be careful not to exceed anything that is written, so that none of us may become puffed up on behalf of one against the other (1 Cor. 4:6).
Throughout Scripture, when men and women saw angels or God, they were often afraid and the angels say, “do not fear” or “do not be afraid” (Exod. 3:6; Dan. 10; 12; Luke 1:13, 30; 2:10; Rev. 1:17) Yet Colton is content to sit on Jesus’ lap and make song requests to the angels. Similarly it is no secret that others who have made similar claims, seem to be somewhat unaware of the terrifying appearance of angels or God.
Again, we are clearly instructed not to add or take away from the word of God (Deut. 4:2; 12:32; Prov. 30:5-6; Matt. 5:17-18; Rev. 22:18) yet this book informs us that Gabriel is sat at the right hand of God, the Lord Jesus has a rainbow coloured horse, the Holy Spirit is ‘kind of blue’, we will have wings in heaven and fly around, and Akiane Kramarik’s portrait of the Lord Jesus is actually what He looks like. Needless to say, the first commandment instructs us not to make any graven image (Exod. 20:4)!
I have spoken to believers who are adamant that Colton’s experiences were real and say it has encouraged them in their faith. Usually, when I ask why they are certain, they state that Colton couldn’t have known the information about his parents whilst he was being operated on, and in his innocence he states what appear to be biblical truths very candidly. Again, I have no issue regarding their genuineness or good intentions; it is the content of the account that is problematic.
Having an awareness that his dad was praying for him and that his mum was praying and on the phone in another room is neither a great revelation, nor does it authenticate his experience. The Bible has to be the means by which it is tested. Unfortunately the details that are provided actually add to what the Bible says (namely a rainbow horse, people in heaven with wings and the Holy Spirit being kind of blue) and, as already demonstrated, we are not supposed to contact the dead. The account provided is not consistent with the biblical description of heaven. Furthermore little thought is given to whether it is actually possible for anyone to do and see the things that are being claimed there.
There are further problems. Don Piper, author of ‘90 Minutes in Heaven’ has readily endorsed this book, and Akiane Kramarik’s painting of Jesus is considered to be authentic since Colton thought it bore the exact resemblance to what he saw. What if other people make similar claims? Will we add their testimony to our knowledge of what we know about heaven? Also, what if some of these ‘testimonies’ contradict each other? Which ones should be considered authentic, and how do we determine which are real? Would it be decided on a vote, popular opinion, or how people feel about it? Surely any testimony of a vision or a visitation should be carefully considered in the light of scripture and treated with necessary caution.
Someone else may give a ‘testimony’ that may later be discredited. Of course you could say the same about any testimony, though all testimonies should be considered biblically, not simply as ‘experiences’ and it is no small claim that is being presented here. If people base their confidence or assurance to some degree on testimonies rather than God’s inspired word, then the basis for their faith is on shaky foundations which in time might easily crumble for a number of the reasons mentioned above.
We should therefore encourage people to read and become as familiar with Scripture as possible asking God to help us to understand it through His Spirit. That way we will know everything we need to know about heaven, this side of eternity. This will help us to discern whether additional and contradictory information is being provided and whether in fact the stories presented could have even happened.
This will also help us to become more mature in our faith so that we should no longer be like children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine (Eph. 4:14). Some people are forever chasing the latest spiritual fad or gimmick and as soon as one exciting development occurs it fades away and the attention is drawn to whatever is hot off the press next.
Todd Burpo reminds us that we should have a childlike faith. However, we must be careful to draw a distinction here between a childlike obedience and dependency on God, which is a good thing and childish ways that should be done away with. R.C. Sproul helpfully summarises:
‘Our trust is to be childlike, but our understanding must be mature. Such trust and understanding require study of God’s word. The authentic disciple meditates on it day and night, continuing and remaining in it. Our goal is more than knowledge; it as the fruit of inward and outward obedience.’ (R. C. Sproul New Geneva Study Bible, Introduction, iv)
Heaven is for real. God has given us everything that pertains to life and godliness (2 Peter 1:3), and that has been revealed by the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:21). What we actually know about heaven is already contained within the Scriptures which shouldn’t be added to (Prov. 30:5-6; 2 Tim. 3:16; Rev. 22:18). The words of the Lord are pure and will be preserved throughout the generations (Psalm 12:6-7).
‘No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him’ (John 1:18)’. Also ‘No one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven, that is, the Son of Man who is in heaven.’ (John 3:13)’. To mention a few examples; rainbow horses, people in heaven with wings and the Holy Spirit being kind of blue are altogether highly questionable. Talking with the dead; whether it is deceased relatives, or Bible characters, is forbidden (Isaiah 8:19; Deut. 18:10-11).
It is no surprise then that John MacArthur, John Piper, Ray Comfort and T.A. McMahon have expressed their concerns since an appeal is being made to individual experience not to God’s revealed truth. Some of the information presented is accurate and some of it is not. Of course just because some information does agree with Scripture, that doesn’t mean it should be readily accepted and that we can spit out the bones when a contradiction or an addition arises.
One more thing. Other accounts have also arisen of near death experiences and visitations to heaven and have been described, publicized and sometimes even merchandised. But when Paul mentioned his vision of paradise, he doesn’t give us much information, since he considered the inexpressible words not lawful for a man to utter and was given a thorn in the flesh lest he should be exalted beyond measure by the abundance of the revelations (2 Cor. 12:4,7). What a stark contrast this is, to most of the ‘revelatory experiences’ we frequently hear about today!