Monday, April 14, 2014
Is Heaven for Real?
I've been meaning to answer this question (review this book) for years now, but it just stayed on the back burner. With the movie being released soon, I thought it had simmered long enough:
Q: I found the book Heaven is for Real very touching, but I can’t help but wonder whether the boy’s experience was genuine. Can you offer any guidance to help me sort this out?
In the handful of years since this book was released, it has become very widely known because of its touching images and inspiring portrayal of childlike faith. At the same time, I, like the many readers who have sent me this question, wonder whether the accounts of heaven it communicates are accurate and trustworthy – whether Colton Burpo’s experience was genuine or from another source.
Beyond the difficulty of communicating any individual's experience to those who do not personally share it, this book faces the challenge of a third party – his father – communicating the experiences of his preschool-aged son. For the sake of being both concise and charitable, I am willing to forego any accusations that the experience was fabricated for fame or financial gain and to assume that Colton really did experience the events he describes.
The bigger question that seems necessary to ask is regarding the source of Colton’s experience. The possibilities that immediately come to mind are those of hallucination, a dream, or the boy’s mind integrating diverse fragments of information during a semi-conscious state or under the influence of sedatives and anesthetic.
Those would be easy conclusions, except that the account in the book also includes information that the authors claim could not have been known within the limitations of time and space in its circumstances. These include knowledge of a deceased grandfather’s appearance in an era generations ago, the existence of a previously-unrevealed miscarried sister, and the location and behavior of Colton’s parents during his surgery. If we concede that these were not fabricated, then we are left to consider spiritual origins for this experience – but from what spiritual source?
Scripture gives clear guidance regarding those who claim to have experienced extraordinary spiritual revelations – namely, that they must present complete accuracy. Predictions must be completely fulfilled (Deut. 18), and claims to truth must match completely with those already known in Scripture (Deut. 13, 1 John 4), which is the point where this account raises concerns for me.
Many of the descriptions of heaven in the book are untestable because they are neither confirmed by Scripture nor contradictory to it. Many others are consistent with what we should expect from an experience of heaven based on Biblical revelation. On a few occasions, though, Colton’s experiences directly contradict truths known from Scripture or history.
First, and most significant of these is the location of Jesus’ crucifixion wounds (in the palm rather than at the junction of the forearm bones at the wrist). Another worrisome description is the repeated references to the winged appearance of deceased believers. Additionally, while the Bible clearly states that death must precede entrance into the states described in the account (Hebrews 9:27), medical records showed that Colton did not die.
Finally, Colton says about Pop, “He’s got a new body. Jesus told me if you don’t go to heaven, you don’t get a new body.” Scripture, on the other hand, very clearly describes death as separation from the body (2 Cor. 5:8 et. al.) and that all people, not only believers will receive a resurrected body – but that it will be on the Last Day, and not in the temporary, spiritual state which precedes it.
This leaves us with two choices: First, we can dismiss these discrepancies as the result of a child’s limited comprehension or communication ability, but then we would be left to doubt all the rest of the account on the same grounds. Alternatively, we could wonder, in spite of Colton’s and his Father’s sincere belief that the account is genuine, if the experience was introduced from another, spiritually hostile source which conveyed a great deal of truth mixed with just enough error to be distract from what is most important.
This leads to my final concern – heaven is never described as the end game in Scripture. We have only a handful of descriptions of it, and very few direct references to it. Instead, the big idea in Scripture regarding afterlife is that it is lived out in an eternal resurrection, which follows the Last Day. Too much focus on “heaven” (which we Americans have been guilty of for generations) distracts from that truth that we will physically live again forever.
Yes, Heaven is for real. We know this because eyewitnesses saw our Lord resurrected, and He told them it was true. This book, however, leaves serious questions of credibility, which we cannot overlook.
Since my local newspaper column is limited at 800 words, this review is exceedingly brief. Perhaps after Holy Week, there will be time for me to provide an expanded critique, offering the insights I lacked the space to include here.