Is Heaven is For Real For Real?
We are fascinated with the afterlife. People from all ages have been fascinated with what may be the greatest unknown in human history. What exactly happens to the human soul at the moment of physical death? Is it possible to know and experience what happens at this point?
Within the Christian spectrum of this question there are two extremes: One side says that the only things that we can know about the afterlife are the things described in the Bible.* The other end of the spectrum says that personal experience is a legitimate means to understand what is contained in the afterlife. Each side has its cautions and difficulties. The Bible only side has a lot of experiences to explain away. Of course, certain experiences could be found to be not of God, but other experiences have driven individuals into a fervent and fruitful pursuit of Jesus Christ. If some people are not meant to experience tastes of eternity in this way, then why does God seem to give individuals such powerful, moving, and Christ-centered experiences?
On the other end of the spectrum, there is a danger in trumping established doctrinal truth with a person’s report of the afterlife. Though an experience of the afterlife may be powerful and vivid, a person’s ability to remember and articulate that experience must be considered to be potentially fallible. I am not saying that such experiences are not genuine, but that the recollection power and descriptive accuracy can lead to certain inaccuracies, much like the retelling of a story that’s been heard. In addition, to play the part of the skeptic here, when a person realizes how much influence he has in retelling his experience of heaven, he might be tempted to include his own biases.**
With the understanding of these potential pitfalls, I’d like to briefly evaluate the very popular book Heaven is For Real. On its surface, I found to the book to be very easy to read and easy to connect with. The short chapters typically focused on one brief story at a time. Knowing the basic premise of the book, I found myself gripped by what was going to happen to the little boy. I was continually intrigued, eager, and enjoying the read.
As far as the pitfalls are concerned, I think the author (the father, Todd) did a very good job of walking the balance between the extremes I just described. He seemed to have no interest in presenting his own biases or pushing some agenda other than an honest report of the facts. One could easily take a “believe me; I saw Jesus!” approach, thereby discouraging any critical thinking. Todd presents his son, Colton’s, responses—rather than pressuring the reader with believing the particular descriptions. Todd was up front about his own faith-struggles and his skepticism toward Colton. Portraying himself in a less than ideal light in this way, Todd came across with a real sense of honesty.
Colton’s descriptions of heaven alone were not exhaustive enough to make a book, thus the visions were presented in conversational form surrounded by well-told stories. What Colton described was, at times, shockingly accurate. While it’s true that the 4-year old boy had a pastor for a dad, Todd made it clear again and again that there was no way Colton could have known certain things from some prior teaching.
There were other things which Colton described that made me pause a little and think, “Now, I’m not sure about that.” For instance, he says that Jesus sits on the right side of the throne and Gabriel sits on the left. He said that every person in heaven has wings, some bigger than others. He said he was taken in, presumably to live with, a family member who died in 1976. This grandpa, along with everyone else in heaven, appears to be an ideal (20s to early 30s) age. Colton described an impending war that the saved in heaven would fight against Satan and his forces. Not included in the book, Colton has described the face and clothing of God the Father as a large-scale Gabriel. Such are the questionable descriptions, that is, the descriptions that the Bible does not make mention of. Those that the Bible does touch on seemed to be very biblically accurate—only hindered by the young boy’s ability to find words to describe the things he saw. Todd continually evaluates what his son reported to have seen against what the Bible says about heaven. He does not try to elevate his son above Scripture.
In summary, I believe that people have legitimate visions and experiences, often at the point of death, of the afterlife. I have no reason to doubt that among these was the 4-year old boy, Colton Burpo. I think that many of the people who dismiss such reports, though many have good and God-centered intentions, dismiss something that was a gift from God. Judging the fruit over time, it appears that Colton’s experience and subsequent descriptions have glorified God in his own life, brought about growth within his family, and has encouraged many (or most) of those who have listened to his story. Still, we must remember to love and pursue Jesus, not love and pursue one person’s experience of Jesus.
Finally, let us remember the words of Jesus to “Doubting” Thomas: “Because you’ve seen me you believe. But blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” The experience of seeing Jesus at his heavenly throne, whether through near death experiences or visions, is a special gift; no one’s faith should be slighted for having such eye-witness evidence. But for the majority of us, we are not less in the eyes of God for not having such experiences. Each believer is uniquely blessed, anointed, and gifted. He gives these gifts according to what He sees fit. So the gifts offered to you, my Christian friends, is no less special—even if it doesn’t turn your story into a best-seller.
*Visions of heaven have occurred in the Bible as well—Isaiah (Ch. 6), Paul (2 Cor. 12:2-5), John (Revelation), and Stephen (Acts 7:55-56). Joel 2:28 (reinforced in Acts 2:17-21) also seems to support this: “…Your young men will see visions…”
** Granted, I haven’t heard much of what seem to be personal biases included in the retelling of near death experiences, but it is certainly something to watch out for.