Wednesday, May 25, 2011
Heaven Is For Real
I was surprised by the fact that I actually enjoyed reading this book. Having read other books in this "gone-to-heaven-and-returned-to-tell-about-it" genre, I didn't think I would. But, the story told in this book is one that drew me in and touched me. That's probably due to the fact that I can sympathize with what the Burpo family went through in almost losing their son. When my daughter, Sarah, was six months old, she had to have major heart surgery to repair a large hole in her heart. Those hours of waiting as they operated on my little girl were the scariest hours I have ever had to endure. And, then, when the word came that the surgery went great and that we could visit her, the relief I felt was quickly turned to great fear again, for just a few minutes after we walked into the room to see her, she flat-lined and we were quickly whisked out of the room as several doctors and nurses rushed in to work on her. Thanks be to God, they were able to resuscitate her quickly and she never had another problem again. In fact, besides the scar she still bears on her chest, there is no indication at all that she ever had a problem with her heart. But, man, was that a scary time back then!
Anyway, I'm sure my experience with almost losing my daughter had much to do with this book touching me as it did. But, there is also a measure of sincerity in this book that is absent in other books like it. As Rev. Todd Burpo, a Wesleyan pastor, tells the story of how he and his wife came to learn that their four-year-old little boy, Colton, had taken a trip to heaven and back while undergoing life-saving surgery due to a burst appendix, he comes off as completely sincere and believable. If things happened as he recounts them in the book, no one could blame him for reaching the conclusion that his son really had this experience. The problem is that, as sincere and believable as he appears to be, we simply can't be sure that things did happen exactly as he recounts them. And, even if things did happen exactly as he recounts them, we still can't be sure whether or not Colton actually visited heaven and came back to tell about it.
Nevertheless, there are several aspects to the story that are intriguing, in addition to the sincerity and believability of the one telling the story. How is it that four-year-old Colton knew where his parents were and what they were doing when he was undergoing surgery (his dad in a room by himself yelling at, and praying to, God; his mom in the waiting room praying and talking on the phone)? According to Rev. Burpo, neither he nor his wife had shared what they were doing with anyone, including each other. Or, how is it that Colton tells his parents that he met his older sister who was miscarried and never born when, according to Rev. Burpo, there was no way for their little boy to know what a miscarriage is, let alone that they had suffered one? Or, how is it that Colton recognizes a photo of his great-grandfather, who died years before he was born? After telling his parents that he met his dad's grandfather in heaven, they show Colton a picture of him as an older man, just before he died, but Colton doesn't recognize him. Later, they show Colton a picture of his great-grandfather when he was younger, and Colton says, "Hey, how'd you get a picture of Pop!" And then there's the whole deal about identifying what Jesus looks like. Curious about this (and who wouldn't be?!), whenever they see a picture/painting of Jesus, Colton's parents ask him if it's what Jesus looks like. He always says, "No." They get to the point where they don't even ask him if the image looks like Jesus, but rather, "Okay, what's wrong with this one?" But, then, one of Rev. Burpo's parishioners alerts him to the fact that they had just watched a special on television about a little girl named Akiane, who claimed to have had a similar experience to Colton's, and had painted a picture of what she claimed Jesus looked like. So, Rev. Burpo does a little research into this, acquires a picture of Akiane's painting, and shows it to Colton, who enthusiastically confirms that it's a picture of Jesus. Here's what Akiane and Colton claim Jesus looks like:
And so, there are lots of things in this story that are intriguing and leave the reader entertaining the possibility that maybe, just maybe, this little boy did go to heaven and came back to tell about it. But, there are also things revealed along the way that leave those who have read and studied the Bible scratching their heads. For example, Colton claims that everyone has wings in heaven - everyone but Jesus. And, no, he's not claiming that we become angels, just that we have wings in heaven, like the angels. That's a little weird. There's also the claim that the angel Gabriel sits on a throne on the left side of God the Father's throne, with Jesus on a throne to His Father's right. Huh? And what of the claim that Colton was given homework during his class in heaven, which was taught by Jesus? There is school in heaven? These, and other tidbits along the way, give pause to the reader who knows his Bible. At the same time, we're only given brief glimpses of heaven throughout Holy Scripture and there is much about it that remains a mystery to us. So, who knows?
There is not a lot to shake my theological stick at in the story. There's nothing that just pops out as blatant heresy, as is the case in many other books like this, and the things that made me a little itchy, including the things mentioned in the previous paragraph, were not enough for me to dismiss the story as completely unbelievable or obviously false. I'm cautiously skeptical, but I'm not willing to say that Colton didn't have the experience his dad tells us about. I just don't know. It's possible. But, then, there are numerous other possible explanations, too. That's the problem I alluded to earlier - we just can't know for sure.
This, of course, is the reason why we don't place our trust in books like this. The testimonies and experiences shared in them may be interesting and even compelling, but they're not something upon which to build our faith. We don't get our theology from the unverifiable experiences of others. We have God's Word, which is the sole source and norm for all that we believe, teach, confess, and practice. Thus, we do not need books like this to confirm or prove anything to us. We have Moses and the Prophets and Christ and His Apostles - let us listen to them (cf. Lk. 16:19-31).
The Rev. Dr. Jeffrey Gibbs, professor at Concordia Seminary, published a critical review of the book, which I read yesterday. He offers three main criticisms of the book: 1) There is no effort to verify the book's claims; 2) Holy Scripture's authority is presented as less important than the testimony of Colton; 3) Heaven is presented as the eternal destiny of believers, rather than the eternal kingdom to come when Christ returns in glory on the Last Day.
Regarding his first criticism, I wonder what effort could be made to verify the book's claims. Dr. Gibbs uses the example of John Paul II's recent beatification by Rome, and states how they take the process very seriously and require verification. Then, he compares and contrasts that process with how we're asked to simply take at face value the extraordinary claims made in this book. But, I really don't see the distinction. In both cases, at the end of the day, there can be no real verification. And, I'm not so sure I buy the idea that Rome approaches the process of beatification with a seriousness and a "holy skepticism" that is absent with Rev. Burpo. Why? Because Rome puts together an investigative team to go out and investigate the claims made by people that miracles have been done via the meditation of a dead saint and, in the process, rule out many of those claims? So what. At the end of the day, they end up finding three "valid" miracles and put them before us as proof positive that the dead person through whom those miracles are supposedly done is ready for sainthood. This is just as much a shaky foundation as is the testimony of someone like Rev. Burpo. I just don't think this comparison is either appropriate or fair, especially considering the fact that Rev. Burpo has stated time and time again that he was very skeptical when his son began sharing details of his experience in heaven. And, while he didn't have a Vatican-appointed team of investigators to question his son and seek validation, the whole book he shares with us is about him investigating his son's claims. Rev. Burpo testifies that he started to believe that his son had really gone to heaven when his son began telling him things that he simply couldn't know. That was validation for him. It can't be for us, as I've stated numerous times above, since we just can't know for sure. But, to be honest, I'd be far more inclined to believe the testimony of someone like Rev. Burpo than I would the testimony of Rome, since it is far more believable to me that someone could be given a vision of heaven than that dead saints mediate to perform miracles to offer verification that they're ready for heaven.
As for Dr. Gibbs' second criticism, I agree with him that one of the problems with this book (and others like it) is that the testimony of someone's supposed experience is put forward as more important than the authoritative Word of God. That's a very dangerous path to trod, to be sure. As I stated above, God's Word must be, and remain, the sole source and norm of all that we believe, teach, confess, and practice. However, I think we need to be careful here, lest we give the impression that Rev. Burpo and his family somehow needed Colton's experience to confirm what they already believed, or that they were willing to accept their son's testimony as authoritative apart from the authority of God's Word. One of the things I appreciated about the book was how Rev. Burpo continuously checked what his son told him against the authority of Scripture. And, let's be honest, most of what Colton shares with his dad can be reconciled with Scripture. It is not as though the kid came back from his trip to heaven with one outrageous and unScriptural account after another. And so, while Dr. Gibbs' point here is well taken, I didn't get the idea from reading this book that "the testimony of the prophets and apostles and Christ himself in Scripture was not enough" for the Burpo family, as if they somehow needed their son's experience to seal the deal for them. Rather, I got the impression that their son's experience simply confirmed for them what they already believed on the basis of Scripture. There is a difference.
Dr. Gibbs' third criticism resonates most with me. I had the same reaction when reading the book, namely that the idea is presented that heaven is the final destination for believers, which is a false belief held by many unknowing Christians. But, we know from Holy Scripture that heaven is not the final destination for us. We know that Christ will return on the Last Day and usher in the new heavens and earth, in which we will dwell bodily forever. Heaven is for real. But, it's not forever. Our spirits go to heaven when we die to await the consummation of all things when our Lord returns. And so, for me, the most dangerous aspect of this book is that it may further cement the faulty belief many already hold that we are destined to spend eternity in the current heaven where our spirits go upon death. But, we look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the + world to come. Of course, this doesn't mean that we can simply dismiss the claims of Colton Burpo. While we know that heaven is not the final destination for us, we do know that it is real and that our spirits do go there upon death. Beyond that, Scripture doesn't tell us all that much. There is far more revealed about the new heavens and earth to come than there is about the current heaven, even while there remains far more that is a mystery to us. The problem is that many people mistake many of the descriptions of the new heavens and earth (the eternal kingdom to come) as descriptions of heaven.
In the end, I don't know what little Colton Burpo saw and experienced. Maybe he did go to heaven and came back to tell about it. Maybe heaven is a far more wondrous place than we who look forward to the new heavens and earth sometimes consider it. Maybe we don't just "rest in Christ" and worship and pray until the trumpet sounds and the Last Day arrives. Maybe our spirits have wings and we have school and homework and such in heaven. Or, maybe not. Maybe Colton has a very active imagination or maybe he had vivid dreams while under the knife and mistook them for reality, and maybe some of the things we're told that he couldn't possibly know were told to him unbeknownst to his parents. We simply cannot say. And so, at the end of the day, this book can be nothing more than a fun read which makes interesting and intriguing claims. That's what it was for me. Nothing more, nothing less.
For, again, we have Moses and the Prophets and Christ and His Apostles. Let us listen to them.