It seems that everyone is talking about heaven these days. People are discussing whether heaven exists, what it will be like, how to get there, and who will be there.
Recently, there has been a lot of talk surrounding books recounting visits to heaven. One of the most popular of these books, “Heaven is for Real,” was recently released as a movie. I watched this movie last week, and actually thought it was very well done, but I would like to refer you to several resources to keep in mind as you encounter the discussions surrounding these claims of people visiting heaven.
My goal is not to critique the reality of the experience itself. I don’t believe Todd Burpo is lying, and I would not be surprised if his son was not making up his accounts of his experience. My goal is mainly to address the manner in which Christians respond to these stories. My purpose is also not necessarily to give a full evaluation of the movie, like I did with Noah, although I enjoyed the discussion, both on and off this blog, surrounding that post. Instead, I will first simply list a few observations about the movie and book so that you can get an idea of what some of the issues are that people are talking about. Then I will give a couple very brief thoughts, and then provide you with some helpful resources in thinking through the discussions surrounding these books/movie.
Observations on Heaven is for Real:
1) When Colton begins speaking about his visit to heaven, his father, Todd, is almost solely fascinated, even obsessed, with the physical appearance of heaven – with what Jesus looks like, what Todd’s grandfather looks like, what John the Baptist looks like, what Satan looks like, Jesus’ rainbow colored horse (not white?), the “blue” Holy Spirit, etc.
2) The whole focus of Colton’s experience (as well as every other person who claims to have visited heaven recently) is upon himself – angels are singing to Colton, people come up to talk to him, he sits on Jesus’ lap… there is no discussion of the glory of God or of the worship of God. “But the glory of God is what the Bible says fills, illuminates, and defines heaven” (John MacArthur).
3) A woman who lost her son asks Todd, “Do you think my son went to heaven?” In reply, Todd does not say anything about Christ, and whether her son accepted Christ as his savior, but gives some line about how God doesn’t love his son more than her son, implying that he’s sure her son will be in heaven because God is loving. A perfect opportunity to share the Gospel in a widely viewed movie, replaced with a Rob Bell-esque misapplication of the love of God. But, this reflects Todd’s attitude throughout both the movie and book.
4) Prior to his son’s experience of heaven, Todd “had nothing” to offer in way of comfort – no hope to offer – for those who had lost loved ones (apparently Scripture was utterly insufficient, but his 4 year-old’s experience made everything okay).
5) In answering the question of whether his son truly experienced heaven, Todd says, “Yes… He was in the heaven that God showed him.” Does this mean that heaven is different for each of us? Perhaps tailored to our own preconceived notions?
6) Todd does appeal to Bible verses a couple of times, but, as Tim Challies said, “There’s a difference between Scripture being used to back up your point, and explaining what it actually means.”
7) The reasons Todd gives for believing heaven is real are quite interesting – “Haven’t we already seen heaven? In the first cry of a baby? The courage of a friend, the hands of a nurse or a doctor, the love of a mother or father? Haven’t we already had a glimpse of heaven and so often chosen the hell of hate and fear? Is heaven for real? Every single one of you has asked that question. All of us have. And for me the answer, is yes.”
8) And the climax of the movie – the climax of everything Todd has learned from believing that his son went to heaven – is that he learned to love… And then he says that he must do the one thing love requires of him – “that I let others know – they are not alone.” That’s the one thing love compels him to do? Not something like, tell others of their need for Christ? Well, judging from his response to the woman who lost her son, I guess not.
9) The film drastically softens the message of the book, giving the viewer a much easier-to-swallow picture of the events and people’s responses. (e.g. the time span between Colton’s experience and the first time he begins speaking of it is far greater than the movie suggests). There is a very good and informative discussion of this aspect of the movie here.
Some brief thoughts:
This movie could be an episode on the show Resurrection, but other than that, I would be cautious placing much, or any, significance on the experience of a 3-4 year-old.
Speaking of experience, one thing I find fascinating about this recent craze over these visits to heaven, is the confidence and deference given to someone else’s experience. Think about it… I didn’t die, I haven’t experienced heaven, I wasn’t there… what benefit do these accounts of someone else’s experience give me? Answer: “But he was there, he is an eyewitness, he experienced heaven, he saw Jesus, he can tell you for sure that it is real – and that is so comforting!” The benefit (as well as the primary marketing power) of these accounts of heavenly visits is the comfort, inspiration, and warm fuzzy feelings they give to those who believe it to be genuine.
Now, this may be a natural response to such accounts; my own experience of heaven would certainly be far more comforting, inspiring, and faith-strengthening, but in lieu of such an experience, believing someone else experienced heaven and can tell me about it, would certainly be comforting and could at least temporarily/superficially strengthen my faith.
But herein lies the issue – we already have an account, and one that is far more reliable than a 4 year-old’s fragmented description – and that is Scripture. In Scripture, we not only have records of people being resurrected (though they give no details about their experience), but also of people such as Isaiah, Paul, and John, who saw heaven and lived to tell about it. Not only that, but God himself, the Creator of heaven and earth, recorded everything you and I need to know about heaven in an infallible, inerrant Bible, and that Bible is meant to be the final authority in all matters – the final, and only infallible, test of truth.
So, what is the benefit of grabbing hold of these recent experiences of “heaven” over simply believing the inerrant record of Scripture? Well, it seems to me that the only answer is, that the people who have recently been telling about their visits to heaven give more specific details about what heaven is like – details which are not recorded in Scripture. We can now know more about heaven than before. Our knowledge can go beyond Scripture. The experiences of these people, who are making bank off their books, are obviously far more reliable and relevant than the divinely inspired, inerrant Word of God…
The Real Danger:
Just one more thought on this… I was recently a guest teacher in a Bible study, and somehow we got on this topic… and one thing I tried to emphasize was that for people their age, or someone my grandmother’s age (who absolutely loved these sort of books), who already has a relationship with Christ, and who are not searching around other religions to find meaning and truth – for them to read the book or see the movie and have a nice feeling about it and let it excite them about the joy of heaven, is far different… qualitatively different… than someone in their 30s or under, seeking spiritual meaning and exploring every religious belief out there… it becomes especially dangerous when older or more mature Christians are endorsing this sort of thing, and promoting these stories to younger Christians, standing on shifting sand… why? Because once we begin to say, “Yes I know it seems to be going beyond (or perhaps even against, at times) what Scripture tells us, but who are we to question this person’s experience? They experienced it; so we know it has to be real… so let’s rejoice in their experience of heaven and just be glad to know that what we’ve believed all along really is true.” What’s wrong with that? Well, what happens when that younger Christian is speaking with their Pentecostal friend, or their Muslim friend, or their Buddhist friend, or their neo-spiritualist friend, or their Kundalini friend, and is told of another very real experience, that clearly goes against Scripture, or in some way validates that person’s religious “journey?” What will you tell that seeking Christian? You have grounded serious aspects of your faith on the experience of a 3 year old boy, and put your hope in his vision of heaven, with little to no serious study of Scripture in search of truth. When do you draw the line? How do you set the standards? I understand this is somewhat of a slippery-slope argument… Just a caution for you to think about.
Alright, so what’s my point… what’s the takeaway? One of the main reasons this recent fascination is so dangerous, is first and foremost because it undermines the sufficiency of Scripture. And, as you will see in some of the articles below, it becomes even more dangerous when the accounts contradict what Scripture has already told us about heaven. And due to a culture that views experience as the ultimate standard of truth, people will often readily accept the words of man over the Word of God, undermining the truthfulness of the very One who reigns from heaven. Scripture is far more trustworthy than man’s experience (2 Pet. 1:19).
The Word of God is totally sufficient, completely inerrant, and our only infallible source of truth. I appreciate MacArthur’s comment on this – “The limits of our curiosity are thus established by the boundary of biblical revelation.” I exhort you to turn to and study the Scripture, so that you will better know how to respond to such discussions.
Why Heaven is So Good:
(Added thought): By the way, the reality that heaven is real — the bare fact that heaven exists — is only truly comforting if you know you are going there! Without a clear understanding of the gospel, the reality of heaven should be anything but inspiring and comforting… after all, the alternative is not all that wonderful sounding. But the utter lack of a gospel message is astounding. The real joy of heaven is not simply that it is there… the joy of heaven is because of who is there (and I don’t mean your great-aunt Susie). The excitement that heaven simply exists pales in comparison to the excitement that Christ, in His work on the cross, has offered us a way to be saved from eternal punishment apart from the presence of God, and to be brought into heaven – in order to rest in the presence of Christ forever. Without this aspect, the reality of heaven is only comforting if you believe that everyone, or at least all your loved ones, are going to be there. And this message, which this movie and many of these books come insidiously close to proclaiming, is a blatant rejection of the clear teaching of Scripture on the narrow way of salvation and the exclusivity of Jesus Christ.
That’s where I’ll leave my own thoughts on this… You owe it to yourself to consider the words of the men below regarding both the book and the movie before you give yourself over to unnecessary and less-than-edifying fascinations and credulities.
Here are the links to some good resources, and then I will quote a few excerpts that I especially liked.
Book Review: Heaven is for Real – Michael Patton has a good discussion later in this post on the distinction between “heaven” and the new earth, and “heaven” – the intermediate state
Some quotes from the above articles:
“…the authors of these stories seem obsessed with details like how good they felt—how peaceful, how happy, how comforted they were; how they received privileges and accolades; how fun and enlightening their experience was; and how many things they think they now understand perfectly that could never be gleaned from Scripture alone.”
“The typical Christian today seems oblivious to the principles established by Deuteronomy 29:29 and 1 Corinthians 4:6 (‘that you may learn… not to go beyond what is written’ ESV). In fact, people seem to be looking for spiritual truth, messages from God, and insight into the spirit world everywhere but Scripture.”
“What are we to make of the current interest in heaven? One thing is clear: It does not signal any significant upsurge of interest in what biblical revelation teaches about heaven.”
“First, we must distinguish between the ‘intermediate state of existence’ and the New Earth (both of which we often call ‘heaven’). The intermediate state of existence is the place people go between death and the resurrection. Christians go to a place called ‘Paradise’ (Luke23:43). It is not entirely improper to call it ‘heaven’; we don’t want to confuse this place with the New Earth that will be our eternal abode and only appears after judgment. There is not much that the Bible tells us about the intermediate state. We know that we will be with Christ (2 Cor. 5:6; Luke 23:43) and it will be better than being on earth (2 Cor. 5:8). The New Earth does not appear until Revelation 20:1-3. The intermediate state is where Colton would have gone, not the New Earth. However, like with so many of these ‘I saw heaven’ experiences, people describe what seems to be the New Earth which, for lack of a better way to put it, has not been built yet. The streets of gold, gates made out of pearls, and the like, which Colton describes, are attributes, literal or not, of a place that is not yet in existence.
As well, the description of people with wings is very odd. While I am not denying that people could have wings in the intermediate state, this is no where hinted at in Scripture. This, along with people not looking old, while not necessarily problematic, does raise some theological eyebrows. After all, were not Samuel, Elijah and Moses all recognizable (1 Sam. 28:15; Matt. 17:1-9). Did not the witch of Endor recognize Samuel? And upon being asked what he looked like, didn’t she say, ‘An old man wearing a robe is coming up’ (1 Sam. 28:14, emphasis mine).”
“The Bible contains many examples of the dead being miraculously raised to life: the Shunammite’s son in 2 Kings 4, Lazarus in John 11-12, Dorcas in Acts 9, and so on. One notable aspect to these stories is the complete lack of accounts of what these people experienced while they were dead.”
“In the book, it is told that a baby sitter heard Colton’s testimony. She was a Christian who was wavering in her faith, riddled with doubt. As the story goes, her faith was confirmed by Colton’s experience. This is the type of stuff that scares me. When our faith is built on this type of tabloid theology, true or not, we can expect to have a tabloid faith. We do not need stories about people who have come back from the great beyond to confirm our faith and we certainly don’t need these as the foundation of our faith. So, from an apologetics standpoint (defending the faith), please don’t hand this type of book out to your unbelieving friends.”
“The questions Todd Burpo asks his son betray a strange fixation on the physical appearance of things. Todd’s peculiar inquiry about what the Holy Spirit ‘looks like’ is by no means the only example of this. When four-year-old Colton first began to talk about seeing people in heaven, Todd immediately began pressing for visual descriptions. He writes, ‘All I could think to ask was: “So what did the kids look like? What do people look like in heaven?”‘ (p. 72). Later, when Colton informed his dad that he saw the devil in heaven, Pastor Burpo’s first question was, ‘What did he look like?’ (p. 134). And of course, Todd Burpo persistently asked his son questions about the physical appearance of Christ, too.”
“Every one of Colton’s experiences, or very nearly every one, follows a pattern. He tells his father some little detail. His father experiences a gasp or feels his heart skip a beat. ‘I could hardly breathe. My mind was reeling. My head was spinning.’ A Scripture verse comes to dad’s mind that validates the experience. Colton gets bored and runs off. Repeat.”
“Stories like Colton’s are as dangerous as they are seductive. Readers not only get a twisted, unbiblical picture of heaven; they also imbibe a subjective, superstitious, shallow brand of spirituality. Studying mystical accounts of supposed journeys into the afterlife yields nothing but confusion, contradiction, false hope, bad doctrine, and a host of similar evils.”