Colton Burpo went to heaven when he was four years old.
At least according to the account Heaven is for Real, written by his father Todd Burpo and published in 2010. The book has since taken off, selling over ten million copies in the United States alone. Because of the high volume, the book has transcended Christian bookstores and the religion section of Barnes & Noble. Now front and center, with study guides, kid’s versions, and now a movie, the story is nothing short of a cultural phenomenon. For good or ill, this is one book that the world thinks represents evangelical Christianity.
The memoir is yet another installment of a niche, but growing genre of “true stories” that deal with traveling to the afterlife and back. Other notable titles include 90 Minutes in Heaven by Don Piper (no relation to John, he’s awesome), 23 Minutes in Hell by Bill Weise, and To Heaven and Back by Mary C. Neal. Regrettably, no one has been witty enough to title their book “Seven Minutes in Heaven” recalling middle school birthday parties. However, these books have captured the imaginations of millions of adherents who hang on every word about what heaven (or even hell) is like.
In preparation for the movie (full disclosure: I haven’t read the book), I watched a few interviews with heaven-traveler Colton and I really don’t know what to do with his story. I don’t want to stomp on his experience, but his account seems rehearsed and a bit wooden, like he’s recounting what his father told him. Now, I don’t want to attempt to investigate whether there is something sinister going on (that’s beyond the scope of this article), but instead evaluate the film and see how the whole story holds up to the Bible’s perspective on divine journeys.
For a movie directed by the same guy who wrote Braveheart, I was expecting a little . . . more. The movie opens with a mysterious girl in Lithuania painting. Cut to down-on-his-luck pastor Todd Burpo who can’t catch a break, or he can; he actually breaks his leg (and gets kidney stones), is thousands of dollars in debt, and works a multitude of odd jobs (wrestling coach, volunteer firefighter, garage door repairman). Just when he’s at the end of his rope, his kid needs to be rushed to the hospital, his appendix having ruptured 4 days before. Facing death on the operating table, Colton visits heaven and while the angels are carrying him there, he sees his father wrestling with God in prayer and his mother in the other room contacting the prayer chain. The rest of the movie deals with how the family and broader community react to this little boy’s claims.
The story itself is confusing, particularly in regards to tone and pacing. The film seems unsure if it is supposed to be a lighthearted family comedy or something serious, bouncing around between reverent awe and humor (to the tune of goofy background music). These shifts are ultimately tacky and take away from the film, which feels longer than it is due to a beginning that is at least twenty minutes too long. Conversely, the movie kind of just ends. The dad, Todd, gives a sermon/confession/group-hug about believing his boy and that we should be relishing the glimpses of heaven on earth, like loving ones neighbor. No real resolution, just a cut back to girl in Lithuania who claims she went to heaven too and paints what she sees.
Honestly though, for a “faith” movie (I hesitate to use the word “Christian”) the acting is solid. Greg Kinnear displays well the character of a dad who is confused and hopeful, trying to figure out his son’s strange experience.
Sadly (and predictably?), the heaven scenes, and particularly the character of Jesus, come off as cheesy, shirking the holiness and glory of God for warm fuzzies. Colton is adamant that Jesus has light eyes (bluish-green) and is really nice; he also has a rainbow horse.
Okay, so how does this account square up with Scripture? Is this something that has or can happen to people? The movie stresses that Colton did not die on the operating table, but Colton himself denies that his visit was “just a vision.” He believes he actually went there. Honestly, the whole deal is a tad peculiar. The apostle Paul got caught up to the third heaven (whether it was a vision or he was actually there, he said he did not know) and, essentially, he is told to keep his mouth shut (“and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter,” see 2 Corinthians 12). It seems troubling that Paul couldn’t talk or decided not to talk about heaven and yet Mr. Burpo writes a book and sells over ten million copies enlightening us all about it. Hmmm.
Friends I’ve talked to about Colton’s journey have brought up the apostle John’s vision of heaven in The Book of Revelation. However, John’s experience is just that: a vision. Again, in an interview with Sean Hannity, Colton denies that he saw a vision and claims that he actually went there with Jesus. His experience is vastly different than John’s account, whose vision was apocalyptic, meaning that it was an unmasking of the current realities and powers in the world (as opposed to fodder for bunker-fundies clutching their end-times charts). Try this: like vertical blinds that are closed, the true world is hidden from us. However, apocalyptic literature is what moves us at an angle to see through those blinds (kudos to James K. A. Smith for that analogy).
Causing further problems to Burpo’s account is the author of Hebrews, who proclaims that “It is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment. . .” (Hebrews 9:27). This declarative statement seems pretty clear. You don’t go to heaven and come back. A person dies and is in the presence of Christ for eternity, or not. For instance, Enoch and Elijah didn’t come back, though I’m not sure what happened with Lazarus (though I am pretty sure he didn’t write a bestseller about it).
Therefore, it doesn’t seem like this sort of experience is supported by Scripture. Make of that what you will.
Now I don’t want this to turn into a proof-text battle, with my pile of verses at war with someone else’s. I’m actually more interested in the question behind the question of the story’s veracity: what does the desire for these “heaven and back” stories tell us about ourselves?
I think there are a few answers. The first is simply a symptom of postmodernity. Ours is a culture of skepticism, at least with things that are “established.” With the collapse of the meta-narrative, people distrust any “story” that makes claims over all aspects of life, such as religion. On the contrary, postmoderns (who are pretty much anyone under 40) would rather hear someone’s story than a sermon. We value variable individual experience. Because our American culture has embraced a postmodern way of looking at the world, Colton Burpo’s experience is accepted. However, this explains only the “spiritual, but not religious” crowd’s admiration for the book.
But what about orthodox Christians? I get why this book sells out at Barnes & Noble and at Oprah’s book clubs, but why is it endorsed by pastors, sold by Christian bookstores, and passed out at birthdays by caring aunts and grandmothers?
I think it has to do, ultimately, with doubt. At our core, we’re not certain about what awaits us. We lack tangible hope for eternity. We want more concrete examples than Scripture provides. We’re not content with mystery. In fact, we would rather trust a four-year-old than God’s revealed Word.
Addressing this doubt, Jesus tells a story about the afterlife in the Gospel of Luke. Two men die: Lazarus, who is a beggar, and a rich man. Lazarus goes to be with Abraham and the rich man is in anguish in Hades. After being denied a request for water, the rich man cries:
‘Then I beg you, Father, to send [Lazarus] to my father’s house — for I have five brothers— so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.’ But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ And he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead’ (Luke 16:27-30).
Now, I realize that Colton and his family deny that he actually died, but doesn’t this illustration reveal the futility of this “afterlife-and-back” genre? It is profoundly ironic that evangelicals, known almost exclusively for their stalwart defense of the inerrancy and sufficiency of God’s Word, put more faith in a book (or movie) to yield confession and repentance than in the Word itself.
Unfortunately, Heaven is for Real’s confusing theology presents and neutered and muddled gospel. By having no mention of our sinful condition before God, audiences are left wondering exactly how a person gets to heaven, something the movie never actually addresses (and is really the wrong question anyway). Is it because God loves you? Does he love everyone? Is it just a matter of vague belief in God? If so, what did Jesus save us from? Do I really get a halo and angel wings? In the film, all of these questions are either marginalized, unanswered, or covered up with fluffy rhetoric that fails to boil down to anything substantial.
Despite the flood of tales of celestial visits lining bookshelves, believers need to use discernment and cling only to the revealed Word of God to inform our perception of the world to come, and not extra-biblical revelation like visits to heaven and “messages” from Jesus (*cough* Jesus Calling *cough*).