Yes, Heaven is a Real Place, but . . .

Unless you have been hiding under a rock for the past couple of months (and after reading this blog, some of you will wish you had), someone has likely told you about the most recent evangelical publishing phenomenon: Heaven Is for Real. Authored by Todd Burpo, a pastor from Nebraska, and professional nonfiction writer Lynn Vincent (who helped Sarah Palin produce Going Rogue), the book tells the story of a four-year old boy who claims to have been near death, gone to heaven, and come back to tell his story.

The boy, Colton, was rushed to the hospital with a burst appendix—a scenario to which I can relate since I went to the hospital at age four under exactly the same circumstances. But while I woke up wanting to talk to my Grandpa Taylor about Evel Knieval, Colton came back saying that while he was in surgery, he went to heaven and had experiences with various biblical figures and yes, you guessed it, Jesus himself. Initially, his stories about his time in heaven were met with caution by his parents, but the detail with which he described the events baffled Todd and Sonja, his mother and father. While Colton was only “there” in heaven for about three minutes, he purportedly and variously: sat on Jesus’ lap, heard about a coming battle with Satan at the end of the world, reported that Jesus sits at the right hand of God the Father, realized that God is a Trinity of persons (hey, the kid’s a trinitarian!), and learned that no one grows old in heaven, among other things.

Thomas Nelson picked up the book produced from Colton’s episodes. To say that it went gangbusters would be the publishing understatement of the decade. As of Spring 2011, it had sold well over 1.5 million copies, prompting The New York Times to cover the story since the title had raced to the #1 position on its paperback nonfiction list.

When a book becomes that popular, it should expect criticism—which Heaven Is For Real has gotten—in spades. But I am not really interested in criticizing the boy, the book, or even his experiences—whatever they were. People have been reporting near death experiences for as long as anybody can remember, and the subject has become fodder for academic research, beginning with psychiatrist Raymond Moody’s Life After Life, first published in 1975. What disturbs me are the reports I am hearing anecdotally from people about how Heaven Is For Real is regarded as “powerful evidence” for biblical Christianity. One of my friends called me this weekend to say that he received a copy of the book from his in-laws as a gift for Father’s Day as a way of helping him bolster his faith. His father-in-law has bought dozens and dozens of copies of the book and is using it as a kind of alternative apologetics book.

Aside from the fact that, as Bill Hybels once wisely pointed out, you don’t lead with your best “weird God story” when you’re trying to evangelize someone, I am more bothered by the high regard and sheer enthusiasm many well-intentioned lay evangelicals are affording to Todd Burpo’s book. Nor am I embarrassed by the discussion of evidence for the afterlife, having written about it previously, and commending Dinesh D’Souza’s fine book about the subject along the way. What bothers me about the reception of Heaven is a Real Place is what it says about the relatively low view of the sufficiency of Scripture among evangelicals today. In other words, it’s not good enough for us to hear about heaven from the holy apostles, Church Fathers, and trusted commentaries on Scripture. No, we need a little boy sitting on Jesus’ lap to tell us that instead. Then we will believe it.  And that phenomenon ultimately bodes ill for everyone who really does love the Bible: pastors, teachers, parents, and yes, even children.

About Greg Thornbury

Gregory Alan Thornbury serves as the president of The King's College in New York City. Before going to The King's College, he served as Dean of the School of Christian Studies at Union University, where he taught philosophy and theology. He is also currently a fellow at the Wilberforce Forum (Washington, D.C.) and co-editor of Shaping a Christian Worldview: The Foundation of Christian Higher Education. Developing a Christian Worldview.
  • Experience bolsters truth…otherwise we’re saying we have an academic faith with no basis in reality.

    • Dink

      If your experience doesn’t match Scripture then your experience is wrong. 

    • Anonymous

      Experience can bolster truth; it can also bolster falsehood.  Experience does not always equal reality.  Experience is subjective, truth is objective.

      “Academic” and “based in reality” are not contradictory.

  • Tom Staunton

    Irrespective of what you think happened to the boy it reminds me of the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31 esp. 30,31). If the Bible doesn’t convince people of the truth about Jesus and his gospel then a boy with a near death experience wont either. It may convince people of the after life as a concept but its not going to lead to anyone throwing themselves at Jesus’ feet by itself.

  • “What bothers me about the reception of Heaven is a Real Place is what it says about the relatively low view of the sufficiency of Scripture among evangelicals today.”  How do you feel about the Passion movie?  I know many evangelicals who have more faith in the power of that movie then they do the power of the Scriptures to change lives.

    • Lover of Christ

      I think God will use whatever He can to His glory…I think both the passion and this book are great places for newbies or the lost to find a spark that leads to more questions which in turn may lead them to a pastor which in turn will perhaps lead them into The Word for a more deep study and personal journey. I think all things good and bad in peoples lives or on the shelves can be stepping stones in Gods purpose for others.

  • Lover of Christ

    I saw it is a great read…and sometimes in a place of always heated “religious denominational division and debate”…a little boy on the lap of Jesus might reach more people than the others. With so called “christians” such as WBC getting all media hype and leading people to people that all Jesus followers are america fag haters, well I say let this book be used to the GOOD of the kingdom, cause alot of so called kingdom followers are not winning anyone for the Father with the “normal” or “religion” taught methods. Perhaps it is just a book, and perhaps God is using it. (Rom 8:28)….at this point ANYTHING is better than hot seat religion. blah.

  • Someone reviewed this book at my bookclub.  To me it painted Jesus as a glorified Santa Claus.  Anyway, it’s not my personal story or anyone else’s that creates spiritual life.  God turns the heart of a sinner by his gospel message–that is the good news proclaimed about the work of Christ.

  • Harrison Fw

    My study group is reading N.T. Wright’s “Surprised By Hope” which I highly recommend to anyone whose interest in heaven has been stirred by reading “Heaven Is For Real”. Wright’s purpose in writing the book is to replace current neo-pagan or gnostic views of the afterlife found in our culture and, sadly, in many churches with a solid foundation in the resurrection and how that should reorient our lives to look at heaven as a present reality which we are called to co-labour with God in establishing here and now, rather than an escape from the here and now to a “better world”.

    • Jolm15

      Absolutly outstanding book (Surprised by Hope), I agree. I was captivated by Wrights clear scriptural exposition that brought me the realization that I had not really thought through the subject before

  • “In other words, it’s not good enough for us to hear about heaven from
    the holy apostles, Church Fathers, and trusted commentaries on
    Scripture. No, we need a little boy sitting on Jesus’ lap to tell us
    that instead.”

    No, we need both. It’s easy to get stuck between the two but we need them both to reaffirm in our hearts the validity of Scripture and to balance our experiences with the truth of Scripture.

  • AJ

    If we don’t praise Him, the rocks will have to cry out. 
    The church is quenching the Holy Spirit in our day and now God has to tap on our shoulder by the experience (yes I said experience, gasp!) of a small child. 
    God used a blockbuster book with questionable eschatology to start my progress towards Him. I was eventually converted. And through the years I met a few others where that same book was the catalyst for their journey to Jesus.  One fellow is a pastor at a reformed church and the other is a Navigator missionary.  God can use whatever He wants to tap us on the shoulder – even a couple of religious blockbusters. 

    • John Starke

      Hi AJ,
      Thanks for your response. I don’t think Thornbury was discouraging the idea that God can use anything he wants to tap us on the shoulder. His point is that Scripture is sufficient for an understanding and the truthfulness of heaven. We don’t need a small boy’s experience to give us evidence for its reality.

  • Disciple

    First,  I am humbled to share a time period with a 4 year old who has grown so severly intimate with God that he has sat on the lap of my Master, and this child should examplify what it means to have the faith of a lowly child.. (..biblical times kids were lower on the food chain then women… and women were lower then men on a sliding scale.) I couldn’t ask for more from life then to know my God like that.
    Secondly, if your faith rests on a 4 years olds testamony then I dare to say you have not met My God. The God who created all of the universe- as vast and grand as it is… The God who sent his son to die as an example for his destitute children… to show them how to live, to save the unworthy, and make holy the un holiest of unholies. Yes, we are unholy- and unfit to be in God’s presence with out the blood the baby sitting in your nativity set.  Not to bring peace, but division. To remind us that we are nothing without our God.. and the american church, with all it’s many blessings, doesn’t need God anymore. To the extent that at which to even believe in the existence of a God that exists in all pain, and blessings, one needs a 4 year old to remind them. As if creating the whole universe isn’t enough- no, we need miracles. God gives us miracles and we cry “No! God, give me some thing more! What you give me is not enough. You cannot satisfy me! INEED MORE PROOF THAT YOU LOVE ME!” What if we said that to our grandparents christmas morning? Your father, or mine, would be liable to seriously punish me for acting so disrespectfully- to my elders! And to your GOD?!
    “..So the only miracle this generation will see is the miracle of Jonah” -Jesus …28 AD?
    Go! Bow humbly before you’re God, and tell him the truth… it’s not a secret, but it’s where a relationship starts..with the truth. Tell him that you don’t believe in him, and you’re a destitute, spiratually broken child. Start there, because anything less than everything is nothing in the eyes of God.
    God is the God of love, but he is also a God to be feared. We are fallen, broken, and dead… the consequence of sin is DEATH, yet we’ve been given life..and are found to be ungrateful. Who are we?

    45:22 “Look to me, and be saved”
    God asks us to have total faith in him… to look at God, and say Yes Lord.. I will stand before gun point, college class, and church if be your will. Yes Lord, I will bow at your feet and obey you’re will when not a soul will witness this.

  • JesusFreak

    Short thought, I believe that God uses tradgedy, blessing, movie, and gift to bring people to His glory..I believe whats being critiqued is that people fall short.. a older sister in christ once said it was like opening the door for Jesus, and then leaving him in the entryway of your heart. The problem is that once you open the door for the man with the cross, you have to let go of the rag-tag past that brought you there, and dive into everything that is of him.
    Also, “Luver of Christ”- I pray that you know you’re living on the mission field.. wherever you are..and you get to proove them all wrong… YOU aren’t an anti-america ..gay hater.. YOU love like your Teacher loves, and like your God loves. Be the change you wish to see in the world- ghandi!

  • Bernie Uluadluak

    “Beyond Dreams” Mysteries of out of body experience: One night when i was sleeping, Lord God Almighty creator of heaven & earth called my name, “Bernie qaigit” my soul woked up and without hesitation i left my body which was in deep sleep, i went up into the sky, amazing i was floating in midair & about a mile or less i stopped where the voice was, again saying “Taotogit/look” this was the 3rd vision i saw the New Jerusalem City on a cloud, this time it was alot closer to earth than the previuos dreams or visions i had. Along the edge of the cloud were God’s holy angels standing close together along the edge, in the middle towards the entrance was the Messiah, Saviour, God’s beloved son whom they call Lord Jesus Christ. One of the angels blew the great trumpet, from that very moment people of the world started gathering together as i saw & heard them saying the Lord’s prayer and in an amazement i saw people going up floating towards the Lord, hundreds & thousands of people were going up through Jesus than numbers decline even though there was alot of people on earth, so many were left behind when a great earthquake occured from east to west, it shook the whole earth then from north to south miniture earthquakes followed & smoke, flames, sounds of rumbles came out from the abyss, people on earth were screaming & running everywhere, when i realized my body was down on earth sleeping, i began to struggle to go up to heaven when i woked up sweating & scared. I believed the boys experience. They Are Incredible Experience’s to go beyond imagination…….