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Fall 2015 · Vol. 44 No. 2 · pp. 183–199 

Heaven is for Real: A Charitable Reading

Vic Froese

I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children.

— Matthew 11:25

When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.

— 1 Corinthians 13:11

Colton Burpo was not yet four years old when he underwent emergency surgery to remove a ruptured appendix. For five days doctors had been unable to identify the cause of his illness, but had ruled out appendicitis early on. For five days an infection raged inside his abdomen. His father, Todd, a pastor at a small Nebraska church, had seen the shadow of death on enough people to recognize it on his son. He and his wife Sonja had Cassie, Colton’s older sister, but had lost another child in a miscarriage before Colton came along. Now their dear son, too, looked to be slipping away.

None too soon, another doctor diagnosed a ruptured appendix and immediately operated. Colton survived the surgery, had one serious setback, but then recovered quickly. On March 19, 2003, the family was {184} finally able to take him home—almost three weeks after his symptoms first appeared.

On July 3, 2003, not long after Colton turned four—and three and a half months after his surgery—the family drove by the hospital where he’d had his operation. Colton casually mentioned that this was where he heard the angels sing. Jesus had told them to sing to him, he said, because he was so scared. And he saw his anxious parents in separate rooms, his father praying by himself in a little room and his mother in a different room, talking on her phone. His parents asked how he could know that, since he was unconscious on the operating table. Colton explained that he went up out of his body and saw them from above, where he could also see the doctor working on him. Not long after, Colton told his father that during his surgery he had gone to heaven. In the following weeks, months, and years, as memories came to him, he described to his dumbfounded parents what he saw there.

Colton’s revelations are recorded in Heaven is for Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back. 1 Written by his father Todd, pastor of a Wesleyan church in Imperial, Nebraska (with the assistance of Lynn Vincent, ghost writer of Sarah Palin’s Going Rogue), the book provides other interesting tidbits of information. According to Colton, Jesus has “markers” on his hands and feet. He has a rainbow-colored horse, which Colton was allowed to pet. Colton saw John the Baptist, Mary, the angel Gabriel, the devil, and various animals there, and many children, too. More unnervingly, he said he talked to his great-grandfather “Pop,” who had died when Colton’s father was six years old. He was greeted by a young girl who said she was his sister, miscarried by Sonja before Colton was born. As if that were not spooky enough, the only picture of Jesus that Colton thinks is “right” (his parents show him many he can’t approve) is a painting by child art prodigy Akiane Kramarik, a young girl who had visions of heaven, Jesus, and God—when she was four years old.

More important than this information, however, Colton tells his parents that God “really, really loves us. . . . You can’t belieeeeve how much he loves us” (100), and that Jesus “really loves the children” (106). Small wonder, then, that Colton has no fear of death (113).

On account of his “matter-of-fact” testimony, and also because he seems to know things he shouldn’t know, Colton’s family is certain he is telling the truth. The book’s astonishing numbers—over 10 million copies sold, translated into thirty-nine languages, and on the New York Times bestseller list for 206 weeks—indicate that millions of others believe him as well. In fact, Heaven is for Real is easily the best-selling book among the other three recent best-sellers in the “heaven tourism” {185} genre, outselling Don Piper’s 90 Minutes in Heaven 2 (6 million copies), Eben Alexander’s Proof of Heaven 3 (over 2 million), and Kevin Malarkey’s now discredited The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven 4 (over 1 million). Which raises the question, What has made Heaven is for Real so extraordinarily popular?

EVANGELICAL

First, the book affirms three beliefs that most North American evangelicals embrace: (1) that heaven is only for those who have acknowledged Jesus as their Savior, (2) that it’s only because Jesus died on the cross that Christians will see God, and (3) that spiritual truth claims are either consistent with the Bible or dubious.

When Colton suspects that a local man has died without “Jesus in his heart,” he asks his father about it. Todd then explains Colton’s anxiety to readers who might not understand it: “My son was asking me whether the man who had died was a Christian who had accepted Christ as his Savior” (57). Colton vehemently insists that “He can’t get into heaven if he didn’t have Jesus in his heart!” (59). And Todd and his mother are greatly relieved when Colton tells them he met their grandfather and father in heaven—they had grave doubts that he was a Christian when he died (89). Further investigation by Todd uncovers information that Pop had indicated his wish to “give his life to Christ” at a revival service two days before he died (90).

The necessity of the cross for reconciliation with God is asserted indirectly but unambiguously. When Todd asks Cassie and Colton why Jesus had to die on a cross, Colton has the answer: “Well, Jesus told me he had to die on the cross so we could see his Dad.” Todd gushes over his son’s response, saying, “Colton’s answer to my question was the simplest and sweetest declaration of the gospel I had ever heard” (111). Though he does not elaborate, it is clear that in Todd’s mind, Jesus’s sacrifice on the cross is at the center of the gospel, clearing the way to heaven for people who have Jesus in their hearts.

Finally, Todd takes every opportunity to demonstrate that Colton’s reports about heaven align neatly with the Bible. Colton’s remark about Jesus’s bright white clothes, Todd says, dovetails smoothly with the account of the Transfiguration in Mark 9:3 (65). He connects Colton’s comment that Jesus gets around by going “up and down like an elevator” (72) with Jesus’s ascension in Acts 1:9–11 (73). He points to the similarity of Colton’s description of heaven as a place “where all the rainbow colors are” (63) with what we read in Revelation 4:3 (80). He finds support in Luke 1:19 for Colton’s statement that the angel Gabriel’s place is at the left hand of God (102). And, amazed at the details the boy {186} provides about Jesus’s garments and accessories, Todd writes, “Now here was my kid, in his matter-of-fact, preschooler voice, telling me things that were not only astonishing on their face, but that also matched Scripture in every detail” (66). The Bible is the measuring stick against which he tests the truth of what his son is saying.

Heaven is for Real thus clearly acknowledges three of the four features that David Bebbington says define evangelicalism: conversionism, crucicentrism, and biblicism. 5 (Activism gets less direct attention.) By affirming these confessions the book raises its credibility with the 90 to 100 million-strong American evangelical community 6 without which it likely could never have gained its hordes of evangelical readers.

ORDINARY FOLK

On a more mundane level, the book appeals because it shows us that God still cares for ordinary middle-class folk. Its authors take pains to illustrate how wholesome but unremarkable the family is. Todd is the part-time pastor of Crossroads Wesleyan Church in Imperial, Nebraska, a town that has ten other churches and a population of only 2,000. With a wife and two children to support, he must supplement his income, which he does by installing garage doors. Yet he still finds time to be involved in the community: as a softball league organizer, a volunteer fire fighter, and a wrestling coach at the local high school. He has health problems—a leg broken in two places, kidney stones, and a breast cancer diagnosis (which thankfully turns out to be false). And as the holder of a bachelor’s degree in theology, he is educated, but has a blue-collar impatience for academic subtleties.

Todd met his wife at college. Sonja has a teaching degree and a master’s degree in library science. While she could have a career, her desire to be there for Colton and Cassie outweigh that option. As bookkeeper for the family and for Todd’s business, Sonja is keenly aware of their precarious financial situation. Todd’s health issues and Colton’s appendicitis result in a mound of medical expenses, and she struggles to make ends meet.

The Burpos are like millions of other decent, God-fearing folk in post-9/11 middle America, struggling to raise children in tough economic times, overworked and underpaid, and just a few medical emergencies away from financial disaster. They know they should believe more sincerely that God is looking out for them but see only signs that they are forgotten. The miracle of Colton’s visit to heaven, however, slowly begins to turn their lives upside down. And in the end God proves himself more than faithful, blessing the family well beyond what they could ever have asked for or imagined. There is no accounting for why God {187} blesses some people more than others, but Colton’s story dramatically reminds readers that God is nothing if not merciful and loving.

APOLOGY AND CONSOLATION

As the title of the book suggests, however, Heaven is for Real is also an apology for belief in an afterlife, but written by someone with one foot in the church and one in the working world. Todd is therefore sensitive to the challenges to Christian beliefs that ordinary believers run into in a predominantly secular world. This empathy comes to the surface when Todd describes the beleaguered faith of Colton’s babysitter, Ali, who finds unexpected support in Colton’s story of his unborn sister:

Ali had grown up in a Christian home but had entertained the same doubts as so many of us do: for example, how did we know any one religion is different from any other? But Colton’s story about his sister strengthened her Christian faith, Ali said. “Hearing him describe the girl’s face . . . it wasn’t something that a six-year-old boy could just make up,” she told us. “Now, whenever I am having doubts, I picture Colton’s face, tears running down his cheeks, as he told me how much he missed his sister.” (130)

Colton’s grandmother formulates the change in her own faith more directly. Having heard Colton’s story, her former mere assent to the notion of an afterlife has been transmuted into certain knowledge: “I accepted the idea of heaven before, but now I visualize it. Before, I’d heard, but now I know that someday I’m going to see” (150).

There is little doubt that a large portion of those who bought Heaven is for Real found the same assurance of the objective reality of heaven, where—among other things—they will be joyfully reunited with predeceased loved ones. For those readers in particular, the book powerfully corroborates what the Bible says about life beyond the grave, and provides a kind of consolation that didactic preaching alone cannot supply.

AUTHENTIC TESTIMONY

The supernatural/paranormal events reported in the book play a crucial role in validating for many readers the authenticity of Colton’s story. How else but through an out-of-body experience could Colton have known that his parents had gone to different rooms as they waited for him to come out of surgery? How else but by actually meeting his dead great-grandfather could Colton have recognized him in a photo he had never seen before (122)? If no one had ever told him about his miscarried sister, how else but by meeting her could he have known that she existed (94)? Colton’s uncanny and apparently precise knowledge of {188} things he has no business knowing enhances the supernatural aura of the book and props up his claim that he actually went to heaven. For if other people were able to confirm information he couldn’t know by natural means, can there can be any reasonable doubt that what he said he saw in heaven is true?

Certainly his father’s doesn’t think so. But Todd finds an additional reason to believe his son’s stories. Children at Colton’s stage of social and intellectual development, he says, have a unique epistemological advantage. He elaborates as he thinks back to when he first suspected his son had experienced something special:

I was struck by his smallness, his little boyness. He was really just a little guy who still spoke with an endearing (and sometimes embarrassing) call-it-like-you-see-it innocence. . . . the age where a kid might point to a pregnant woman and ask (very loudly), “Daddy, why is that lady so fat?” Colton was in that narrow window of life where he hadn’t yet learned either tact or guile. (xviii)

Later, Todd connects this age of guilelessness to the childlike humility that Jesus said was essential to entering the kingdom of heaven (Matt 18:3–4). That humility, says Todd, can be boiled down to a still uncompromised intellectual honesty with which children at Colton’s age are especially blessed:

What is child-like humility? It’s not the lack of intelligence, but the lack of guile. The lack of an agenda. It’s that precious, fleeting time before we have accumulated enough pride or position to care what other people might think. The same un-self-conscious honesty that enables a three-year-old to splash joyfully in a rain puddle, or tumble laughing in the grass with a puppy, or point out loudly that you have a booger hanging out of your nose, is what is required to enter heaven. It is the opposite of ignorance—it is intellectual honesty: to be willing to accept reality and to call things what they are even when it is hard. (74–75)

Standing in that small window of innocence, at that fleeting stage of unselfconscious honesty, Colton is incapable of not calling a spade a spade. His testimony is uncontaminated by pride or desire to gain approval from others, or even by decades of immersion in a religious culture. Who better than a child to give reliable testimony of a supernatural visit to heaven? {189}

SHADOWS OF DOUBT

The picture of heaven that Colton paints, however, is what we might expect to come from a four-year-old raised by Christian parents (one of them a preacher) and weaned on heavily illustrated children’s Bibles. Angels are winged, haloed, robed, and sashed, as are the people. Jesus has longish hair and a beard, and wears a crown on his head. God, being “the biggest one there is” sits on a “really, really big” throne. The devil is kept at bay by angels wielding long swords (which just happen to be Colton’s favorite toy weapons). At the very least, the congruence of Colton’s “first-hand” report with illustrations one might find in Bible storybooks should give us pause.

Moreover, Todd’s assertion that his son’s testimony accords with Scripture “in every detail” is difficult to reconcile with statements Colton makes that have no basis in the Bible. The lights Colton saw above people’s heads (Todd guesses they are haloes) are never mentioned in the Bible. That Jesus wears a purple sash in heaven also goes unmentioned. Colton’s comment that Gabriel sits at God’s left hand, which Todd thinks Luke 1:19 affirms, is unsupported by any verse in Scripture, including Luke 1:19. Jesus’s rainbow-colored horse (63), the “kind of pink” diamond in the middle of his crown (66)—also not in the Bible. Scripture says nothing about people going to heaven and getting wings (72), or about the Holy Spirit being “kind of blue” (103).

Setting those issues aside, the book’s credibility suffers from another serious problem: its frequent jumping to questionable conclusions. When he first tells his family of his strange experience, Colton says three times that it happened when he was at the hospital: first, when Sonja asks if he remembers the hospital, Colton says “Yes . . . That’s where the angels sang to me” (xvii). A bit later he says that when he was sitting in Jesus’s lap and listening to the angels sing, he was at the hospital (xix). And then when he went out of his body and was with Jesus, watching his parents praying in different rooms, he again insists that he was at the hospital (xx).

Later in the story, however, when Todd asks him what else happened at that time, Colton answers that he saw John the Baptist and petted Jesus’s rainbow-colored horse. He immediately adds, “There’s lots of colors.” “Where are there lots of colors?” asks his father. Colton says, “In heaven, Dad. That’s where all the rainbow colors are” (63). At that point it dawns on Todd that “not only was my son saying he had left his body; he was saying he had left the hospital!” (64; italics in the original)

Colton confirms that he was in heaven, surprised that his father hadn’t understood that from their earlier conversation. Precisely his surprise, though, leads the reader to wonder whether Colton himself {190} understands his father’s distinction between being in heaven and simply being outside his body at the hospital. And can we expect a four-year-old to know any better? But if he does understand and affirm the difference, then the question immediately arises: Was the disembodied Colton first with Jesus in heaven listening to the angels sing, then at the hospital looking down from the ceilings of the operating and waiting rooms, and then in heaven again where he saw John the Baptist and Jesus’s horse? The sequence of events is difficult to follow if, as Todd says, he had left the hospital, but was still in position to see his parents and the surgeon.

If we remove Todd’s editorial clarification, however, Colton’s testimony makes most sense if he never left the hospital, but was at the hospital and in heaven at the same time, now watching the doctor operate on him, now listening to the angels sing, now seeing his parents praying in different rooms, now petting Jesus’s horse. Which is to say, these individual events may well all have been part of a single experience for him, taking place in rapid succession, with the abrupt “scene transitions” of a film . . . or a vivid dream.

THE NEVER-BEFORE-SEEN PHOTOGRAPH

The problem of Todd’s drawing conclusions for the reader arises again when he tells how Colton was unable to recognize Pop in a 1976 photo taken just before he died at age sixty-one, but was able to recognize a twenty-nine-year-old Pop in a Xeroxed copy of a 1943 photograph he’d never seen before. The older photo had been found by Todd’s mother in “a box that hadn’t see daylight since two years before Colton was born” (122). We are led to believe that Colton must have been to heaven, for how else could he have identified his great-grandfather in that never-before-seen photo?

Well, one way he could have done that is by having seen another picture of Pop at about thirty years of age somewhere else, before he saw Todd’s. In that case, his ability to recognize Pop in Todd’s photograph would not be at all remarkable. How could Colton have seen another photo of Pop without Todd knowing? Todd himself indicates how this might have happened: “My family had last seen [Todd’s Grandma Ellen] just a couple of months before” (122). That is, the family had visited Pop’s wife a couple of months before Todd showed Colton his photograph of Pop. It is entirely conceivable that Colton’s great-grandmother had a photo of her dear husband as a young man somewhere in her house or apartment, and that Colton ran across such a photo there, or that Grandma Ellen herself showed him one when Todd and Sonja were out of earshot. If it happened this way, then Colton’s question to his father, “Hey! . . . How did you get a picture of Pop?” (122), might not {191} have meant, How did you get a picture of Pop when he’s in heaven? but rather, How did you get a picture of Pop? I’ve only seen one at Grandma Ellen’s!

WHO TOLD YOU?

And then, Colton’s miscarried sister: How could Colton have known that his mother lost a baby if his parents had never shared that information with him? There are other probable explanations. Note first that Colton did not mention his unborn sister until seven months after recovering from his operations. For a four-year-old, this is significant passage of time, especially considering that at the age of six Colton will say, as tears stream down his cheeks, how much he misses his sister (130). Why the seven-month delay if this sister meant so much to him? Did it just take that long for this memory to emerge from the lingering fog of his hospital trauma? Todd himself says they received details of Colton’s journey “over a period of months and years” (151), but doesn’t explain why it should have taken so long. In any case, what we know is that Colton was already four years of age—at least two months past his surgery—when Todd and Sonja explained the miscarriage to Cassie. But they hadn’t told Colton at that time, “judging the topic a bit beyond a four-year-old’s capacity to understand” (95).

To judge from how calmly he was now (no more than a few months later) able to speak about a baby dying in his mother’s “tummy” (94), Colton could not have been far from understanding “the topic” when Cassie was told. Which suggests two possibilities. The first is that Colton overheard his parents talking to Cassie about the miscarriage, perhaps while he was playing in the next room or when they thought he was sleeping. Kids do that—overhear things not intended for their ears. Perhaps the information then seeped into Colton’s subconscious memories and became part of his slowly evolving trip-to-heaven story. And if this pattern repeated itself, it would explain why his experience could only be told over “months and years”—“the experience” continued to assemble itself after Colton’s recovery.

The second possibility is that Cassie herself told him soon after she learned of the miscarriage from her parents. Cassie’s presence at the time Colton made his announcement to his parents is noted (94) but, curiously, not her reaction. Wouldn’t she have been excited to hear that she had a sister waiting for her in heaven? Older sisters have long been known to love playing teacher to younger siblings. 7 So Cassie may well have relished the opportunity to educate the unschooled Colton about this very adult subject. {192}

Even if neither of these scenarios is accurate, it is still interesting that Colton never even hinted at meeting a sister in heaven until after his parents had their talk with Cassie. 8

I point out these problems in the narrative not to dismiss Colton or his parents as liars. It’s impossible to read Heaven is for Real without being convinced that almost everyone in the Burpo family believes without a doubt that Colton actually went to heaven and saw the things he said he did. 9 The point is to show that some of the testimony we are asked to believe is ambiguous, and that numerous conclusions drawn for us do not necessarily follow from the information given. The supposed proofs that Colton went to heaven only raise more questions, most arising from the fact that we never get Colton’s testimony apart from Todd’s interpretation of it. And when we do manage to disentangle the two to some degree, we can give that testimony an interpretation just as credible as Todd’s but without needing to appeal to the supernatural.

SCIENCE AND HISTORY

The question that must be addressed is, What kind of experience did Colton have that he is completely convinced happened as he claims, yet probably did not happen as he claims? How is that even possible? The evidence provided in Heaven is for Real strongly suggests that Colton had a “near-death experience.” Scientific research into near-death experiences (NDEs) began with Raymond Moody’s Life after Life in 1975, 10 although stories of individuals travelling to the next world during severe illness or immediately after a near-fatal injury go back to Plato’s time. 11 Moody identified almost a dozen frequently cited elements in the testimony of those who “died” and briefly went to some kind of afterlife. Colton’s story includes a number of these: a sense of being nearly dead; an out-of-body experience; being greeted by relatives who have already died; and meeting spiritual beings such as God, Jesus, and other religious figures. 12

Since Moody’s groundbreaking study, medical researchers and neuroscientists have made significant advances that help us better understand various phenomenological facets of the experience. Even without examining the evidence, the majority of scientists (and scholars in most other fields of academic study) reject the idea that consciousness or mind can exist apart from a body that facilitates it. Hence they deny the very possibility of a genuine out-of-body experience of the kind that Colton reports. It is akin, they would say, to thinking that computer software can run apart from computer hardware. Every known human sense and mental or physical activity, even consciousness itself, has been shown to {193} be connected to the brain. And when the part of the brain responsible for such functions as seeing, hearing, speaking, or experiencing emotions is damaged, or suffers a chemical imbalance, or is subjected to powerful drugs, those functions are affected. Even the more complex personality traits we associate with the mind can be altered by such changes. 13 Given this complex and intimate relationship between brain, mind, and consciousness, neuroscientists are understandably reluctant to accept at face value any reports of “leaving” one’s body.

The preferred hypothesis of researchers skeptical of near-death experiences is that something in the brain itself is generating the kind of experiences reported by Colton and others brought close to the point of death. Promising but unproven theories have been proposed to account for every aspect of a near-death experience. Out-of-body episodes may be caused by a malfunction in the temporoparietal junction, where the brain integrates data from the senses and organs, and gathers them together into an awareness of the body’s position in relation to its immediate environment. 14 Or they could be caused by hypercarbia (too much carbon dioxide), which can produce the sensation of being separated from one’s body. The vivid imagery of a typical near-death experience may be the result of the hypoxia (oxygen shortage) common during a heart attack, a deficiency known to bring on disorientation, confusion, and hallucinations. 15 Illusions and the profound feeling of peace many “experiencers” report might be generated in part by neurochemicals produced by the brain in situations of extreme distress. 16 The sensation of floating, flying, or sometimes “an intense metaphysical illumination” has been reported by people under the influence of nitrous oxide, while ketamine has been linked to “dream activity, sensory distortions, and hallucinatory phenomena,” which are at least superficially similar to those reported by near-death experiencers. 17 Both nitrous oxide and ketamine are general anaesthetics, a significant fact considering that the best documented cases of near-death experiences are of people who undergo major surgery requiring that they be rendered unconscious.

These observations and hypotheses strongly suggest that near-death experiences are closely linked to what gets triggered in the brain of a person sensing the imminence of death or grave danger. That sense of imminent peril in turn may so greatly magnify the sense of the reality of the dream-vision that people later never seriously doubt its authenticity.

The fact that details reported by near-death experiencers from different cultures vary widely is best explained as the brain drawing on the individual’s cultural/religious background and on personal memories to make some sense of a terrifying physiological crisis or provide a mental escape from it. 18 Carol Zaleski’s historical study has bolstered {194} the argument that near-death experiences are significantly shaped by a person’s social, political, and religious context. For example, medieval narratives consistently included “accounts of obstacles and tests, purificatory torments, and outright doom. . . . [These served] as vehicles for the consolidation of Catholic teachings on purgatory and penance.” She contrasts this with modern accounts which “are shaped throughout by optimistic, democratic, ‘healthy-minded’ principles that transparently reflect a contemporary ideology and mood.” 19 This shaping undercuts claims that these encounters are glimpses of what we will all see when we die, regardless of where we are born, how we are raised, regardless of prior religious commitments or lack of them.

Colton’s visit to heaven includes no surprising images or figures, nothing he could not have absorbed from the religious and social environment of the Burpo family in Imperial, Nebraska. It is not unreasonable, therefore, to believe that Colton had a near-death experience like those reported by thousands of other people around the world and throughout history. In Colton’s case, the combination of a raging fever caused by serious infection, potent anaesthetics, and the physical trauma of invasive surgery put his entire system into crisis mode, to which his delirious mind, memory of Bible illustrations, and vivid imagination responded by producing a calming but powerful dream-vision—beautiful, intimate, and suffused with love. To many, this explanation will be too incredible to believe, but it is no more incredible than a story of an anaesthetized, disembodied three-year-old who literally visits and then returns from a rainbow-colored heaven.

The psychoneurological “explanation” of Colton’s experience does not, however, decisively rule out that the heaven he saw corresponds to the afterlife awaiting all believers. Who knows, he might have it right despite himself. Our psychological and neurological reaction to seeing a Siberian tiger on our front yard can be explained in psychoneurological terms, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t run inside and lock the doors. The near-death experience is fraught with mystery, one of the bigger ones being why the vast majority of people who undergo radical surgeries for life-threatening conditions do not report any memories of an unusual experience, let alone of trips to heaven. 20 I submit that dismissing Colton’s experience as entirely meaningless doesn’t logically follow from the fact that it can be accounted for psychoneurologically. Scientific explanation of any phenomenon never renders its spiritual interpretation pointless. The impulse to ask What does this experience tell us about ourselves, our world, and God? is virtually irresistible and begs for an answer. {195}

THE BIBLE

The Christian tradition demands that valid interpretations of human experiences be consistent with the Scriptures, so a brief discussion of the Bible’s teaching is in order. Strange to say, neither the Old nor the New Testament is of much help in answering the specific question, What can we expect to see as we die? 21 The Old Testament does speak of being buried with one’s ancestors, and there are two individuals who escape death entirely (Enoch and Elijah). Visions of God in heaven are reported by Micaiah (1Kgs 22:19), Isaiah (Isa 6:1), and Ezekiel (Ezek 1:26–2:1), but with no hint that this is where the faithful dead go to rest. The notion of “spending eternity with God in heaven” is suggested in Daniel 12:2 (and hinted at in Isaiah 26:19), but it is largely absent from the Old Testament, where the deepest longing of God’s people is to live and die in a very earthly Promised Land. The Old Testament says nothing, however, about the actual experience of dying—the transition from one’s last moments of earthly life to the first moments of life in the beyond.

Apart from the unique case of Jesus, the New Testament figure in the best position to tell us what comes immediately after death is Lazarus, who returned to ordinary life after four days in a tomb (John 11:39). As it is, the Gospel of John shows no interest in what Lazarus might have seen or heard, and focuses instead on exalting the One who brought him back to life. As he was being stoned to death for his faith, Stephen “looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:55)—still very much a man’s conscious vision rather than a disembodied soul’s observation. John of the Apocalypse was told to step through a door to heaven where, “in the spirit,” he saw a throne occupied by someone who “had the appearance of jasper and ruby” (Rev 4:3), but he didn’t think he was dying when he saw that. Paul’s description of his ascent to heaven—“whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know” (2 Cor 12:2b)—comes closest to the kind of report given by near-death experiencers. Most commentators think he may in fact have been close to death on the occasion he refers to. Nevertheless, he says nothing about meeting Jesus, dead relatives, or a rainbow-colored horse. Indeed, he is most impressed by what he heard there, not what he saw. Unfortunately, he believed that “no one is permitted to tell” the “inexpressible things” he heard, cutting short our further investigation into his experience.

In an earlier letter to the Corinthians, however, Paul had makes an important point about the limits of what we can know before the consummation of all things. Our knowledge of our future, though sure, is hazy. As long as we remain on earth we see “only a reflection as in a mirror” (1 Cor 13:12); the intimacy of a “face to face” encounter with God will occur only “when that which is perfect has come” (vv. 10, 12b). The {196} apostle’s own “trip to heaven and back” and the “surpassingly great revelations” he was given there (2 Cor 12:2–4, 7) seem not to have altered that view at all. His experience of heaven still left him with the clouded vision that is the lot of all earthbound followers of Jesus.

A THEOLOGY OF NEAR-DEATH DREAMS?

Paul celebrated the paradox of wisdom made manifest in foolishness, so he might not have immediately dismissed Colton’s claim to have seen in heaven what he had not. If God could use the scandal of the cross to reconcile the world to himself, if his “power is made perfect in weakness” (1 Cor 12:9), why should he not use the ecstatic dream of a child to show people the kind of place that awaits them if they have Jesus in their hearts? Why should he not use a simplistic, sentimental, clichéd vision of heaven to comfort the grieving, give hope to the dying, and call the living to himself? And didn’t God promise that at the end of days he would “pour out [his] Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions” (Joel 2:28)?

I propose that we think of Colton Burpo’s dream-vision as a gift from God that signals God’s continuing presence in the world, a gift given to the least likely of people, to arouse, encourage, and comfort the living. Yes, Colton’s story presumes a sharp division between body and soul that appears to leave little room for resurrection. 22 And yes, Colton’s near-death experience is just one of thousands that occurs every year, not nearly all of which happen to Christians or are positive or compatible with Christian faith. 23 But if we proceed with due theological care, the risk of exposing Christian faith to the chaos of thousands of flighty and contradictory dreams can be minimized. Jesus himself seemed unperturbed that God “causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matt 5:45). The fact that many get a particular gift does not make it any less a gift for an individual recipient. And it doesn’t become less a gift from God if a gift is misunderstood or put to poor use.

Like most divine gifts, near-death experiences are not distributed to all equally. Indeed, they are rare. This atypical character of the experience is consistent with the notion that it is a special dispensation from God who arranges it in his own time, then attunes it to the spiritual needs and authentic desires of recipients, accommodating it to their emotional and intellectual capacities.

Moreover, all gifts at their best are beneficial interruptions, life-giving intrusions into a person’s life. Though near-death experiences are not all positive, most are powerfully transforming, even the negative {197} ones. 24 As such they repeat the pattern of God’s work of redemption as epitomized in the crucified and resurrected Christ—violent death is conquered by abundant life. The form of a positive near-death experience like Colton’s is an inversion (not a reversal) of the incarnation: Whereas God in Christ leaves heaven to take on human flesh, the near-death dreamer is taken from his human flesh and brought to heaven. Whereas the divine Word dwells among us to minister to us for a time, the dreamer briefly lives in heaven to receive divine care and comfort. Whereas Christ ascends from earth in a glorified body to the bosom of his Father, the dreamer descends from heaven to return to his perishable body, to be a comfort and encouragement to others.

Narrated in this way, the experience can be appreciated as a riff on a pattern found throughout Scripture, but especially in the New Testament where condemnation, suffering, and weakness paradoxically bring about justification, healing, and strength. It is granted without thought for the personal merits of the recipient, so grace is essential to it. A life lived in profound gratitude and service to God is the only fitting response. So let us imagine that the near-death dream is a holy interruption of the relentlessly business-as-usual lives we live, a divine beckoning to turn our gaze toward the One in whom we live and move and have our being. There is reason to hope that readers of Heaven is for Real who previously had only a vague sense that a full life is lived in the light of eternity now have a growing love of God and neighbor. In the end, a transformation of that kind must be the ultimate measure of any near-death experience we can allow ourselves to call a gift from God.

NOTES

  1. Todd Burpo with Lynn Vincent, Heaven is for Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back (Nashville, TN: W Publishing Group [Thomas Nelson], 2010). All page numbers in parentheses refer to this book.
  2. Don Piper and Cecil Murphey, 90 Minutes in Heaven: A True Story of Death and Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Revell, 2004).
  3. Eben Alexander, Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2012).
  4. Kevin Malarkey and Alex Malarkey, The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven: A Remarkable Account of Miracles, Angels, and Life beyond This World (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House, 2010). Earlier this year, Alex Malarkey admitted that he had made up the entire story of his many travels to heaven.
  5. David Bebbington, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1992), 3.
  6. Larry Eskridge, “How Many Evangelicals Are There?” Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals, last revised 2012, http://www.wheaton.edu/ISAE/Defining-Evangelicalism/How-Many-Are-There. {198}
  7. An intuition corroborated by the research of developmental psychologist Gene H. Brody et al., “Role Relationships and Behavior between Preschool-Aged and School-Aged Sibling Pairs,” Developmental Psychology 21, no. 1 (1985): 124–29, doi:10.1037/0012-1649.21.1.124.
  8. If Sonja and Todd (and Cassie) never knew the baby’s sex (96)—it died only two months into the pregnancy (155)—how could Colton have known that the baby was a girl if he didn’t meet her in heaven? The problem is that no one knows for certain it was a girl. No one can corroborate Colton’s testimony, so the argument that Colton’s “knowledge” of his heavenly sister confirms his trip to heaven fails.
  9. Responding to possible suspicions that he, like Alex Malarkey, fabricated his stories, fifteen-year-old Colton reassured his supporters that “I stand by my story found in my book Heaven is for Real. I still remember my experience in Heaven. I want to keep telling people about my experience because it has given hope to so many people.” Open letter posted January 16, 2015 to the Heaven is for Real Ministries web site, http://www.heavenlive.org/.
  10. Raymond A. Moody’s, Life after Life: The Investigation of a Phenomenon—Survival of Bodily Death (Carmel, NY: Guideposts, 1975) is generally regarded as the book that launched the era of scientific research into near-death experiences.
  11. Plato, Republic X, 614 b, c, d. Cited in Lee W. Bailey and Jenny Yates, The Near-Death Experience: A Reader (New York: Routledge, 2013), chap. 5.
  12. Moody, Life after Life, chap. 2. Moody’s list of the features of a NDE includes hearing a strange sound while having a sense of being dead; feeling peace and the absence of pain; an out-of-body experience; travelling through a dark tunnel; rising rapidly into the heavens; being greeted by already dead friends and relatives; meeting God, Jesus, or some religious figure; undergoing a “life review” in which the traveler relives their treatment of others and realizes the importance of love; a reluctance to leave when instructed to return to earth.
  13. Drive a three-foot tamping rod through a person’s left frontal lobe and he is likely suddenly to become irresponsible, have different likes and dislikes, and an altered sense of right and wrong. This happened to Phineas Gage in 1848, a case which appears in most introductory psychology text books. See also “Phineas Gage,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phineas_Gage.
  14. Gideon Lichfield, “The Science of Near-Death Experiences,” The Atlantic, April 2015, 83.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Ibid. These factors and others are dealt with in detail by Michael N. Marsh in Out-of-Body and Near-Death Experiences: Brain-State Phenomena or Glimpses of Immortality? (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), chap. 9. Marsh, a Christian, is highly skeptical that near-death experiences are genuine “glimpses of immortality.”
  17. Marsh, 178, 179.
  18. John Belanti, Mahendra Perera, and Karuppiah Jagadheesan, “Phenomenology of Near-Death Experiences: A Cross-Cultural Perspective,” {199} Transcultural Psychiatry 45, no. 1 (2008): 121–33, doi:10.1177/1363461507088001.
  19. Carol Zaleski, Otherworld Journeys: Accounts of Near-Death Experience in Medieval and Modern Times (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), 189.
  20. A liberal estimate is that three out of ten people who come close to death report some features of a near-death experience.
  21. Jesus promises the thief on the cross beside him that “today” he will join Jesus in paradise (Luke 23:43), and promises his followers that he will prepare a room for them in his Father’s house (John 14:2). Paul tells his Thessalonian readers that those who have died waiting for Jesus to return are now asleep; but when Jesus comes they will arise from their slumber and, together with still living believers, will be lifted into the clouds to meet him and be with him forever (1 Thess 4:13–17). In 1 Corinthians 12 Paul elaborates and says deceased Christians will rise in imperishable bodies, and those still alive will be instantly transformed so that they, too, will have immortal, imperishable bodies (1 Cor 15:51–56). Paul uses more figurative language to say the same thing in 2 Corinthians 5: our “earthly tent” (viz., body) will be replaced by “an eternal house in heaven . . . our heavenly dwelling” (v. 1, 4). In none of these passages, however, are we given any details about what we will see as we die.
  22. See N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (New York: HarperOne, 2008) for a thorough discussion of the centrality of resurrection to the New Testament understanding of life after death. Colton’s experience might not be entirely inconsistent with understanding if what he saw was a kind of “stopover,” or in Wright’s words, “a temporary halt on a journey that will take you somewhere else in the long run” (150).
  23. Many defenders of the authenticity of near-death experiences are strong believers in reincarnation, spiritualism, and the paranormal. See, for example, Mark Anthony, Evidence of Eternity: Communicating with Spirits for Proof of the Afterlife (Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn, 2015). The author of the foreword is Kenneth Ring, a well-known NDE researcher.
  24. The impacts of near-death experiences are ambiguous, as Catherine E. Flanagan documents in “The Aftereffects of Near-Death Experiences” (PhD diss., State University of New York at Buffalo, 2008). But she also reports that “NDErs were truly unbothered by the typical worries experienced by most people. They reported perpetually being in a peaceful and positive state of mind following their near-death experience. . . . [they] noted a positive change that included an absence of death anxiety and a belief that death is not an end, but merely a transition” (73).
Vic Froese is Library Director at Canadian Mennonite University, Winnipeg, Manitoba. He has a PhD in theology from the Toronto School of Theology. He lives in Steinbach, Manitoba, with his wife, Irene, and his youngest of three sons. They attend the Steinbach Mennonite Brethren Church.

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