Original Opinion Piece for August 28 (’14)
It’s one of the latest best-sellers at those Christian book stores that increasingly look less like a Christian book store. Heaven is for Real tells the tale of a little boy who visits Heaven, talks with Jesus, sees grand visions (including Jesus on a rainbow horse), and is sent back to the rest of us. Whether any of the above sounds ridiculous is a bit beside the point. It has sold 8,000,000 copies and 1,000,000 ebooks and was released as a major motion picture a few months ago (April). While Christians and “seekers” flocked to read it, I wish they hadn’t due to three dangerous reasons: the boy’s claim is unprovable, his claim runs against biblical concepts, and his claim adds zero to what Scripture has already said and to the assurance that is already yours in Christ.
First, his claim is unprovable. At the time of the visit to Heaven, Colton Burpo was four years old. Hardly a credible witness, though this alone would not rule out the possibility of his testimony being true. His family says that Colton’s post-operative discussions with them were stunning. He told them things about their family and past he could not have known. Moreover, Colton claimed personal visits with Jesus in Heaven, seeing Mary and others in Heaven.
The scientific method is a wonderful thing. We use it in the court of law to establish truth from falsehood. As Jean Luc Picard said in “The Measure of a Man“, “Your honor, the courtroom is a crucible; in it, we burn away irrelevancies until we are left with a purer product: the truth, for all time.” The scientific method begins with observation, proceeds to hypothesizing, then testing/experimenting, analyzing data, then giving a conclusion about the original hypothesis if at all possible. Colton’s claim cannot even pass the first test: observation. It is impossible to know whether Colton is lying, deceived, or just wrong based solely on his testimony. Assuming he really did receive a vision, and assuming his family was not lying that Colton really did suddenly and truthfully know things he could not have known about their family history, this does not prove such knowledge came from the Father, Son, or Spirit while he was in Heaven. Even Scripture itself affirms the need for two or three witnesses for the truth of a matter to be verified and then accepted (Dt 17:6; 19:15; Mt 18:16; 2 Cor 13:1, etc.). Therefore, I reject Colton’s claims regardless of what source he says gave the experience. It is also worth pointing out that Colton is de facto aligning himself with critical elements of the prophetic and/or apostolic office: personal visitation or vision of the risen Jesus, spectacular gifts (in this case, gifts of otherwise-impossible insight), and new revelation (who he sees, what they say, etc.). While he never claims his “revelation” on par with written Scripture, he and his father achieve such results, especially when people accept what he says as truth. But Colton isn’t a prophet or Apostle. They all had public and verifiable demonstrations proving their office and had their word taken as the Lord’s.
Second, Colton’s story runs against biblical concepts of life here and life there. A few citations and comments. Hebrews 9:27-28 says, “It is appointed a man once to die and after that comes judgment.” While Colton isn’t claiming to have died per se (more of an out-of-body or near-death experience), these verses are relevant. The expected pattern is clear: you live, you die, you’re judged. There is no description of a separation of soul from body possible apart from death (cf. 2 Cor 5:8 in which Paul is speaking of death, not a near-death or an out-of-body experience).
Additionally, the passage of Jesus raising Lazarus is, indeed, an interesting passage. Just where was Lazarus during this time? John 11:15, 23-27, and 40-42 indicate this entire incident occurred so others would believe in Jesus as the Resurrection and the Life, not so questions like this could be answered. The issue was faith, not location. We ought to keep it focused on faith in the Messiah as our Life lest we increase faith in all the wrong things. Aside from these verses, there are no biblical reasons to think an experience like Colton’s is possible, and these passages clearly do not support Colton’s claims. 1 Samuel 28 (Saul and the Medium at Endor) also does not support Colton. While this text may teach the possibility of communicating with the dead (and that is not proven), it does not prove we can—somehow—travel to Heaven, speak with Jesus, see fantastic visions of others and hear what they say, then come back to speak the Lord’s encouragement to others. Therefore, I reject Colton’s claims because, as a Protestant, my only rule given to direct me how to glorify and enjoy the Lord is the Word of God contained in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments (WSC Q/A 2). Anything beyond this is not required and of questionable worth. As 2 Timothy 3:16-17 says, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” Where does Colton’s book fit into that picture?
Third and last, Colton’s book adds nothing to Scripture’s account. In fact, I think it detracts from the beauty of Heaven portrayed by verified prophets like Isaiah (Is 6), John (Rev 21-22), and Paul (2 Cor 12). Each prophet speaks of the holiness of God, their utter unworthiness, and the immensity of the grace of God towards them. (It should be noted that 2 Corinthians 12 is not Paul’s claim to have been whisked to Heaven or to have had an out-of-body experience; he simply claims to have received a revelation/vision and not to know how it was received.) How is the holiness of God preserved by Colton? How is his mercy in the Cross of Christ magnified? Not only is Colton completely unnecessary when the argument is framed in this way, but his account diminishes Scripture’s closed and final authority to speak on matters as serious as eternity, Heaven and Hell, and God’s purposes for mankind.
The emotional, sentimental hype of Colton’s story, artfully scripted (this is not a slam) by his father, and promoted by marketers would’ve achieved millions of sells alone. However, Christians, don’t buy the hype. It’s a waste of time. The glorious visions of Heaven are given us in Scripture. Is God’s finished word through verified spokesman insufficient for you (2 Pet 1:21)? I can’t help thinking some purchased and read the book because of a need to strengthen a weak faith. Did they already have assurance of all they needed from the written Word? Again, in such cases, why was the Scripture not enough?
I hope Colton rejects what he thinks he saw and embraces as his only rule the Protestant Scriptures. I hope all Christians everywhere become so thoroughly acquainted with these 66 books that they never waver from them. Stories like Colton’s will come again. Will we be ready to detect them as the fraudulent, deficient works they are?