After having read Proof of Heaven by Dr Eben Alexander last year, my spiritual journey continues with Heaven is for Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back. This bestseller, which has a film adaptation coming to our screens soon, is written by conservative American writer Lynn Vincent and Todd Burpo, the father of Colton, the little boy who supposedly went to heaven when he was 4 years old and came back to tell everyone about it.
It’s an easy book to read, and with just 163 pages, the type you could breeze through in a sitting or two (it took me three, which is pretty impressive by my standards). The writing is solid and builds suspense in a natural and unforced manner — largely through Colton’s medical ordeal which led to the alleged out-of-body experience, then through the bits and pieces of “heaven” he reveals to his family following his return. The story is told from the point of view of Todd, who shares his astonishment as his young son begins telling him things the 4-year-old couldn’t possibly have known (or so he says), including a miscarriage that had been hidden from him and the youthful appearance of a great grandfather he had never met.
The story is sold as nothing but a miracle of Biblical proportions, and the details of it as told by the Burpo family are certainly incredible. A lot of the stuff little Colton says are goosebump-inducing stuff (we’re talking Jesus and angels and Satan and the whole shebang), but the whole thing comes across as a little too neat and a little too packaged, which is no wonder why the book has polarized readers.
You see, the one crucial thing I’ve withheld about the book is that Todd Burpo is a pastor who decided he was going to devote his life to God from the age of 13, and his whole family seems just as passionate about the Bible as him. Accordingly, unlike Proof of Heaven, which purposely avoided references to religion and heaven in a Biblical sense, Heaven is for Real is ALL ABOUT the Bible, and how Colton’s experience “proves” that the stories and descriptions of things in the Good Book are literally real. For example, when the Bible says Jesus sits on a throne in heaven, that’s exactly what it means, according to Colton, because that’s what he saw when he was there. When the Bible says Jesus sits “on the right hand of God,” it means he literally sits on God’s right hand side in heaven (like all the time?). And of course, Colton also saw Mary there with them because the Bible says that too. These are just a few of the plethora of such examples in the book.
Christians, especially those who embrace a literal interpretation of the Bible, will love this book (and they do). It’s got a great story and an inspiring message at heart. Todd Burpo had been questioning his faith after a string of personal woes, from financial difficulties to broken bones and a cancer scare, and his mental and emotional state were in the dumps when his beloved little boy was hospitalised with a life-threatening condition. He got angry at God, but he also prayed and asked for a miracle, and God delivered, saving his little boy and restoring his faith forever. And with the way the book has been selling, it looks like the financial troubles have been obliterated too.
But for people who have a healthy scepticism of these types of claims, there are also plenty of ways to dismiss Heaven is for Real, with the most obvious being that the kid has clearly been indoctrinated from birth. His entire life up to that point revolved around his religion — his parents read him Bible stories every night, he goes to church all the time, he attends Sunday school every week. Even the movies they watch have Christian themes (eg, the Narnia series). Todd Burpo says his son talked about things in the Bible he couldn’t possibly have known, but that could be just parents underestimating their kids. I know I’m often amazed at some of the things my 2-year-old knows and says every day, wondering how the heck and where the heck he picked them up. Throw in a “leading questions”-type approach from the parents, a bit of wishful thinking and a touch of literary embellishment, and it’s not hard to conclude that little Colton was likely suffering from a wild imagination and a desire to please his parents, who had probably subconsciously encouraged him with their excited body language and readiness to believe whatever he said.
The kicker, which I forgot to mention, is that there was never any medical proof, or even suggestion, that Colton was medically “dead” during his surgery. How can someone have a near-death experience when they’re not actually close to death?
That said, I think being completely dismissive of the book is being unfair to the Burpos, who seem like wonderful people and devout Christians who genuinely believe what happened to them was a miracle. This is where being a pastor is a double-edged sword. On the one hand you could say it supports the view that he would not lie and that it makes perfect sense why God would want to reward a family like theirs for their faith, but on the other you could just write it off as a biased preacher hearing what he wanted to hear and skewing everything in the direction that matches his beliefs.
My view is somewhat mixed. Some of the things Colton says defy explanation, and even if you don’t believe he went to heaven you have to admit they are eerily compelling. However, out-of-body experiences, not just NDEs, are not uncommon phenomena (there’s a never-ending amount of literature out there for open-minded people who want to read it), and while most of them have both common and unique elements (such as Eben Alexander’s experience in Proof of Heaven), few come close to meetings with Jesus or corroborating the literal truth of the Bible.
What the literature suggests is that the afterlife, supposing there is one, is a subjective, almost tailor-made experience. People tend to see things and meet people that comfort them, even family members they haven’t met before or don’t remember meeting. Now, I can’t possibly know if little Colton had an out-of-body experience or just an awesome dream, but if we assume he did, could it be that what he saw, given his uber religious upbringing, are just the things that comfort him the most? The things that he would want to, or even expect to, see when he dies? I’m not even sure that makes sense, but it’s food for thought.
Anyway, Heaven is for Real was a fun read that has the potential to be a good or extremely awful movie. I actually enjoyed the first half, about the Burpo family’s struggles and Colton’s frightening health scare, than the second, when the Christian imagery started raining down on the pages and tedious chunks of Biblical verses began getting rolled out to match everything Colton was saying. Christians will say it proves the truth of heaven and the Bible, while non-believers will say it only proves the depths of human stupidity and naivete. Overall, it’s still a book I would recommend to people I think will appreciate it for what it is — a story that will make us think about the nature of life and asks us what we ultimately want to believe when we die.
PS: Here’s the trailer for the film, starring Greg Kinnear, scheduled for an April 16 release.