You may be aware that in the next few weeks the movie Heaven is For Real is coming to theaters. This movie is based on the book written by Todd Burpo and Lynn Vincent. If you aren’t familiar with the book it recounts the story of Todd’s son, a four year old boy named Colton who had a “near-death experience” during an emergency surgery. In this near-death experience Colton claims that he went to Heaven, met Jesus, and angels were singing ‘Jesus loves me’ to him. Jesus is described as riding on a rainbow-colored horse. The boy claims to have met John the Baptist. Colton also recounts how he received wings. Throughout the book Todd describes conversations with Colton about his trip to Heaven. These conversations include Colton meeting his sister who was never born plus his great grandfather who passed away. Colton also recounts towards the end of the book that he saw a glimpse of the battle of Armageddon.
Needless to say this book is popular. In 2010 it was the New Times Best-selling Christian book. It has sold thousands of copies and as I mentioned there is movie coming out based on the book. So is there any harm in a book about a 4 year olds account of Heaven? I mean for goodness sakes he is only 4, his father is a pastor, and the book is about Heaven. It is the right combination to grab any confessing Evangelical.
I have to be honest with you…I was reluctant to read the book. For one, I’m a skeptic when it comes to material like this. Another reason is that there are many books about trips to Heaven and Hell. This topic is popular in the Evangelical world and it seems like we can’t get enough of it. My question is, why is that?
I think it comes down to at least 2 reasons. First, we as Evangelical desire true experiential validation. One of the main tenets of Evangelicalism is a changed life which results from an experience with Jesus. We long to have a “personal relationship” with God. We all need to “feel” His presence. Now I don’t object to this idea. I think a true experience with Christ is Biblical. Jonathan Edwards used the language of having a “true and real sense” of divine things. So, an experience with Christ that results in life change is important. I believe the second reason is, along with this experience involves emotions. As we experience Christ our emotions are affected. Which I don’t deny this either. When I wake up, read, pray, and seek Christ my emotions are changed. However, if I don’t…well you can tell. Emotions are important to the human experience and they are affected by the experience with Christ. Have you notice is most worship services that many worship songs are emotional. How about the preaching? Preaching is geared to emotions.
I think the book gravitates to these two ideas: experience and emotion.
Experience and Emotion
Colton experienced Heaven during his near-death experience. Now whether or not he actually died on the table is a different story. The medical report, as described in the book, shows that he did not. He experienced several things in Heaven, which to some extent are Biblical. For example, Colton stated that Jesus is sitting at the right hand of God. There are colors and rainbows as described in the book of Revelation. The authors described the experiences and then showed where this experience is validated in the Bible. Not to harmless, right?
Well, yes, it could be. For example, Colton when speaking about his great grandfather said, “He’s in heaven. He’s got a new body. Jesus told me if you don’t go to heaven, you don’t get a new body.” Sounds Biblical, right? According to the New Testament, Christians will not receive their new bodies until the resurrection. So the question is which is right…the New Testament or the experience? Another example is the experience of Colton receiving wings. Is there any place in the Bible where it describes people in heaven receiving wings? He also saw a glimpse of Armageddon. Biblical, right? Too bad that the passage in Revelation is highly debated.
To add on the experience the book is very emotional. The boy “dies” in surgery, sees his sister who was miscarried, meets his great grandfather (by the way the family wasn’t sure if he was a Christian or not), sits on Jesus’ lap, and is surrounded by rainbows. It pulls at ones emotions the whole time. No one likes a sick child. It is heart breaking to hear about a miscarriage. We all have loved one who have passed away that we aren’t sure about their eternal state. I have to admit I was moved at some points in the book. But as I set the book down I sat there scratching my head wondering whether or not I had the wool pulled over my eyes. Was I blinded by the emotion? I think the book connects to those who are needing validation. Maybe some read this book because they don’t connect to their Bible. Maybe some need this book to make the Bible come alive. The title itself begs for validation. How do I know Heaven is for real? By the experience of Colton. The book also reaches the emotions of the reader.
The Book Misses the Point
Like I said, I think experience and emotions go hand in hand with Evangelicals. However, once experience and emotions trump revelation it goes too far. As I was reading the book I noticed how the experiences were proof-texted by Scripture. However, some of the experiences were not. This raised issues for me. I’m afraid readers of this book along with others can place Colton’s experiences over the Bible. However, I’m also afraid that readers will miss the point of the New Testament.
The Bible does not describe Heaven for us and that’s why most desire validation. You can’t see it. You have to accept it by faith. This understanding of faith and not sight is indeed Biblical. Through the New Testament you see this pattern of accepting by faith and not sight. 2 Corinthians 5:1-8 describes this very thing. The text is not talking about going to heaven when we die. It is looking forward to the resurrection from the dead and receiving a glorious heavenly body. The contrast is not about living on earth as opposed to living in heaven. But living in the earthly tent (body) and the heavenly tent (resurrected body).
This is where the book errors. According to Heaven is For Real the goal is reaching Heaven. Yet according to the New Testament the goal is resurrection from the dead and Heaven coming to earth. Have you ever wondered why Heaven is not described for us in full? Have you ever wondered why resurrection from the dead is spoken about more that Heaven? I think it is very telling. The intermediate state of the believer is not discussed often in the New Testament. However, resurrection is. The goal is physical resurrection from the dead. As I recall resurrection was barely mentioned in Heaven is For Real.
The New Testament declares that Resurrection is For Real. This is where we need to understand to focus of the New Testament. The New Testament points forward to a time when Heaven will come to earth (Revelation 21). It focuses on the New Creation, something that Jesus launched at His first coming and will consummate at His second. This is what we should long for. To quote N.T. Wright, “Heaven is important but it’s not the end of the world.” While I believe in Heaven, I must admit that the goal is not Heaven. Heaven is coming to earth and we will be raised from the dead.
I think we as Evangelicals need to begin re-reading our New Testaments with new eyes, resurrection eyes. We will see the beauty of God’s full purpose. Heaven on Earth and resurrection from the dead is the goal. It will be at that time when we will experience the fullness of Heaven and we will sing with all the emotion we can muster! But until then…we wait by faith.