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Colton Burpo goes to Heaven

March 24, 2011

When Colton Burpo was 3 years old, he underwent an emergency appendectomy. He barely survived. Four months after leaving the hospital, little Colton began telling his parents about things he had seen during the surgery. Over time, more and more stories emerged. He had seen angels. He had hovered over the doctor and his parents in the hospital. In fact, he had even been to heaven where he met Jesus, a cast of Bible characters and various Burpo family members.

Colton is now 11 years old. His father, Todd Burpo, a pastor in Nebraska, has published a book about his son’s story called Heaven is For Real. Remarkably, this book is now #1 on Amazon, even outselling Rob Bell.

Colton’s parents take his stories very seriously. They are convinced that he was able to tell them things he could only have learned from a true out-of-body trip to heaven. Judging from the Amazon ranking, his parents aren’t the only ones lapping up the tales.

Here’s a clip of Colton telling his story to Fox News:

Todd Burpo’s biggest claims about his son’s otherwordly knowledge appear to be (1) that Colton knew what his parents had been doing during his surgery; and (2) that Colton knew about his mother’s miscarriage. He also claims to have met his long-deceased great-grandfather, but there doesn’t appear to be a particularly strong claim to secret knowledge there, so I’ll focus on the the first two claims:

(1) During Surgery

Some 4 months after the surgery, Colton allegedly disclosed to his father that, while he was in surgery, he saw his father in a room praying. He also saw his mother praying and talking on the phone.  It turns out that this was true. Fearing that his son could die, Todd Burpo had found a place in the hospital to pray. I haven’t heard what mom was up to, but it’s not surprising that she too was praying and calling friends and family.

Is this proof that Colton’s spirit was floating about the hospital during his surgery? Claims of this sort are not unusual. Near death experiences often involve a sense of separation from the body in which people believe they are looking down on themselves from above. These experiences, however, have been reproduced experimentally by neurologists stimulating or tricking the brains of healthy patients (see here and here). The fact that this experience can be reproduced in individuals who are not on death’s doorstep, suggests that there is likely a very down-to-earth neurological explanation for this phenomenon that does not involve one’s spirit floating away from one’s body.

But if Colton wasn’t hovering over his parents, how did he know what they were up to?

It is impossible to know for certain, but I can think of a few different scenarios that are far more plausible than an actual out-of-body experience. First, one shouldn’t forget that Colton didn’t begin telling these stories until some 4 months after leaving the hospital. Colton had nearly died. His entire family and church were praying for him. Undoubtedly his recovery was the subject of much conversation. Is it not possible that during the 4 months after his recovery, Colton overheard his parents talking to friends or family about their experiences in the hospital? It’s clear that the Burpos attributed Colton’s recovery to answered prayer. Did the pastor and his wife never tell their church, their family or their friends about the anguished hours of prayer in the hospital? In my experience, these testimonies of answered prayer get told repeatedly. And if so, are the Burpos sure that Colton never heard any of it?

There’s also the problem of confirmation bias. We tend to remember the hits and forget the misses. One has to wonder how many stories Colton told his parents about his experience. Were they all accurate? It’s possible that Colton was saying a lot of things about his experience, but that his parents only took notice when he happened to guess correctly.  I suspect there were lots of stories that made no sense or bore no relation to reality. After all, he was just turning 4. We’re probably hearing only those instances where Colton got something right.

It’s not as though his observations were very specific. His family had been in the hospital with him for two weeks. Of course at some point his father, a pastor, would find some time and a place to pray for his son. Of course at some point his mom would be praying and calling family. It’s not as though Colton predicted the winning lottery numbers.

When Colton got something “right”, you can just imagine how much attention his parents must have given him. When he got things wrong, no doubt he could tell by their reaction. It wouldn’t be hard for Colton to figure out which stories to keep telling (or expanding upon) and which ones to drop. Todd says that Colton’s stories have “become richer” over time. Todd attributes this to Colton’s increased vocabulary. I can think of another reason.

(2) The Miscarriage

The second big claim to inside knowledge is Colton’s claim to have met a sister he doesn’t have. Turns out his mother had a miscarriage, although the Burpos have no idea of the sex of that child. One day Colton declared that he had another sister, that he had met her in heaven and that she told him she had died in her mother’s tummy.

Todd and his wife insist that they never told Colton about their miscarriage. Perhaps they didn’t. Perhaps they did and simply forgot. Or perhaps another family member mentioned it to Colton. If I was looking for a prime suspect, it would be Colton’s older sister. She was probably old enough to be told about the miscarriage and may have passed on the story to her little brother, as kids are wont to do.

Once again, one also has to wonder about the possibility of Colton overhearing his parents talking about the miscarriage to someone else. Every parent I know is routinely surprised to learn what their little kids have overheard and absorbed.

But what do I know? Maybe Colton really did have an out-of-body experience. Maybe he really did take a trip to heaven.

In the next post, I’ll look at Colton Burpo’s claims as to what he saw in his heavenly journey. If you like the book of Revelation and flannel-graph Sunday School lessons, be sure to tune in next time.

In the meantime, for a fascinating discussion between an atheist and a Christian about spiritual experiences, out-of-body experiences, and neurology, have a listen to this episode of Unbelievable.

[Update: Part II is now posted here.]

16 comments

  1. This is a tough one. In a way I feel like a cynical jerk for doubting them, and since I don’t know them personally I’m just making judgments from afar. Your reasoning has a lot of merit, I must say. I think what’s really fascinating is that this book is selling so much. It’s a testament to the kind of faith American Christians have. I’ll be interested in your next post, because from what I’ve heard in interviews Colton experienced a very Americanized version of heaven. I think their family has great faith, though it sounds like a very simple faith, as I’ve said a very mid-America version.


    • I know, I feel like a big meanie too. I’m not trying to debunk them, per se. But when the book is a #1 seller, I think a little scrutiny is warranted.
      And yes, I think the really interesting story here is how well the book is selling. What does that say about the American public? What need is this book meeting?


  2. I haven’t read the book, but I’d guess that the need the book is meeting is this: People want so badly to know that this life isn’t all there is. Even if you’re a Christian and even if you believe in heaven I think you still want to know. There’s no evidence of it in regular, every day life. It’s sort of a validation.


  3. Colton Burpo may have gone to heaven, but for all I care, he can go to hell!


  4. It is a pity his father is using him to grow his church and make money on a book.


    • That was my biggest concern too. It’s a shame that something like this experience has to be dragged into a money making scheme. Books, interviews, personal appearences. I doubt that when God gave Colton the rare glimpse of heaven he intended his parents to benefit monetairly from it. Sad, sad people. If you want to impress me, take ALL the money made from ALL this publicity and donate it ALL to worthwhile charities.


      • It’s a shame to that you don’t know what good they are doing with all the money they are making. I think it’s fabulous that God got this family through all of this so that they could be a witness to the Glory of God. I will Pray for all the nay sayers.


  5. the need the book is meeting is this: People want so badly to know that this life isn’t all there is.

    Yeah, it’s great that we finally have a book that tells us that!

    sorry, being cynical… :-) I feel bad for the kid, too, that his father is doing this.

    I remember having dreams about things of faith many times as a kid. I never told almost anyone, I never attributed it to God speaking to me. It was me probably mentally sorting out what I learned in church.


  6. i have the book. And it encouraged me to follow in the light of God. Even though I am only 15 years old i knew it was all real when I saw the book on the self.


  7. I just finished this book (2 women at Costco raved about it). I confess I read it also because I recently lost my only son. So…by the middle of the book I was so disgusted that I could hardly finish it…but I did because it was fast reading and I have a problem w/not finishing books. Anywho…the initial story the kid tells his parents is intriguing because there have been many reports of people having out of body experiences during surgery (my own brother). But the rest of this crap is totally ridiculous. He could have easily been told about the mother’s miscarriage by his older sister who knew. Then, move on to the classic bible stuff and you can’t help but make the connection between the child’s super religious household, Sunday school and don’t forget the positive feedback from his parents every time he brough the subject up. In fact, they admit that they quizzed him. The parents seem to think that the fact the the kid’s descriptions are exactly as stated in the bible means that they are true. Actually, it seems to me to be an indication that he got the information (via Sunday school ETC) from the bible. It’s sort of like the self-fulling story of Jesus entering Jeruselum on a donkey: it was written that that was how the messiah would do it…hello? He was consiously fullfilling a prophesy. So, I suppose if the little boy (who told these stories over a period of YEARS!) lived in Iran and was raised as a Moslum,, he’d have come back to report on the 40 virgins he’d seen! WTF?


    • Julie, I’m sorry to hear about your son. I imagine a lot of people are drawn to this book looking for comfort. But I agree with you, it sounds a lot more like a regurgitation of Sunday school tropes than an authentic experience of the afterlife, which one would expect to be a little less predictable.


    • I find it amazing that you think a 4 year old child could remember anything or understand the conception of a miscarriage. I am sorry for your loss I also lost a child she was almost 3 and it makes my heart happy to know that she is sitting in the lap of Jesus and she is in no more pain. I cannot wait till the day I get to see her again. Running and playing like she never got to in real life.


  8. I knew immediately I wouldn’t be reading the book. I didn’t think for a second it was true. I don’t believe many folks do. It sounded like it could be fun, but then I thought it’s probably a Marjo Gortner exploitation of a child . At the very least a very profitable self indulgent fraud. Time will tell if the child is harmed by profiting from his prevarications. Shame on Daddy in his heart he knows this is BS.


  9. As soon as I looked up this story and found that his father was a PASTOR, I was automatically skeptical! Coincidence? Maybe.
    Also, the real Colton Burpo has an evil and conniving look in his eyes! It’s like he knows he’s tricked the general public.


  10. I BELEIVE what Colton burpo had experienced. I had my own near death experience my self. And I know what I had experienced. And a 4 year old child had valadated everything



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