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Colton Burpo goes to Heaven – Part II

March 26, 2011

In my last post, I recounted the story of Colton Burpo, the 3 year old who underwent life-saving surgery for a burst appendix and later startled his parents with tales of an out-of-body experience and trip to heaven. I suggested that there might be some other less supernatural explanations for the whole experience.

But now I want to give him the benefit of the doubt. I’ll assume that Colton did have some sort of visionary experience during his surgery. I’ll also make the dualistic assumption that Burpo’s book clearly makes that heaven is some otherworldly realm to which disembodied spirits go when we die. (For the contrary, and probably more biblical view, see NT Wright’s take here and here.)

Given those assumptions, might Colton Burpo’s account provide an accurate description of heaven? If more people are getting their views of the afterlife from Todd Burpo’s book, Heaven is For Real, than from Rob Bell’s Love Wins, (currently #1 and #4 respectively on Amazon) it’s perhaps worth a look.

I have not read much of Heaven is For Real, but I have read portions of the book available online and watched numerous TV interviews with Colton and Todd Burpo. Based on this limited sampling, I can tell you that Colton’s claims about heaven include at least the following:

  • There were lots of animals, lots of indescribable colors, and streets of gold.
  • No one was old; everyone was in the prime of life.
  • Everyone in heaven had wings except Jesus.
  • Jesus was the first to greet him; Colton sat on Jesus’ lap.
  • He met John the Baptist, King David and Samson.
  • He met his great-grandfather and the sister his mother miscarried.
  • Angels sang to him.
  • He was in the throne room of God.
  • He sat next to the Holy Spirit.
  • Jesus was his teacher and made him do homework.

What strikes me most about Colton Burpo’s stories of heaven is how unsurprising they are (apart from the homework!). Heaven turns out to look pretty much exactly like the popular Sunday school images we’re all familiar with. Lots of colors, lots of animals, no old people, and everyone has wings. You get to meet your lost relatives and all those cool Bible characters. (I wonder if John the Baptist, King David and Samson ever get tired of being on the welcoming committee.) Also you get to pal around with Jesus and even the Holy Spirit, apparently.

Colton’s description of Jesus is in the same vein. He describes Jesus as having brown hair, blue eyes and a beard. Jesus sports white robes with a purple sash and a golden crown. Jesus also has a white horse with rainbow-colored hair that Colton got to pet. How awesome is that!

Given that Jesus was a Galilean Jew, the chances of him having blue eyes are pretty slim. But let’s not get picky.

In all of the interviews I’ve watched, perhaps the most telling moment was when Colton was asked by a Fox interviewer to describes Jesus’ appearance. An expressionless Colton replies, “Well, Jesus, he had a rough but kind face, sea blue eyes and a smile that lit up the heavens” (See the clip embedded in Part I).

It all sounds a tad rehearsed. Does an 11 year old really say things like, “rough but kind face, sea blue eyes and a smile that lit up the heavens”? Is this a recounting of what he saw or the lyrics to a Mercy Me song? This is learned poetic language, not the eyewitness account of a child.

He also tells Fox News that God is so big “He can actually fit the entire world into his hands.” Really? That’s something he saw? If it even makes sense to say that God is bigger than anything, surely he’s bigger than the entire universe, in which case the earth wouldn’t amount to a mere atom in God’s “hands”. Again, this has the ring of a pithy Sunday School saying, not an actual observation.

It may just be that Colton Burpo can’t really remember much of what he saw at the tender age of 3. I know I certainly don’t. So what do you do when you can’t really remember, but dad is still making a big deal out of your experience? You probably tell people what you think they want to hear. And you draw on what you know heaven is supposed to look like – thus the Sunday School stereotypes.

The most bizarre part of Colton’s claim is that he saw a battle raging in heaven. In an interview with Haven Today, he explains, “Well, the battle, it has Jesus, the angels and the good people going against Satan, the monsters and the bad people and in the end Satan gets thrown into hell.” When asked which angels he saw fighting, he names the Archangels Michael and Gabriel. Of course.

Archangel Michael by David LaChapelle

This is starting to sound like a bad Frank Peretti novel.

Colton seems to be taking his Sunday School lessons and weaving them into his trip to heaven. It doesn’t appear to bother his pastor father that this whole heavenly battle with Satan (Rev. 12:7) isn’t supposed to happen (according to dispensationalists who read Revelation as an end-times playbook) until after all sorts of horrific end-times events have transpired, such as a third of earth’s inhabitants being killed (Rev. 9:15-18). Apparently, the apocalypse was well under way in 2003. Who knew?

And why are the people fighting each other? Do the dearly departed have to fight alongside the archangels? How are you supposed to get your homework done while there’s a battle raging? Why wasn’t Colton conscripted to fight the dead “bad people”? I guess he was too busy chilling with winged Bible characters and petting rainbow-colored My Little Ponies.

I’m getting carried away though. I’m not trying to pick on the poor kid. He’s just a boy with a vivid imagination who probably learned very early on that people treated him special when he told these sorts of stories. He probably even believes them to be true now. Memory is a funny thing, especially when you’re too young to be able to distinguish clearly between fantasy and reality. My beef isn’t with Colton, who is probably a really sweet kid.

It’s the parents and the publishers who ought to have thought a little more critically. Does it really make sense that Jesus has blue eyes? Or that people grow wings post-mortem? Or that in his short stint in heaven Colton would meet an all-star cast of Sunday School heroes? Is it just a coincidence that his version of heaven bears an uncanny resemblance to the very sorts of images Colton would have been bombarded with in his upbringing as a pastor’s kid in an American evangelical church?

This sort of thing makes Christians look pretty gullible. Sadly, on the whole, I think we are. I suspect that this book is selling like hotcakes, not because it contains any exciting new understanding of heaven – on the contrary, we’ve seen all of this before – but (as D’Ma from Gullible’s Travels suggested in a comment on Part I) because “people want so badly to know that this life isn’t all there is.” We’re not entirely convinced of heaven, so we grasp at anything that might assuage our doubts. We want some tangible proof that Heaven is For Real – even if it comes from a 3 year old.

One last thing: Todd Burpo says his son never “flat-lined” during surgery. In other words, his heart never stopped beating. So apparently you don’t even have to have a near death experience to visit heaven; you just need to be under anesthesia. Am I the only one who got gypped during my wisdom teeth surgery?!

For Part I, click here.

39 comments

  1. Because we have no concrete proof of an afterlife, I think a lot of people, myself included not so long ago, are desperate to know their faith isn’t in vain. Thanks for the link!


    • The problem im having with these blog posts is that no one writing the blog has been to heaven, let alone had a near death experience. Here you are dissecting what the boy said as if you know what heaven is like….. LOOK lol!!!!! no one is forcing you to believe in God, but isn’t it interesting how we all get a chance to? Why is it still such a big deal? Its like we are far far away from home and our memories have been completely wiped, but we still feel this irresistible curiosity and attachment to God and heaven. Regardless of what animals the boy did or didn’t see, or what color Jesus’s eyes were, the boy is just telling his testimony, and it sure would be a sad story if we chose to reject God trying to get our attention yet another time


    • Who r u to say what color eyes someone ends up with…you have never seen a Jew from isreal with lite eyes. Perhaps you should broaden you horizons and in

      Your intellect..


  2. as I commented previously his version of spirituality is pure Oklahoman. I have to say the animals thing makes sense, since I imagine heaven as a restored earth, albeit more developed then the wild Garden of Eden.

    and the flat lined thing is interesting to note.


    • You’re right about the animals. I can’t imagine a restored earth without diverse animal life. I’m not sure how much sense they make in a disembodied spirit world, though.


  3. I haven’t read the book or listened to the interview…just saw a few headlines. But what immediately struck me is that this supposedly happened when the child was 3 – and it is now 8 years later. If it did happen, why the long delay? And 8 years is a long time to remember any details. And also this kid is clearly already a Christian believer in a Christian family. Now, if his vision had been of something other than a Christian afterlife, it might have at least been interesting.

    Of course, there’s a big audience for this kind of stuff, for all the people who would like there to be a heaven– very very much–because this world sucks on account of human activity, and it’s hard to make the choices that we know would make this world a better world, like giving up coke and plastic shopping bags and air conditioning.

    Mostly dead is not all dead (no one has ever come back from being all dead, you know – the kind where they’re actually embalmed and/or decaying). And this kid wasn’t even mostly dead. It’s sad how desperate people are to believe.


    • (no one has ever come back from being all dead, you know

      Except the Dread Pirate Robert. Well, and Jesus. OH WAIT we already have a book about someone who came back from the dead!


  4. I quite enjoyed both these pieces. Skeptical, yet thoughtful, unlike me.


  5. How are you supposed to get your homework done while there’s a battle raging? Why wasn’t Colton conscripted to fight the dead “bad people”? I guess he was too busy chilling with winged Bible characters and petting rainbow-colored My Little Ponies.

    Ok now you’re being naughty! :) But I must admit it’s really hard not to.

    I went to Challies’ site to see his review, and was utterly shocked how hard he was on it too. Challies, who to me too often bends over BACKWARD not to offend.

    I’m getting carried away though. I’m not trying to pick on the poor kid. He’s just a boy with a vivid imagination who probably learned very early on that people treated him special when he told these sorts of stories.

    EXACTLY. And that is what creates the next Todd Bentley or Benny Hinn or Jesse Duplantis. Lord preserve this child from such an end.


    • Yes, let’s hope for Colton’s sake that the spotlight fades quickly for him and he doesn’t spend the rest of his formative years being paraded around from church to church retelling the same old tales.


  6. I was highly skeptical of this book. Some big fans of this book gave me a copy and kept asking me if I had read it, so I finally fit it into my bathroom book rotation. The book did not play out the way that I expected. I was highly skeptical and seriously expected to find that the parents had naively asked him leading questions. I expected this to be another “American Christian” book that is written because there is a ton of money to be made off of the “faithful”. If the book is an accurate rendition of what transpired than this was not the case.

    Is the book true? I don’t know. Maybe the parents asked the boy leading questions and then lied about doing it in the book. Maybe their memories of his revelations are inaccurate. Maybe this was written by an above average fiction writer. As an extremely skeptical, unenthusiastic reader, it felt authentic.

    For a blog that claims to be discussing the quest for truth, and seems to advocate reading a broad range of differing opinions in that search, I’m kind of surprised that Chris hasn’t read this before dissing it.


    • JP, like you, I have limited space in my reading line-up. I have read the portions of Burpo’s book that describe the initial and most important “revelations” from Colton. And I must have watched at least half a dozen interviews that father and son gave to the media. I was not under the misapprehension that the book described Colton’s stories as responses to leading questions or suggestion by his parents. I was well aware that the book presents these revelations as spontaneous and startling. I have, in fact, read those parts.
      I still do not feel the need to read the entire book. It seemed relatively obvious what was going on. One of the areas where I can claim a bit of expertise is in human memory. As a trial lawyer, I am cross-examining witnesses about their memories on a regular basis. Doing this, one becomes acutely aware of the danger of false and distorted memories. We have a tendency to remember the things that fit with our beliefs and to forget the things that don’t fit. Thus, fantastic stories told by true believers will usually sound fantastic, because they have omitted/forgotten the details that would explain the events in less-than-fantastic terms.
      Moreover, I take consolation in the fact that others who have read the book in its entirety have reached much the same conclusion.


  7. Blue eyes are certainly possible, although they are a recessive gene. I knew a Jewish man with blue green eyes like that and they were amazingly beautiful eyes. Remember that Jesus ancestry is dotted with outside influences, including Ruth, the Moabitess, and Jesus’ Dad? There are people in Afghanistan who have blue or green eyes, as per the National Geographic cover shot from June 1985, even tho most Afghans probably have brown eyes. I think the most telling corroboration is that Colton identified a portrait of Jesus painted by an 8 yr old girl, Akiane Kramarik, as what Jesus looks like, but rejected many many other versions. Another important clue of authenticity is that Colton met his sister in heaven, the one who had been miscarried before he was around and who he didn’t know about because his parents never talked about it, and positively identified the great-grandfather he had never known, from a photograph of the great-grandfather in his younger days which had not been displayed in the family home, but had been hidden away and which Colton had presumably not seen before. Three important clues.


    • He’s Jesus…. no your average citizen


  8. This has soo many underlying assumptions…the truth can only be found if we let go of our silly assumptions! It isnt normal for us to get diseases, die etc, yet we get all our assumptions from the very place that contains these realities.


    • Bob, thanks for your comments. Can you elaborate on the assumptions you take issue with? I’m also puzzled as to your suggestion that it is not normal for us to get diseases and die, etc. Disease and death have been with us for the entire history of life on planet earth. How is that not normal? Moreover, what does that have to do with Colton Burpo’s story?


  9. I agree that the kids comments have probably become rehearsed at this point, as even an adult’s would. But that doesn’t take away from the authenticity of the original comments, that he probably doesn’t remember saying, but his dad did record.


    • Eden, you’re quite right that Colton probably remembers very little and is just repeating what he’s been told he once said. If that is the case, the family ought to be honest about it. Instead, Colton is asked questions about heaven and responds as though he is drawing from his memory. The way he tells his story looks a lot more like a kid saying what he thinks his audience wants to hear than a kid remembering the most sublime experience of his life.
      It’s also worth noting that much of Colton’s current story is not part of “the original comments”. His story has grown considerably over time. And the validity of the original comments hangs entirely on how reliably Todd Burpo recorded the circumstances of those comments. Dad’s apparent lack of critical thinking gives me some real reservations about whether his story isn’t strongly influenced by wishful thinking, false memories, and confirmation bias.


      • When I was 5 years old (1971) my family traveled to Europe. Extensively in Italy. We saw all the important sights, St. Peter’s Basilica, San Marco Square, the Colosseum, the Catacombs, the gondolas of Venice, the Blue Grotto, etc. I had many memories of the trip. In later years, however, I found myself having trouble determining with any certainty whether I was actually remembering the trip or just the stories my parents had told about the trip as they looked at the photos they had taken.


  10. That is so tuching and I know that heaven is real and I love god with all my heart… I hope I go to heaven and all my family does to, if you go on youtube and watch the video it’s a life changing video. I love that video. God bless.


  11. Interesting comments throughout, but what might be the most salient point came at the end – the boy never flatlined. He never died! So while the story seems like the standard “died went to heaven n came back” American story, it actually posits a LIvING person having a disembodied spirit. If it were spoken of in new age language, i.e. an astral projection, US believers would be wholly uncomfortable with it.


    • There is a scripture in Corinthians? that says that someone “was caught up to heaven, whether in the body or out of the body, (says Paul), I don’t know. So there!


  12. i love God,and im gonna stay with him when i leave earth


  13. Life created by God can not be extinguished, if it could, God, out of His mercy would extinguish the bad angels and the humans lost souls. If Paradise is to be restored then, everything in it will be there. Human selfishness think they (humans) are the only ones important to God. Jesus said not one sparrow falls without the knowledge of the Father.


    • I hope my corner of Paradise isn’t the one with all the resurrected cockroaches.


  14. Your commentary comes across very insecure and desperate to make sure that no one has an experience that doesn’t fit into your tiny perspective of all that is. I’m glad that God is so much bigger than what you paint him to be. I’m glad I had an experience with God directly which confirmed what I already knew in my heart as a child. You lost something along the way. I don’t think you’ll find it in a quote but only by letting go of what you think you know. God bless.


  15. Just a comment brother: first you say the little boy is really telling tales that are not even in the bible (at least not exactly) then you spend the rest of the text trying to make us believe that he just told everyone in details all the things he learned at Sunday school… if these so called tales were not even in the Bible, then, how can he be just recreating the whole thing? You are kind of lost in your arguments, sorry to say this, but, for people like me, who are really trying to understand `right from wrong´, this text sounds more like miss-information than an actual solid concept of something!


    • There is no inherent contradiction. Much of what is taught (or assumed) in evangelical Sunday Schools is a misrepresentation of the content of the Bible.


      • For anyone interested by what the Bible says about life after death, refer to a small book called, In Light of Eternity by Randy Alcorn—it is an indepth look at familiar and unfamiliar parts of the Bible, verse after verse that refers to heaven—not just Mr. Alcorn’s views—what do you come up with???


  16. Though I think the tone of your analysis is a bit snarky, I had some of the same questions and agree with much of your conclusion. I have, likewise, not read the book but have watched and read the interviews and reviews. I have also discussed the story with a couple pastor friends in the Wesleyan church who say they know Todd Burpo. My view remains the same.

    As you, I think the boy is not really to fault here. I also think something extraordinary, probably supernatural, likely happened while he was under sedation and in a life threatening predicament. But why must it be heaven other than this makes a more compelling story? And that the boy cannot today remember much of the story yet the father keeps retelling it to large audiences and now is adding a movie, that bothers me.

    Lastly, why is this story so important to Christians? The Bible, which all Christians swear to, is full of testimony that ‘heaven’ and an afterlife is certain. We need confirmation from the operating room experience of a 4 year old that can’t really remember all the details anymore? It seems, to me, to be a pretty short nail on which to hang your faith.


  17. Well, I’m very surprised that people do not read the bible carefully. I am a christian and believe in GOD. The bible states more than once the dead know nothing. Furthermore, Revelation tells you that Christ will resurrect the saints to take them to heaven on his second coming. Why do people believe that there is life after death, I don’t know. The origin of this belief started with the roman Catholics who would preach whatever to their ends. People were ignorant because bibles and books were burned. It is pleasant to hear that their loves ones are in heaven. But I would rather know the truth. Why would Christ resurrect saints at the end if thy were in heaven already?
    The only account of people going to heaven was when Christ died all the martyrs previous to his death were resurrected and taken to heaven. John the Baptist and Abel for example. Also we only know of Enoch, Elijah and Moses going to heaven. Now the kid may have said he did see John the baptist but People forget there is a Satan which was an archangel in heaven that rebelled he has a lot of knowledge and can deceive us with anything. Such as he deceived Saul into thinking that the the prophet Samuel was dead and went to heaven and came to talk to him in the cave. That was Satan’s witchcraft. Satan can do the same on us on this earth. The bible may seem to contradict itself but it’s only apparent contradictions, it was written this way for a reason. We just need to study and ask God to show us the way because Salvation is an effort between human and Divine. So we should not get into popular beliefs and real dig deep for the truth. Most of our churches are teaching erroneous things.There is only one Truth regardless of the religion.


  18. sucker born every minute. will be interesting to see if burpo dontes a lot of money to charity or churches to help people, as christ would do, or if he decides to use the book money to get a ferarri.


  19. Unlike Colton Burpo went to heaven and back, Jesse McCord Lewis went to heaven and he never returned to Earth, ever.


    • They should have a movie modeled after Colton Burpo’s or somewhat similar, Jesse McCord Lewis went to heaven and he is with Jesus now.


  20. So many nay-sayers….so many people unwilling to open up their hearts & minds. You’ll all be doing far more than just kicking yourselves when you find out it’s true.


  21. Your anyalysis is very appreciated. Without having to read the pastor’s (young man’s father) book, I was wondering what the young man’s description was of the experience.

    It is very strange how unattached the boy seems during the Fox interview and why is the pastor way more interested and excited about telling the story? It’s not the pastor’s experience, yet the pastor is telling it like it’s his own direct personal knowledge.

    Nice write up; it’s an excellent way to bring this topic and news story into a public discussion.


  22. You know what Egyptians were clearly black people with dreadlocks when you look at their images but yet we all deny it/have been brainwashed by sill historians claiming that they were white Arabs that wore wigs….When it is clear that at some point in history Arabs actually invaded Africa and were not always there.

    So anything is possible. Colton could or couldn’t be lying.
    Who cares.

    We all at the end of the day we ALL choose what we want to believe.

    The important thing is to have faith and believe in Jesus.

    If we all believe in the bible it is a fact that there is a heaven and a hell. Whether people that claim to be there were there or not doesn’t matter.

    I don’t see this boy trying to convert anyone to do wrong so who cares. Maybe his parents are trying to make money off of him but he himself isn’t doing anything wrong.

    Give him a break.

    We should be more concerned about people like Beyonce and other celebrities that are using the media to brainwash the next generation into accepting anti-christian behaviour as right. These people are currently more influential than Colton.

    Would you rather be influenced by Colton or the music industry as we see it today ??????

    Leave him let him be and let God judge him .


  23. While your comments make for a good debate and are very fair minded and kind, I think that it is possible that one can have an out-of-body experience (as I have had when falling asleep) and experience “heaven” without flat-lining. And I think that this child could have experienced heaven but, when he returned to his body or to earth if you will, he could only reduce what he experienced in terms of the three-year-old child that he was. In other words, he couldn’t “come back” and all of a sudden be a wise old sage. No, he could only describe heaven in terms that he understood given the child that he was at the time. And why do we all seek proof of heaven in the first place? Only because it seems to wonderful to be true and it’s good to have a reminder that is true and it is wonderful.


  24. Young Burpo says he saw King David in heaven; however, the Bible says that King David has not ascended to the heavens. How do they explain this?



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