This is clever …
Archive for March, 2011
This is clever …
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.
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?!
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.]
Steve Douglas at Undeception has a thought-provoking post titled, “We might not like it, but it’s in the Bible, so …”
He questions whether those who defend the inerrancy of Scripture or certain prized doctrines do so at much too great a cost to the character of God. Here’s a taste:
… I am convinced that we need to be willing to question things that conflict with our conscience. In some cases, we may have to disagree with Scripture; in many others, we may find that we have simply been forcing something unnatural onto the text.
Regarding the atrocities of the Canaanite conquest: do you think it’s better to worship a God whose morality requires exceptions and redefinitions of key concepts than to live with the uncertainty that perhaps even the biblical authors were not fully aware of the depths of God’s grace? Are you content to excuse even the worst charges against God if by any means it vindicates your Bible and the comfortable theological confidence it gives you?
Steve goes on to suggest that there may be portions of the Bible that we should hope are wrong.
For Christians taught to believe that their entire faith rests on the unassailable reliability of the Bible, questioning the Bible in order to defend the character of God would seem like an inherent contradiction. But are the biblical texts the true foundation for faith? Steve argues otherwise:
My faith is in a God whose soul is more lovely than ours, who has a higher, more wholesome sense of love and justice than we are able to walk in as humans. My hope is built on nothing less than this!
In an article posted yesterday at his Desiring God website, John Piper offered his explanation of God’s purposes behind the tragedy in Japan.
In the opening paragraphs, he observes that we should feel empathy for and render aid to those hurt by this disaster. This is a good start. For some reason, however, he devotes most of this section to the importance of loving even our enemies. Who is he talking about? Japan, one of America’s biggest trading partners? We might need a reminder to love our enemies if the earthquake had hit Iran or North Korea. But Japan? 1945 was a long time ago. I’m baffled.
Piper then says:
But sooner or later people want more than empathy and aid—they want answers.
And boy does Piper have answers.
He begins by quoting various biblical passages about God’s superintending sovereignty over nature. These passages lead Piper to the conclusion that, “Earthquakes are ultimately from God.”
Why does God send earthquakes?
Piper’s reason #1:
The end-time earthquakes in the book of Revelation … are meant as calls to repentance—to warn people who deny Jesus Christ that a day is coming when unbelievers will cry to the mountains and the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb” (Revelation 6:16).
Piper doesn’t explain why the Japanese earthquake is an “end-time earthquake”. As I’ve discussed (here and here), there is no reason to think that we are experiencing any sudden increase in earthquake activity. There have always been earthquakes and there always will be. Does any unbeliever actually interpret an earthquake as a call to repentance? As far as I can tell, the only people who interpret natural disasters as calls to repentance are fundamentalists. If this is God’s intent, he’s picked a really poor vehicle to communicate his message.
Piper’s Reason #2:
The end-time earthquakes in Matthew 24:7-8 are meant to be interpreted as “the beginning of the birth pangs.” That is, they are a wake-up call to this world that God’s kingdom will soon be born. So be alert and prepare to meet Jesus Christ.
Again, I can’t fathom anyone other than dispensationalists thinking that the take-home message from Japan is that we’d better get ready for the coming Kingdom of God. Frankly, if I were one of those “people who deny Jesus Christ”, these events would simply increase my skepticism about the existence of an omnipotent, omnibenevolent God.
Piper’s Reason #3:
God’s unilateral taking of thousands of lives is a loud declaration that “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away” (Job 1:21). The message for all the world is that life is a loan from God (Luke 12:20) and belongs to him. He creates it and gives it and takes it according to his own will and owes us nothing. He has a right both to children (2 Samuel 12:15) and to the aged (Luke 2:29). It is a great gift to learn this truth and dedicate our lives to their true owner rather than defraud him till it is too late.
So God is killing thousands of Japanese people to demonstrate that he has the right to capriciously snuff out our lives as he sees fit. What a “great gift” to learn that God may someday choose to end my life in some symbolic gesture to the world meant to communicate that we are all just pawns in his giant chess game. Don’t you love Calvinist sovereignty? Such a wonderful portrait of God. God owes us nothing. He takes lives at whim. And when he does, we should be thankful to him for reminding us of these wonderful truths.
Piper’s Reason #4:
The power felt in an earthquake reveals the fearful magnificence of God. This is a great gift since “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Psalm 111:10). Most of the world does not fear the Lord and therefore lacks saving wisdom. The thunder-clap summons to fear God is a mercy to those who live.
Not only are natural disasters God’s way of reminding us that he can do what he wants with us peons, it’s also his way of making sure we are trembling appropriately before his magnificent capriciousness. No doubt when I am a parent, I will give my children a thrashing whenever I sense that they’re not sufficiently fearful of me.
Piper’s Reason #5:
When the earth shakes under our feet there is a dramatic sense that there is no place to flee. In most disasters the earth is the one thing that stands firm when wind and flood are raging. But where do you turn when the earth itself is unsafe? Answer: God.
This is rather underwhelming comfort after the first four points. Why should we feel safe with a God whose communications strategy frequently includes mass slaughter? What if God wants to communicate something to me! Perhaps he will inflict me with cancer to teach me patience or humility or trust. Or perhaps he will flood my city because we need to learn a lesson about his sovereignty. Maybe he will plunge our entire coastline into the ocean because not enough people are reading the Left Behind books and realizing that the end is nigh.
It’s clear that in Piper’s world, even Christians aren’t safe from God’s brutal rod of correction. Piper concludes by warning ominously that God may have yet another purpose:
That Christians repent of worldliness. “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:3).
Don’t want God to drown you and your loved ones, church folks? Better think twice about watching Jersey Shore reruns. You could be next.
Let me be clear. I’m not indicting God for the Japanese earthquake and tsunami. It raises difficult questions of theodicy. But, unlike Piper, I don’t believe that God is deliberately causing/allowing these disasters because he wants to send the world a message. We live in a world where natural processes appear to account for 99.9% of what we observe, including earthquakes and tsunamis. If God is permitting these events, I am more inclined to believe that he is permitting them because of a prior commitment to permitting natural processes to run their course (with his intervention being an exception rather than the rule).
I know that this is not a fully satisfactory answer to the problem of suffering. But if there is an omnipotent God and if he is good, surely this answer is closer to the truth than Piper’s idea that God is killing people just to make some rather generic points that only fundamentalists will get.
HT: Rachel Held Evans for bringing the Piper article to our attention.
Today, Rob Bell sat down in front of an audience to discuss his new book, Love Wins. You can watch the interview here.
One thing is clear. Rob is not a universalist. He doesn’t believe that everyone will be in heaven, but he seems to take the view that those excluded will be excluded by their own choice. He also believes that there will be a lot of surprises about who populates heaven. He makes a good point that this was a frequent theme of Christ’s teaching – that the ones we’d expect to be in heaven will be cast out and the ones we’d least expect will be invited in.
If you’re looking for a really concrete systematic explanation of what heaven and hell are and what it takes to get to either place, you’ll be disappointed. I’m not sure Rob even has a clear idea himself. And he has certainly mastered the political art of answering the question he wished he’d been asked, rather than the question that was asked.
But having watched the video, you’ll definitely come away with a better understanding of what he’s hoping to accomplish. If you don’t have an hour and 12 minutes to spare, skip ahead to the last few minutes of the video, starting at 1 hour 04 minutes. Rob is asked why we need to re-examine our understanding of heaven and hell. His answer had him (and, I must confess, me) welling up with tears.
Rob shares the story of a woman from his church who had been in numerous abusive relationships and had struggled with cutting herself. He uses her story to indict the familiar heaven/hell explanation. You know, the one where God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life, but if you were to die today, he would have no choice but to send you into eternal torment. Rob remarks that this notion of a God who can change from infinitely loving to infinitely wrathful in a split second, who can turn on you in a moment, has left many people with “really, really toxic, dangerous, psychologically-devastating images of God in their head – images of a God who is not good.” The God behind these conceptions “smells” profoundly unsafe, untrustworthy, unloving.
That’s what Rob is driving at. His message is that God is good. At the end of the day, whatever it looks like, God’s love will win. And that is Good News.
Panda’s Thumb has posted an excellent explanation of the Japan earthquake and tsunami by Donald Prothero of Occidental College. Prothero is a geologist with training in seismology. He specifically addresses the issue I mentioned yesterday of earthquake frequency:
Are we seeing more big quakes than normal? This is another question buzzing over the Internet and the media. With our short attention spans, it sure seems like the events in Japan, Haiti, New Zealand and Chile add up to a lot more than average. However, if you do the statistics carefully, the quakes of this past few years are about normal for a given period of time. In any given year, we average about three huge quakes worldwide that are bigger than Mw 6.0 or greater, and thousands of smaller ones; earthquakes are happening every second somewhere around the world. And if we look over enough decades, we see that this current crop of big events is not even the biggest in the past 50 years. The 1960s, with the biggest earthquake on record (1960 Chile) and the second biggest (1964 Alaska), had far more giant quakes than we have had in the past decade.
The myth probably arises because we have short memory spans, and most of us were not even born then, let alone adults paying attention the news in 1960 or 1964. In addition, we now have worldwide instant media coverage of a big quake, especially those in countries like Japan where there are cameras everywhere. By contrast, there was almost no film coverage of the 1960 disaster in southern Chile, and only a few films were made of the 1964 Alaska quake. Most people learned of those quakes by the newspaper days later, and saw little or no film footage on TV.
I guess there’s no need to ratchet up the Rapture Alert Level just yet.