Colton Burpo goes to HeavenMarch 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.]