Colton Burpo goes to Heaven – Part IIMarch 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.
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?!