Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

A Review of Heaven is For Real. By Todd Burpo.

Jul 9, 2011

Thomas Nelson, 2010. (Available in Australia at Koorong Books)

OK, first a few confessions. I do not normally read books like this. Even worse yet, I had never even heard of this book until this afternoon when I was handed a copy of it. And with the front cover telling me it was a “#1 New York Times Bestseller” I was even more dubious.

And the subject matter was potentially troublesome for me as well. As I told the friend who gave me the book, this is a common theme found in heaps of recent books – including plenty of non-Christian books. New Agers and others quite like to write about near-death and/or after-life experiences.

Often it is all sweetness and light – indeed, plenty of light and no darkness. There is only God and/or heaven, but no Satan and/or hell. Everyone ends up in a wonderful afterlife, and so on. So there are plenty of non-Christian counterfeits concerning all this out there.


But this is a specifically Christian book written by a specifically Christian author, telling the story about his 4-year-old son’s trip to heaven and back. And it is a moving story. Anyone who has a child who is on the verge of death will be powerfully impacted by such a tale.

Mind you, a more academically-minded person – such as myself – might prefer a more scholarly treatment of the subject, such as Gary Habermas and J.P. Moreland’s 1992 volume, Immortality: The Other Side of Death (Thomas Nelson). But this is a personal story which any believer should appreciate and resonate with.

It tells of how little Colton nearly died from a ruptured appendix and was taken to heaven by Jesus while his parents prayed and fretted, and while the doctors operated – twice. Young Colton surprises his parents a few months later by speaking about being with Jesus, seeing lost loved ones, and describing things he could not have known about.

This brief volume (160 pages) which can be read in an hour, tells the inspirational story of how and what he experienced in his time in heaven. The crux of the story could probably have been told in 25 pages, but it works OK as a story that is worth being told in a bit more detail.

The boy describes things that he was totally without any earthly knowledge about. For example he talks about being with his second sister in heaven. This completely stuns the parents, who never told him about an earlier miscarriage of a baby girl. He even knew she did not have a name, as the parents had not named her.

Then there is the recurring theme of how incredibly much Jesus loves children, and how he offers them special care and attention. This of course reflects what we know about Jesus during his earthly sojourn. And it offers real hope and comfort for those who have lost loved ones to an early death.

And then came the simple yet profound message as to why Jesus died on the cross: he did this “so we could go to see his Dad”. His pastor father, who of course knew his theology, was so moved by this: “In my mind’s eye, I saw Jesus, with Colton on his lap, brushing past all the seminary degrees, knocking down theological treatises stacked high as skyscrapers, and boiling down fancy words like propitiation and soteriology to something a child could understand: ‘I had to die on the cross so that people on earth could come see my Dad’.”

Of course it goes without saying that sceptics, naturalists, atheists, and others with a closed reductionist worldview – including liberal Christians – will find this all too much. But a theist always insists that life is much more than the material world, and that the naturalist and unbeliever are effectively blinded as to ultimate reality.

Jesus of course said the same. Those who refuse to believe, who refuse to humble themselves, and refuse to countenance experiences other than their own narrow range of material, physical reality, will simply not get it. Jesus said we have to come to him as a child, humbling ourselves, and renouncing our pride.

Until we do, we will just not be in a position to receive spiritual truths and perceive supernatural reality. The atheist world is a very narrow little world where the rest of reality is denied and scoffed at. As I often tell the hyper-rationalists, sceptics, and naturalists who come to debate me, they are like the person born blind arguing with the normal person describing the wonders of a rainbow or the beauties of a sunset.

Their narrow limited world just cannot get something like colour. In the same way, the naturalist just cannot get that there is a much greater world than the material world, and they will never be able to perceive spiritual truths and realities if they cling to this reductionism.

Indeed, it is not just the case of being like a person born colour-blind. It is more like a person being born blind, never having seen anything. They can only go on their other senses, seeking to make sense of a dimension of reality they have never experienced.

They can either take the word of those who have experienced it – those born with sight – or they can simply remain in their disbelief and mock those who dare to describe a richer, fuller reality. At the end of the day we must choose whether we will acknowledge that we do not have all the answers and do not know all things, or whether we will remain in our arrogance – and spiritual blindness.

But even non-believers, if they are even slightly open to greater realities, may find this book to be of value. So the non-Christian can read it, and perhaps perceive a slightly bigger and deeper world than what they are used to. And the believer can read it and be reminded in a very real and powerful way of the unseen realities we all say we believe in, but so often don’t actually seem to.

So I recommend this book. It certainly is not a work on apologetics – even though I have chosen to give it a very slim apologetics spin in this review. But it will remind all Christians that this world isn’t our real home, and it will hopefully provoke some non-believers to reconsider their closed reductionist worldview.

[1060 words]

14 Responses to A Review of Heaven is For Real. By Todd Burpo.

  • Hi Bill

    I would simply direct you to Tim Challies’ review of the book. In short Tim says – reject this book, don’t read it, and don’t believe it.

    Greg Randles

  • ‘I had to die on the cross so that people on earth could come see my Dad’

    That quote brought me to tears.

    Jeffrey Carl

  • Thanks Greg

    As I said, I had never heard of this book until receiving it, and I was not aware of any reviews of it. So I wrote my review without awareness of what others were saying.

    I enjoy what Tim Challies does, and have favourably reviewed his stuff elsewhere, eg.:

    But I have just penned a new article in which I seek to deal with some of the concerns raised about the Burpo book.

    I in fact wrote it before looking at your link. In it I explain how I am not an apologist for this book, but I do not find it to be a work of major heresy as some seem to find it to be. I also try to address some of the concerns being raised about it.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • I have a fundamental problem with Challie’s review. He claims “The only biblical example we have of a man being caught up to heaven is Paul and it’s very interesting that he was forbidden to tell anything about it.” Pardon me, but I thought significant parts of the book of Revelation were about heaven. And Rev 10:4 agrees with the experience (not) described in 2 Cor 12:4, but not about every detail. Therefore I find it interesting that Colton did also point-blank refuse to tell of something that he saw. You will have to read the book to know what that is in relation to.

    Mark Rabich

  • Thanks Mark

    Yes, and as I argue above, it is a rather weak argument. There are many individuals in Scripture who are told to do something, or not do something, but these commands are clearly not meant to be universal green lights or prohibitions.

    All of us here are concerned that we do not add to the word of God, and we are all concerned not to jump on any new spiritual experience bandwagon. But we need to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater in these areas. Some of the criticisms levelled against this book from some believers sound just like what I get from atheists and philosophical naturalists. They just want to explain it all away. Of course we must be very discerning about any such claims, but getting the biblical balance right here is important.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • The basis on which Challies rejects this book rests on the logical fallacy of the false dillemma:

    “Now, what do I do with a book like this one? It seems to me that there are only a couple of options available to me. I can accept it, agreeing that this little boy is legitimate—he went to heaven and is now telling the tale for our edification. Or I can reject what this boy is saying—he did not go to heaven and this book is fictitious.”

    But there are not just two options. A third is that the evidence isn’t sufficient to say whether it is true or not. It might or it might not be – just as Bill has said.

    Mansel Rogerson

  • Thanks Mansel

    Yes I agree. As I say, I generally quite like what Challies does, but on this occasion I did not find his review to be as helpful as his other works normally are.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Are you open-minded enough to the possibility that you might be wrong?

    Jan Henfrey

  • Thanks Jan

    It depends on what you want me to confess. If you mean might I be wrong about this particular book, the answer is yes, absolutely. But if you mean am I wrong on upholding Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour, then the answer is no. We all have to draw the line somewhere, and we all claim a bit of territory on which we will not budge. I have made my allegiance with Christ, and with Luther I must say, “Here I stand, I can do no other”.

    But on all sorts of secondary issues there is of course room to move. But I have written about this elsewhere, eg.:

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • I’m with you Bill,

    Though I have not read the book, if it does not go against scripture and is based upon experience I would put it in the “Take with a pinch of salt” category.

    I have read at least 2 books based on experiences of hell and I tend to put those in the same category. A good read to remind us that we don’t want to end up there, but not something I would give a stamp of authenticity to.

    Mario Del Giudice

  • Thanks Mario

    Yes, it – like any other testimony or story – is not gospel truth in the sense of being divinely inspired revelation of God, something to add to the canon of Scripture. It is simply a story of one person’s experience, and it needs to be assessed and tested like everything else. Some folk are absolutely sure the whole thing is of the devil. Some other folk love it and found it a real blessing. I simply found it helpful, even though I did not necessarily accept everything I found there. I found no major doctrinal errors in it, but plenty of minor points which one could debate.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • I suspect that this is the book a grandson was telling us about. It is probably better than a lot of books they are encouraging kids to read. I’m just not able to keep up with all the books there are to read but maybe I’d better read it.
    Katherine Fishley

  • I could not help notice that Challies is the pastor of Grace Fellowship Church. Having looked at their modus operandi, I would say that it should be called “Lack of Grace Fellowship Church” as its legalism sticks out like a sore thumb.

    The hoops that you have to go through to become a member is no where to be found in scripture. And as is too often, they make all sorts of claim for scriptural authority and then ignore most of it.

    For that reason, I would reject his analysis of the book as he is obviously a person who is only comfortable with what he can control and rationalise down to the natural.

    Roger Marks

  • I, for one, believe in the almighty power of God. I have had profound change in my own life as a result of healings of body & spirit when I turned my life over to Him, after many years of being in the dark…crime, jails, drugs, etc! This little boy has seen Jesus, as do many near death, why is that so hard for you to believe?
    Myrna Mcisaac

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