Thursday, May 8, 2014

Book Review - Heaven is For Real

In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven (Hebrews 1:1-3).

Note: This is a review, or rather an opinion piece, on the book, "Heaven is for Real" by Todd Burpo. I do not go into terribly great detail describing the visions of Colton Burpo, who allegedly went to heaven. If, however, you don't want to know what he allegedly saw before you read the book, skip to paragraph five of this article, where my opinion begins. - THL

In 2003, three year old Colton Burpo suffered from undiagnosed appendicitis. He and his family were traveling from Imperial, NE to Greely CO. Colton’s father, Todd, is a pastor at a Wesleyan Church in Imperial, and the family was accompanying him to Greely on a church-related trip. Colton became ill and, rather than taking him to the local emergency room, the family decided to take him to their own doctor in Imperial; they believed that he simply had the stomach flu, which had been going around. Colton’s condition continued to worsen after seeing the doctor. After much discussion and prayer the family took Colton to North Platte Medical Center for treatment, where he was finally properly diagnosed. Colton underwent an emergency appendectomy, and a further surgery to clean out abscesses[1] (Burpo and Vincent).

Several months after the surgery, Colton began speaking about strange things which he experienced, such as angels singing to him while he was in the hospital. Colton’s father, suspecting that his son may have had a spiritual experience of some kind, carefully probed him with questions, careful, as he put it, not to put ideas into his son’s head[2] (Burpo and Vincent). Over the next several years Colton would go on to describe how, during his surgery, he was taken to Heaven. Colton explained how he met Jesus, John the Baptist, his grandfather “Pop” (who died before he was born), and his sister, who had been lost to miscarriage, also prior to Colton’s birth. Colton’s father describes his son’s reported visions with breathless wonder. Colton reported that, in heaven, no one is old or wears glasses. Colton also told his father that everyone in Heaven has wings. Colton even had a vision of the battle of Armageddon. According to Colton, his father will be involved in the fighting of monsters, using either a sword or a bow[3] (Burpo and Vincent). Colton also described how the angels in heaven have swords to keep Satan out of heaven[4] (Burpo and Vincent). Todd Burpo also included other descriptions and “insights” given to him by Colton, who sat on Jesus’ lap during his visit to Heaven.

Summarizing Todd and Colton’s answer to the question, “Why do you think Colton was allowed to see Heaven?” the two say: 1) God wants people to know that he is big and loves them a lot, 2) God wants to comfort those who believe, 3) God wanted to give a confirmation that Heaven is “for real”[5].  The overall purpose of the book is geared to conveying this three-fold message.

And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light (2 Corinthians 11:14).
I do not believe that Colton experienced an actual vision of Heaven from God. The only other options remaining are: 1) he lied about his experience, 2) he experienced some kind of hallucination brought about by some physical cause, such as his serious illness or anesthesia, 3) he experienced a counterfeit miracle.  Taking the things Colton said at face value – and there is no reason not to do so – I do not believe that he was lying. After all, he was only three years old. On the other hand, he seems to have provided details about the goings-on in the hospital while he was unconscious that he could not have known[6]. That leaves only one possibility – demonic vision.

Dear friends, although I was very eager to write to you about the salvation we share, I felt compelled to write and urge you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to God’s holy people (Jude 1:3).
I think that he may have actually had a real experience; I tend to think it was satanic. I do not believe that God speaks to us other than through his word[7]. Even St. Paul, who saw things inexpressible, resolved to know nothing but Christ crucified among the Corinthians[8]. If there ever was someone who could claim his vision of heaven as proof of its existence and a reason for people to believe the things he said, surely it would be Paul. I mean, if Colton really saw the resurrected Christ, wouldn't that make him an Apostle? Should his words not be recorded and be considered Holy Scripture? This idea that men should seek special revelations apart from God’s word was called “enthusiasm” by the Reformers. In the Smalcald Articles, Luther wrote this about Enthusiasm:

In a word, enthusiasm dwells in Adam and his children from the beginning to the end of the world. Its venom has been implanted and infused into them by the old serpent. It is the origin, power, and strength of all heresy, especially of that of the papacy and Muhammad. Therefore, we must constantly maintain this point: God does not want to deal with us in any other way than through the spoken Word and the Sacraments. Whatever is praised as from the Spirit – without the Word and Sacraments – is the devil himself. God wanted to appear even to Moses through the burning bush and spoken Word (Exodus 3:2-15). No prophet, neither Elijah nor Elisha, received the Spirit without the Ten Commandments or the spoken Word. John the Baptist was not conceived without the word of Gabriel coming first, nor did he leap in his mother’s womb without Mary’s voice (Luke 1:11-20, 41). Peter says, “For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21). Without the outward Word, however, they were not holy. Much less would the Holy Spirit have moved them to speak when they were still unholy. They were holy, says he, since the Holy Spirit spoke through them[9] (McCain, Baker and Veith).
I believe that this book is dangerous to faith in Christ because it encourages people to look for and trust in a revelation from God apart from his word. Our attitude, when confronted with alleged divine revelation, should be one of, “I don’t know…but what I DO know is this: Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again.” We should, as the Bereans did with the Gospel message proclaimed to them by St. Paul, test everything by God’s Word[10].

While Christ features prominently in Colton’s vision, and it is even said at one point that a person must “have Jesus in your heart” to get to heaven, the reason why is never clearly stated. In other words, the Gospel is absent, but in the most subtle way. Consequently, this book could have the effect of confirming unrepentant people in their current situation as lost and condemned sinner. Those who are searching for any antidote to the feelings of guilt for their sin, brought upon them by the preaching of the law, will find false comfort in the message extended in this book – the half-gospel that God loves them – and assume that all is well just the way things are. There is no talk of sin, or repentance, or need for a savior. There is no mention of Christ crucified, except to say, "Jesus died on the cross so that we could go see his dad[11]."

This type of confirming vision strikes me as unscriptural, not to mention unnecessary. If you are a believer in Christ, you don't need a vision of Heaven to prove to you that it is real; Christians already believe that it is real. If you're not a believer, this does not tell you how to get to heaven, other than to have Jesus in your heart, and that could mean different things to different people. To an unregenerate person, inclined away from God and toward evil, this is hardly preaching law and gospel.

Scripture is quite clear that we human beings are lost and condemned. We are dead in our trespasses and sins, and there is nothing we can do to rectify the situation. Scripture is also clear that Jesus, true God, begotten of the Father in eternity, and also true man, born of the Virgin Mary, paid the penalty for our sin. This is the word of Christ through which faith comes. In the words of Luther’s Small Catechism:

…[Jesus] has redeemed me, a lost and condemned person, purchased and won me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil; not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death, that I may be His own and live under Him in His kingdom and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness, just as He is risen from the dead, lives and reigns to all eternity (Luther's Small Catechism with Explanation).
This is most certainly true.

Works Cited

Burpo, Todd and Lynn Vincent. Heaven Is For Real: A Little Boy's Astounding Story of His Trip To Heaven and Back. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2010. iBook Edition.

Engelbrecht, Rev. Edward A., ed. The Lutheran Study Bible. Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2009.

Luther's Small Catechism with Explanation. Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1986.

McCain, Paul Timothy, et al., Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions. Trans. William Hermann Theodore Dau and Gerhard Friedrich Bente. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2005.

[1] Heaven is For Real, p. 137
[2] Ibid, p. 149
[3] Ibid, p. 221
[4] Ibid, p.216-17
[5] Ibid, p. 169, 243-48
[6] Explaining everything in the kindest way, I choose not to entertain the idea that Colton was coached by his father, and accept the account as it is given.
[7] Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ (Romans 10:17).
[8] 1 Corinthians 2:2; 2 Corinthians 12:1-10: The heart of the Gospel is Jesus’ atoning sacrifice. In his second letter to the Corinthians, regarding the “man in Christ”, clearly Paul is speaking of himself. Paul is absolutely passive; the Lord alone is doing and giving…Paul uses terminology typical of intertestamental Judaism, but he shows no interest in its details. His spiritual faculties were alert, but Paul’s total focus on the Lord and complete forgetfulness of self made him unaware of how his body related to this experience. He may have had the experience as a vision, or he may have been physically taken to heaven (Engelbrecht).
[9] SA VIII 9-13.
[10] Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true (Acts 17:11).
[11] Ibid, p. 184-85