7 REAL Problems with Heaven is for Real
A Collaborative Work by Shane Pruitt & Cooper Taylor
Edited by Jami Lee Gainey
The afterlife has always been and always will be a great business opportunity. However, over the past several years there has been a surge in the number of books written that describe a wide range of alleged afterlife experiences. These include, but are certainly not limited to going to heaven for 90 minutes, hell for 23 minutes, and any range of there-and-back-again stories that claim to reveal what’s just on the other side of the curtain of eternity. And evangelical Christians are buying them by the millions.
My goal is not to make fun of people who read these books or to cause division within the Body of Christ, it is simply to draw attention to specific problems within perhaps the most well known of these books and offer a prescription for where we go from here.
We are called to worship God in “spirit and truth” (John 4:24), and in doing that, His Word tells us, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone into the world” (1 John 4:1). Obviously, John cared a lot about what is ‘true’, and desired to ‘test’everything that is said about the spiritual realm, which is something that we must continue to do today.
Because our faith is often challenged by culture, we can be quick to accept, consume, and believe anything that we feel validates our beliefs, especially when it gets made into big budget Hollywood movies. However, we need to care a lot about what is right, true, and trustworthy because we worship the Truth (John 14:6). So, what is our standard for truth? Definitively, we must answer that Scripture is our standard in issues of truth, and we must test everything new and old according to the eternal Word. If something fails to line up with scripture, then you can be sure that it is not the Word of God, and that it is not worthy of our faith or our hope.
Heaven is for Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back is a 2010 New York Times best-selling book, written by Todd Burpo and Lynn Vincent. Heaven is for Real documents the report of a near-death experience by Burpo’s then-four-year-old son, Colton. The book tells how the boy began saying he had visited heaven after a serious illness that almost took his life. There have been over 12 million copies sold, and a movie based in the book is hitting movie screens right now across the country.
While I obviously do not agree with the content or point of the book, I do want to say up front that as a father myself, I can’t imagine what Todd Burpo went through while his son was gravely ill and the rush of relief that he must have felt when he realized his son was going to make it. However, we need to lovingly respond with Scripture even to our children when they mention things about God, Jesus, and Heaven that are not biblically accurate.
Here are a few of the more glaring problems we found in Heaven Is for Real:
1. Jesus has a Rainbow horse. (pg. 63)
Colton claimed that Jesus had a rainbow horse, and that he got to pet him.
We don’t know if Jesus rides a literal horse. So much of Revelation is metaphorical and allegorical, but if the horse is at all literal, it is without question white!
“Then I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse! The one sitting on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war”(Revelation 19:11).
“And the armies of heaven, arrayed in fine linen, white and pure, were following him on white horses” (Revelation 19:14).
2. We have ‘wings’ in Heaven. (pg. 72 – 73)
Colton tells his dad that everyone in heaven has wings except for Jesus. He in particular moves up and down like He is on an elevator. In fact, Colton was given “small wings”and he found them to be “uncomfortable.”
This is a common misconception made by many: that we’ll all have wings like angels, or that we actually become angels. However, the Bible says something very different. We will look like Jesus in his glorified body.
“Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when He appearswe shall be like Him, because we shall see him as He is” (1 John 3:2). And, as far as I know, the post-resurrection Jesus didn’t have wings!
3. We have ‘lights’ over our heads in Heaven. (pg. 73 – 75)
Colton tells his father that everyone in Heaven has lights above their heads. Then, Todd confirms this by telling a story of his friends daughter, who claimed to see lights above “some”people’s heads in a church service.
Possibly, Colton is trying to describe a ‘halo’like what is shown in medieval Catholic art over angels and/or saints. However, once again there is no Scriptural support for this. In fact, the description given in the Book of Revelation, those in heaven are described very differently.
“After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb’” (Revelation 7:9 –10)!
“And the armies of heaven, arrayed in fine linen, white and pure, were following him on white horses” (Revelation 19:14).
According to Scripture, believers are described with white robes/lines, pure, and holding palm branches. I’m not sure how that works, unless Jesus has already returned and we’ve received our glorified bodies. However, one thing we do know, there is no mention of lights floating above our heads, and still no mention of anything resembling wings.
Also, according to 1 Thessalonians, our spirits and souls are with Jesus, and our bodies are in the ground until the Second Coming:
“But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words” (1 Thessalonians 4:13 –18).
Those would be ‘wing-less’and ‘halo-less’souls and spirits, of course!
4. Colton went to Heaven without dying, just like the Apostle Paul. (pg. 79 –80)
Colton tells his dad that he was in Heaven for three minutes. Then, they have a discussion about whether or not Colton had died and came back to life, or if he went to Heaven without dying. Todd eventually summarizes that Colton had an experience like the Apostle Paul did.
The problem with this is that the Apostle Paul didn’t find any value in writing a book about his experience in heaven.
“Though there is nothing to be gained by it, I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord. I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows. And I know that this man was caught up into paradise—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows— and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter. On behalf of this man I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses— though if I should wish to boast, I would not be a fool, for I would be speaking the truth; but I refrain from it, so that no one may think more of me than he sees in me or hears from me. So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations,a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong”(2 Corinthians 12:1–10).
Interestingly, God won’t let the Apostle Paul, the same man who wrote two-thirds of the New Testament and expounded on some of the greatest mysteries of our faith, write in detail about his heavenly experience. Paul even receives a “thorn in his flesh”to keep him humble and quiet about the details! However, in order to get behind Heaven is for Real, we have to assume that the same God that wouldn’t allow Paul to write about his experiences really wanted a four-year-old from Imperial, Nebraska to give us the details on what Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and all the rest are really like.
5. Gabriel sits on the Left-side of God’s Throne. (pg. 101)
According to Colton, Jesus sits on a throne at the right hand of God, which is supported all throughout the New Testament. However, he continues on saying that “the angel Gabriel sits to the left of God’s throne.”
Gabriel is the angel that God used as a messenger to speak to Mary and Joseph about the immaculate conception of Jesus. However, there is no mention of Gabriel having any special position in heaven. There is only one title held by an angel that is mentioned in the Scriptures, and that is of Michael being the Archangel. “But when the archangel Michael, contending with the devil, was disputing about the body of Moses, he did not presume to pronounce a blasphemous judgment, but said, “The Lord rebuke you”(Jude 1:9).
6. The Holy Spirit is blue (pg. 102 –103)
Colton tells his dad that while he was in Heaven, that he was given a little chair to sit next to the Holy Spirit. Todd asked him what the Holy Spirit looked like. Colton responds that “the Holy Spirit is kind of blue.”
Honestly, I don’t even know how to respond to this one. There are two instances in Scripture where the Holy Spirit is described with an “appearance.”The first is at Jesus’ baptism, where He is described like a “dove,”and then again at Pentecost, where He is described as “tongues of fire.”
“And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him” (Matthew 3:16).
“And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance” (Acts 2:3-4).
Generally speaking, I would tend to believe the Holy Spirit is invisible except for when He is specifically mentioned as having some kind of form. There are a massive number of verses that mention God being invisible, and Jesus being the image of an invisible God, but there are certainly no verses that describe any kind of “color”associated with the Spirit of God.
7. Jesus looks just like Akiane’s, “Prince of Peace: The Resurrection Portrait.”(pg. 140 –145)
Colton is continually pressed by his parents about what Jesus looked like, because they were desperate to visualize His face. Finally Colton tells them that a little girl’s portrait is identical to what Jesus looks like. He is attractive with beautiful eyes.
There’s actually a pretty big issue with this one; namely how Colton’s image of Jesus could easily be considered a violation of the Second Commandment, which reads, “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth”(Exodus 20:4). The reason that this commandment is so important is because of what it says about the way we picture Jesus and God himself. Think about it this way, when you pray, confess your sin, or picture the Son of God on the cross, what image comes into your mind? Likely it is one that Christian culture has created for us! When you think about Jesus on the cross, you might think of the Passion of the Christ; when you confess your sin, you might imagine a Sunday School picture of Jesus holding a lamb, neither of which are helpful or glorifying to God! This is why the Second Commandment is so important, and why I can’t help but think that Colton’s descriptions of Jesus and the Holy Spirit are at best misguided.
Beyond specific problems and theological inaccuracies that are contained within Heaven is for Real, there is a much more serious issue within this entire genre of religious fiction that is not simply limited to this particular best seller. And that is that all of these afterlife experiences tend to be incredibly “man-centered” when every account of Heaven in Scripture is absolutely and without question “Christ-centered.” Colton sat in Jesus’ lap, the angels sang to him, his grandpa and sister visited with him, etc. There is a lot about his experiences, and comparatively little about the glory of God and his all-consuming holiness, both of which are the literal definition of the place we call heaven and illuminate everything therein.
When it’s all said and done, the problem is not with those who write these books, because I’m not in the business of questioning the validity of what they believe they saw (even though I’m 100% sure they didn’t go to heaven). The problem is much deeper than that, and falls onto our shoulders as readers and consumers of this kind of material. These kinds of books and movies can expose a serious lack of trust in the testimony of Scripture, the fragility of our faith, and an immaturity in the ability to respond to “experiences”with our ultimate standard of Truth.
Our faith will be strengthened by reading the Bible and believing it for what it says; our faith will be weakened by reading the Bible and believing it only after reading books like Heaven is for Real. We are called to believe God on the basis of what he says in his Word, not on the basis of another person’s experience. Heaven Is For Real, 90 Minutes in Heaven, and all the rest are not books that beautify and expound on the doctrine of heaven, but are rather books that attack the doctrine of Scripture. The Bible insists that it is enough, that it is sufficient, that we have no need for further special revelation from God; these books insist that we need more. That is a serious issue, and a costly affront against the sufficiency of Scripture.
So, where do we go from here? This article is not intended to be a wholesale condemnation of those who have read these books or have seen the movie; ultimately there are many more detrimental movies and books out there that we could spend our time watching or reading. The point of all this is simply to say this: Just because something markets itself as true and “Christian”does not mean that we have the right to disengage our brains or our discernment and simply consume it with open hearts and open minds. We must test everything against the ultimate standard of Truth that we have been given, and that Word reminds us that Christ is sufficient, Scripture is enough, and we have no reason to fear anything in this life or the next, not because of Colton Burpo, but because of our great hope in the gospel and the finished work of Christ on the cross on our behalf.
Finally and most importantly, we do know that Heaven is indeed for real, but only because a wholly trustworthy God and the Bible tells me so!