I have just recently read the latest craze on the bookshelves entitled "Heaven is for Real." A lady in the congregation that I serve passed it on to me. She wanted me to evaulate it and let her know if the account was biblical or not. She, as with everyone else that I have known who has read the book, was ecstatic about it and very curious whether this was a geninue experience described. So I took some time the past few days to sit down and read through the book. It is a simple read so I finished it in like two days (compare that with the two months that it took to read Jonathan Edwards' "Freedom of the Will). Many have approached me about this book and wanted my opinion. Well, now after having read the book, here are some of my thoughts.
The book chronicles the account of little Colton Burpo and his "supposed" trip to heaven during a serious case of appendictis. In the days and months that followed the crucial surgery, he began to talk to his parents about Jesus and heaven. The shock was that he spoke of Jesus as if he had physically seen Him and of heaven as if he had actually been there! He even recounts meeting his great-grandfather who died long before he came into existence and his unborn sister whom he was never told about. He also shares with his parents, watching his dad pray in a secret room that no one else knew about and his mom talking on the phone during the surgery. While the doctors never stated that Colton died on the operating table, the young boy convinces his parents and family that he did indeed have an out of body experience and travel to the celestial city.
Being the biblical scholar, teacher, and pastor that I am, I was indeed curious as to the boy's description of heaven and how it would line up with Scripture's portrayal. I admit that for many of the details of heaven that Colton shared, Scriptures can be found to line up with his explanations. Often we find his father doing just that after one of the conversations he has with his son over his experience. He will think back to a Bible passage that sounds similar to what the four (or five or six as the revelation of the experience was given over a few years) year old shared. However, there were two major discripancies that I found between the boy's testimony and the witness of Scripture. He claims that he saw the "markers" (or wounds) of Jesus on his palms. Everything we know about ancient Roman crucifixions was that the criminal to be executed would be nailed through his or her wrists on the cross to lock them in place. Their palms would have ripped because the tendons in them could not be held with the weight of the body. The Greek word used in relation to Jesus' crucifixion that is translated as "hand" can also refer to "forearm." Thus, it is not just limited to "palm."
Also, Colton describes his great-grandfather as having huge wings with himself having small ones. This seems to imply that saints who go home to heaven when they die become angels. That may fit well with popular cultural perceptions but does not line up with Scripture at all. Nowhere in Scripture are we told that the saints have wings and become angels. Man was made a little lower than the angels (Psalm 8:5; Hebrews 2:7) and is always seen to be distinct. However, these discripancies are not my main concern over this book.
What bothers me the most about this book is how many people have used it for their assurance of the reality of heaven. Many have begun to base their understanding of heaven on this little boy's experience, which to be fair, we do not know how genuine it might have been. He could have been dreaming. Technically, there was no record of his death. His dad is a pastor so there is a good chance that he had heard a lot about heaven in sermons and conversations overheard by his dad. It was not like he never heard of Jesus and suddenly begins to describe heaven. His dad and another author could have crafted this whole thing up. Books on heaven and hell are a hot commodity (pardon the pun) these days. Just look at Don Piper's "90 Minutes in Hell" and Rob Bell's "Love Wins." But we don't need this experience to verify or support the truth of heaven. We have an even greater testimony.
We should believe in heaven because God tells us about it in His Word. God's Word must be our sole authority in all things and should carry more weight than anyone's (including our own) experience. Tim Challies makes a very good point in his review of this book: "If you struggle believing what the Bible says, but learn to find security in the testimony of a toddler, well, I feel sorry for you. And I do not mean this in a condescending way. If God’s Word is not sufficient for you, if the testimony of his Spirit, given to believers, is not enough for you, you will not find any true hope in the unproven tales of a child. This hope may last for a moment, but it will not sustain you, it will not bless you, in those times when hope is waning and times are hard" (http://www.challies.com/book-reviews/heaven-is-for-real#more). Remember what Jesus Himself told Thomas who felt that he needed to see proof of Jesus' resurection. Because you have seen Me, have you believed? Blessed are they who did not see, and believed (John 20:29). Let's believe in heaven, not because of this four year and his "supposed" journey but because of God's Word. We can't necessarily trust this account of Colton and his experience but we can certainly hold God at His Word.
Soli Deo Gloria!