either the furniture of heaven or the temperature of hell,
or to be certain about any details of the Kingdom of God
in which history is consummated."
I first heard of this book. Heaven is for Real, one Sunday at the beach. The preacher with a tee shirt and blue jeans—began his sermon with a reading from this book I had never heard of. It was a story of a little boy—not quite four-- who almost died of a ruptured appendix. During the operation he claimed he went to heaven. He came back from that near-death experience with news about rainbows, wings, halos and a Jesus who levitated in the air. He told of seeing God with a crown on his head—which held a huge pink diamond. The streets were paved with gold. He even sat on Jesus’ lap.
When the operation was over and he began to recover— the young boy began to share his experiences with his parents. Little by little he told this amazing story about the reality and wonders of heaven. At first the mother and father did not believe him—after all small children do have vivid imaginations. But as the days progressed his father and mother became certain all their little boy had reported was true.
Since I first heard that story, Heaven is for Real has been on the New York Times Best Seller list 116 weeks. A movie has been made and is now shown across the country. I decided I ought to read the real story for myself.
The boy’s father, Todd Burpo is a Pastor. He comes from a conservative denomination where some believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible. The father tells the story to the ghostwriter, Lynn Vincent. This is the same writer who co-wrote Sarah Palin’s autobiography, Going Rogue.
This is really a narrative of a near-death experience. I have talked to very sick people who have been on the edge of mystery and come back with stories from that other world. But reading this book, I had a hard time believing that little Colton Burpo, three years and ten months old could have had all these experiences.
His father, Todd Burpo reported his son’s descriptions of heaven, God, and angels with literal Biblical passages. Colton’s description of Jesus in heaven looks curiously like the renderings of Jesus that appear in many Bibles and Sunday school leaflets. The little boy claims to have met the devil and explained how there will one day be a war between God and Satan that we call Armageddon. Fundamentalist end-time literature has preached this idea for years.
People in Jesus’ day were desperate for a sign that God existed. All three temptations try to seduce Jesus into wowing the crowds with miracles. Jesus refused. When people later come asking for a sign Jesus shook his head. Church history is also filled with groups who claimed they had evidence of faith. Jesus’ tears, wood from the cross, vials of blood from the crucifixion, bones of the Apostles, the image of Jesus preserved on shrouds. The list is endless.
Faith and facts are not the same thing. Paul calls it looking through a glass darkly. The Christian faith is not about proofs. Philosophically there are at least two ways of knowing. One is a seeing which leads to believing. Another knowing is embracing some mystery which cannot be proven yet deeply believed. Jesus told Thomas, “Blessed are those who have not seen yet believe.”
I rejoice that Colton Burpo survived a ruptured appendix when he almost died. I do believe heaven is a real place but I am skeptical that this book’s portrayal of heaven. Proof and faith are not one and the same.
That’s why I love Patrick Overton’s poem from The Learning Tree.
“When we walk to the edge of all
the light we have
and take that step into the darkness
of the unknown,
we must believe that one of two things
There will be something solid for us
To stand on,
Or, we will be taught how to fly.”