I do want to comment on a particular point before I start. I recognize that I have a daunting task in reaching Christians with this review. The reason being, is not because the information that I present isn’t accurate but because there is an incredible emotional barrier to get through. I personally experienced the exact same reaction to “Heaven is for Real” that I did when I read “The Shack”. I wept. I didn’t cry, I wept bitterly at the atrocity that was experienced in both circumstances. At the very least both works listed the reality that suffering is for real. However, both works listed there being an existential response to these crisis moments as some extra-Biblical, supernatural, life changing moment. Something rather akin to the higher life movement of William Boardman. Ironic, since this movement was largely Methodist. This is important considering the fact that Todd Burpo is a Weslyan pastor and Methodism is the result of the Weslyian movement. In Higher Life Christianity, Christians are taught that when they experience a crisis moment in their lives they move on to a higher Christian life. Todd Burpo clearly experienced such a crisis. This teaching is reminiscent of the Holiness movement of the 1800’s and is presented on Todd Burpo’s church, the Crossroads Weslyan Church, website under “What We Believe”,
We believe that sanctification is that work of the Holy Spirit by which the child of God is separated from sin unto God and is enabled to love God with all the heart and to walk in all His holy commandments blameless. Sanctification is initiated at the moment of justification and regeneration. From that moment there is a gradual or progressive sanctification as the believer walks with God and daily grows in grace and in a more perfect obedience to God. This prepares for the crisis of entire sanctification which is wrought instantaneously when believers present themselves as living sacrifices, holy and acceptable to God, through faith in Jesus Christ, being effected by the baptism with the Holy Spirit who cleanses the heart from all inbred sin. The crisis of entire sanctification perfects the believer in love and empowers that person for effective service. It is followed by lifelong growth in grace and the knowledge of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. The life of holiness continues through faith in the sanctifying blood of Christ and evidences itself by loving obedience to God’s revealed will.
Having seen the movie and read the book, “Heaven is For Real”, there’s no doubt in my mind that my heart strings were played like a symphony. The theatre wasn’t full, however, those who were in attendance (including myself) experienced excessive wet eye syndrome. This was confirmed by the abnormal amounts of healthy individuals with incessant sniffling.
This persisted almost the entire length of the hour and forty minutes we were captivated by this incredible story. Therefore, the reality of the mountain that is set before me is established. We want this to be real. Why? Because we spend considerable emotional investment in the lives of the Burpos, sharing in their pain, as we watched a child almost die in the midst of the suffering of a family. How many of you have experienced the same financial crisis? And experienced it after the intense race through the touch and go of your child? Can’t you relate to this? Even if you haven’t, perhaps the thought crosses your mind, “what on earth would I do if I were in their shoes?” or, “I’m so glad they’ve proven that Heaven is for real and is waiting for me to” or, “I’m glad a movie like this establishes that I’ll see my loved ones again.” Things in which the Bible is already sufficient to handle.
At any rate, the expense of the emotional investment has taken it’s toll in our lives and one can’t help but be drawn into this world that is considered a reality; a real story.
With a little bit of research, there are some alarming things. Just like the flags that go off with the assistance of Joel Osteen on, “The Son of God”, the production value of heretic T.D. Jakes’ contribution to “Heaven is For Real”, should no doubt cause a pause. You should also expect to walk into this movie knowing that the music will rock your world. Just like the incredible work of Zimmer in, “The Son of God” his colleague Nick Glennie-Smith would no doubt lower your defenses. Someone who was involved in the music of “The Man in the Iron Mask”, “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen”, “X-Men First Class”, and “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides”.
For the most part, the movie did a pretty descent job in following along with the book. There were changes in terms of having the wrong people say the right the thing and the right thing being said at the wrong time. But you will, undoubtedly, recognize the book through the movie. Both works firm the emotional foundation in incredibly powerful ways. You are taken through the suffering of the Burpo family as they endure the trials that Todd goes through culminating in the bleak, touch and go moment of their child’s life. With a cast of epic proportions the size of “Noah’s”, it’s hard not to appreciate this movie. Greg Kinnear delivered a performance that I am compelled to applaud and Kelly Reilly granted us a glimpse into what it could be like being a small town Pastor’s wife enduring the struggle of her own miscarriage, the suffering of her husband, and the trial of her son. Having already lost a child, the audience is gracefully pulled in to root for her.
I will admit that seeing Thomas Haden Church in a movie after seeing him as “Sandman” in “Spiderman 3” made it really hard to take his character seriously.
So what’s wrong with the book and the movie? Plenty. And I’m sure that I could just as easily be labelled amongst individuals like the psychologist and the doubters/haters of the Crossroad’s congregation who had little faith in the things that I too protest with this movie. And the response to me is probably that I don’t have enough faith to trust in the testimony of a child. However, my faith rests firmly grounded in the most highly attested work of antiquity, accompanying the testimony of more than one eyewitness: the Bible.
The first issue is that of the general anesthesia. Colton was under during surgery in a medically induced coma coupled with the issues of being forcefully separated from his dad and mom all the while being incredibly ill. I’m not saying God is limited by the medications that we take or the experiences we go through, however, my skepticism is immediately heightened. Anesthesia is something which causes amnesia while a person experiences it. Colton’s surgery occurs in March, 2003 and his heavenly accounts occur nearly 4 months after. Obviously being taken to heaven which would be spiritual and the memory therein could be retained, but it takes 4 months for them to start and then his account of heaven happens largely at his father’s asking him specific questions? Only a few accounts, to my non-anesthesia memory, appeared to have been initiated by Colton. The issue of his other sister, and his great grandfather to name a few. Not to mention, Colton’s description of Jesus is confirmed only after he sees a painting depicting Him in no way close to His post-mortem revelation in Scripture. Even Colton’s revelation of the angels singing to him in the hospital wasn’t initiated by Colton in either the book or the movie. The start of the account happens when Colton is asked a question in both works that amounted to asking a child if he wanted to go back to a place that Todd even admitted at one point was associated with pain and separation. Would it too much for a child to suppress this association with something super positive?
The movie represents Colton walking into his church to see the angels singing to him. This is a place where praise songs are usually sung. Speaking of which, why would there be a representation of the church he attended in heaven? In fact, at one point Colton even states that Heaven looks just like earth only prettier. And why didn’t the angels look like the descriptions of angels in the Bible? Why were they glowing objects with only a single set of wings? Which angels were they, Cherubim or Seraphim? I’m sure we could respond with, “why would a child need to know these things?” However, he gave incredible detail about the rest of His findings.
Assuming that the heavenly visit happened during the drug induced surgery, couldn’t we admit that Christ’s power would preserve Colton’s memory? Of course. But why would it take 4 months for the account to be given especially considering it’s ultimate result was the strengthening of the family’s faith and the growing of the church Todd pastors (at least based upon the movie’s depiction)?
That’s just a skepticism, however. The book shows Pastor Todd trying to explain the validity of his son’s experience by attaching Biblical verses that correspond to his son’s testimony. Things this child of around 4 years old couldn’t know unless he actually saw them. Not to mention the fact that a child of Colton’s caliber is raised within the church hearing his dad preach on Sunday (again at least how it’s represented in the movie) why wouldn’t he know these things? Or the fact that Todd’s own affirmation of the quality of his Sunday school teachers would lead me to question in the direction that he had heard these things(via the book). Regardless, the accounts that Colton gives don’t exactly match the Biblical text.
Colton tells his dad that Jesus had a horse. Sure we could conclude that based on Revelation 19, however, that horse was white, not like a rainbow. Further more the heavenly Jesus in Revelation 19 is said to have eyes like flames of fire. Not the bluish greenish eyes of Colton’s account. This is also revealed in Revelation 1. Colton states that Jesus has brown hair. Revelation 1 says the heavenly Jesus’ hair is white. Jasper can be bluish, sometimes green, but Christ’s eyes are never said to be jasper. Emerald is green, but that’s the color of the rainbow around His thrown. Oddly enough Daniel 10:6 even states that Christ’s eyes were like flaming torches. How can they appear, Biblically, as fire and yet be bluish greenish?
Colton indicates that everyone has wings. Jesus doesn’t have wings, but everyone else does. This is hard for me to swallow considering that our likeness in heaven is only angelic in the sense of not marrying. As far as our appearence this is resolved in 1 Corinthians 15:48-49. Paul explicitly states that our heavenly bodies will be like Christ’s heavenly body. How could Colton have seen people having wings? Even if we recognized that heavenly bodies aren’t received until the resurrection, there’s no Biblical description that indicates that our spirits have wings. The reality is, however, that Colton admitted to seeing his great grandfather in his heavenly body, “Colton kept peering out the window. ‘I know. He’s in heaven. He’s got a new body. Jesus told me if you don’t go to heaven, you don’t get a new body.'”1 If we conceded the point that spirits have wings we’re still left with issues. We could say that based on Colton’s testimony that the Preterists are right and the resurrection already happened. We can say that Colton is right, he saw Pop with a new body. However, the body will still fall under 1 Corinthians 15 and not have wings. And we’d have to conclude that everyone in heaven has wings, even Colton. So was Colton in his new body too? Because that would mean that he did in fact die. But if Colton wasn’t in his new body why’d he have wings as he claimed to have had? And did he shed his new body to come back even though the Bible indicates that the new body is permanent? Colton has pushed himself into a corner with the aforementioned conundrum.
Continuing on there is a specific problem with an obsessive conclusion on “faith like a child” that this movie presents. So much so that Todd betrays the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The accounts of children experiencing such fanciful things led Todd to leave the one mentioned opportunity that he had to privately proclaim the Gospel to his kids. I’m not saying he never did, but the book that he wrote that is “inspiring millions” leaves it only to this one, missed opportunity. Todd asks Colton what Good Friday is about and his daughter wanted to answer. She rightly stated that Good Friday is about Jesus dying on the cross. Todd rightly asks why Jesus died on the cross. His daughter didn’t know why. Colton indicated that he knew and gave an answer that dodged the issue of sin saying,“Well, Jesus told me he died on the cross so we could go see his Dad.”2 Now, seeing the Father is a benefit and a privilege and impossible without Jesus Christ. However, Christ already revealed the Father prior to the Cross (John 14:7 c.f. John 1:18). Jesus Christ was crucified for our sins (Romans 4:24, 1 Corinthians 15:3). Why would the real Jesus not tell this to Colton? And now a man who’s church’s statement of faith definitely presents the issue of sin and atonement could say something so unbiblical as,
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.” Colton’s answer to my question was the simplest and sweetest declaration of the gospel I had ever heard. I thought again about the difference between grown-up and childlike faith. Driving down Broadway, I decided I liked Colton’s way better.3
What? Propitiation is one of the most important words for a child to hear! And sure you don’t need to say “soteriology” but telling them about what that word represents, salvation from sin through the work of Jesus Christ on the cross! Propitiation is entirely feasible to teach to a child without boiling it down to something that has nothing to do with propitiation. God is angry. Children can understand that. Christ died for us so that God would no longer be angry with us. How is propitiation so hard? And how is removing the Biblical definition of propitiation translating it to children in ways they can understand it. You don’t take the definition of something, eliminate the definition, and then expect someone to understand what you’re talking about, no matter what age you are.
This point particularly bothers me. Seeing as how kids, from Todd’s own admission, can be prodigies at painting. Or how kids can master musical instruments at such early ages. Or how kids as young as 6 months can be taught to swim and float on their backs. These children are fully capable of understanding great things. Having said that, the real kicker is not seen in kids being able to understand or not Biblical vocabulary. No one is able to understand propitiation or salvation on their own. Adults can’t understand the concept of the things taught in Scripture on their own. We need supernatural assistance from the Holy Spirit in the preaching of the Gospel to understand Biblical things. If John the Baptist could leap for joy at the sound of Christ, why would we not start preaching Jesus to them from the womb? And why wouldn’t Colton, who went to heaven thereby proving he has the Holy Spirit, not be able to understand these things? And this is even worse considering the fact that Todd allowed his son to inhibit him from preaching Christ crucified for sins to his children in favor of a “boiled down” version which removes wrath and justice. The removal of such things is highly atheistic. If God is not wrathful as He revealed Himself in Scripture, then He doesn’t exist. The offense of the cross was just removed and replaced with a happy, “my son saw heaven” justified, alternative Gospel.
The last primary issue that I take with “Heaven is For Real”, sealing the proper understanding that Colton, in fact, did not see heaven is this: barring the response that Todd has already placed himself in with the absolute dismissal of theology and “big words” with the testimony of his child, Colton indicated an abhorrent theological understanding of “what he saw”. Todd inquires of the thrown room of God and if Colton had seen that. Colton affirms that he did and gave an account of what he saw. Indicating one biblical reality that Christ is at the right hand of the Father, Todd asks who is on the Father’s left hand. Colton replies that Gabriel is seated at the left hand of the Majesty on High, thereby blaspheming. Following along in Hebrews 1, the Author of Hebrews indicates that Christ is better than the Angels in the context of sitting down at the right hand of the Father. Notice especially the Author of Hebrews point indicating that Christ is actually God Himself and is worshipped as such and applies Scripture that belong to Yahweh from the Old Testament and that, “to which of the angels has He ever said, “SIT AT MY RIGHT HAND, UNTIL I MAKE YOUR ENEMIES A FOOTSTOOL FOR YOUR FEET”?” (Hebrews 1:13 NAS95) But apparently Colton’s extra-Biblical revelation allowed him to see the Father saying to Gabriel, “Even though that’s the case and sitting next to me is a privilege of absolute deity and honor and glory, Mr. Angel, sit at my left hand. But no Angels on my right.” Colton’s account could be the response of everyone who denies the deity of Jesus Christ by saying, “Sitting at the side of the Father isn’t a position of deity, since Gabriel sits at the left hand of the Father”. Jehovah’s Witnesses would love this as this would indicate sitting at the hand of the Father shows that your not equal with Jehovah since Gabriel sits there too.
I understand people could argue the difference of right hand verses left hand (not that that is valid by any stretch of anyone’s imagination) to which I would simply reply, “nowhere in the Scriptures does an angel ever have anything remotely close to a similar position that Christ has.” Just because Gabriel stands in the presence of God, doesn’t mean he is seated next to Him. And no, it doesn’t work to point at the twenty four elders are on thrones around God’s. Christ’s position is still even more preeminent than that. And speaking of which what happened to the Seraphim who incessantly worship the Lord above Him according to Isaiah 6? And the one who was granted to see a throne room visit (Isaiah) didn’t get a small seat next to the Holy Spirit (neither did John), another blasphemous claim. Of Whom Colton also indicates gave him the ability to intercede for Todd in heaven with the Holy Spirit. Which brings me to another blasphemous, un-Biblical claim by Colton. Todd asked him what the Holy Spirit looked liked and Colton replied, “blue”. Say you saw heaven and you can then say whatever you want about God, as long as you experience suffering first. And then package it up and sell it and I guarantee you, you will hit a bestseller.
Too much information is presented to believe that Colton’s account is credible. Todd even attempted to explain the validity of Colton’s visions by relating it to the Apostle Paul. But this invalidates Colton’s testimony because Paul indicated that man is not permitted to speak of the things that he heard (2 Corinthians 12:4). Not to mention the fact that the experience itself became an account… a Biblical, Word of God kind of account. If we tried to run to the book of Revelation, we have contradictions in what John saw and Colton saw. How can you see the throne and not see the twenty four elders (Revelation 4)? I recognize that Colton’s vocabulary and Biblical theology is incredibly limited to the degree that he doesn’t even know what a crown is, but he sure was able to describe what he saw and retain really good knowledge of it. Why couldn’t he have tried to communicate those things the way he did the crown or the sashes? Also, John’s testimony became Scripture and a part of the Word of God.
I must ask with that in mind, why would God give this testimony when He already gave a testimony to which serious punishments are incurred in changing the text (The whole book of Revelation)? It seems incredibly un-Biblical for God to take the apocalyptic literature that He gave to John and give such strict and rigid prohibitions on it, only to subsequently, several millennia later, give a testimony to a drugged child that brings no Biblical canonical value at all. I feel that I may have beaten this dead horse already at this point.
1). Burpo, Todd; Sonja Burpo; Colton Burpo (2010-11-02). Heaven is for Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back (Kindle Locations 1970-1971). Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition.
2). Burpo, Todd; Sonja Burpo; Colton Burpo (2010-11-02). Heaven is for Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back (Kindle Locations 1677-1678). Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition.
3). Burpo, Todd; Sonja Burpo; Colton Burpo (2010-11-02). Heaven is for Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back (Kindle Locations 1678-1683). Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition.
4). Image – Heaven is for Real – Sony Pictures
This post was written by Jeremy Menicucci