Christian Living

Yes, Heaven IS For Real (But The Book Isn’t)

April 15, 2014


Yes, Heaven IS For Real (But The Book Isn’t)

heavenrealportraitHeaven Is For Real will forever change the way you think about eternity,” says the back cover of my copy of Heaven Is For Real.

Watch out for any book that makes that claim. 

Though published in 2010, Heaven Is For Real is again #1 on the “Paperback Non-fiction” category of the New York Times Best Sellers list (as of the time of this writing). I suppose the lure of extra-biblical revelation will always be tantalizing to many.

Written by Todd Burpo, a “pastor” at Crossroads Wesleyan Church, Heaven Is For Real is a story about his then 4-year-old son Colton Burpo who had a ruptured appendix. Apparently, after he was rushed into surgery, Colton briefly died and visited heaven. Then, a few months later, Colton starts telling his parents various stories of his experiences, including meeting his sister (who was miscarried), his great grandfather (“Pop”), and Jesus. Colton’s parents then waited 6 or 7 years before deciding to write it down in a book.

I picked this book up with a desire to believe it. I wanted this book to be plausible. And as I read it, I was thinking of ways to reconcile the story with Scripture.

For example, while I am naturally skeptical of all accounts of out-of-body experiences, I put my skepticism aside due to the fact that Heaven Is For Real is about a 4-year-old boy (as opposed to an adult). Do children go to heaven? Yes (cf. Matt. 18:3). Sin had not yet separated young Colton Burpo from God (cf. Isa. 59:1-2). Contrary to what Calvinists teach, children do not inherit sin (Eze. 18:20) – they are not born into a condition of total hereditary depravity. Therefore, knowing a 4-year-old would go to heaven if he really did die, I read this book with an open mind. 

It did not take me long to smell a rat. Somewhere between Colton saying he experienced fear while in heaven (p. xix) (cf. Rev. 21:4) and Colton saying that he witnessed the Holy Spirit (described as being “kinda blue” p. 102) “shooting down power” to his dad when he was preaching (p. 126), I realized this book is hogwash.

Notice some of the major problems with Heaven Is For Real:

Misplaced focus

God’s Word does not give us many glimpses into heaven (only Isaiah, Ezekiel, Paul, and John record their visions) but when it does, each account is fixated on the glory of God. The only thing the inspired visions can focus on is the awesome image and majesty of God and His surroundings. This is in contrast, of course, to Heaven Is For Real, where Colton Burpo is the center of the story in heaven. Everyone – with their wings and halos (p. 72-73) – is just floating around, existing. Heaven Is For Real joins the ranks of nearly every other ‘gone-to-heaven-and-now-I’m-back’ story in that the narrative is very selfish.

Going to heaven and back

The Bible teaches that no one goes to heaven and then come back to talk about it (Prov. 30:4). Even those who were raised from the dead during the age of miracles did not speak about their experiences. Paul, who did not know whether he had gone to heaven bodily or had just seen it in a vision, was reluctant to talk about what he saw (cf. 2 Cor. 12:4-6). 

Talking to the dead

The Bible forbids communicating with the dead (Isa. 8:19):

[quote]And when they say to you, “Inquire of the mediums and the necromancers who chirp and mutter,” should not a people inquire of their God? Should they inquire of the dead on behalf of the living? (ESV)[/quote]

Relying on the witness of the dead, rather than relying on the testimony of God Himself about the spiritual realm, is sinful. The fact that millions of copies of Heaven Is For Real have been sold is an indictment of the lack of faith many so-called “Christians” have in God. Subsequently, there is plenty of money to be made by peddling fanciful accounts of the afterlife.

Consider the kind of industry you would be supporting if you are considering purchasing a ticket to the movie based upon this book (set to be released April 16). 

Lies about who will be present

Colton Burpo claimed to see “Pop,” his great-grandfather in heaven (p. 86). The only problem is the fact that the book presents Pop as obeying a false gospel. Todd Burpo writes that Pop “was a guy who went to church only once in a while” and that he was “worried about whether Pop went to heaven.” As it turns out, two days before his death, Pop attended a special church revival and during the meeting the “Church of God” preacher witnessed Pop “raise his hand” and “give his life to Christ” (p. 90). 

There is only one kind of saving faith, and that is obedient faith. The Bible tells us that we must repent and be immersed in water for the forgiveness of sins (cf. Mark 16:16; Acts 2:38; 22:16; &c) in order to be saved. It is at the point of baptism where the blood of Jesus cleanses us from all sin (Rom. 6:3-4). The Bible does not teach that simply mentally accepting Jesus as one’s ‘personal savior’ will save anyone; such would be salvation apart from the blood of Jesus. 

Any book that claims people will be in heaven who haven’t repented and been baptized into the Body of Christ for the remission of sins is a fraudulent book

Stop Being Fooled

Either the Burpos are sincere, or they are a bunch of liars. Between the two, I hope they are sincere. But either way, they are wrong. Since the apostle Paul himself would not talk about His experience in heaven (cf. 2 Cor. 12:1-4), I don’t care what a little boy told his parents (based upon their own recollection) what he thinks he saw.

If you need Heaven Is For Real to prove that heaven exists, I pity you. You are like the Jews who – after witnessing Jesus miraculously feed the 5,000 and listening to Jesus preach about His divinity – asked for another sign (cf. John 6:30). And when Jesus wouldn’t bow to their demand, they left Him (John 6:66). Perhaps your insatiable lust for these kinds of stories is a sign that you have already walked away from Jesus. If God’s written revelation is not enough for you, then neither will the testimony of someone who has returned from heaven (Luke 16:31).

“But Heaven Is For Real Strengthens My Faith!”

Sometimes people say that stories of near-death experiences strengthen their faith. They say, “I already believed in heaven, but these books just confirmed my belief.” Todd Burpo evidently wants you to feel this way about his book. He writes, “Colton’s story […] strengthened [his baby-sitter’s] Christian faith” (pg 130). Obviously, Colton’s story is more powerful to some than the very words of God (cf. 2 Tim. 3:16-17).

I believe books like Heaven Is For Real actually weaken one’s faith because they elevate unreliable claims of supernatural experience over the sure testimony of Scripture.

Yes, heaven IS for real. But we already knew that (Rev. 21:1-22:5). Scripture has revealed everything God wants us to know. The Bible is more than all-authoritative – it is also all-sufficient. Christians believe in heaven – not because of what Todd Burpo claims his son told him, but because of what God has revealed to us in Scripture.

The Bible is true; Colton’s story is not – regardless of how much it appeals to our emotions. Satan loves catering to the feelings of unsuspecting victims and tugging at their heartstrings. He can transform himself into “an angel of light” and “his servants also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness” (2 Cor. 11:14-15). Right now he is hoping you will enjoy Heaven Is For Real so much that you will not bother to verify the story with Scripture. 

[quote]Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons (1 Tim. 4:1).[/quote]

(Your comments are welcome and encouraged, even if they are in disagreement. However, please keep your comments relevant to the article. For my full comment policy, click here.)

Ben Giselbach is the pulpit minister at the Edgewood church of Christ in Columbus, GA. He and His wife Hannah have two children, Ezra & Colleyanna. Ben is a graduate of Freed-Hardeman University and has written three books in his You Are A Theologian Series: Thinking Right about the Bible, Thinking Right about God, and Thinking Right about Salvation.
  1. Aaron J. Dodson

    Excellent article! Keep up the good work!!

  2. Luke Dockery

    I haven't read the book, and have only read reviews of it. Based on that, another unbiblical idea that the book seems to promote is the popular notion that in heaven, we will be disembodied spirits, or angels, or some combination of the two. This is in stark contrast to the biblical witness, which strongly affirms the bodily resurrection, and in no sense teaches that we will become angels.

    • E B

      So true, Luke. The Bible is clear about the bodily resurrection (1 Corinthians 15). As Christians, this is our hope (Romans 8:23-24).

    • j

      Mark 12:24-25

      • Luke Dockery

        j, Mark 12:24-25 does not teach that we will become angels in heaven. It teaches that, like angels, we will neither marry nor be given in marriage in heaven. Context is crucial.

  3. Robert

    Thanks. I understand folks in false religions having their faith "booster shot from movies and books written by men and inspired by satan. I almost have a stroke when 20 year saints say likewise. Amen Ben.

  4. Jesse

    Your claims that all children go to heaven make me feel a little uneasy. Men are born with imputed sin from Adam. You used scripture out of context to support your claim. In Ezekiel 18 v19 says that if the son practiced justice and righteousness and observed all My statutes then he shall surely live. I don't think he's talking about an infant or child.

    • Ben

      Either a 4 year old will go to heaven, or he will not. Based upon the doctrine of total hereditary depravity, all children who are murdered in the womb go straight to hell (which makes me feel more than a little uneasy). That's not what the Bible teaches. Men do not inherit the sin of Adam the moment they are conceived. No, Ezekiel 18:19 is not taken out of context; the underlying principle very much applies. See also verse 20, along with Deut. 24:16. The penalty of sin is restricted to the person who has committed it. Sin is not something we inherit; sin is something we do. Sin is an action. It is the breaking of God's Law (1 John 3:4). What law could a baby break? Sin is a failure to do what we are capable of doing (Jas. 4:17). It is a violation of the conscience (Rom. 14:23). How can a child sin against a conscience that has yet to be developed? For further reading, Wayne Jackson has an excellent article here: "Original Sin And A Misapplied Passage"

      • Robert

        Thanks brother for your biblical wisdom.

      • Jesse

        We can agree to disagree. I'm not saying that babies die and go to hell but I can't rightly say they go to heaven. Honestly I think people have a huge misconception of what Heaven is. The paradise that is described after death and the resurrection is simply that, after the resurrection and judgement day. Not immediately after you die. Scriptures tell us that we will part from the body and be with God but not in some fantasy land. I do believe we will be in paradise one day, but not simply after our bodies fail. Though I think men are born with sinful nature which is why Jesus had to be conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of a virgin. Put two three year olds in a room with one toy, and selfishness takes over. And yes selfishness is sin and the root of practically every sin. The greatest commandments are to Love God and Love others. And if a child does neither, isn't that breaking a command? I live with a 4 year old and a 2 year old everyday and they are very selfish, it's in their nature. Of course this is a scary thought and makes people uncomfortable but quoting scripture and using out of its literal meaning is what mostly makes me feel uneasy. I posted a comment about the verses you used from Matthew but I didn't see it get posted. If you saw them then understand what I'm trying to say. Not that you're wrong but I interpret scripture that you used differently. I understand I sound harsh but I don't want to compromise scripture so that backs my claim. I apologize if I came off arrogant. I do agree with the majority of your essay.

        • Ben

          If you are not saying babies ultimately go to hell or heaven when they die, where do you say they are going? What comfort can you give to the mother who has miscarried a child? To say that your 4-year-old and your 2-year-old are sinful because they have not yet learned to understand the nature of their own needs and how to satisfy them is troubling. They have no understanding – nor are they yet capable of understanding – a divine standard of law (Rom. 2:15; 1 John 3:4). Are you saying that your 2-year-old, if it “sins” by stealing the 4-year-old’s toy, is condemned to never entering heaven (John 8:21), assuming the baby was not already “imputed” with sin it did not commit at conception? I wonder if Jesus, when He was 2-years-old, ever had moments of “selfishness.” If a baby is not capable of reaching out to God for pardon, then a baby is not capable of sinning. -b

        • Eric

          I thought Jesus conception of the Spirit was because He is God, not to cancel out the false notion of "original sin". What does that say, then, about Mary's side? Was Jesus conceived of the Spirit to cancel it out? Catholicism had to invent the Immaculate Conception of Mary to deal with that. Is this how Protestantism deals with "original" sin? Was Jesus "forgiven" of original sin on His human side when he was conceived by the Spirit? The statement "he had to be conceived by the Spirit," frankly, quite is disturbing.

  5. Jesse

    Matthew says that unless we humble ourselves like little children we will not enter the kingdom of heaven. He means that unless we become humble like a child before their father then we will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Not that all children are humble and they go to heaven. Another misconception is that Jesus was talking about a physical place called "heaven". Matthew writes to Orthodox Jews who do not say the name of God so he substituted the name "heaven" for "God". Jesus wasn't talking about some place you go after you die. He was talking about growing the kingdom of God on earth right now. Not storing up treasures for when you get to heaven, which is like saying I don't want stuff now, I want stuff later when I'm in "heaven". But in reality he means putting your treasures in God... Don't get me wrong I believe Jesus' teachings were very literal but we have to understand the lingo and the culture of the time so that we can fully understand the Scriptures.

    • Ben

      Whether the “kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 18:3) refers to the kingdom of God on earth or heaven is a moot point. The kingdom is the church (Matt. 16:18), which is the only way to enter into heaven. The saved constitute the kingdom (Eph. 5:26). I am promised heaven so long as I am in the kingdom. The point Jesus is making in Matthew 18:3 is that to enter the kingdom and ultimately heaven, we need to have the attitude of a child – simply humbly wanting to please God and please others. But here is the point as it relates to the article: when God the Son wanted to describe the qualities of those who will ultimately enter into heaven, He used the imagery of a child. -b

  6. Jesse This article talks about imputed sin.

    • Ben

      Matt Perman, and John Piper by extension, are wrong about this. This is false doctrine. The premise of “imputed” sin absurd. Sin is an act committed by personal choice (1 John 3:4). Simply stated, a person cannot be “sinful” because of an act of someone else (Eze. 18:20). There is a world of difference between suffering from the consequences of Adams sin and the guilt of Adam’s sin. Additionally, even if Adam universally “imputed” sin to mankind, then Christ universally remedied whatever Adam did to mankind (Rom. 5:15). I am not personally guilty of Adam’s sin; I am personally guilty of sin I personally committed. -b

      • adolfo

        All I got to say is that I respect you and that I should point this out: Psalm 51:5... It talks like we ARE born in sin already. I have read it in several versions (NIV, ESV, NASB, HCSB and ERV) >>

        • Ben

          Thanks for affirming your respect for me, as I respect you. It is critical when studying God's Word that we do not cherry-pick individual verses, separating them from their context and the whole of the Bible. Bro. Wayne Jackson answers the common question about Psalm 51:5 more thoroughly than I ever could in this short space. Read his article here:

  7. Jason Ridgeway

    You hit the nail right on the head. Thanks so much for the article before the movie. God bless your work in Louisville

    • Ben

      Thanks brother! Hope your work is going well.

      • Kerri

        Hello. Ben, thank you for an awesome article, I'm reading the book now. I must disagree with your comment that people who read the book and say that it encourages them have a lack of faith. I'm reading the book, and I feel very encouraged to read my Bible and seek truth. It certainly doesn't mean that my faith is in any way weak, I don't need this book to do that. I also don't think that this book advocates communicating with the dead either but I may be wrong since I haven't finished the book yet. Once again, thank you for your wonderful Bible based article.

  8. Hiram kemp

    Excellent article and defense against the misconception of total depravity,I would further add that men inherit there there genes and physical make up from fathers and mothers but to inherit sin"spiritual make-up of parents isn't possible..They don't receive their spirit from their parents but from "the father of spirits "-Hebrews 12:9,,so to assume that we inherit spiritual corrupt was at birth is to make some rather disturbing and sinful accusations against the father of children's spirits

  9. Brett

    , i was wandering does the bible say the thief on the cross had been baptized.

    • Ben

      The thief could have been baptized (under the baptism of John the Baptizer), but the Bible does not say one way or the other. Perhaps you are suggesting that the account of the thief on the cross (cf. Luke 23:43) somehow argues against the point I made about who will be in heaven. If so, it is a nonsensical point. Here's why: First, the thief on the cross was still living under the Old Covenant. The New Covenant (the law of Christ along with God's terms of salvation) had yet to be in effect; Christ still had yet to die and be resurrected. "For where a will is involved, the death of the one who made it must be established. For a will takes effect only at death, since it is not in force as long as the one who made it is alive" (Hebrews 9:16-17, ESV). Christ saved the thief before He died, and before His will went into effect. Second, only after Christ died was his "last will and testament" put in affect (cf. Heb. 9:15-17). The terms of His Will specify baptism as necessary for salvation (Mark 16:16; Acts 2:38; 22:16; Rom. 6:3-4; 1 Peter 3:21; Gal. 3:27; &c). To argue that baptism is not necessary for salvation because the thief on the cross was not baptized (which cannot be proven) makes as much sense are arguing to the Internal Revenue Service that you do not have to pay income taxes because Benjamin Franklin did pay not an income tax. Third, during Jesus' earthly ministry, He had the authority to forgive the sins of the men He spoke to. For example, Jesus forgave the sins of the paralyzed man in Mark 2:5. Yet, interestingly, there is no mention that this man repented of his sins. Using your logic, if you say that baptism is not essential to salvation today, you would have to also argue that repentance is not essential to salvation today (cf. Acts 2:38). Jesus had the authority to forgive whoever He wanted, and today He has specified how man is to receive His forgiveness. To deny that baptism is not essential to salvation is to deny the words of Jesus, Paul, Peter, and the rest of the New Testament.

      • Brett

        i am baptized , was just asking about the thief, if we are going to use logic what about , John 3:16 , as well as we are saved by grace of GOD. And also Benjamin Franklin , if i was lost thats not a very good way to win me to CHRIST.

        • Ben

          The basis for mankind's salvation relies entirely on the grace of God (Eph. 2:8-10). Yet, to receive that grace, one must possess obedient faith (Jas. 2:14-26). To be saved, I must believe (John 3:16), otherwise, any kind of action on my part (i.e. baptism) is in vain (Mark 16:16). Yet, mere belief (mere mental assent) is not enough (John 3:16 isn't referring to simply acknowledging the deity and resurrection of Jesus). Genuine belief and obedience are inseparably connected (John 3:36). Indeed, to be saved, one must be born "of water and the Spirit" (John 3:5, referring to baptism). In fact, "belief" in John 3:16 should be seen as a synecdoche for the entire plan of salvation as found in the New Testament, since the Bible cannot contradict itself. Baptism is the point at which one's faith comes in contact with God's grace (cf. Rom. 6:3-4). Without baptism, one does not truly believe in Jesus.

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  11. Jonathan Hutson

    Why is it that in your comments about the book, you find it necessary to place quotation marks around the word "pastor" when initially describing Todd Burpo? Do you doubt his credentials? His church?

    • Ben

      Todd Burpo is the preacher at his denomination, and the use of "pastor" is unscriptural. I put "pastor" in quotation marks because those are the words he would use, not mine. The word "pastor" is found 9 times (in the KJV): Jeremiah 3:15; 10:21; 23:1-2; Ephesians 4:11. Interestingly, the ESV translates the only usage of the word in the New Testament as "shepherds," not "pastor." "Pastors" and "shepherds" are synonymous in the New Testament. Who are the shepherds, the preacher or the elders? Obviously, "pastors" are the elders/shepherds of the church, not the preacher (Acts 20:17; 28-29; 1 Pet. 5:1-4). Words and titles mean something. Obviously to most, this is not a big deal. But using words correctly is important to me, as I want to simply do Bible things in Bible ways.

  12. Monica

    Lots of good thoughts here - thanks for sharing. There is another book called "Waking Up in Heaven". The difference is that she didn't really believe God was real before her experience, but AFTER she did believe that God was real. I was wondering on your thoughts of that book.

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