Heaven may be for real, but no matter how emotionally appealing you find it, the story in this book – isn’t.
These days there are more than a few “near death experience” books making the rounds that were written by Christians. This one’s a little different in that the witness is a very young boy, Colton Burpo – which makes the emotional appeal all the harder to wipe out with rational analysis.
However, like it or not, from an evidential perspective, the details in the book don’t add up to a reliable testimony. Not that there is much useful that could be used for that. Over 99 percent of the book is simply narrative, with nothing with which the spirits can be tested save a few details, which can be classified into two categories.
The first category could be good proof for the veracity of Colton’s experiences, if they could surely be found to be valid – which they unfortunately cannot. The second category, however, absolutely proves Colton’s story to be merely a case of imagination – and we’ll get to that shortly.
The first category has to do with events allegedly perceived by the subject NDE experiencer which occur during their indisposition – typically, things like allegedly seeing loved ones from some higher vantage point. I’m not out here to determine whether NDE experiences are real or not, but I will judge whether the evidence given shows that this one is, and the evidence in this first category, while seemingly impressive on the surface, doesn’t add up to enough significance to be determinative:
xx-xxi, 61 – Colton claims he left his body and saw what turned out to be an accurate (but very vague) description of what his parents were doing at the time: His father praying in one room, and his mother on the phone and praying in another.
43 – Colton indicates knowledge that he had nearly died.
91 – Colton tells his father that Jesus had called him (Todd) to be a pastor when he was younger.
94-5 – Colton shows awareness of having had an unborn sister who had died while still enwombed.
122-3 Colton recognizes a photo of his deceased grandfather as a younger man, matching it to a man he reputedly met in heaven.
Finally, here and there, there are examples given where Colton describes details in accord with some Biblical text (particularly Revelation).
Todd Burpo assures us that he shared none of these details with Colton, but there is little done to validate this assurance. For the second example (43) he wonders if the medical staff of the hospital could have said something Colton overheard, but this is not investigated at all. For the rest, there is nothing to show that these details were not somehow gathered by some other means by Colton – whether from other relatives, members of Burpo’s church, or overheard conversations with other parties.
That’s the first category. The second has fewer entries, but it far more damning for the authenticity of Colton’s experiences, especially as far as the Christian is concerned: How well do Colton’s experiences accord with external evidence not found in the Bible? It’s the sort of thing that could never occur to someone like Colton’s father Todd as a small town pastor whose theological education is quite limited (a BA in Theology), and so offers an ideal way to “test the spirits”.
100-1 – though rightly offering the Biblical detail that Jesus sat at God’s right hand, Colton offers the non-Biblical detail that Gabriel sits at God’s left. However, in reality, this would be a serious violation of the protocols of honor and hierarchy, and difficult to explain barring an overhaul of theology as we know it. Gabriel being seated at God’s left would amount to just about making him a co-ruler with God and His rough equal. If any ought be seated on God’s left, it is the Spirit. (Good thing Colton did not say it was Michael, or the JWs would have to rework their whole christology!)
133 – highly problematic for me as a preterist, Colton sees Satan running around free.
67 – However, the detail that ultimately invalidates Colton’s experiences irrevocably is that he describes seeing the wounds of Jesus’ crucifixion. Apart from questions of whether the wounds were indeed present after the Resurrection (the showing of the hands and feet is better related to the social concept of hands and feet as “zones of interaction” validating Jesus’ physical presence), Colton places then in Jesus’ palms and the middle of his feet – whereas genuine crucifixion victims had nails driven into their wrists and heel. Ironically, Todd Burpo does not believe his son ever saw a crucifix, and says, “We know where the nails were driven when Jesus was crucified” – but with this, he unwittingly shows that Colton’s vision of a wounded Jesus did come from some more modern image, because the fact is, he and Colton do NOT know where the nails went.
144 --Just as damning is the fact that Colton identified Jesus with a portrait done by Akiane Kramarik, who was also a very young child who claimed an NDE and a heavenly visit. While Todd Burpo sees in this an amazing validation, a look at Kramarik’s portrait shows it to be the white, Anglo-Saxon Jesus of modern, Western culture – a being that would have been recognized as a foreigner in first century Jewish Palestine.
Sadly, there is more at stake here than a child’s winsome but wayward tale of heavenly experiences. There is not much theology in this book, but what little there is, is highly questionable (such as a poor theology of prayer s a gumball machine, 109). Far worse, however, is that this book will draw us much further into the trap that is emotional and experiential authentication and away from support for our loyalty (faith) in evidence. Having been a #1 New York Times bestseller, the success of this book is more a tragedy than something to be celebrated.