Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Book Snap: Todd Burpo's "Heaven is for Real"

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.


  1. I can see how God would communicate with ancient (or modern mediterranean) people through the cultural conventions of honor/shame, but I highly doubt heaven actually follows them. So I'm not so sure the objection about Gabriel's seat stands up.

    On crucifixion, since Yehohanan is all we have to go on as far as anthropological evidence, not much we can say for sure there either. We know some were crucified with a combination of ropes and nails (most likely the case with Yeho), and Zias and others think most may have been simply tied; Hengel thinks this was the exception. I can imagine a combination of ropes and nails being used in which case the ropes might do the work of sustaining the weight at the wrists and ankles, while the nails fasten the limbs to the wood, even through the top of the feet or the palm as Jesus' scars are typically depicted. The use of the ropes in such cases would also make sense as they would provide a means of keeping the victim from wiggling his feet or hands free from the relatively thin nails that were used (hence the fastening olive wood plaque presumably used with Yeho). Ultimately we have no idea how each and every instance of crucifixion was done, and Josephus tells us many were crucified in different postures for mere amusement. Zias writes "Thus the manner in which the victims were crucified was not fixed by law but appears dependent on the number of individuals involved, the sadistic ingenuity of those carrying out the execution and the time needed for this spectacle to have its maximum deterrent effect."

    Another problem with the objection about the scars is that the child is fairly young and could easily mistake the palm for the wrist or use language that blurs them, or is mistranslated by others.

  2. Also - Kramarik's pic of Jesus may simply have resonated with the child bc of the scruffy hair and beard (often the main characteristic mentioned in alleged sightings of Jesus during NDE. I'm not sure that pic couldn't pass for an ancient semitic person anyway. I think Koester's _Thirteenth Tribe_ is an extended argument that there aren't any stock semitic physiological characteristics that we can pin down. Would we expect the child to notice slightly darker skintone?

  3. I think you're just contriving to save the story.

    1)On crucifixion: We also have modern medical studies showing that the palm cannot withstand the pressure required to hold up the body. There is no evidence of ropes in Jesus' case in the text, so "imagining" them is all you can do. And why didn't Colton also see rope burns, then? If we're going to make excuses, let's take it all the way and be fair.

    2) Kramarik: No, it could not pass for such a person in any way, shape, or form. And if the child noticed blue green eyes, there's no excuse for them not noticing darker skin. I fail to see how Koestler is relevant since he is discussing later peoples -- and he was not qualified to write on the topic anyway.

    3) Blurred language: Again, merely a contrivance. Page 67 says Colton pointed right to the center of the palm when asked where the "markers" were. There's no way around that. The story is bogus.

    Bottom line: The book should be withdrawn by Nelson as non-fiction.

  4. Honestly, I don't care much for this NDE. I have a 4 yr old and I'm not sure I'd base much on her testimony. Plus, the idea of Satan running around in heaven doesn't sit well with me. I just think some of the objections can be hasty.

    In response to 1), a) not sure that detail would necessarily be mentioned, esp. in light of prophetic texts the Gospel authors were interested to draw attention to. b) re: rope burns - seems the Gospels themselves limit Jesus' disfigurement to the scars. Jesus presumably wasn't all bloody, with lashes on his back, thorn scratches on his brow, etc., when he appeared to Thomas et al. Even if the Gospels didn't, I don't see why it would matter if the NDE manifestation of Jesus was restricted to the scars. May be another example of God accomadating to what we're likely to understand, if reported. Given popular notions (and the popular level audience of this book), rope burns would probably just serve to confuse.

    On 2), did he really see blue/green eyes? Interesting. Anyways, Jesus eyes are said to be fiery red in some NDEs, and even to change color, or to be all colors at once. Again, could be a case of accomadation. You might be right on Koestler. But then, what studies are relevant? Not sure anthropology was being done at such a level in the first century.

    On 3), maybe the kid made a mistake. If I ask my 4 yr old "Where's your bicep?", I get a pointing motion towards the elbow. Anatomy is not their strongsuit.

    I'm not saying this book is legit. I haven't read it. I just am trying to remain open-minded. I think you raise interesting points; I just don't think they're determinative.

  5. Also: Since 99% of people who have ever lived have been agonistic, it is arrogant and imperialist to suggest that the "Gabriel position" matter ought to be interpreted differently. Colton claims to have seen the Biblical Jesus -- if what he saw does not accord with that, only excuses and contrivances will suffice.

  6. 1)a) Nothing about ropes would contradict the use of the prophetic texts. And it remains a contrivance to save Colton's version. b) As noted, "zones of interaction" is the better explanation anyway. Why not also say, "Colton just didn't see Jesus take his shirt off" and "the thorn injuries were under that thick head of hair"? Suggesting accommadation begs the question.

    2) I know it was in the painting. Appeal to other NDEs are invalid since it is their very validity that is what is being questioned.

    >>>But then, what studies are relevant? Not sure anthropology was being done at such a level in the first century.

    No, but it has been done today, and we know what their skin color was.

    3) Idea of a mistake is also a contrivance. This is not open mindedness -- it is making excuses to save the theory.

  7. >>>Also: Since 99% of people who have ever lived have been agonistic, it is arrogant and imperialist to suggest that the "Gabriel position" matter ought to be interpreted differently.

    Alex: Right, but heaven need not be agonistic, and this NDE (which of course could be a veridical vision) is not for someone who is part of an agonistic culture. Interesting that a 4 yr old even knows the left from the right though. This kid seems awful advanced. How did he know it was Gabriel? I guess the being told him?

  8. >>>1)a) Nothing about ropes would contradict the use of the prophetic texts. And it remains a contrivance to save Colton's version

    No, they wouldn't contradict. What I'm saying is that, since there's limited space on a scroll, a necessary narrowing of focus in any composition, and it doesn't have any prophetic significance like the piercing of the hands and feet, maybe it was left out.

    I appreciate your work. You're one of my favorite apologists, and I'm skeptical of this kiddy NDE book too. But I accept the validity of NDEs in general. The evidence is pretty strong and some very conservative apologists (e.g. Moreland, Habermas, D'Souza, etc.) appeal to it. I think it is some of the best evidence of an afterlife around.

    Re: skin color - a) maybe Jesus isn't dark enough in heaven for white children to take notice b) maybe Jesus has a different appearance in heaven than he did on earth (as Revelation indicates), c) maybe Jesus manifests differently to different people d) even the Gospels say that Jesus was not recognized immediately after the resurrection. Do you really expect Jesus to always look like the same mediterranean man for eternity? I don't think he had white hair or fiery eyes while he walked earth.

    Lastly, I would definitely expect some mistakes in the testimony of a 4 yr old., regarding something he saw while unconscious. We see them all the time in eyewitness testimony of adults in waking consciousness.

  9. I keep seeing that book on bookstore shelves and I had been thinking about just looking through it while standing in the store. At least I know now not to waste my time.

    BTW, what do you think of 90 Minutes In Heaven?

  10. Even for non-Preterists, the idea of Satan running around in heaven would have been in opposition to Luke 10:18, where Jesus said to the 72, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven."

    A few questions though: how would the boy recognize Gabriel? Wouldn't he have noticed the extremely peculiar sight of six-winged seraphs, who fly above God and whose voices can shake the doorposts and thresholds of the temple? You'd expect a child to be amazed by such a sight, but did he mention any of what we do know about heaven from the Bible?

    Also, why would Jesus retain the scars while he is now in heaven? Paul said in Philippians 3:20-21
    "20 But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body."
    Does this mean that we will also have the same scars that Jesus bore, or does he mean that Jesus no longer has the scar-riddled lowly body and is now transformed into a glorious body?

  11. @Alex: At this point you've given me so much to answer that I may as well make a post out of it tomorrow, especially since I need a topic for one.

  12. @Maoirem: It doesn't say how he identified Gabriel. Your further point is also another reason why the hands and feet bit ought to be related to zones of interaction, not wounds.

  13. Hmm? Were the comments all cleaned out after the Blogger maintenance?

  14. I hate stuff like this. The kid could have really saw what he saw. But because Christians are ignorant theologically, what he saw gets published. It's interesting autobiographically, but not theologically. This reminds me of all the books about visions of Heaven. No one has seen Heaven, period. And even if you did, you couldn't talk about it unless you used metaphor. The whole family reunion thing is bogus. It's all so western. So it smells suspicious.

  15. I don't doubt that little Burpo experienced something. I have two kids. They are highly imaginative and entertaining at that. I don't tell them what to believe, but teach them to question everything, until they are satisfied with an answer that is based on a simple scientific method or cause and effect (when all else fails). Consequently they are non-violent, honest, curious, funny and quite blunt. Burpo is in desperate need of attention. This usually happens to children of Pastors, politicians, entertainment artists, etc., when they are a small person among a big congregation of fans. Little Burpo picked up a ball and ran with it. As the attention of family and congregation increased, he began to learn to expand his fantasy to entertain the desperate need for others who want to believe. He is now an accepted authority with a bestseller. His future, however will be minced with psychopathic tendencies. He will have to defend his experience for the rest of his life to save face not just for himself, but his Pastor father, mother and church who are going to milk him until there is nothing left.