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Thursday, May 01, 2014 | Comments (20)

by John MacArthur

The typical Christian today seems oblivious to the principles es­tablished by Deuteronomy 29:29 and 1 Corinthians 4:6 (“that you may learn . . . not to go beyond what is written” ESV). In fact, people seem to be looking for spiritual truth, messages from God, and insight into the spirit world everywhere but Scripture.

Today’s evangelicals have been indoctrinated by decades of charismatic influence to think God regularly bypasses His written Word in order to speak directly to any and every believer—as if extrabiblical revelation were a standard feature of ordinary Christian experience. Many therefore think char­ity requires them to receive claims of “fresh revelation” with a kind of pious gullibility. After all, who are we to question someone else’s private word from God?

So when dozens of best-selling authors who profess to be Chris­tians are suddenly claiming they have seen heaven and want to tell us what it’s like, most of the Christian community is defenseless in the wake of the onslaught.

Todd Burpo’s astonishing multimillion best seller, Heaven Is for Real, [1]Todd Burpo with Lynn Vincent, Heaven Is for Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back (Nashville: Nelson, 2010). epitomizes the phenomenal success Christian authors and publishers have had with books about alleged visits to heaven. It also illustrates the danger of basing one’s ideas about the afterlife on personal experi­ence rather than Scripture alone.

Most of the familiar features of the genre are included in Burpo’s story: conscious out-of-body travel, the ability to see things from an ethereal perspective, visions of angelic beings, sublime emotions, vivid lights and colors, and lots of unexpected but finely detailed trivia about heaven’s look and feel. But Heaven Is for Real also includes dozens of biblical references throughout. The entire story is carefully clothed in familiar evangelical language and imagery. And Burpo has clearly succeeded in sell­ing a near-death-experience story to evangelicals as if it were a legiti­mate source of knowledge about heaven. Droves of Christian readers have heartily embraced his book.

Todd Burpo is the bivocational pastor of a quasi-Pentecostal Wesleyan church in a remote southwestern Nebraska farm community. He is culturally, if not doctrinally, evangelical—a fairly typical middle-American small-town pastor. In his own words, he is “one of those pas­tors who walks back and forth during the sermon. Not a holy-rolling, fire-and-brimstone guy by any stretch, but not a soft-spoken minister in vestments, performing liturgical readings either. I’m a storyteller, and to tell stories I need to move around some” (Heaven Is for Real, p. 10).

So Burpo is comfortably familiar with evangelical culture and ex­pectations. He says he believes in the authority of Scripture, and he attempts to draw as many connections as possible between his story and what the Bible says about heaven, angels, and the spiritual realm. That’s why so many of the details he gives are carefully set alongside biblical allusions and proof texts. In that respect at least, Heaven Is for Real cer­tainly includes more references from the Bible than most in the genre.

What sets the book apart, however, is that it is based on the experi­ence of a not-quite-four-year-old boy. It is the story of Pastor Burpo’s eldest son, Colton, who as a toddler nearly died from a burst appendix. Four months after the medical crisis, when Todd’s wife, Sonja, asked little Colton if he remembered being in the hospital, he answered, “Yes, Mommy, I remember. . . . That’s where the angels sang to me” (p. xiii).

Todd Burpo’s response to that comment was breathless amazement. In fact, the level of awe and stupefaction he describes seems quite out of proportion to the significance of such a statement from a typical four-year-old. He writes, “Time froze. Sonja and I looked at each other, passing a silent message: Did he just say what I think he said?” (p. xiv). As Pastor Burpo himself recounts the story, he was easily, immediately, and utterly convinced that Colton had indeed had some kind of out-of-body experience:

Colton said that he “went up out of” his body, that he had spoken with angels, and had sat in Jesus’ lap. And the way we knew he wasn’t making it up was that he was able to tell us what we were doing in another part of the hospital: “You were in a little room by yourself praying, and Mommy was in a different room and she was praying and talking on the phone.” (p. 61)

That same unhesitating credulity sets the tone for the entire book. Showing little understanding of how fertile the imagination of a barely four-year-old boy can be, Pastor Burpo embraced Colton’s testimony with implicit faith. He instantly decided to subjugate his whole understanding of heaven to little Colton’s instruction. “If he had really seen Jesus and the angels, I wanted to become the student, not the teacher!” (p. 62).

Many of the things Todd Burpo interprets as irrefutable proof that his son was given special revelation are clearly little more than standard Sun­day school stories with a typical preschooler’s slightly distorted slant. Pastor Burpo recounts this conversation that took place shortly after Colton began talking about heaven:

“Did anything else happen?”

He nodded, eyes bright. “Did you know that Jesus has a cousin? Jesus told me his cousin baptized him.”

“Yes, you’re right,” I said. “The Bible says Jesus’ cousin’s name is John.” Mentally, I scolded myself: Don’t offer information. Just let him talk . . .

“I don’t remember his name,” Colton said happily, “but he was really nice.”

John the Baptist is “nice”?!

Just as I was processing the implications of my son’s statement—that he had met John the Baptist—Colton spied a plastic horse among his toys and held it up for me to look at.

“Hey, Dad, did you know Jesus has a horse?”

“A horse?”

“Yeah, a rainbow horse. I got to pet him.” (p. 63)

Pastor Burpo seems to think Colton’s perspective on John the Baptist and heavenly rainbow horses is full of profound insight. In reality, precocious preschoolers make imaginative remarks that sound like authoritative observations all the time. Art Linkletter made a career of eliciting unintentionally witty commentary on profound matters from kids on live daily television.

Remember, Colton had lived his entire life in a pastor’s home, overhearing conversations, listening to stories, and being exposed to teaching focused on biblical themes. At one point, Pastor Burpo ac­knowledges that he had read countless Bible stories from picture books to Colton (p. 66). And yet when Colton mentions in passing that “Jesus has markers” (meaning, evidently, the nail prints in his hands and feet), Todd Burpo’s breathless response is, “He saw this. He had to have” (p. 65–67).

And thus the book continues. When Colton says something farfetched, heterodox, or unbiblical, Todd Burpo finds a way to accept it as true just the same. At one point, for example, Colton says he was sitting in a little chair next to the Spirit of God. So Todd asks his son what the Holy Spirit looks like:

“Hmm,” Colton replies. “That’s kind of a hard one . . . he’s kind of blue.” (p. 103)

Obviously, a remark like that begs for a follow-up question or some kind of explanation. “Blue”? Does Colton envision the Holy Spirit as Papa Smurf? Is he describing a bluish cloud of haze? Blue? What is he talking about?

At first, Todd seems to be pondering similar questions. (“I was trying to picture that. . . .”) But Colton immediately changes the sub­ject, and no further explanation is ever given. The only hint we get about what is in Colton’s mind comes more than twenty pages later, when he tells his father that Jesus “shoots down power” from heaven while Todd Burpo is preaching. This time Todd presses for an explana­tion: “What’s the power like?”

“It’s the Holy Spirit” (p. 126). Evidently Colton envisions the Holy Spirit as being like the electrical discharge from a Tesla coil, and he pictures Jesus with the ability to fire blue lightning bolts of power from His fingers directly into preachers.

Todd Burpo is dumbfounded: “If there were comic-strip thought-bubbles over people’s heads, mine would’ve been filled with question marks and exclamation points right then.” Clearly, however, Todd is already a firm believer in Colton’s vision of heaven. Recollecting that he had always said a prayer for God’s help every time he preached, he writes, “To imagine God answering it by ‘shooting down power’ . . . well, it was just incredible” (p. 126).

The questions Todd Burpo asks his son betray a strange fixation on the physical appearance of things. Todd’s peculiar inquiry about what the Holy Spirit “looks like” is by no means the only example of this. When four-year-old Colton first began to talk about seeing people in heaven, Todd immediately began pressing for visual descriptions. He writes, “All I could think to ask was: ‘So what did the kids look like? What do people look like in heaven?’” (p. 72). Later, when Colton informed his dad that he saw the devil in heaven, Pastor Burpo’s first question was, “What did he look like?” (p. 134). And of course, Todd Burpo persistently asked his son questions about the physical appearance of Christ, too.

Most of the details Todd Burpo recounts about Colton’s near-death experience came to light months after Colton’s release from the hos­pital, and even then the story did not spill forth unprompted in a coherent account. Fragments and anecdotes arose here and there over a long period of time—usually in response to tenacious parental ques­tioning. Thus new details were unearthed from Colton’s memory on a fairly regular basis for years. In every case, without fail, Pastor Burpo concludes that Colton’s knowledge of the afterlife could not have been gained through any means other than firsthand experience, and there­fore he is easily convinced his son’s account of heaven is fully reliable, accurate, and authoritative.

In a pithy review of the book, Tim Challies observed this motif:

Every one of Colton’s experiences, or very nearly every one, follows a pattern. He tells his father some little detail. His father experiences a gasp or feels his heart skip a beat. “I could hardly breathe. My mind was reeling. My head was spinning.” A Scripture verse comes to dad’s mind that validates the experience. Colton gets bored and runs off. Repeat.[2]Tim Challies, “Heaven Is For Real,” blogpost March 28, 2011, at http://www.challies.com/book-reviews/heaven-is-for-real.

If you needed to remember a recipe for dinner, an accurate record of your phone messages, or trustworthy driving directions, perhaps the last place you’d turn is the foggy memory of a small child. And yet many believers consider that a reliable and even authoritative source of revelation about God and His heavenly kingdom. What can explain this illogical departure from the authority and sufficiency of Scripture? We’ll consider the answer next time, as we look at the idolatry of experience.

(Adapted from The Glory of Heaven.)


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#1  Posted by Todd Farr  |  Thursday, May 01, 2014at 2:46 PM

I probably shouldn't be laughing but the title of this blog is funny. This nonsense is just another reason why the state of this country eerily resembles Isaiah 3. Particularly Isaiah 3:4 in regards to a tale like this. We see children preaching from pulpits and gathering large crowds and now masses of people looking for truth in the account of a child instead of the source of truth itself, the Word of God.

Has God began to strike us with confusion in the way that He promised to do to Israel in Deuteronomy 28:20?

#2  Posted by Marcus Murdock  |  Thursday, May 01, 2014at 3:05 PM

Quite honestly, this fabrication called, "heaven is for real", (which we know is not biblical but rather anti-biblical) i believe has been carefully put together by the editor and father. Whatever the son saw was indeed his imagination but since this book wasn't written until years later i truly believe they put a lot of extra 'wow factor' stuff in it to excite the readers. Years from now you will probably hear this kid come out and say that this book was made up by dad, or admit at least to not seeing most of the stuff that has been written in this book. Lets not forget on an interview where they asked Colten about heaven he said it was a neat place so to speak, and had such a bland regular look on his face as if heaven was little more than his back yard. Once again, and as we already know, this is an attack on the sufficiency of Scripture, and a money making ploy on top of that. Dad and Colten's words have usurped the Bible or been deemed equal to it for a lot of people who do not quite get the gist or believe in a 'closed canon'. Where their is no closed canon, their is room for every false teaching and private revelation, a breeding ground for false doctrine.

#3  Posted by Mark Foy  |  Thursday, May 01, 2014at 3:41 PM

What a contrast between young Colton and Samuel. Samuel who had not yet known the LORD was discerning enough to know His voice was not his own intuition or a subjective feeling. After receiving counsel from Eli, he later delivered an accurate prophecy; and through his life the LORD let none of his words fall to the ground.

#4  Posted by Mark Tanner  |  Friday, May 02, 2014at 6:26 AM

Dear GTY,

Love the title you came up with; made me laugh. I do recognize the seriousness and point you are making. I had someone recently ask me about the one of these movies, but it was from a person I speak to from time to time who is always looking for "an experience" or "a sign" and I always come back to what God meant by what God said. I deal with this by encouraging people to read the word of God in order to know Jesus Christ. I also, encourage as many as will listen to come to GTY.org to supplement their reading and to clarify what they do not understand.

-

I have listened to literally hundreds of sermons from John MacArthur and it is always a blessing to hear accurate preaching. Sermons preached 15, 20 or 30 years ago often come with implications & warnings from God and because they are not heeded, we see truth "right in our faces" now. We do not need to depart from the truth and we are warned about adding or subtracting from His word. (i.e. Deuteronomy 12:32, Proverbs 30:6, or Revelation 22:19 )

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One example is a sermon titled "Is the Doom of the World Near" (code 1211) http://www.gty.org/resources/sermons/1211

When you listen to what was preached here over 40 years ago and see what is happening in America & around the world; the outcomes mentioned in the sermon based on the exposition of God's world are both remarkable & predictable.

Thanks Dr. MacArthur and GTY; we thank the Lord for your ministries!

#5  Posted by Dolores Kimball  |  Friday, May 02, 2014at 3:26 PM

In reading the biblical accounts of men who actually saw heaven (Isaiah, Paul, John), I was struck by the difference between them and what most of the bogus 'trips to heaven' seem to portray. The biblical travelers don't see their relatives welcoming them, they don't feel all that comfortable there, and they are overwhelmed by the splendor and glory of God, so much so that they are nearly rendered speechless. If we don't manage to get the message here, we'll certainly get it when we arrive there: it's not about us, our desires, our experiences or our perceptions. It's about God and God alone. As Spurgeon put it, we will desire nothing more than to 'plunge [ourselves] into the Godhead’s deepest sea and be lost in its immensity.’

#6  Posted by Jim Parooly  |  Saturday, May 03, 2014at 10:38 AM

A) you grossly misunderstand the meaning Burpo places on revelation.

B) you grossly misunderstand the authority Burpo attributes to Scripture.

C) your claim that it is a fabrication must have resulted from an extra-biblical revelation... unless of course you were present to refute these claims, which, naturally, would be experience.

#12  Posted by Cameron Buettel  |  Monday, May 05, 2014at 8:25 AM

Jim, contradictions of Scripture are proof enough.

#15  Posted by Jim Parooly  |  Monday, May 05, 2014at 10:38 AM

I've seen no contradictions of scripture in Heaven is For Real. You say the contradictions of scripture are proof enough, but the only contradiction is to the distorted doctrine of sola scriptura MacArthurites are so quick to turn to.

#7  Posted by Jim Parooly  |  Saturday, May 03, 2014at 10:43 AM

I wonder if any effort was made on the part of the Johns or David to speak with the author. I seriously doubt it. If there indeed was no attempt the verse Proverbs 10:19 that lies as an admonition above the submit button comes to mind as a proper rebuke for them.

#8  Posted by Darrel Robertson  |  Sunday, May 04, 2014at 11:41 AM

John, I think this book or Movie should be titled "Heaven is for real... in my mind" and now there new Book should be "Money is real" with nearly $52 million from the Movie as of this week , and the book sales alone will be in the Millions also, all of this off a testimony of a "out of the body experience of a 3 years 10 old child!" Amazing isn't it? . I have gone through all the reading and what not of what this child seen chatted with etc. and what Amazes mw more than any thing is that he says that the Jesus he seen was the same Jesus that another little Girl 8 years old seen when she also has the same experiences as Colton had, and she drew a pic of what she saw in the description in Christ, Typical GQ look for A handsome Jesus, when in Isaiah 53:2 says “He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to Him, nothing in His appearance that we should desire Him.” .....I am sorry John and the rest of you folks this Book and Movie has nothing to do about advancing the Kingdom of Christ but everything to do with the worldly adage phrase of "show me the money".

And also I am dead sent against any one in the faith or out to display their 4 year old child out in front of the worldly sharks, we are to protect our children keep them out of the lime light for obvious reasons , many Great Doctors that study the Brain tell you that we know only very little on how the brain works and things like this Boys experience are truly what many have dealt with when on certain medications, if they are unsaved they dream they were in hell if they are from a Christian background they dream they went to heaven.

Heaven is a beautiful place I'm sure but our aim should be to Honor and serve Christ here on earth that should be our main objective, and Heaven is what our reward is, to say that one is working hard to get to heaven, is on the wrong track in my Christ like way if thinking ...Matthew 7:21-27 ESV “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’

Regardless of this Boys experience he had at 3 years 10 months old ...he will still have to come to a point in his life where he accepts his Lord as The Savior of his sins and repents ..or he will never be where he once went , in his mind at 4 years old.

#9  Posted by Jim Parooly  |  Sunday, May 04, 2014at 7:19 PM

Darrel, those are bold claims. I certainly hope you are one hundred percent certain of the accuracy of your claims otherwise you are bearing false witness either out of ignorance or malice, neither of which are valid excuses.

#11  Posted by Shane Haffey  |  Monday, May 05, 2014at 7:59 AM

Is this experience any different than dealing with any local tarot card and palm reading shop on any random street corner? Their claim to fame is that they can tell you things about yourself that you didn't know. This then validates the experience of the patron and business is commenced. Did your grandmother have blue eyes and live in Nebraska, why yes she did.

Here we have a four year old claiming to have seen visions in a way eerily similar to how a medium would operate. This child then uses words like God and Jesus and now somehow we're to make the leap from pagan mysticism to God's revelation.

#13  Posted by Jim Parooly  |  Monday, May 05, 2014at 8:37 AM

Really? This faithful minister of the gospel is on the same level of a medium? I trust you can back that claim up, unless of course you spoke without consideration of your words.

#14  Posted by Shane Haffey  |  Monday, May 05, 2014at 9:14 AM

Jim,

Who the source is that's propagating this is of little relevance. What's being asked is that people believe in a revelation being put forth in much the same way a medium would.

#16  Posted by Jim Parooly  |  Monday, May 05, 2014at 11:34 AM

Not only is it relevant, it is key to trusting the source of information you are choosing to believe. Have you properly vetted John MacArthur?

Perhaps Paul's visions were the same as a medium's?

#17  Posted by Shane Haffey  |  Monday, May 05, 2014at 3:24 PM

Jim,

The information being put forth is not verifiable and it is not consistent with scripture, therefore it must be rejected. Let's say for the sake of hypothetical discussion that everything this boy described was in fact consistent with scripture. It still doesn't change anything. What would be the point in believing it? God's word is sufficient for everything we need to know to have saving faith. If we're needing encouragement, where do we go? If we need hope, where do we go? If we need a stronger faith, where do we go? To suggest we go outside God's word to another source, in this case a 4 year old child, is contrary to what God's word teaches us.

#18  Posted by Jim Parooly  |  Monday, May 05, 2014at 4:08 PM

Then I highly suggest you turn off your radio and open your Bible instead when John MacArthur or anyone speaks. I also highly suggest you stay home on Sundays or at least tune out when the preacher gets up to preach.That is, only if you truly believe what you are saying.

#20  Posted by Shane Haffey  |  Tuesday, May 06, 2014at 5:25 PM

Before we go down a rabbits trail here let's back up a bit. How many authors of the supernatural are there in the Bible? 2 right? God and Satan. Does Satan have the ability and permission to cause people to see images? Think Biblically here.

False Christ's, false prophets... They wouldn't be false if they didn't look like the real thing. Does not Satan disguise himself as an Angel of light? False religion always speaks which is not according to truth. That's what makes it FALSE, that's what makes it Satanic. Something false means it CANNOT BE VERIFIED. How do we verify truth? God's word alone is our source for verifying truth. So now we are to believe that God would orchestrate all these heaven and hell near death experiences because He wanted people to know the truth? If we buy that we are buying a lie, period. Let's wake up from our slumber people.

2 Thess 2:11 - "For this reason God will send upon them a deluding influence so that they will believe what is false."

#22  Posted by Kirsten Swengel  |  Wednesday, May 21, 2014at 11:20 AM

Shane,

Thank you for your witness, praise God.

#21  Posted by Steve Safiedine  |  Wednesday, May 07, 2014at 7:26 AM

Shane,

Amen!