This question is so timely. With all the books being published presenting stories of those who claim to have been to Heaven and come back to tell about it, we must wonder how trustworthy and reliable these accounts might be.
A few years ago, Heaven is for Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back by Todd Burpo became a best seller. It tells the story of Colton Burpo who claims to have gone to Heaven at the age of four while under anesthesia for an appendectomy. The story, which was released as a Hollywood motion picture during Holy Week in April 2014, dramatized the child’s account of what he claims to have seen and heard in Heaven.
Is the Account True?
The medical procedure Colton Burpo underwent is certainly true and verifiable, but his story of going to Heaven cannot be substantiated. In fact, Lynn Vincent, who ghost-wrote the book, was reluctant to include the boy’s description of people in Heaven having wings. In an interview with New Yorker Magazine, Vincent said that she was “initially reluctant to include Colton’s description of people in heaven having wings. ‘If I put that people in Heaven have wings, orthodox Christians are going to think that the book is a hoax.’ She did and they didn’t.” ¹
So is this boy’s account of having died, gone to Heaven, and returned to tell about Heaven (giving great details) true? Did he really go to Heaven?
This article is not intended to be a book or movie review. Nor is it to be an account of what Colton Burpo claims. Read the book, or watch the movie, for the details. Then consider his claims in light of God’s Word. Remember, we are told to check all things against Scripture and that includes this boy’s account of having died, gone to Heaven, and returned from Heaven to earth. When judged against Scripture, there are many problems with the book and movie.
Before discerning what the Bible tells us about Heaven, let’s consider a couple claims from Heaven is for Real.
Colton Burpo Died
There are no medical records of Colton having died. The Bible tells us that the soul departs the body at the time of death. Colton claims that he was outside his body observing his parents and seeing his own body in the hospital room. This raises the question of why medical monitors would not have indicated he was clinically dead.
Colton Burpo Was Resurrected
The Bible teaches that people go to Heaven (or Hell) at the time of death and do not return (Hebrews 13:5). Yes, there are some accounts in the Bible of people who died and were resurrected back to life to live again:
- Elijah raised the son of the Zarephath widow (1 Kings 17:17-24).
- Elisha raised the son of the Shunammite woman (2 Kings 4:32-35).
- Peter raised Tabitha (Acts 9:36-42).
- Paul raised a young man (Acts 20:7-12).
- Jesus raised the son of the widow from Nain (Luke 7:11-15), Jairus’ daughter (Matthew 9:18-19, 23-25, Mark 5:22-24, 35-43, Luke 8:41-42, 49-56) and Lazarus (John 11:38-44).
All of these were miracles of God, and they were recorded in His Holy Word, so we can trust that they were true events. However, we have no way to verify if young Colton Burpo died and was resurrected.
What Colton Claims to Have Seen
Many descriptions of what Colton Burpo saw in Heaven cannot be confirmed by Scripture and some actually contradict Scripture (angels with wings, Jesus’ appearance, et.al.)
The question remains, did this young child go to Heaven and is his account of what he saw true? The only certain answer is…we don’t know. My belief is that he may have been given some kind of vision of Heaven, but that he did not go there. I base this upon the Bible’s teaching that the soul goes to heaven at the time of death and that there are many stories of Heaven experiences from people who were pronounced clinically dead and then resuscitated. Being resuscitated is different than being resurrected. Clinical death is measured by man’s invented instruments. Since God is the giver of life, only He can know with 100% certainty the exact moment when a life ends. This would explain many “returns” as resuscitation from inactivity of the heart (a flatlined state of the body), not a resurrection from the dead (a regeneration).
No one can know for certain what happens in near-death experiences, but we do know what happens in death:
Heb 9:27 …it is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment,
You should be very cautious when reading or watching accounts of near-death experiences. Never form your understanding of Heaven based upon such books and movies. Only Scripture provides a trustworthy revelation of Heaven. The Bible might not tell us everything that we want to know about Heaven, but we can be assured that it does tell us everything that we need to know about Heaven—in an accurate and trustworthy account.
What Does the Bible Say About Heaven?
Jesus, Paul, and John all provide information about where the soul goes after death. Prior to the cross, the abode of the dead was in the earth. In Luke 16 we read Jesus’ words as He spoke about this. In the passage, Jesus describes two places—a place of comfort called Abraham’s Bosom and a place of torment that we refer to as Hell.
Abraham’s Bosom Was Not Heaven
Abraham’s Bosom was a place of comfort and waiting. Prior to the cross, the sins of Old Testament saints were remitted by the Levitical system of atonement using the blood of animals. This was not sufficient to completely atone for sins Therefore, prior to the cross, those who died in faith did not go to Heaven. They waited in Abraham’s Bosom. (For more information, read Where did OT saints go at death? Abraham’s Bosom? Where was it?) When Jesus offered Himself in payment for the penalty of man’s sins, His shed blood made complete and final atonement for sins; and when Jesus ascended into Heaven, He led the Old Testament saints from Abraham’s Bosom to their new dwelling place with Him (Ephesians 4:8). Paul wrote a great deal about Heaven after the cross. And so did the apostle John.
The Best Description of Heaven in ANY Book
The apostle John was told to write what he saw, and, in the book of Revelation, John records the magnificence and beauty of the throne room in the heavenly realm. It is a glimpse of Christ in all His glory, the praises of the heavenly host, and the joy of the redeemed as they worship the One who is worthy of all glory, honor, and power.
Revelation 4:1-11 After these things I looked, and behold, a door standing open in heaven. And the first voice which I heard was like a trumpet speaking with me, saying, “Come up here, and I will show you things which must take place after this.”
Immediately I was in the Spirit; and behold, a throne set in heaven, and One sat on the throne. And He who sat there was like a jasper and a sardius stone in appearance; and there was a rainbow around the throne, in appearance like an emerald. Around the throne were twenty-four thrones, and on the thrones I saw twenty-four elders sitting, clothed in white robes; and they had crowns of gold on their heads. And from the throne proceeded lightnings, thunderings, and voices.
Seven lamps of fire were burning before the throne, which are the seven Spirits of God. Before the throne there was a sea of glass, like crystal. And in the midst of the throne, and around the throne, were four living creatures full of eyes in front and in back. The first living creature was like a lion, the second living creature like a calf, the third living creature had a face like a man, and the fourth living creature was like a flying eagle. The four living creatures, each having six wings, were full of eyes around and within. And they do not rest day or night, saying:
“Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, Who was and is and is to come!”
Whenever the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to Him who sits on the throne, who lives forever and ever, the twenty-four elders fall down before Him who sits on the throne and worship Him who lives forever and ever, and cast their crowns before the throne, saying:
“You are worthy, O Lord, To receive glory and honor and power; For You created all things, And by Your will they exist and were created.”
We can only know what Heaven is like from the few descriptions we find in the Bible (read, What did Jesus say about Heaven?). Scripture alone is our authority. Our knowledge of God and everything in this world must be formed by God’s Word and then our understanding guided by the Holy Spirit, prayer, and Christian fellowship.
We can know with all certainty that what is happening in Heaven is worship and praise of the One who died for us. Heaven is a real place and it abounds with people of all nations and races giving honor and glory to the Lord Jesus Christ.
I’m not sure how those who claim to have gone to Heaven would even be able to tell of the many things that they describe. It means that while in Heaven they had to take their eyes off of Jesus. The only people John mentions are the 24 elders and they were surrounding the throne. When Paul spoke of going to Heaven, he doesn’t mention seeing other people, nor does he talk about what was taking place. He speaks of the throne and the One who sits on the throne. Both John and Paul kept their eyes on Jesus.
Paul wrote that what he saw was “unlawful to be uttered.” Perhaps because if he had spoken of it we would know what it is like to be in the presence of Jesus. Then none of us would want to remain here on this earth. That just can’t be. God made this earth and, although it sure isn’t Heaven, it is still our home and mission field. Until the Lord calls us to our heavenly home, there is work to be done here. The Lord wants us to remain here and work His fields and prepare for His harvest.
One day the Lord of the Harvest will come and gather the wheat unto Himself (Matt 3). The harvest will be great! But until that time we are to plant and water the seeds of the gospel of saving grace (1 Cor 3:6-9).
Don’t spend your time talking about what Heaven will be like. Talk about He who reigns in Heaven—the Lord Jesus Christ. Tell people how they can experience a taste of the joy of Heaven here on earth, by knowing and loving the One who died for them and offers them forgiveness of sins and life everlasting. Go forth into the fields of this world and tell people about Jesus!
Romans 10:15 . . .How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace, and bring glad tidings of good things!
Until the day when we go to Heaven, let’s stay focused on our mission of preaching the gospel. I would venture to say that rather than talking about what Heaven will be like, it is God’s desire that we:
- Talk more about our Morning Star, Jesus (Revelation 2:28, 22:16), and less about the stars in Heaven.
- Talk more about our High Priest, Jesus (Hebrews 3:1, 4:14, 6:20), and less about the high Heaven, and
- Talk more about our Christ Jesus (John 20:31, 2 Corinthians 1:3), and less about the place of comfort.
While we live on this earth let’s keep our focus on Jesus. And, when we get to Heaven, I’m sure we will not be able to take our eyes off of Him.
Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God. [in Heaven] Hebrews 12:2
Go forth into the fields of this world and tell them about Jesus!
¹ New York Post, CSI: Afterlife, October 2012.
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