This question is so timely. Many books have been published presenting stories of people who claim to have died, gone to Heaven, and come back to tell about it. We must question whether the stories are true and if the accounts of what they saw and heard are trustworthy.
A few years ago, the book Heaven is for Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back by Todd Burpo was publishe and quickly became a best seller. The book tells the story of Colton Burpo, a four year old boy, who claims to have gone to Heaven while under anesthesia for an appendectomy. Last week, the story was released as a Hollywood motion picture (during Holy Week, April 2014), dramatizing the child’s account of what he claims to have seen and heard in Heaven.
Is the Story True?
The medical procedure Colton Burpo underwent is certainly true and verifiable. However, his story of going to Heaven cannot be substantiated. In an interview with New Yorker Magazine, Lynn Vincent, the ghost-writer of the book, 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
Is this boy’s story of dying, going to Heaven, and returning to tell (in great detail) about what he heard and there 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 the descriptions of Heaven in this boy’s story. 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.
1. Colton Burpo Died
There are no medical records of Colton Burpo having died. The Bible tells us that the soul departs the body at the time of death (Eccl 12:7, 2 Cor 5:8). Colton claims that he was outside his body, observing his parents, and seeing his own body in the hospital room. This raises the question, why didn’t medical monitors record any evidence that he was clinically dead?
2. 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). While there are some accounts in the Bible of people who died and were resurrected back to life, none of these people went to Heaven. They were Old Testament saints and at death they went to Abraham’s Bosom, the abode of the righteous dead (Read more: Where did OT Saints go at death? Abraham’s Bosom? Where was that?).
- 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. Beause they are recorded in the Bible, we can trust that they were true events. However, since there is no evidence of Colton Burpo’s death, there can be no evidence that he was resurrected.
3. What Colton Burpo Claims to Have Seen
Many descriptions of what Colton Burpo saw in Heaven cannot be confirmed by Scripture. In fact some, including angels with wings and Jesus’ appearance actually contradict Scripture.
The questions remain, did this young child go to Heaven? Is his account of what he saw there 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 he did not go to Heaven. I base this on the Bible’s teaching that the soul goes to heaven at the time of death, which is the end of man (Ecc 7:2, Prov 14:12).
Resuscitated vs. Resurrected
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 resuscitations from inactivity of the heart (a flatlined state of the body), not a resurrection from the dead (a regeneration to life).
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 true and trustworthy revelation of what Heaven is like and who will be there. 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—with great accuracy..
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, for both those who died with faith in God and for those who died apart from Him. In Luke 16 we read Jesus’ words as He told about these two places— one, a place of comfort called Abraham’s Bosom and the other a place of torment.
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, opening the way to Heaven. Paul tells us that 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 also gives us a glimpse of what he experienced when taken to the third heaven, the dwelling place of God (2 Cor 12:2-4). The apostle John was also taken to the throne room of God and told to write of what he saw in Heaven.
The Best Description of Heaven in ANY Book
In the book of Revelation, is John’s record of 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 in the Bible (Read, What did Jesus say about Heaven?). Scripture alone is our authority. Heaven is a real place and it abounds with people of all nations and all races giving honor and glory to the Lord Jesus Christ who sits on the throne.
Paul wrote that what he saw was “unlawful to be uttered.” Perhaps he was forbidden to tell us more because if he had we would know what it is like to be in Heaven, in the presence of Jesus. Then we would not want to remain here on earth; and while this earth cannot compare with the glory of Heaven, it is still our home and there is work to be done here. We are to remain and work the Lord’s fields, and prepare for His harvest. One day Jesus will come and gather the wheat unto Himself (Matt 3). The harvest will be great! But until that time we are to 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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