Saturday, March 5, 2011

Review: Heaven Is For Real

It’s no surprise that Todd Burpo’s book, Heaven Is For Real is a bestseller. People love hearing about that place Shakespeare called “the undiscovered country.” We want to know that there is something after death. Parents who have lost children want to know that their children are all right. People are looking for hope behind that great curtain of death. I believe many people will read Heaven Is For Real looking for that hope and they will find what they are looking for. At the very least, they will walk away having had an enjoyable read.

But to be honest, I was a skeptic when I began reading Heaven Is For Real and I don’t think the book has done anything to relieve my skepticism. The book is told from the point of view of a father who hears about his son’s near death experience. Having read the Bible, I believe it is quite possible that God could take a child to heaven for a while. We have plenty of examples. But I see too much of myself in this child. Todd Burpo’s basic argument for saying that this happened in this way is that there is no way his son could have known about these things if he hadn’t seen them because no one had told him about them.

I have trouble accepting that argument because I was once a four year old preacher’s kid. I remember knowing a lot more about church doctrine than what the adults probably thought I did at that age. Much of what I knew back then came from flannel graph and pictures in Bibles and Sunday school books, but I knew a lot. As I read Heaven Is For Real, I tried looking for those things that couldn’t be explained away as something a child might have seen in a Sunday school book. I have no way of knowing what Colton had the opportunity to learn in church and at home, but I do know that I had been exposed to all of that stuff by about that age.

Kids at that age have grand imaginations and the lines between reality and imagination are often blurred. Also, they have a tendency to make up stories to impress adults. It was about that age at which my sister told one couple that she used to have a husband, but he got choked in the berry briars. And if you took some of the stories I told at about that age to be fact, you would probably think the world has been invaded by aliens. So, the simple fact is that we have no way of knowing whether what is presented as fact in Heaven Is For Real is actually fact or not.

I did find a few things that definitely made me question at least part of it. In chapter 19, we’re told that Colton described the gates of heaven as being “made of gold and there were pearls on them.” You will recall that the Bible says nothing of golden gates, though some artist draw them that way. The Bible actually says that the twelve gates are each made of a single pearl.

In chapter 23, Colton talks about seeing “power shot down to Daddy” when he is preaching. In Colton’s explanation, the Holy Spirit does this. This raises questions because the Bible tells us that the Holy Spirit indwells believers. There would be no need for the Holy Spirit to beam power down from heaven. Chapter 25 states that Colton didn’t talk about Satan because he had seen something awful. Interestingly, the Bible describes Satan as a beautiful creature. Chapter 26 talks about the women and children in heaven staying back and watching while the men have to fight. Once again, this doesn’t seem to line up with the Bible. Chapter 27 endorses the Akiane Kramarik “Jesus” picture as the real thing. Even her own website states that this painting is based on a model who agreed to let her use his face for the painting. For all I know, it does look like what Jesus looked like, but there’s nothing that proves it does.

The bottom line is that though Heaven Is For Real is an entertaining read, it has its flaws. We don’t really know how much, if any, is truly stuff Colton saw when he went to heaven, how much is stuff he dreamed after seeing Christian literature, and how much he simply made up because his parents kept asking him about it. I think the best way to look at this book is to see it as a book that will help you appreciate how much children of that age can absorb and understand. If Heaven Is For Real will help us see that it is never too early to start teaching children about Jesus and it will get some people thinking about heaven, then it is a good thing.


Anonymous said...

Opinions are like buttholes and everybodys got one... but sometimes you just need to keep it to yourself. Wouldn't you rather this book have nothing but a postitve impact on anyone who reads it? Then here you are picking any little flaw or mistake that could stear someone away from something so good.
Shame on you!

Anonymous said...

Bearing false witness is a sin. Please God deliver the liars to Hell before anyone else gets brainwashed and misled.

Timothy Fish said...

Anonymous 5:36 PM,

While I understand your thoughts on this subject, it is dangerous when we fail handle the truth of God's word well, especially with a book written by a pastor. Many people are looking for hope outside of those things that have the power to give us hope. As Proverbs 29:18 says, "Where there is no vision, the people perish; but he that keepeth the law, happy is he." Let's not rely on the imagination of a little child for our hope but on the truth of the word of God.

Timothy Fish said...

Anonymous 3:00 AM,

I don't wish for the people involved with this book to go to hell and I'm not sure that they intended to lie, but they did fail to compare what the boy was saying to what God has told us. We all make mistakes and God forgives. I just think they need to own up to their mistake.

sasha naomi said...

I found your blog because I was interested in what skepticism people have to offer about this book. I really appreciated your blog because I see so many people getting sucked into these "bestsellers" without really evaluating whether they should fully embrace the story.

I was raised Christian, but consider myself agnostic now. I appreciate your balanced approach in this review! Great job.


narvolicious said...

I stumbled upon this book by chance recently and read the back cover's summary. I was astounded at the thought; for me, the question of our existence and what happens to us when we die has always lingered.

I was raised Catholic but became increasingly agnostic as I grew older. Nowadays, I'm open to any suggestion, and find the myriad of possibilities fascinating, from culture to culture, person to person.

Nonetheless, the pursuit for the truth exists for me, and I wonder where it lies, be it in the Large Hadron Collider, or in the pages of a book. At times I wonder if we all make our own heaven (or hell) when our train comes along.

Thanks for sharing, and glad to know you had a pleasant read.

Anonymous said...

I wonder what you would have said the first time someone described what they saw after a time when Jesus had performed a miracle. Would your skepticism have been any less because a living person described something that happened to another living individual? I am sad that the most limiting factor in Christian belief is our inability to believe how much God can transcend our understanding. Long ago I learned I don't have to understand God to trust him.

I suspect one of the barriers to some believing this story is that they cannot understand it. I'm thankful I can't understand God. That would definitely be far too limiting on the God who loves me.

Timothy Fish said...

Anonymous 5:06 AM,

In the case of Jesus, the miracles were part of the evidence that he was who he claimed to be. Would we have believed him if he claimed to the the Son of God and he couldn't work miracles or understand the scriptures without having been taught by the religious leaders of his day? People in day may have been skeptical when they heard that he was working mircles, but they could go and see. The woman at the well, for example, ran and told the men of the city, "Come, see a man who told me all things that ever I did. Is not this the Christ?" They didn't have to take her word for it.

But Heaven Is For Real is lacking in evidence and is in conflict with what the Bible teaches. John told us to "test the spirits whether they are of God." Paul encouraged people to "search the scriptures" to see if what preachers say is correct. We are not to just blindly accept everything without evidence. While I can appreciate people's desire for the book Heaven is For Real to be "for real", the evidence proves it otherwise.

Brownie said...

Thanks for your comment on this book. I do agree with you.

I was frustrated today because I was in a christian bookstore and the clerk was really trying to sell me on this book. I told him that I didn't need to read the book to know that heaven is "for real" it says so in the Bible. He then said the child talked to Jesus - I asked if He was quoted and suggested that the Bible said not to add to scripture. This guy just would not budge. So thanks for your comments that I can stick in my brain for the next time the topic is brought up.

Anonymous said...

As per your comments: "Chapter 27 endorses the Akiane Kramarik “Jesus” picture as the real thing. Even her own website states that this painting is based on a model who agreed to let her use his face for the painting." I then went to her website but couldn't find what you said...instead she described how she saw God's face...why?

Timothy Fish said...

Anonymous 10:49,

I am the wrong person to be asking why her website no longer includes the story of how she found a model for the picture. I would suggest asking the person who is maintaining that website. All I can do is confirm that I too am no longer able to find that information on her website. If you are looking for more information about how she found her model, you can Google "akiane kramarik carpenter". There are several blogs that still have that information, though I don't know which one is the most accurate. It is really too bad that they decided to take it off of her website, since she really is the most accurate source of that information.

Anonymous said...

Quoted from the link:

Akiane spent a lot of time searching for the right faces for models for her pictures, but then she discovered that if she prayed, the models would come into her life right away. For over a year Akiane was looking for Jesus model and finally asked the whole family to pray with her. The very next day an acquaintance brought her friend, a carpenter who stood almost seven feet tall, to meet Akiane. Akiane immediately knew she would paint him as Jesus.

**Not just simply found a model for the painting!!

Timothy Fish said...

Anonymous 5:17,

That's the way it goes sometimes. I sometimes think that making public prayer requests has more to do with letting other people know what we're looking for than what it has to do with letting God know.

Anonymous said...

You said the bible says nothing about golden does. And for you to knock someone's testimony is purely wrong. I don't know your personal take on religion, but I can guarantee you're either agnostic or atheist. And if you are a Christian , shame on you . And "children at that age have a vivid imagination." You're saying all of these things were coincidences that all of the things match up to the bible? You're saying that it's a coincidence Colton "vividly imagined" his unborn sister he didn't know about. That he had thought up his grandfather who died 2 decades before he was born. This article was what I call a "wanna be bash." All you did was contradict everything he said.

Timothy Fish said...


You don't like me. I get that, but doesn't change the facts. There are plenty of search engines out there that will allow you to search the Bible and if you type "gold gate" into any of them, you will find that I am correct that the Bible does not mention golden gates. What it does say is that "the twelve gates were twelve pearls; each separate gate was of one pearl" (Revelation 21:21)

You can call me names if you like, but I am neither atheist nor agnostic. I am an adult Sunday School teacher who believes becoming a Christian is not an excuss to check one's brain at the door.

MandyS said...

I appreciate your review of this book. I was beginning to think I was the only person on the planet that wasn't in love with this book. It's a NICE book to read, but left me with a little bit of a bad taste in my mouth.

@Anonymous, this book is Todd Burpos account of his sons testimony. It has sold tons of copies. To write a book review on a commercialized version of a second hand "testimony" is far from an attack on a persons testimony.

Ryan and Katy said...

It is difficult to place logic on something spiritual. I can appreciate your appreciation for the word of God. However, you intentionally failed to address things in this book that make it more palatable and believable. It isn't a surprise that you avoid the stories about Colton's sister and his great grandfather. And, if one were even skeptical about this, you'd have to come up with a better place where Colton could have seen these people, which there really can be none other.

Just for your information, the bible describes Satan as a beautiful creature only as it is related to his time on earth, not how one that is in heaven might see him or how one might feel having known who he was/is.

I concur that your explanation of pictures could lead one to this the conclusion about what heaven looks like and it could even give credence to Jesus' markers (his hands and feet).

Almost immediately after you wrote this, the Catholic Church started an investigation into this boy's experience. The impetus for doing this was not to prove or disprove Colton's experience. The church always thought that Gabriel sat at the left hand side of God though the bible says that he stands in the "presence of God", it has been believed that he sits in the throne room. These inquiries generally take a long time (3-6 years) so many of us are anxiously awaiting a ruling, though I don't believe it will be called a ruling. Many will not take the church's inquiry to lend credence to this boy's story. Many will think that it would be deficient not to.

Timothy Fish said...

Ryan and Katy,

I’m sure you understand that it is difficult to address every issue found in a book within a short blog post. I wasn’t trying to avoid the stories of Colton’s sister and his great-grandfather, it simply seemed to me that they were similar in nature to the other things I covered. Just as Colton could have developed his concept of heaven from what he’d seen in pictures, it is quite possible that he heard his parents talking about his sister and his great-grandfather, when they didn’t realize he was paying attention. A conversation they forgot about may have been significant to him. So once again, those stories are insufficient to prove the claims of this book.

As for the difficult of applying logic to matters of a spiritual nature, if we can’t use logic for spiritual things then how can we possibly say logic has meaning anywhere else? The concept of logic comes from the study of God’s word. The word logic originated from the word logos, which was used to refer to the Word of God.

The unseen nature of the things that are spiritual necessitates our use of logic to understand them. Perhaps not the best example, but consider another unseen thing, the refrigerator light. How do we know that the light is off when the door is closed? We can push the switch with the door open and see the light go off. We can measure the size of the door and see that it is large enough to push the switch. We conclude by logic that the light goes off, even though we can’t see it happen. With spiritual matters, there are things we can’t yet see, but we have God’s Word. Since we know that God’s Word is always true, through logic, we can determine the truth of statements made by men.