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.