Two things happened to me recently. First, I came into a bit of confrontation with yet another devotee to the book by Todd Burpo, "Heaven is for Real". Second, in researching material to send to said devotee I ran across an article at Christianity Today titled, "You Probably Love (or Hate) 'Heaven Is For Real' for All the Wrong Reasons". The article itself presented a major difficulty that also showed up in my discussion and so I decided to address the book by commenting on the article. The difficulty has to do with where we place extra-biblical revelation in our theological framework.
In the article Kyle writes,
"In this sea of ecstatic experiences, what gives Colton Burpo's story the buoyancy to float to the top of our cultural consciousness? Perhaps it finds just the right mix of preschool innocence and supernatural wonder to grab our attention. But I think it has more to do with its stated objective: To prove heaven exists."
This sort of statement raises alarm bells for me. Why do we believe heaven is for real? In fact, let's extend that question a bit further and ask, "Why do we believe anything God has told us in his Word is for real?" From God himself, to Jesus, to the Holy Spirit, to Salvation, the list goes on. How can we know any of these things are for real? The Church's approach to answer any of these questions will tell us a lot. It could be logic or apologetic, a vision or some four-year-old's visit to heaven. However I believe underlying anything we might call a proper defense of the Bible must be what God himself says about himself. Most Christians would, on the surface, agree with that last statement, but I honestly doubt today that many of them really know what it is I'm saying. Let me show you, in a nutshell, what I mean from...well...the Bible:
And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God. And I will deliver you from all your uncleannesses.
(Ezekiel 36:26-32 ESV)
This is a prophetic vision of the New Covenant given by the prophet Ezekiel. Romans chapter eight gives us a New Testament parallel to this idea that God will make us, for all intents and purposes, new creatures. The point is, as Christians, we shouldn't need to be "convinced" of the truthfulness of what God says because, as creatures who have been called, transformed and filled with his Spirit, we should already know that what he says is true. Why? Because we are his sheep and we hear his voice (John 10:27).
The difficulty with the statement quoted above from the article is that it implies that it is ok to seek confirmation elsewhere for the truthfulness of what God has already told us. It is like saying, "God, I know you said heaven is real in your Word to me, but I really don't quite believe you. So if you don't mind, could you have another human tell me it is true so that I can believe?" If you don't see the sinfulness of such a statement then then most of what I'm saying probably doesn't make much sense to you either.
But the article gets better. Later, in defense of ecstatic experiences and visions, he offers two examples that he hopes will ease some of the tension evangelicals are having with the Burpo account. They are Francis of Assisi and Theresa of Avila. The difficulty I have with these examples is that they were both a part of and proponent for a religion that was anything but Christian at the time. By the time these two come along the Church had apostatized far beyond anything the Apostles would have imagined. To offer these two as examples is much like offering Joel Osteen and Norman Vincent Peale in defense of a particular doctrine in order to argue its orthodoxy. It doesn't necessarily invalidate the argument, but it certainly is very odd and in no way should bring the desired effect of comforting the critics of the Burpo account (unfortunately, for many Christians it will do just that).
The strangest part of the article is that Kyle explains the visions they have which are clearly very much unlike the Burpo account and then candidly admits: "Obviously, these mystical visions are quite unlike Colton's".
What?! So what was the point? Kyle says, "But they show that the value of ecstatic experience isn't exhausted by objective analysis." I'm not entirely sure what that is suppose to mean. Perhaps it means that even though Burpo goes far beyond Scripture, unlike Francis and Theresa, and even though some things are just plain ridiculous and even sacrilegious, there is still some good to be gotten from it? To which I'm compelled to ask, "Why bother?!!" Seriously, if we have the God-breathed very words of God, infallible, sufficient and true, then why do we need the Burpo account in the first place? The answer is simple: when it comes right down to it God's Word isn't good enough. Period.
I would like to think the low view of Scripture held by many in the church today is the result of simple ignorance. And for many I am sure it is. Unfortunately I am afraid that for more than we would care to admit the problem run much deeper. For many it is because what is described in Ezekiel 36 and quoted above has never become a reality. Burpo's account brings comfort because they have never had the Holy Spirit given to live inside of them because they have never been converted. If the first part of Ezekiel 36 had taken place, then consequently the second part would have also and He, the Spirit, would confirm the veracity the Word of God (He did, after all, write it and this is the very thing he was sent to do - John 14:26).
I would encourage anyone reading this post to read Psalm 119 and ask the simple question, "Does this describe my view of Scripture?" I believe it is time for the Church to take a serious look at how she views Scripture and to be truly honest about what she sees. Once this happens and she returns to the Source of all truth using the means he has already provided for knowing that truth, books like "Heaven is for Real" will be seen for what they are, nonsensical and nonessential.