Thursday, December 11, 2014

Heaven is for Real - A Review

“Heaven is for Real”, written by Todd Burpo with Lynn Vincent
Published by Thomas Nelson, 2010


        Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. (1 John 4:1 ESV)

       The goal of this paper is to make people aware of the content of the book “Heaven is for Real”.  More specifically, to bring to light the serious  theological problems with the book.  This book, a national bestseller, is being read by leaders and laypeople alike all over the U.S. and, although I have seen some alarms raised, for the most part I have observed general acceptance of the account and statements offered in the book by these people.  I believe this is not only a problem but a terrifying commentary on the state of the church. 
       In a day and age when whole congregations and denominations are sliding or have slid into apostasy the church, more than ever, needs to rediscover (among other things) the reformational call to ‘Sola Scriptura’[1].  At one time the Bible was the church’s standard for faith and practice.  When it came to matters of the nature and character of God, the condition and remedy of man, how to live out our faith and the final destination of the saved and the lost, the Bible was the word of truth and authority and it was final.    
       We are told in the book of Acts that as Paul was sharing the gospel with a particular group of Jews in Berea that they didn’t simply take him at his word, rather they went to Scriptures:

        Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.  (Acts 17:11)[2]

        The story of Paul’s mission to Berea provides an example all believers should take to heart.  If one reads through the Old and New Testaments it is easy to see that this standard wasn’t isolated to a small group of Jews and one apostle but was likewise the standard of all the Old Testament prophets, the Psalmists the Apostles, the authors of the gospels and even Jesus himself!  How much more should it be the standard of the church, built upon the foundation of the Apostles and with Jesus as the cornerstone[3], in these last days?
My hope is that this review will not be seen as an attack upon the authors or readers but rather as what it is intended to be:  a call to God’s people to regain a high view of Scripture and its Author and to serve as a wakeup call to the church from her apathy.  There are wolves in the fold just as we were warned there would be:

        I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be alert… (Acts 20:29-31a ESV)

        We must be alert for anything that will hurt the flock or bring dishonor to our God.  Sometimes this hurt, like a wolf in sheep’s skin, looks innocuous enough but before long the damage has been done and much effort must be put into restoration.  This isn’t something that is the responsibility of the leaders only but of every believer.  We are all priests[4] and therefore, in some measure, bear the responsibility of protecting the flock.  


“Sometimes things become possible if we want them bad enough.”  T.S. Eliot

 “I saw you arrive: you flew. Everyone else was so busy seeing the King off that nobody knew. Except me. I happened to notice you, you flew."   Glimfeather, The Silver Chair, C.S. Lewis.

“What is truth?”  Pontius Pilate

        The first thing I wish to do in the next two sections is establish first that Todd believes his son really did go to heaven.  Indeed, all of the Burpos believe this but since Todd is the author of the book I feel it is important we establish his position on the account.  Second, I wish to make clear Todd’s intention for writing the book, which I believe is to convince the reader of the truthfulness of the account.
       When discussing this book I often hear people say, “I read the book as a fictional account”.  The idea being that if the book is seen as fictional then the extra biblical material can be taken as fanciful and therefore no one need take it too seriously.  The book, therefore, merely serves to be a source of inspiration.  However, I find this approach to be disingenuous at best because it ignores the implicit contract that exists between two parties:  That of the reader and the author.  The author, when he or she writes, intends to convey certain specific ideas to the reader and although there can be a fair amount of play in what the reader takes away from the book there are certain things that are not open for interpretation without the reader putting words (literally) into the author’s mouth[5].  Therefore it is important for us to ask the question, “What did the author intend to convey?”.
        In the book under review it is important for us to understand what Todd Burpo intended to convey to his audience. Did he believe what his son told him to be the truth?  Did Todd believe he was conveying truth to his readers?  It is clear that Todd is concerned with knowing the truth of his son’s experience, a point he makes clear on page 87.  Todd was concerned he might lead his son into saying something he might not have otherwise said. Todd writes, “I didn’t want him just feeding me back stuff to please me.  I wanted to know the truth.”  Todd’s intentions are to discover this truth and, as we shall see, to convey it to an audience.
       But first, before we get to Todd’s account, I want to quote a few passages from the beginning of the book under the title, “Praise for heaven is for real.”  I only include these because not only do they show what other “believers” are saying about the book, but the fact that they are included serves to underscore Todd’s opinion of the information he is offering.  If Todd did not share the opinions of these people it would have been unlikely he would have allowed them to be included in book in the first place.  At the very least he would certainly have spoken out against them elsewhere. Yet, to this date I am unaware he has done so.

“...Take a journey with Colton and Todd as they describe firsthand the wonders, mysteries and majesty of heaven...”  Brady Boyd.

“...I could hardly put [the book] down! Why?  Because I know the author and I believe him.  Todd Burpo gives us a wonderful gift as he and his son lift the veil on eternity, allowing us a quick glimpse of what lies on the other side.”  Dr. Everett Piper,  President, Oklahoma Wesleyan University.

“Colton’s story could have been in the New Testament--but God has chosen to speak to us in this twenty-first century through the unblemished eyes of a child, revealing some of the mysteries of heaven...”  Jo Anne Lyon, General Superintendent, The Wesleyan Church.

“...If heaven is something that intrigues you or troubles you, if you wonder what our lives will be like, then I highly recommend this book.”  Sheila Walsh, WOF[6] Speaker and Author.

As we can see from the above quotes, other readers, including key leaders in Todd’s denomination, believe the Burpos’ account to be an actual trip to heaven.  But what about Todd?  Did he believe his son’s account to be true?  Did he find the truth he was looking for?  I believe so. 
As Todd and Sonja began getting more information about their son’s experience Todd finds himself believing what Colton is telling them.  He writes, “I realized I was starting to accept that, yes, maybe Colton really had been to heaven.  I felt like our family had received a gift…” (pg. 71). 

“I drew in a sharp breath.  [Colton] saw this.  He had to have.”  pg.  67[7]

       Speaking about the tragic death of their unborn child and their struggle to believe, without doubt, that she was in heaven, Todd writes on page 97, “We had wanted to believe that our unborn child had gone to heaven.  Even though the Bible is largely silent on this point, we had accepted it on faith.  But now, we had an eyewitness…” [italics mine].
       I will comment more thoroughly on this particular quote later.  For now it suffices to show Todd and his wife believed their son to be an eyewitness to their daughter who met him in heaven.  Before this the Burpos did not even know the gender of the child.
        Todd appears to oscillate between tentative belief and incredulity throughout the book, although he clearly ends the book as a firm believer in his son’s testimony. So it is understandable if you find yourself confused on this point as you read the book. I think it is better to understand Todd’s commitment to the veracity of his son’s account being an overriding theme throughout the book with his doubts being offered to assuage the reader of their own doubts.  It would be easier to discard Todd’s account if we thought he had believed everything his son said right from the beginning without hesitation.  We might consider him simply as being too gullible.  Instead Todd makes it clear that he himself struggled with doubt but eventually overcame these doubts to arrive at, what he believes, is the truth.
       An example of this is found on page 104. Todd writes, “I believed.  But how could I be sure?”  He then devises a test for his son.  He would ask him something that he knew to be theologically wrong and see what his son had to say about it.  In this case he asks his son what he did in heaven at nighttime when it got dark.  His son correctly assures Todd that there is no night in heaven because God and Jesus light up heaven.  Although it isn’t explicitly stated, it is fairly obvious that Todd felt his son had passed the test with flying colors.
       Finally, on page 148, Todd responds to people who have called their family blessed for what Colton experienced in heaven.  He writes, “In the sense that we’ve had a glimpse through the veil that separates earth from eternity, they’re right.”   Gone now are the doubts that troubled Todd.  Colton has been to heaven and his experience has given him (and all of us) a glimpse of our future home. 
       In moving forward we can rest assured that Todd believes his son’s account to be factual.  It simply will not do for us to read this book with any other understanding.  Why?  First, because the author intends it to be read this way and, more importantly, very few others in our congregations are reading it this way.  They are taking the book at face value:  an actual eyewitness account of heaven.  And because of this they are (or at least in danger of) incorporating the views expressed in this book into their own theological framework, whether intentional or not.  For this reason alone leaders in the church need to be ready to give solid, biblical answers to the questions brought up by the book as well as being ready to counter to any wrong answers given in the book.  

Der Wunderkind: Laying the groundwork for a story to be believed

“Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t.”  Hamlet, William Shakespeare

“Almost thou persuadest me…!”  King Agrippa

        If we want people to believe our story, we first have to convince people it is believeable.  So I don’t fault Todd for attempting to lay the groundwork for a believable story.  After all, having a four year old as your firsthand source can be both a blessing and a curse for a writer.  Yet I sometimes get the feeling he is trying too hard to get his readership onboard.  True, Colton seems like a great kid, but is it to be believed he is as innocent and his eyes as “unblemished” as Todd claims?  It is easy for us to see our own children as the epitome of childhood innocence, but I think if we who are parents are honest we will admit the fallen nature rears its ugly head fairly early on in our children’s lives.   And perhaps it is Todd’s attempts to connect with his readers, many who are parents, using his son’s innocence as an acid test of the story’s veracity which leaves me a bit skeptical.
        In the prologue, on page xviii, Todd tells us, “Colton was in that narrow window of life where he hadn’t yet learned either tact or guile.”   I completely agree with the first part of Todd’s assessment.  Tact not only doesn’t come naturally to children, it is usually completely lacking, much to the horror of most parents.  However, I find the second part a bit hard to swallow.  Colton was without guile?  No deception, no lying, no attempt to alter the truth in any way?  Perhaps.  But as a parent of six children, all who were four years old at one time, I can say unequivocally that Colton must be one special child.  I’m not saying that my kids were habitual liars, but their nature was adamic and it showed on more than one occasion. 
        On page 59 Todd recounts an intense and embarrassing scene at a funeral.  Colton says some things to which Todd tells us, “...Colton was at that age where if something popped into his head, he’d just blurt it out.”   Again, there is nothing wrong with this statement, I only include it because it appears to be a part of an ongoing attempt by Todd to assure us his son has no ulterior motives.  Colton is simply calling it as he sees it.  
        Later Todd has a discussion with Colton and is struck by not only the answers (I’ll be discussing these later) but also by how he responds.  He writes, “I was also struck by how quickly Colton answered my questions.  He spoke with the simple conviction of an eyewitness, not the carefulness of someone remembering the “right” answers learned in Sunday school or from a book”.  Once again, Todd tries to assure us that Colton cannot possibly be lying because he isn’t taking time to come up with the “right” answers.  It is interesting to note in passing that when a person is reciting a rehearsed story they have a tendency to do exactly what Colton was doing, responding quickly. Rehearsal is exactly what allows someone to respond quickly and without thinking about it. I am not saying that Colton is purposefully lying here, only that it isn’t necessarily the best proof of a narrative’s truthfulness.  
        In conclusion I want to emphasize that I am not saying Colton is lying.  In fact, Colton or even Todd’s morality isn’t the point of this paper.  Todd’s statements are simply an ongoing effort on his part to persuade us that what his son is telling him is true and therefore should be believed.  This simply serves to  underscore the conclusion I drew in the last chapter. Todd believes his son really went to heaven and is accurately relaying what he saw.  Todd believes his son is telling the truth because his son could not possibly be lying; it isn’t in his nature.  But we all know that deception is in our nature.  We are, as C.S. Lewis so aptly put it, sons of adam and daughters of eve.  Let’s now turn our attention to what Colton saw while he was in heaven.

A four year old’s take on heaven (according to an adult)

“It's a dream baby, it's a beautiful one, but you know dreams…”  Chris Nielson, What Dreams May Come (movie)

“Death and what came after death was no great mystery to Sabriel. She just wished it was.”  Sabriel, Garth Nix

       I believe that I’ve established sufficiently that the Burpos believe that their son went to heaven, saw the things he did and have accurately conveyed what he saw.  I also believe I have established that it is Todd’s intention to convey this “truth” to his readers.  WIth that out of the way, I wish to discuss some of the things that Colton saw.
       On page 63 we are told by Colton (via Todd) that Jesus had a rainbow colored horse even though scripture tells us that Jesus actually has a white horse.

        Then I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse! The one sitting on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war. (Revelation 19:11 ESV)

       Perhaps he has more than one?
       On page 65 Todd asks his son what Jesus looked like.  The description Colton gave was:

* Jesus had “makers” on his hands.  On page 67 we find out that Colton was describing the nail imprints. 
* Jesus wore a white robe with a purple sash going from his left shoulder to his right hip.
* He had brown hair and beard.
* His eyes were “pretty”.   Later we find out they were blue (see below).
* He wears a crown with a pink diamond in the middle.

      Later on Colton saw a painting by a young prodigy named Akiane Kramarik that he claims looks like the Jesus he saw.  Akiane Kramarik hears God speak to her regularly and she claims he helped her draw the painting by providing dreams of Jesus and an actual male model to use as a basis of her “Prince of Peace” painting.

       Todd insists that his son could not know these details.  Yet his explanation is striking:

“I knew he wasn’t making it up.  I was pretty sure neither Sonja nor I had ever talked to Colton about what Jesus wore at all, much less what he might be wearing in heaven.  Could he have picked up such a detail from the Bible stories we read to the kids?...But again, the stories in the Bible storybooks we read to him were very narrative-oriented, and just a couple of hundred words each.  Not at all heavy on details, like Jesus wearing white…” (pg. 68)

       It is incredible that for a boy who grew up in church with a father who was also a pastor, going to Sunday school and interacting with other Christian families, that Colton never once saw a picture of Jesus.  It is also strange that the “Jesus” he describes fits quite well with the stereotypical Jesus portrayed in children’s stories, including the “markers” on his hands. 
Interestingly enough Todd tells us on page 66 that he had read to Colton from the Arch series bible storybooks.  A simple search on the internet for the Easter story brought me to a page where I could order an Arch book, the cover of which has a prominent picture of Jesus in white robe, brown hair and beard and “markers” on his hands[8]. In fact, I found no less than five Arch storybooks about the resurrection, including one about the crucifixion, Crucifix and all!  Yet Todd insists that there is no way for Colton to have gotten the descriptions he had from any other source but heaven.  Perhaps the Burpos didn’t have any of these particular books.  Maybe none of the relatives and Christian friends and church family had any of these books.  Or perhaps Todd simply forgot that Colton, like most small children, have what amounts to a photographic memory, with the simplest and briefest visual cues leaving impressions that can be recalled for many years, sometimes even into adulthood.  
In fact, on page 117, Todd tells us that the kids would come with him on his visitations.  In this case it was a nursing home.  I spent a number of years working in nursing facilities and although I don’t know what things looked like at the one Todd brought his son too, I personally saw numerous pictures of Jesus, including crucifixes, in a number of the rooms.  Could Colton’s memory have been influenced by something he saw in a resident’s or patient’s room?
       Simply put, there is simply no way to guarantee that Colton never saw certain things that left impressions which were recalled during his surgery.  Considering how stereotypical Colton’s Jesus is, it seems more likely that he was recalling memories from storybooks and paintings then an actual encounter with the King of Kings.
        On page 68 Todd concludes this chapter in which Colton describes Jesus with the question, “How could my little boy know this stuff?”.  Todd is attempting to give his readers the sense of mystery he was experiencing during this time.  However, after raising six children, the only mystery for me is how could Todd not see the answer to his own question?  Todd himself gives a number of clues as to how Colton knows this stuff and yet he misses the obvious and instead chooses to believe his son actually visited heaven and is, at four years old, able to accurately convey what he saw.  The very thing, I must add, the Apostle Paul was unable to do[9].
        Chapter thirteen goes on to give even more details concerning heaven.  Besides the usual meet-n-greet (which we really don’t get from scripture but rather quaint folk stories of heaven and various popular movies and t.v. shows), starting on page 73 Colton tells us that people have halos, they have wings with which everyone flew and Colton’s was too small but Jesus didn’t have wings but moved up and down like an elevator.  And while Colton was in heaven, Jesus had him doing homework. In chapter eighteen, on page 103, we learn that the Holy Spirit is “kinda blue” and Gabriel sits at the left hand of God. 
       In chapter twenty-two Todd deduces from Colton’s testimony that no one grows old in heaven (pg. 123).  Previously we learned that Colton met his sister in heaven and she was about his height recognizable as his sister (pg. 95).  However, she died in utero, so I can only surmise that people do age, but they never grow old.  We can also conclude that older people regress in age when they get to heaven because in chapter twenty-two we are told Colton met his grandfather and he appeared to be in his twenties even though he died at a much older age! 
There are a number of other observations, but I think these will suffice.  Todd tries hard to make these things jive with scripture, but that fact is none of the things Colton is reporting have strong, if any, scriptural basis whatsoever.  Could they be true?  Of course.  It could also be true that we will all find ourselves living in mansions, driving around in sports cars, eating twinkies and playing football for eternity.  In fact, you could make up pretty much any scenario you like and provided it isn’t directly contradicted by scripture, it could be possible!   Which brings me to the next thing I want to talk about,  our view of scripture.

Presenting Sola Scriptura (and guests)

      “Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God"  Martin Luther before the Diet of Worms, April 18, 1521

Do not add to his words, lest he rebuke you, and you be found a liar. Proverbs 30:6
       The views we hold of scripture make a huge difference in what we believe. One major tenant of the doctrine of scripture held throughout the ages of the New Testament church is the sufficiency of scripture[10].  The Baptist Confession of 1689 says it best in article six:

“The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man's salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down or necessarily contained in the Holy Scripture, to which nothing is to be added at any time, either by new revelation of the Spirit, or by the traditions of men.”

       But more importantly, this doctrine finds its origins in Scripture itself.  In 2 Tim. 3:15 we are told they are able to make us wise unto salvation and in verses 16-17 we are told scripture is able to equip us for every good work.  The effect of scripture in our salvation is also emphasized in passages like James 1;18 and 1 Peter 1:23.   Passages such as Deut. 4:2, 12:32 and Prov. 30:5-6 give explicit and stern warning against adding to God’s revelation.  Considering the nature of the book under review, the passage in Revelation is apropos:

        I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book. (Revelation 22:18-19 ESV)

       Does Heaven is for Real add to God’s revelation contained in the Bible?  Absolutely!  I believe the last section established this fact unequivocally. But why is this particular doctrine so important?  Because without it people are free to add whatever they like to scripture and call it authoritative.  This is exactly what the Church of Rome did and what eventually resulted in the Reformation.  Think about it, without this doctrine how are we to judge the truthfulness of anything we are told concerning God, heaven, hell or our faith?   Without this doctrine it becomes a free-for-all and anything goes.  This is why this doctrine was central to the reformation and why it continues to be a necessary doctrine today.  WIthout it the church is doomed to be tossed about by every wind and wave of doctrine and there would be nothing anyone could do about it.
       Heaven is for Real offers a neatly packaged, emotive story that tugs at our hearts all the while teaching unsuspecting believers that there are accurate, truthful sources outside of scripture that can teach us about God, heaven and even salvation that he himself never revealed to us in scripture.   The disaster for the church is that many thousands of believers have swallowed this lie hook, line and sinker.  But it doesn’t end there.  Not only have people been deceived into accepting a low view of scripture, but they have also been deceived into accepting a low view of theology in general.  I would like to discuss this next.

Theology according to a four year old

        Colton, we are informed by his father, has an almost cherub innocence.  He is apparently incapable of lying, deception or being deceived.  And to top it all off he has spent facetime with Jesus, sitting in the presence of God and the Holy Spirit, carousing with John the Baptist and (re)uniting with once dead family members.   So what better person to teach us proper theology, right?  At least, that appears to be Todd’s position.  And this, above all else, is what worries me the most.  When we go beyond what scripture teaches, allowing for sources of our theology to come along side or even replace scripture, we position ourselves upon a slippery slope.  And once on that slope the descent can be at a breakneck speed.       
        My first clue that this descent was taking place was on page 111 when Todd asks Colton, “ you know why Jesus died on the cross?”.  Colton’s response is not surprising but Todd’s is.  Colton responds, “Well, Jesus told me he died on the cross so we could go see his Dad.”.   For a child to say something like, “Jesus died so we could go see his Dad” isn’t really that surprising considering the source:  a child raised in church, in a Christian family with a father who is a pastor.  However, his claiming direct communication from God should surprise us.  Could Jesus communicate with people directly, face to face?  Sure.  But does he?  I don’t believe so.  At least not when it comes to sharing the gospel and not in the way Colton experienced it. Colton’s experience is a long way from the so-called, “small, still voice” or leading of the Holy Spirit many claim.
        Most people will argue along the lines that because God spoke directly to people after his resurrection, he also does it today.  Does the scriptures really affirm this?   Actually, after the resurrection and Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came, we don’t see this very often at all.  In fact we only see this twice.  The first time is in Acts chapter nine when Jesus speaks to Paul.  The second time is in the book of Revelation when Jesus speaks to John.  Yet people use these two instances to justify their argument that Jesus chooses to do this on a fairly regular basis.
        But there is another reason I doubt the validity of such accounts.  In Romans we are told:

        How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?  (Romans 10:14)

        The point in the above passage isn’t that preaching is the only way God will bring the gospel to people, but that people will bring the gospel to people.  This is in keeping with the words of our Lord in the giving of the great commision and the sending out of the seventy-two[11].  But it is underscored by the fact that this is exactly how the church operated in the New Testament.   In fact, there is an interesting account in the tenth chapter of Acts when Peter was sent by God to the household of a centurion named Cornelius.  Cornelius, a God-fearing gentile, sees a vision of an angel[12].  But instead of telling Cornelius about Jesus and the good news, he tells him to send for Peter.  It is Peter who God uses to preach the gospel to Cornelius and his household.  Here would have been a perfect opportunity for the angel or even for Jesus to appear and tell someone about the good news, yet it doesn’t happen.  Why? Clearly it would appear this is not the way God wants things done.  This is why missions is so vital.  Without people being sent out to bring the good news to the nations people will continue to die and go to hell without even a single opportunity to hear the gospel. 
        In verse seventeen of the same chapter we are told what they are to be preaching:  So faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of Christ.  In essence, the gospel, which is recorded for us in scripture.  This passage, emphasizing the role of the church and the scripture, is why conversion accounts of people being visited by Jesus himself should be considered suspect[13].  There is an epidemic in the modern church of a chasing after the voice of God.  Looking for that “word” that will tell us what to do or inform us of our future.  The result has been a prodigious amount of books, radio shows, t.v. programs and even whole denominations formed as the direct result of extra biblical communiques from...something.  In the meantime the Word of God is being warped and manipulated to serve the ends of these special words of God instead of the testing of the spirits that should be happening using the written Word of God that we already have!
        The fact that Colton claims to have heard directly from Jesus should have raised Todd’s eyebrows.  But it doesn’t.  Even if we are to accept that Colton heard something, the first response should have been to run to the Word of God and start testing.  But this doesn’t happen either.  Instead Todd judges theology and theologians by this vision from his son.  What Todd says next is surprising coming from a pastor, but considering trends in the modern church, perhaps it shouldn’t be too surprising.  He says,

“In my mind’s eye, I saw Jesus, with Colton on his lap, brushing past all the seminary degrees, knocking down theological treatises staked high as skyscrapers, and boiling down fancy words like propitiation and soteriology to something a child could understand…”

       There are a number of difficulties with this statement.  First, is this the gospel?  I’m reminded of a quote attributed to Albert Einstein, “Make things as simple as possible but not simpler”.  Here we have an example of “simpler”.   Yes, Jesus died so that we could be with God forever.  But it is much more than this.  Jesus’ death was a remedy for the fall.  Jesus himself said, “The Son of Man came to seek and save the lost”[14].  But this involved more than simply getting people to heaven.  The only people going to heaven are those who have been saved from, not only death, but the guilt of sin and their sin nature.  They will have been made into new creatures with a new nature, the old sinful nature being nailed to the cross.  If the only reason Jesus came and died was so we could go to heaven just as we are then the question would need to be asked, “Why did Jesus die in the first place if it really doesn’t matter if we were delivered from our sins or not?”.  
        I don’t believe that Colton or Todd are attempting to present a sort of universalism here.  I am simply trying to point out that attempting to boil the gospel down to the least common denominator can lead to some really funky theology.  There is a reason that God saw fit to give us all of the scripture he did.  If the gospel was simply, “Believe Jesus loves you and go to heaven” then the bible in its current form is certainly overkill. God could have done what he needed by passing out buttons or tracks.  However, it is all important, every last word of it.  If it wasn’t then the great commission would look more like, “Go into all the world and tell them that I love them”, the end.   Instead it looks like this:

        Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.  (Matthew 28:19-20 ESV)

       Which brings me to the second difficulty I have with Todd’s statement.  It appears to promote an anti-intellectualism.  I’m not saying one needs to go to a seminary or university to know anything about God.  Yet nor do I believe the Bible promotes a form of holy idiocy either.  There seems to be a pervading idea that to be ignorant is to be more holy and, inversely, to be intellectual is to be incapable of understanding the high things of God.   Not only does history flatly deny such a proposition (Jonathan Edwards, John and Charles Wesley, A.B. Simpson, Ravi Zacharias, John MacArthur, Wayne Grudem, etc., were or are very intellectual men), but God chose an extremely intellectual and learned man to write a third of the New Testament!
       Words like propitiation found their way into our English language, including a number of modern translations of the scripture, because men of God over hundreds of years studying the scripture came to the conclusion that no other word quite fit in explaining that precious work our Lord did on the cross.  To throw that history, thought, prayer and study by godly men away is to do ourselves and the church a great disservice. 
       It is also noteworthy that very few children are even quoted in the the entire bible as saying anything substantial. I can only think of two:  Samuel in the O.T., and Jesus in the N.T.[15] and that is it.  The rest of the bible is written by adults, some of them quite old.  Some are priests, others shepherds, others poets, some kings, tax collector, doctor and an ex-pharisee. But they are all adults.  So if God saw fit to proclaim his gospel using adult men through the writings of the entire New Testament,  should we be so quick to disparage his method and put theology into the hands of a four-year-old?
       I’m not against trying to make things understandable to as many people as possible.  But you can only go so far before the real message disappears.  Children should be told about Jesus and his love for them, but the fact is most children will be intellectually incapable of understanding the gospel or most of Jesus’ teachings and the ramifications of what he did.  Does this mean they cannot be saved?  Of course not.  Salvation is a work of the Holy Spirit and he can save whomever he likes whenever he likes.  However, if an adult claimed to be born again but knew nothing about propitiation (the definition not necessarily the word), did not understand anything about sin, the Father, the Holy Spirit or what exactly he was being saved from, nor did he demonstrate a life of progressive holiness we would have serious doubts about his claim to have been born again.  Yet many parents claim their kids have been born again because they said yes to a few basic questions and said a simple prayer. These same parents are then surprised when these children get a bit older and live a life that looks more like hell than heaven, thinking the whole while that they have merely strayed from the Lord.  The terrible truth being that their children were never born again in the first place.  This is why it is vital we get this right the first time and stop playing around with the gospel.  With Paul, we must be able, at the end of the day, to say:

        Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God. (Acts 20:26-27 ESV)

        The result of this sort of degradation of God’s methods for teaching the things that concern him, including his gospel, becomes more evident later on.  After learning from Colton, who is now two years older, that everyone in heaven carries swords, Todd’s wife asks, “why?”.   They are told by Colton that it is so they can keep Satan out of heaven.  Todd makes an attempt to get this revelation to jive with scripture by referencing the tenth chapter of Daniel.  After all, here is a fight against an angel and a prince so that must mean what Colton is saying is true.  If it feels like we’ve just made some sort of intellectual leap of faith to get from the Bible passage to Colton’s explanation, then you are not alone. 
        Todd then writes, “Theologians generally take this to mean some kind of spiritual battle, with Gabriel fighting dark forces.  But how did a six-year-old know that?  Yes, Colton had had two more years of Sunday school by then, but I knew for a fact that our curriculum didn’t include lessons on Satan’s living arrangements.”   Ignoring the mystery of why Todd cannot understand how his son came up with this information, I want to focus on what Todd just wrote concerning what the Bible states and the theologians say.   Notice that they actually agree.  The Bible says there was a battle between the angel and the prince, later joined by Michael.  The theologians believe this is some kind of...well...battle between two angels and the prince.  All this to prove the theological assertion by Colton that everyone in heaven (you and me someday), minus Colton, carries swords to keep Satan out of heaven.  Again, if you can’t make the connection don’t worry, there isn’t one.  The bible never tells us we are going to be carrying actual swords nor does it tell us we are responsible for keeping Satan out.  In fact, it actually tells us the complete opposite.  The first and second chapters of Job clearly paint a picture where Satan does, at times, go to heaven.  But I guess it all depends who you believe:  the bible or the child eyewitness.  In this game one must submit to the other and repeatedly we see the Bible taking a knee.
        The final result is inevitable. On page 112 Todd asks his son, “Hey, do you wanna preach on Sunday?”  Here, at least, we cannot fault Todd for being logical.  His decision to allow his son to preach is a fairly typical response when it is decided personal testimony is more important than consistent biblical exegesis and practice. 


I don’t believe Todd is trying to give the Bible the backseat.  I think he honestly believes his son’s testimony and experience has biblical backing and that everything he has written has passed the test.  This is the true danger that lies in books like Heaven is for Real.  The emotions, the experience, the cherub like child,  the father who is a pastor and the mother who lost a child all combine to present a story that almost makes us ashamed to ask if it is biblical.  After all, aren’t there bible verses peppered throughout the book?  Doesn’t the father show us how Colton’s experience lines up with scripture?
        The fact is, when Todd’s story is held up to scripture it is found wanting.  Not because it contradicts scripture (it does that too at points), but because it is impossible to prove or disprove much of the story from scripture.  It is extra biblical.  This presents two problems.  First, is it real?  This is an important question.  Remember, Todd isn’t presenting a work of fiction.  He actually believes what he is presenting is a true, eyewitness account of his son’s trip to heaven.   Also keep in mind that we don’t have the Bible to tell us it is real.  We only have the testimony of a four-year-old (Actually, the story is given over a few years following the events described in the book) given to us through his father who never wrote some of the earlier stuff down.  Therefore we must decide for ourselves if it is true or not on the merits of the story itself.  But therein lies the rub.  If we decide it is true then we have effectively added to the scriptures.  Remember, much of what we are told is never described in the Bible.  Therefore it is extra revelation.  We will be forced, in this case, to agree with one of the leaders in Todd’s denomination, quoted at the beginning of this paper, when she wrote, “Colton’s story could have been in the New Testament--but God has chosen to speak to us in this twenty-first century through the unblemished eyes of a child, revealing some of the mysteries of heaven...”.
        This in itself presents a number of problems, but the the greatest is in the form of the question: where do we stop?   If we are going to accept Colton’s extra biblical account of heaven, what about the numerous contradictory experiences that have been, currently are or soon will be best sellers?  They cannot all be right.  The answer to the question, if we are going to be consistent, is that we cannot stop.  It is, as I explained earlier, a slippery slope.
        The other answer we can come up with is that we don’t believe his account.  If we chose this option then we are left wondering what happened.  What did Colton see?  Was it demonic?  Is Colton making this all up? Is Todd making this all up?  We don’t know.  But once again, if we decide that scripture is not going to be our rule of faith and specifically the doctrine of the sufficiency of scripture, then who are we to judge?
        The second problem accepting Colton’s account presents is that it lowers our view of scripture.  It forces us to make scripture subservient to the testimony of man.  Let me here warn my reader that this will happen whether you like it or not.  Once you decide theological matters can be judged on the basis of experience or pragmatism then scripture must take a back seat regardless of how loudly you argue your orthodoxy.  
In closing let me quote from The Glory of Heaven, by John MacArthur.  In this book he offers a much better critique of this book than mine so I encourage you to read it.  But his conclusion is worth considering and one with which I wholeheartedly agree.

“I’ve given this prolonged critique of Heaven Is for Real not because it is the worst of the genre, but because of all the books in this category, it is the most likely to be read and deemed harmless by the typical evangelical. It is not harmless. It denigrates the authority and sufficiency of Scripture; it confounds faith with superstition; it subtly elevates human experience to a higher level than the Word of God; it purports to reveal things about God and the heavenly realm that are not taught in Scripture; and it repeatedly insinuates that the testimony of someone who has been mystically enlightened can be a more effective stimulant to faith than Scripture alone.” (pg. 47)

[1] tr. Scripture alone.
[2] All quotes, unless otherwise noted, from the ESV version of the Bible.
[3] Ephesians 2:20
[4] 1 Peter 2:9
[5] There has been a trend to try and completely dissolve this implicit contract. What the proponents of this view put forward is that the reader is the ultimate judge and jury of what is written and the author has no say in the matter.  The preposterous results of such a methodology should have been enough to dissuade anyone from recommending it.  Unfortunately academia is rarely swayed by such trivialities as common sense and logic.
[6] WOF = Women of Faith.  This is an interdenominational women’s conference. The closest analogy for me would be Iron Sharpens Iron, which is for men.  
[7] Todd repeats this statement on page 100.  Speaking of his son knowing that Jesus sits at the right hand of God he writes, “There’s no way a four-year old knows that.  It was another one of those moments when I thought, He had to have seen this” [Italics his].
[9] 2 Corinthians 2:12
[10] The doctrine of the sufficiency of scripture was almost completely abandoned by the Roman Catholic church with disastrous results.  It was taken up again and made central to the Reformation.  
[11] Luke 10
[12] Many translations (i.e., ESV, NIV, NASB, KJV, etc) have “Lord” capitalized, giving the impression that this “angel” is actually Jesus himself.  However, the Greek word used here for Lord, kyrie, is a general word that can mean “mister” or “sir” (NLT).  The fact that this chapter continually refers to the angel as an angel (vv. 3, 7, 22.  See also 11:13) and never Jesus should cause us to question the capitalizing of “Lord” if only because it tends to lead people to the wrong conclusion as to the identity of the angel. The NLT is probably the better rendering here for vs. 3.
[13] I’ve heard a number of these accounts and without exception they’ve all had the ring of an urban legend.  They typically take place in far off countries and are reported by someone who heard it from someone who knew someone who was in the same city, etc.
[14] Luke 19:10
[15] 1 Samuel 3; Luke 2:49


Patrick Aquilone said...

I am about half way through this. I have to ask.

You stated that you don't believe that Jesus visits (facetime/visions/dreams/etc) anyone.

So if someone was to tell you that they had an encounter with Jesus where Jesus spoke (audibly or in a face to face) to them or that they were taken to heaven (like Jesse Duplantis instead of Colton for example) that you would believe that was some kind of deception even if the person was unaware of the deception played upon them?

Patrick Aquilone said...

My friend and brother in the faith, I am saddened by this article. Jesus told us to love one another and especially our enemies. When Jesus confronted the woman caught in adultery did he list her sin or berate her for her behavior or point out everything wrong with her? No, he simply loved on her. Whether you believe Colton and Todd or not, you are called to love on them not try to make a public display of what you feel is their dirty laundry. How would you feel if someone did that to you? You have put God in a box and it is a small and dark box and God simply doesn't reside there. I will pray for you in love.

Love in Christ,

Brian Pribis said...

Pat, thanks for taking the time to comment. I'm sorry I haven't responded in a while. I've been thinking about what you said and on top of that I've been far too busy. To your first comment, no, when it comes to new revelation outside of Scripture concerning God, heaven, hell, etc.. Can God place it on our hearts to go talk to someone about him, or withhold accepting a particular job offer, etc? I suppose he can. But the context of my comments was new revelation concerning God that is outside of Scripture. As to Jesse Duplantis, he has made enough heretical statements in the past to warrant my steering people far from his writings. The fact that the Apostle Paul refused to even talk about his visit to heaven (he not even sure he was there physically) and these other people can't stop going on about it, resulting in millions in their pockets, should be enough to give any believer pause. But I've said all this in the post so I shant go on.

Brian Pribis said...

As to your second comment, you appear to be forgetting a number of passages in Scripture. But allow me to point out that Todd made very public statements concerning this whole affair and therefore I believe I am justified in making a public counter statement. Todd is not a new believer making a comment on YouTube or something. He is an ordained pastor. He should have known better. To not say anything would be the antithesis of love to those who are reading and believing what the book (and interviews) state. Another father and son wrote a similar book to the Burpos and like the Burpos' account, it became a runaway, best seller with Christians from all walks falling for it hook, line and sinker. Then, recently, the son comes out stating that the whole thing was a lie. To anyone who truly believes the Bible is the Word of God and their only source of doctrine concerning God, faith and practice, this wouldn't have been a problem. But we are so quick to run after the latest "testimony" regardless of wether it adds to or even contradicts Scripture. At one time Christians were referred to as, "The people of the Book". It is a tragedy that in these last days no one really knows what that "Book" is anymore.

Patrick Aquilone said...

Here is where I see the problem. You find fault in what he said, fine. However, what I see God telling us to do when we see a brother sinning is to love on them (probably not practical considering you do not actual know the man) and to forgive them. I do not see anywhere in the article where you apply love and forgiveness. Just a critical spirit.

And to make matters worse, I do not see anywhere in the Bible where a person's character and statements are attack when the one who is doing the attack does not know the person.

I do not think without having met the person and looked them in the eye and seen what spirit is actually on them that any of us have the right to judge.

I guess what I am really trying to say is that your precious time is better spent out being Jesus to people and loving in a way that makes people want to know what is different about you and applying forgiveness as to turn people's heads instead of attacking a person you don't know no matter what he did or did not do privately or publicly.

Brian Pribis said...

Pat, I hear what you are saying. I don't agree, but I hear you. If this was a case of some hearsay I would definitely agree. But again, I need to point out, Todd made some very public statements that are flooding our churches, including the one I'm a leader in. My criticism isn't done out of hatred towards him (might you be judging my heart here?) but out of necessity and love for those I lead as well as those who I don't even know that call themselves by the name of our Lord. Also, I might point out that there is a tendency to equate criticism with a critical spirit. I'm not even entirely sure what a "critical spirit" is (is that some sort of demon?). When Jesus called Peter Satan, or Paul rebuked Peter publicly basically calling him a hypocrite, or the other times Paul warned people away from those teaching heresy it doesn't come off as honey and sugar when I read it. Although I agree with you, I do need to love more like Jesus loved, that doesn't belay the fact that we need to speak the truth in love and sometimes that speaking makes people uncomfortable or even mad at us. To not speak the truth, even when it hurts, is just as much hate as speaking the truth without love. As to confronting Todd, when Todd was asked in an interview about his thoughts concerning those that disagree with him he stated that they were Pharisees and need to read their Bibles. So I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that even if I were able to meet with him it wouldn't go over well. But you I do know...and I can categorically say I love you. So there's something ;)

Patrick Aquilone said...

I love you too. Otherwise I wouldn't have bothered to post anything.

I can say that I didn't realize that book/movie was so penetrating your church. Ours mentioned it when it came out but really hasn't said anything about it since.

A critical spirit could be a demon but is most often just someone who has found themselves tending to look at things from a negative light even when one does not exist. And as Christians, I have found far too many who claim they are using righteous anger or discerning of spirits or divine relation to tear someone apart and wound them so that the victim wants nothing to do with God and then claim they were justified. Now I am not saying this is you just explaining what I am seeing as a whole. And I tend to be a little (probably overly) sensitive when I see someone criticizing. This is part of the reason that Christians are the biggest obstacle to people coming to Christ.

As for Todd and the book, well, the way I see it is if someone got saved by it and it brought them to church where they are regularly receiving more and more of God then great. Many people were saved by watching the television show "Touched by an Angel" and are in church today and that was at best a stretch of what the Word says.

I read the book and didn't have any problems with it because I assumed that we were seeing the second hand account of what a child saw in heaven. So even if we assume that child went to heaven, his account would be from his eyes and maybe not get translated to adult speak very well. On top of that since this is his father's account of what he received from his son, we have a giant game of telephone in which it would not be surprising to find out that dad's interpretation of the son's account is not exactly accurate. So all that said, I think that God can use it as a tool to bring people to closer to Him and I am not going to stand in the way just be there to love on them when they arrive. That is the way I see this.

I might also add that here in the Bible belt we deal way more often with people who have been hurt by the church and need the love applied for healing than new Christians. So perhaps my view is coming from that lens.

Brian Pribis said...

Here in the north country we are just plain cold and calculating ;) But I came pretty close to heading your way this winter, let me tell you.

Although I agree many have been hurt by Christians, I have found it is more the case that people don't want anything to do with God or the church because they hate God. Romans 1 and 3 make this pretty clear. This is partly why Paul really didn't care about the motivation behind preaching the gospel as long as the gospel got preached. People are going to either love the message or hate it, the church will either be the oder of life or the stench of death (also probably why someone can read something as ridiculous as many - most - of the pseudo christian books being churned out from publishing companies today and still get born again!). Anyway, I didn't write the paper in hate. I'm fairly detached that way. I wrote it because millions of Christians, including those in my fellowship, are reading it and excepting the views presented as a good, accurate and biblically sound supplement to Scripture. The accolades at the beginning of the book set the tone (as I mentioned in the post). So I simply wrote a response. No anger, no hatred just the facts. If you read emotion into it then understand it was you who read it into it. I certainly didn't put it there, honest. (Man I miss our talks!)

Patrick Aquilone said...

I miss them as well.

Here is the south we have three types of people. Those who are in church (in various degrees for saved, and not saved and mature and not mature). Those who are not saved and have never been saved and are most likely due to the over-saturation of Christ some form of anti-God person. Those who were once in church and got burned by the church or by "Christians" and no longer go to church anymore. I would dare say that last group is the largest down here. I think mostly because to be a Pastor, I thought, you had to get ordained through a Bible college. Not so. You can be ordained by any ordained pastor. In addition, you can setup a non-profit organization (like Patrick Aquilone Ministries) and then setup a church under your ministry and declare yourself the pastor because it is under your ministry. That means that there are a lot of potential people who hold the title of pastor but not the office (from the five fold ministry) whom God never set up as pastors. Scary but true. It is said on every corner we have a church, a Wal-Mart, a Bank and a gas station. While that is not true but close, I dare say out of ALL of those churches only a small handful are "good" churches where Jesus is in charge. The others are more about the pastor and his anointing and his ministry and his gifts then about God. And I am speaking just to declared christian churches not the mosques or the others who are not christian. So with this in mind, we have to approach reaching people often different than if we just were walking into a place where we had a ton of unsaved people. took me a while to understand this and get used to it.

Makes you look at things differently at times because of this. Instead of running in and injected them with the cure, you have to be a skilled surgeon to find where the hurt is and precisely cut just that out without harming the rest because most often people get attacked and hurt where their anointing and calling is. SO you have to be real careful when you are the hands of Jesus working on healing them.

Anyway :) Love chatting with you :)