Yet that's not what makes his story so remarkable. A few months after his operation, Colton gave his parents some incredible news: he told them that while he was in surgery, he left his body and went to Heaven. He said that the angels sang Jesus Loves Me to him and that he sat on Jesus' lap. His mother and father, a pastor, were floored.
Over the next two years, Colton described his experiences to his parents. His story is recounted by his father, Todd Burpo, in Heaven is for Real, a New York Times bestseller.
How Can He Know This?
Though Colton is very young, his parents take his story seriously, asking him many questions and comparing his answers to the Bible.
For example, Todd asks Colton what Jesus was wearing in Heaven and the boy replies, “His clothes were white, but it was purple from here to here,” miming a sash. Hearing this, Todd recalls Mark 9:3: “His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them,” a verse that refers to Jesus' Transfiguration. He also notes that in the Bible, purple is the colour of kings. Todd is surprised by these answers and wonders, How could my little boy know this stuff?
This question is repeated many times throughout the book, particularly when Colton describes events relating to the Burpo family. In what seems to be the book's most compelling confirmation of his experience, Colton says he met his miscarried sister in Heaven. His parents had never told him about the miscarriage, though they had told his older sister, Cassie.
There are many reasons to regard Colton's claims with a healthy dose of skepticism. Though they try to let Colton tell his story on his own, his parents have a tendency to ask leading questions and offer information. For example, when Colton says he met Todd's grandfather in Heaven, Todd describes their relationship: “I spent a lot of time with Pop at their place out in the country … I rode on the combine and the tractor with him.” Colton responds, “Yeah, I know! Pop told me,” and Todd marvels.
But when Todd asks Colton what Pop looked like, Colton does not provide any specific information. Instead, he describes Pop's clothes (white robe with a blue sash) and says that he has “really big wings.” In fact, all of the people Colton meets in Heaven wear white robes and have wings and halos—a popular image of Heaven that is not supported by the Bible.
Todd, who rarely challenges Colton's claims, tends to favour information that confirms his beliefs. Notably, he treats Colton's vague descriptions—for example, that God is “really, really big” and that Jesus can travel up and down “like an elevator”—as though they perfectly match biblical descriptions.
What Can We Know?
At its best, Heaven is for Real is an engaging story about a family that suffered through an incredible hardship but never lost faith in God. However, even if Colton's claims about Heaven are true, the book isn't particularly educational. Some of the information Colton shares can easily be found in the Bible (Jesus sits at the right hand of God), some of it isn't very useful (Jesus has “pretty” eyes) and some of it only concerns the Burpo family (Todd's grandfather is in Heaven).
Yet the book has spawned a number of offshoots, including a children's book, an iPad app, a DVD-based curriculum for churches, and now a film. Like many other books about near-death experiences, Heaven is for Real capitalizes on our fear of death and curiosity about the afterlife, while offering very little substantial information about Heaven.
The truth is, no one really knows what Heaven will be like. The Book of Revelation, which recounts the Apostle John's vision of Heaven, is usually interpreted symbolically. But the Bible does tell us that it is a paradise (see Luke 23:43), where we will see God face to face (see 1 Corinthians 13:12), and there will be no death, no pain and no tears (see Revelation 21:4). Heaven is for Real may be commended for encouraging people to ask questions about eternity; however, readers should look elsewhere for answers.