Heaven is For Real, but the Book and Movie Aren’t
We live in a time in which many people deny absolute truth. (Ironically, denial of absolute truth is an absolute view in itself, so the view is self-contradictory, but I digress.) People especially love the subjective. If someone has had a personal experience, then it is "truth" for them, and supposedly no one can criticize their experience. It was, after all, their experience.
Such is the case with the book/movie, Heaven is for Real. This is the story of 4-year-old Colton Burpo. While on the operating table for emergency surgery on his appendix, the little boy allegedly had a vision in which he visited heaven. Colton claims to have experienced amazing things, including:
- – Sitting on the lap of "Jesus"
- – Seeing a rainbow-colored horse
- – Angels singing to Colton while in the hospital
- – Meeting the deceased grandfather he never knew
- – Seeing his older sister, who was miscarried before birth
- – Seeing God the Father, who is reportedly “really big"
- – Seeing the Holy Spirit “shoot down power” to the earth
- – Meeting John the Baptist
Reportedly, Colton did not immediately tell his parents about this. Only after several years did he begin speaking about his visions. Later, his parents decided to write a book about his visions, which has recently become a major movie production.
All Colton's claims are certainly subjective, but the important question for Christians to ask is are his claims credible according to scripture? As Christians, we are told not to believe every "spirit" or spiritual claim we hear. Rather, we are called to test these testimonies by comparing them to what the Bible teaches, as John says:
“Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.” (1 John 4:1).
And Paul in Ephesians 4:14 writes:
“14 As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming.”
Instead of fallling victim to false claims and false teachers, Christians are called to imitate the skepticism and studiousness of the believers in Berea, described in Acts 17:
“Now these were more noble-minded than those in Thessalonica, for they received the word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so.” (Acts 17:11)
So let's compare some of Colton's reported experiences to what the Bible says about God and what men who have entered into the presence of Heaven have experienced. If Colton's experience is true, it must line up with the word of God.
Let's begin by looking at Colton's most compelling claim of having sat on the resurrected Lord's "lap." In scripture, when a person sees the glorified Jesus, the person's response is very different from Colton's: the person is overcome with fear. Writing in Revelation 1, John says this of his vision of seeing the glorifed Jesus:
“17 When I saw Him, I fell at His feet like a dead man. And He placed His right hand on me, saying, “Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, 18 and the living One; and I was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of death and of Hades.”
Even before the Lord's death and resurrection, Isaiah experienced similar dread when he was given a vision of Heaven, leading him to react this way:
Is. 6:5 Then I said,
“Woe is me, for I am ruined!
Because I am a man of unclean lips,
And I live among a people of unclean lips;
For my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts.”
Obviously, Colton's experience was very unlike the one reported by the Apostle John and prophet Isaiah. Colton claims he sat on Jesus’ lap having no fear of Jesus, and he described Jesus as He appeared prior to His death and resurrection (yet now Jesus exists in His glorifed form). Colton's encounter did not provoke the fear of the Lord, which other godly men have experienced in the presence of the Lord, and his description of Jesus' appearance contradicts scripture.
Scripture teaches that the true response for a natural man (i.e., a sinful person) thrust into the presence of the Lord will always be abject fear and self-loathing – not sunshine, rainbows, and ponies. Men experience fear because our sin places us in jeopardy of God's judgment. Even children are sinful, so if Colton was truly in the presence of the Lord, he should have felt the fear of the Lord as other men have experienced in the past.
We should ask why Colton's experience differed so much from the word of God? Do we accept Colton’s version of what it's like to be in the presence of the glorified Lord, or do we accept the testimony of the apostle John (the one whom Jesus loved) and of Isaiah, the greatest Old Testament prophet? The answer is easy, isn't it? We trust in the word of God and reject the false testimony.
Next, Colton claims Jesus appeared as a regular human being wearing a white robe (which is a symbol of having been saved by faith) with a purple sash (a symbol of human royalty), but in the Bible Jesus never appears in a "white" robe, for a white robe signifies appropriated righteousness (see Rev. 3:18). Jesus is without sin, so He is rightreous inherently.
Likewise, Jesus is never depicted in scripture wearing a "purple" sash, because purple is the symbol of human authority, not God's inherent authority. Instead, Jesus always wears a golden sash instead.
Colton's error-filled account of a "human" Jesus is just the kind of description I would expect from someone who is familiar with the Gospels but is ignorant of eschatology. The Bible teaches that the Lord's resurrected appearance is very different from the one He carried before His death. The Apostle John described Jesus' resurrected appearance this way in Revelation 1:
“12 Then I turned to see the voice that was speaking with me. And having turned I saw seven golden lampstands; 13 and in the middle of the lampstands I saw one like a son of man, clothed in a robe reaching to the feet, and girded across His chest with a golden sash. 14 His head and His hair were white like white wool, like snow; and His eyes were like a flame of fire. 15 His feet were like burnished bronze, when it has been made to glow in a furnace, and His voice was like the sound of many waters. 16 In His right hand He held seven stars, and out of His mouth came a sharp two-edged sword; and His face was like the sun shining in its strength.”
Once again, the Bible's testimony is vastly different than Colton’s “experience," leading us to reject Colton's testimony in favor of the Bible. Colton's visions could not have come from God, or else God is contradicting His own word.
Next, Colton claims to have "seen" the Father and Holy Spirit, something no other human being has ever claimed to have experienced apart from Christ Himself! Colton claims to seen the Father in all His fullness and glory – yet Colton still lives despite the warning of Exodus 33:20:
“20 But He said, “You cannot see My face, for no man can see Me and live!”
In John 1:18 and 1 John 4:12 we read that that no one has seen God the Father at any time except the Son. Not even a believer entering Heaven (assuming Colton was a believer) can see the Father, for He is all Spirit, John says. The Holy Spirit is all Spirit also, yet Colton claims to have "seen" both in Heaven. Once more, Colton’s story does not match up with scripture; it contradicts scripture.
Also, the Bible says nothing unclean can ever enter the Father's presence in Heaven (Revelation 21:27). We don’t know Colton's heart of faith. Was Colton a believer in Jesus Christ when he experienced these visions? Was he born again when he entered the Lord's presence? (Perhaps he claims to have been a Christian, but let’s face it, it's difficult to know for certain if a 4-year-old child is truly born again.) This question is fundamentally important, however, because it speaks to the credibility of his claims to be in the Lord's presence.
Finally, Colton claims that he saw Mary kneeling before God in Heaven. To see Mary kneeling implies Mary was in physical form (i.e., in a body), but the Bible teaches that believers who have died (like Mary) have yet to receive their new, resurrected bodies (1Cor 15; Dan 12:1-2). The saints do not receive their bodies until the resurrection (i.e., the rapture) at the earliest. Therefore, Mary cannot exist in Heaven in bodily form. At this point, only her spirit is in Heaven, and therefore Mary does not possess a "knee" with which to kneel. What Colton said he saw simply doesn't exist yet.
At this point we should ask does the Bible tell of anyone having gone into heaven and come back to earth reporting such things? According to the Bible, some men have done this very thing, including the apostle Paul, who describes his experience in 2Corinthians 12. How does his experience in Heaven compare to Colton's account? Paul says, speaking of himself:
“2 I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago—whether in the body I do not know, or out of the body I do not know, God knows—such a man was caught up to the third heaven. 3 And I know how such a man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, God knows— 4 was caught up into Paradise and heard inexpressible words, which a man is not permitted to speak.”
How does Paul's experience compare? We don't know, because Paul says he was not permitted by the Lord to even repeat what he heard, much less to describe what he saw. If Paul (the apostle who wrote nearly half of the New Testament) was not free to repeat what he saw in Heaven, then why is a 4-yr old boy permitted to reveal such great things? The prospect that the Lord prevented the Apostle Paul from revealing his experience in Heaven so He could deliver to us it through a 4-yr old boy defies common sense, if not scripture.
What about his claims to see his grandfather and unborn sister, whom he never met here on earth? Assuming Colton's claims to seeing these individuals are true, such appearances are hardly proof of having visited Heaven. They could just as easily be explained as hallucinations or a product of demonic deception, since the demon world is capable of displaying signs and wonders, including visions of past people and events. Remember, scripture says Satan comes as an angel of light when he deceives people:
“13 For such men are false apostles, deceitful workers, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. 14 No wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. 15 Therefore it is not surprising if his servants also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness, whose end will be according to their deeds.” (2 Corinthians 11)
I don’t know about you, but for me there is plenty of reason to doubt Colton’s story and conclude it is false. If it’s false, then either Colton or his father (who was heavily involved in helping Colton write the book) concocted or coached Colton's testimony, or else Colton's visions were the product of hallucination or demonic influence.
I must confess, I have not read the book nor seen the movie, but their claims are well-documented by other reviewers, so I felt there was no need to read the book or see the movie to test its basic claims against scriptre (indeed, it was time not wasted). Moreover, his experiences mirrors other near death experiences (NDEs), which make claims similar to Colton’s. In fact, I wrote an article not long ago on the topic of NDEs, and Colton’s “experience” fits the classic pattern. The consistency found across NDE stories argues for a common source...a demonic source.
Interestingly, a movie reviewer stated:
“Burpo and the film's producers want to make it clear that this movie is "not theology; it's a boy's story."”
So true. It’s just a story...an experience...one that simply doesn’t line up with God’s word. If it were true to the Bible, then it would be theology, because it would clearly agree with the truth found in God’s word. Instead, it's just a tall story.
Though I wouldn't recommend seeing the movie or reading the book, they are not without some value. The book and movie open up a way to evangelize to unbelieving friends, neighbors, and even strangers. We can use their interest in this account as a springboard to explain the truth about heaven – and hell.
Cultural events like this story give us the opportunity to explain the difference between the world's views and the Bible's teaching: that we are sinners destined for a real hell, yet there is truly good news that heaven is accessible, but only through one absolute way: faith in the person and work of the Son of God, Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior.
That’s an objective experience worth sharing.