Everybody loves the cuteness, innocence and honesty of children. Now comes the story of Colton Burpo who, at age 4, told of a three-minute trip to heaven and returned to tell us "Heaven Is For Real," a New York Times Bestseller published by Thomas Nelson in 2010.
Millions have read the gripping story that will soon be seen by predictably larger numbers when the movie version is released in April just in time for Easter.
Should this amazing testimony be taken at face value? Or as Todd Burpo, Colton's father asked in the book's prologue, "How could he have known?" And, "Could this be real?"
Todd concluded that there is only one explanation for his son's knowledge -- it's an eyewitness account in heaven itself. Therefore, what Colton said must be real. Reading various reviews and endorsements of the book, it appears that many, including evangelical leaders, have come to the same conclusion.
But how should a Bible-believing Christian respond?
The cuteness, innocence and honesty of 4-year-olds as well as the testimony of adults must bow before the divine revelation of God's Word.
On the one hand I am happy the movie is coming out. What a great opportunity to get people talking about heaven! Those who view the movie will be open to discussing its views of heaven compared to biblical teachings. A clear and accurate presentation of the Gospel can easily flow from this.
On the other hand I am saddened. Many people will succumb to the real temptation to base their view of heaven on the word of a 4-year-old boy instead of the Word of God. This type of reaction has already followed the book.
Space will allow just a few areas in the book that cause concern and may be part of the movie version:
-- Colton said that in heaven, "Everybody's got wings" (p. 72), and "Pop has really big wings" (p. 87). This is not found in the Bible. This description could further a common misunderstanding that humans become angels in heaven; but we do not.
-- Speaking of Pop on another occasion, Colton said, "He's in heaven. He's got a new body. Jesus told me if you don't go to heaven, you don't get a new body" (p. 136). The Bible assures believers they will get a new body, but the new body is not received until the resurrection. During the time between physical death and resurrection we continue to exist, but not in a physical body (1 Corinthians 15:12-58; 2 Corinthians 5:1-8).
-- Then there are odd revelations by Colton that seem to be accepted without question: God's throne is "really, really big, because God is the biggest one there is" (p. 100) and the Holy Spirit is "kind of blue" (p. 103). These descriptions are not supported by Scripture.
-- My greatest concern is seen in the mostly subtle inferences, and sometimes direct statements, that God's Word is somehow confirmed by the testimony of Colton. The Bible stands true on its own merits and is not dependent of one's experiences to confirm it; on the contrary, the Word of God must confirm all experiences.
Remember Todd's first question, "How could he have known" some of the things he talked about? How could a person know information about dead loved ones they didn't even know existed?
Anyone with young children knows they are like sponges. By 4 years of age, children's concepts of heaven and God have been heavily colored by television shows they have watched, books that have been read to them, and conversations of countless adults and older children they have overheard. Further, the ability of the enemy to provide deceptive information cannot be ignored. The descriptions of heaven in this book are a common theme in other books that relate near-death experiences.
The Bible commands us, "do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God" (1 John 4:1). Whether through testimonies of near-death experiences, as in this instance, or overt false teaching, the test must always be God's Word (Isaiah 8:20).
Think about this: God has spoken with finality by sending His Son back from the dead to show us the way to heaven. Would the One who has thus spoken send a dead loved one back to confirm His Word? We must remember that Satan, the great deceiver, can present himself as "an angel of light" (2 Corinthians 11:14).It should not surprise us if he misleads a young child.
Furthermore, for the rare occurrences in Scripture when God did allow one who had seen heaven to return, He did not permit any record of what they saw. He gave His reason to the rich man in hell: "... They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.... If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead" (Luke 16:29–31).
How should believers respond to "Heaven Is for Real"? Be cautious. Have a holy skepticism. Judge everything by God's Word. Use the opportunity of this book and movie to talk about heaven. But of first importance, use the moment to share the Gospel of Jesus, the only hope of heaven!
Paul Mathenia is founder of Discover Your Destiny (www.destinydeminar.com) based in Mountain Home, Ark., a conference ministry devoted to helping people prepare for their eternal destiny by sharing biblical teaching about life, death and beyond. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).
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