Heaven IS for Real: How Our Family is Handling the Hype

Heaven is for Real graphic

Unless you live with your head in the sand, I’m sure you’ve heard about the recently released movie, Heaven is for Real, and the book it’s based on.

Both tell the story of young Colton Burpo, who experienced a “trip to heaven” during a close brush with death when he was not quite four years old. When the book was first released in 2010, I was invited to review it and help promote it here on my blog. After reading it, I declined the offer, and our family isn’t jumping on the movie bandwagon either.

Here’s why, and what we’re doing instead.

I’ve been researching, praying, and writing this for several weeks. I have friends and family who have read the book and/or seen the movie and enjoyed it, and I don’t mean to step on any toes. I just want to offer a different perspective and bring up some things that may not have been considered. No matter what your opinion on the subject is, I hope you’ll approach what I’m offering here with an open mind.

Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr once said “We should not want to know too much about the furniture of heaven or the temperature of hell.” Yet many modern evangelicals seem fascinated with accounts like Heaven is for Real, dubbed by Tim Challies as “heaven tourism“. I’m uneasy with these accounts in general, but since Heaven is for Real is the one currently receiving all the attention, I’m focusing on it in this post.

Colton’s story makes me uneasy on several levels. On the one hand, I find the story touching as a parent. What an ordeal he and his family went through! On the other hand, while I’m in no position to judge the Burpo’s motives and they seem sincere and well-meaning, I think publicizing this kind of experience can be dangerous. Any time we begin to focus on someone’s subjective experience, we run the risk of elevating it above what God has revealed to us in Scripture, whether consciously or not.

Author Randy Alcorn put it well:

I have seen such great excitement among Christians in response to this book, and I’m sure that will be true of the movie too. I’m not questioning anyone’s sincerity, but this is an experiential account which, if it really happened, at its best simply confirms what Scripture has said all along. Yes, Heaven is real, but we already knew that, didn’t we? God’s Word has told us that all along. When there is so much fanfare about accounts that simply confirm what the Bible says, I wonder if we trust the accounts more than the Bible itself.

Christian philosopher William Lane Craig expressed a similar concern:

My concern is this: Christians, in their enthusiasm for the glimpse of heaven that is offered in the book, may begin to base their view of the afterlife and of heaven on these sorts of experiences rather than on what the Bible teaches.

Like most people, I find these kinds of stories intriguing. We’re naturally curious about and drawn to stories about the supernatural and life after death. But this can be dangerous territory. Is God’s Word enough for us? Are we finding more comfort and encouragement about the reality of heaven from the subjective experience of a gravely ill little boy than we are from God’s Word? He’s told us all we need to know about what comes after death, and if we’re willing to take the time to dig into it, He’s given us a wealth of information (more on that in a minute!)!

I have reservations about some of what Colton saw and experienced from a theological standpoint too. For one, the handful of biblical figures who were privileged to have a vision of heaven were so in awe they couldn’t even describe or speak about it. Why would Colton and others like him experience something so vastly different from them? And what do we do when these contemporary accounts conflict with each other? For example, Don Piper (90 Minutes in Heaven) and Kevin Malarkey (The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven) saw and experienced things that directly conflict with what Colton saw. Whose account is correct?

Brighter minds than mine have expressed my concerns better than I ever could, so rather than reinvent the wheel, I’m going to share a few links with you. I hope you’ll take a few minutes to click the links, read through them, and consider the viewpoints:

  • How Christians Should Respond to Heaven is for Real gives a thoughtful evaluation of the movie: “Christians should be quick to remember that while Colton’s story might be heartfelt and inspirational, it isn’t the Bible. The film can be used as a conversational piece about death and a pointer to culture’s interest in the afterlife, but audiences shouldn’t allow this account to dictate their view of the afterlife. Yes, we can develop our theology of heaven from a book. No, that book is not Heaven is for Real.”
  • What Hollywood Gets Wrong About Heaven evaluates Colton’s experience in comparison to the accounts of Daniel, Isaiah, John, and the others recorded in the Bible: “I fear we’ve sentimentalized heaven and by extension its primary occupant. I worry the modern understanding of God owes more to Colton Burpo than the prophet Isaiah. And I think this one-sided portrayal diminishes our experience of God.”
  • Michael Patton did a thoughtful review of the book: “I don’t dismiss these types of things outright. I think they are fascinating. But neither do I hold on to them too tightly. Though I will continue to read about and reflect on people’s ‘I saw heaven’ testimonies, I will never hang my hat on them. Neither should you.”
  • hugely respect Randy Alcorn, and the subject of heaven is something he’s spent years studying. I really appreciate his thoughts on the book  and the movie both: “I do believe that something is seriously wrong if people take more time to contemplate and discuss Colton Burpo’s account of petting Jesus’ rainbow-colored horse, or of Jesus wearing a crown with a pink diamond, than they do studying what the Bible actually says about Heaven. The back cover of the book says ‘Heaven Is for Real will forever change the way you think of eternity.’ I would say, ‘Seek to let the Bible alone change the way you think of eternity.‘”
  • Nancy Guthrie, one of my favorite authors, shares why We Don’t Have to Read the Book or See the Movie to Know That Heaven is Real: “People sometimes say these stories encouraged their faith or the faith of someone they know. But I think they actually diminish biblical faith by elevating claims of a supernatural experience over the substance of the Scriptures. Most of these claims of seeing into heaven focus on earthbound concerns and stunted human desires that lack what the Bible describes as the heart of heaven—the glory of God, the Lamb who was slain, on the throne of the universe.”
  • David Platt sums up his concerns without any sugarcoating in this YouTube clip, and John Piper offers his thoughts as well.

I’m not going to argue that Colton Burpo, and others like him, haven’t had real experiences that can’t easily be explained away. But they remain just that: the anecdotal, subjective experiences of finite, fallible human beings, and can’t tell us anything definitively. I just don’t think that sharing these accounts is beneficial or necessary. At best, they’re an interesting diversion, at worst, they have the potential to cause confusion and speculation, and draw people away from God’s Word. No matter how sincere or well intentioned they are, giving our time and attention to these types of accounts too easily tempts us to look to them as a source of hope over Scripture.

So, what is our family doing in response to the hype surrounding the movie and these types of accounts?

We’re doing a biblical study of heaven as a family, using our Bibles and Randy Alcorn’s comprehensive book and study guide on the subject. His book is based on Scripture and covers every question you could probably think of. Take a look at the Table of Contents to see what I mean.

Heaven by Randy Alcorn

We’ve had some fantastic discussions with our teens spurred by this study! We’ve read excerpts from Heaven is for Real and some of the other books of the same genre and contrasted them with what Scripture says. When the movie comes out on DVD, we may rent it and watch it so we can evaluate it in light of what we’re learning. But everything we need to know has been given to us, if we’re willing to take the time to find it and study it!

We will do much better if we trust someone who was actually dead, not someone who was just near death. Christ, as we shall see, is the only One who is qualified to tell us what we can expect on the other side. He was dead – so dead that His body became cold and was put in a tomb. Three days later He was raised from the dead with a glorified body. Here is someone whose opinion can be trusted. To John this risen Christ said, “Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, and the living One; and I was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of death and Hades “ (Revelation 1:17-18). Reliable information does not come to us by trying to peer behind the partially open curtain. God alone knows what really lies on the other side of the veil. And that is why we can do no better than study what the Bible has to say about the Great Beyond. Erwin Lutzer, One Minute After You Die p. 27.

Have you read the book or seen the movie? What are your thoughts?

Linked with Raising Homemakers, Works for Me Wednesday, Hearts for Home, Thrive at Home, Heart Filled Fridays, Essential Things Fridays, Fellowship Friday.

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Comments

  1. I was offered the book to read some years ago. I declined. The focus of my faith is Jesus Christ and what He did for me on the cross and in rising again. What He says in His Word is enough for me. No need for sensationalism. Jesus Christ is all I need. Why run after the imperfect when we have the Perfect?

  2. I love this post. Thank you for saying the difficult things.

    I love your proactive ideas! Super duper!

    To God be the glory!
    Mindy at Grateful for Grace recently posted…More Than Fine, It’s a FitMy Profile

  3. Nana Phyllis says:

    Well said, Kara! Interesting how many Christians jump right on the bandwagon with this book/movie. One thing my DIL pointed out is that people were Colton’s focus in heaven, not God. I think we’re going to be so awestruck to be in our holy God’s presence that HE will be our focus, not people. We will not see this film.

    • Phyllis, that’s one of the things that really jumped out at me too. God’s presence will be our focus, everything else will be peripheral. That’s how the few visions of heaven recorded in Scripture are portrayed. Many of these accounts seem to be the other way around.

  4. I love the quote you shared of Nancy Guthrie. When I think of heaven I think of God in all His glory on the Throne. Like the vision Isaiah had. It disturbs me that these accounts don’t include this, but instead seem to have fluffy experiences of people with wings and colored horses. For me, these books reminder me to keep my focus on Christ and not on the experiences of others.

    Thanks for taking the time to put this thoughtful post together and for all the great links.
    Cathy recently posted…A Trip to the BookstoreMy Profile

    • I love that quote too, and her whole article on the subject! I agree with you, the focus should be on God’s glory. I’m glad this post was helpful for you! Thanks for the encouragement! 🙂

  5. Rachel E. says:

    It’s great to see a post about that book. My daughter found the book and started reading it. She was really getting into it. I had to tell her to be very careful about what the book says. We don’t know it is true and we need to take the Bible as truth.

    Thanks for sharing some of your thoughts. I am with you.

  6. I haven’t seen the movie, but I did read the book. At no point did I get the idea that the author was trying to subvert Biblical revelation about heaven or substitute Colton’s experience of heaven for Biblical truth. Perhaps he could have done a better job of integrating the two. I think the Bible is intentionally vague about the afterlife, but I don’t see the harm in someone sharing their experience. The fault lies not with the writers, but with the readers, if they choose to base their beliefs on something as subjective as a child’s experience.
    Chris Sumpter recently posted…Just another day in MongoliaMy Profile

    • Hi Chris! Thanks for chiming in. I don’t think the authors are intentionally trying to subvert biblical revelation or substitute Colton’s experience for biblical truth either. Unfortunately, I think many people who read these books DO begin to base their beliefs on these types of stories instead of Scripture. And publishers/media/etc. feed and encourage this with “study guides” and all kinds of spin off products and hype. That’s why I wrote this post…to encourage readers/viewers to exercise caution in how they approach these accounts and NOT base their beliefs or put their hope in something as subjective as a child’s experience.

  7. I’m so glad you wrote this. I can tell you’ve put a lot of time and effort into researching this topic. You articulated some of the concerns I had but haven’t formulated into sharable thoughts!
    I always think it’s a bit strange when people say books like this help to encourage their faith. Seems to me that if you don’t quite believe it when God says it then why would you believe it just because a little boy, who you’ve never even met says it?
    I’m going to trust that whatever God wants us to know about Heaven is included in His complete and infallible Word.

    • Thank you Beth! I’m glad it was helpful for you! I agree completely. Why would a little boy’s word be more believable to us than God’s?

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