Today, the movie Heaven is For Real hits the silver screen. The film is based on the popular book by Todd Burpo, a Wesleyan pastor from the great state of Nebraska. The book has experienced unparalleled success. It has sold over 8 million copies and does not appear to be losing any momentum. First published in 2010, Heaven is For Real continues to attract Christians and non-believers alike. On the week of April 14, 2014, the Burpo book sits strong at number two in the combined print and e-book nonfiction category on the New York Times bestsellers list. It boasts nearly 8,000 reviews on Amazon.com, with almost 6,000 of those credited with five stars!
Whenever a faith-based movie drops, Christians tend to flock to the theater. Many churches are bound to jump on the bandwagon and promote this motion picture which will only catapult book sales to great heights.
Heaven is For Real chronicles the testimony of Colton Burpo, a three-year-old child who experienced a life-threatening illness. While he was thankfully never pronounced dead, during his traumatic hospitalization, he recounts his experiences of his time in “heaven” with his parents. The book contains several first-hand accounts that describe how “he went up out of his body,” “spoke with angels,” “sat in Jesus’ lap,” “saw the rainbow colors”, and got to pet Jesus’ “rainbow horse.”
Despite all the accolades and the interest the book is generating, there are some real problems that surface. Heaven is for real; this much is true. Yet the theology which emerges is deeply troubling. Readers should carefully weigh the content with biblical discernment and discretion. At least three general problems plague this book.
Heaven is For Real promotes views about heaven that do not match the teaching of Scripture. For instance, little Colton describes being afraid in heaven. Colton says, “Dad, Jesus had the angels sing to me because I was so scared. They made me feel better.” Yet Scripture describes heaven as a place where tears and fears will be erased. When John the Apostle describes the new heaven and a new earth, he writes, “He will wipe away ever tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Rev. 21:4, ESV).
Colton describes his experience with the saints in heaven who actually have wings. “Everybody’s got wings,” he says. Evidently, Jesus is the only one in heaven who doesn’t have wings: “Jesus went up and down like an elevator,” he says. Additionally, Colton remarks how “everyone kind of looks like angels … and have a light above their head.” Of course, there is nothing in Scripture that even hints at the idea of saints who don wings or have halos above their heads. This is the kind of banter that has grown popular at funerals where grieving loved ones anticipate the heavenly abode. The only problem is that these beliefs are foreign to Scripture.
Colton eagerly describes his encounter with the Holy Spirit. He claims to have sat next to the Holy Spirit and maintains the third member of the Trinity is “kind of blue.” Yet the Bible never attaches a color to the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit possesses all the attributes of God and stands alongside the Father and the Son. Scripture tells us that the Holy Spirit glorifies Christ (John 16:14). Jonathan Edwards reminds us, “There is no such thing as seeing God properly with the bodily eyes because he is a spirit; one of his attributes; that he is invisible.”
In a stunning admission, Colton refers to a deceased relative who is 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.” The problem is that “Jesus” appears slightly confused because the Word of God says otherwise: “But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself” (Phil. 3:20-21, ESV). Jonathan Edwards adds, “When believers get to heaven, Christ will conform them to himself, he will give them his glory; they shall in their measure be made like to him; their bodies after the resurrection shall be conformed to his glorious body.” In other words, the only person in heaven with a glorified body at this time is the Lord Jesus Christ. His followers wait for his return to receive their glorified bodies (1 Cor. 15:42-49).
One of the preoccupations with people who claim to have toured heaven is with the various colors. There is no doubt that heaven will be a place brimming with color (Rev. 21:9ff). However, what is troubling in these accounts is the fascination with the colors and the minimization of God’s glory (Rev. 21:22-26).
The Bible never hints at anyone who died and went to heaven and came back to report about it (Prov. 30:4). Scripture records four men who caught a vision of heaven and briefly reported what they saw – John the Apostle, Paul the Apostle, Ezekiel, and Isaiah. Additionally, Scripture is clear about the destiny of people who die: “And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment” (Heb. 9:27, ESV). No second chances. No return visits. After death comes the judgment, not a book deal.
Heaven is For Real promotes a mindset that militates against the Sola Scriptura principle. Colton claims that “Angels carry swords so they can keep Satan out of heaven!” He maintains, “Jesus wouldn’t let me have [a sword]. He said I’d be too dangerous.” He claims to have seen Satan. And he claims to have seen Mary kneeling before the throne of God. The Reformers rightly said that Scripture was their highest authority. To report this kind of information about heaven is tantamount to adding to Scripture, activity that is forbidden (Rev. 22:18-19).
All these extra-biblical revelations indicate a lack of confidence in the sufficiency of Scripture. Ultimately, Heaven is For Real pits experience against the authority of Scripture. The author notes, “We had taught Colton about our faith all his life. But if he had really seen Jesus and the angels, I wanted to become the student, not the teacher.” The humility is commendable. But a father is charged with discipling his children and raising them in the discipline and instruction of the Lord (Eph. 6:4).
The author expresses his belief in being careful about what he says about heaven from the pulpit. He writes, “I teach what I find in Scripture.” Yet the author is quick to accept the testimony of a small child – even if that testimony militates against the Word of God – a dangerous practice to be sure.
A Ukrainian girl named Akiane has reportedly visited heaven and has returned to tell her story. The author of Heaven is For Real admits, “I made a mental note for future sermons: Akiane’s story showed that God can reach anyone, anywhere, at any age – even a preschool girl in a home where his name had never been spoken.” But Scripture disagrees with this assessment: “But how are they to 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? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!’ But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, ‘Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?’ So faith comes from hearing and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:14-17, ESV).
Apparently, Akiane paints portraits of Christ as she saw him in heaven. Colton appears to have verified the image as identical to the “Jesus” he saw in heaven. The author seems to think that he has “seen the face of Jesus.” But here is the rub. He adds, “We still don’t have all the answers – not even close. But now we have a picture in our minds, a picture we can look at and say, ‘Wow.'” Yet the Word of God expressly forbids such activity (Exod. 20:4). Calvin rightly refers to the human heart as an “idol factory.” Each of us is vulnerable and easily led astray by images of Christ. Again, instead of trusting the sufficiency of Scripture we are led astray by images.
Heaven is For Real contains some disturbing ideas of what constitutes the gospel. For instance, Colton remarks, “Jesus told him to be good.” This is nothing more than moralism. This is a subtle brand of works-based salvation that the Scripture finds so repugnant (Isa. 64:6). Too many people are embracing a gospel of good works; a gospel that finds sinful man making his way to a holy God. But in the final analysis, we find a holy God making his way to sinful men by sending Jesus to die on a cross for the sins of everyone who would ever believe. J.D. Greear beautifully summarizes this gospel: “The gospel is the announcement that God has reconciled us to Himself by sending His Son Jesus to die as a substitute for our sins, and that all who repent and believe have eternal life in Him.” So let us cast aside a gospel of good works and embrace the biblical gospel (Gal. 1:6-8).
Make no mistake – Heaven is for real. The Scripture reminds us of this in powerful ways. Yet God’s Word demands readers to exercise biblical discernment, what Tim Challies refers to as “the skill of understanding and applying God’s Word with the purpose of separating truth from error and right from wrong” (The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment, 61). Not everything in Heaven is For Real is wrong. Not everything is unbiblical. Some of these descriptions are taken directly from the biblical account.
My concern has less to do with the imagination of a three-year-old boy. My greater concern is with people who believe these stories; stories which do not match the infallible authoritative Word of God. The real concern about heaven is guarding the biblical doctrine of heaven; about embracing everything the Bible teaches about heaven and refusing to add details that militate against biblical revelation.
So let us be discerning in these days (Col. 2:8; Matt. 24:4; Mark 13:5). Let us pray the prayer of Solomon as we evaluate books and movies in this culture. And may we hold steadfastly to the gospel once for all delivered to the saints.
“Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, that I may discern between good and evil, for who is able to govern this your great people?”” (1 Kings 3:9, ESV)