A review of Heaven Is for Real by Todd Burpo. Nashville, Tennessee: W Publishing Group, 2010. Print.
Heaven is for real is a compelling narrative of Colin Burpo, a young man who supposedly went to heaven while he was on the operating table being treated for a burst appendix. The story retells this difficult event in the family’s life, then traces the next several years of their lives as, slowly, Colin reveals bits and pieces of his heavenly experience. The narrative itself is compelling, enjoyable, and engaging.
This is certainly not the first account in recent years of someone going to heaven and coming back. In fact, one could safely say that there has been an unusually high number of reports lately of this same supernatural phenomenon. Published in 2004, Don Piper wrote a book entitled 90 Minutes in Heaven and later Heaven is Real: Lessons on Earthly Joy, about his “90 minute experience in heaven” following a terrible car crash. Don Piper describes pearly gates, golden streets, and “incredible music in quality and quantity”. Published in 2012, Eben Alexander wrote the book Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife, recounting his transformation from a religion-denying neurosurgeon to a believer through an other-worldly encounter with an angelic being during a coma. Also published in 2012, Dr. Mary C. Neal wrote To Heaven and Back: A Doctor’s Extraordinary Account of Her Death, Heaven, Angels, and Life Again. Her account describes a heavenly visit following a kayaking accident where she was pinned under water for at least 15 minutes. These are three of several accounts over the past decade where people were absolutely sure they had gone into the afterlife and sent back to tell their stories to the world.
What is going on here? It is not beyond God’s power to do such a thing, nor is it beyond God’s grace to use men and women as voices to call the world unto Him. But is this how God operates in the New Testament Church? Do the accounts, lives, and actions of these individuals bear the fruit of ones who are genuine, Spirit-filled believers in the Lord Jesus Christ? Or is it all smoke and mirrors?
We cannot fully know the extent of the truth surrounding these claims, and that is part of the problem. Many of these accounts are just as amazing as Colin Burpo’s story. These men and women seem sure of their experiences, and not only that, but some return with doctrinally accurate declarations of God’s love and man’s need for saving faith in Jesus Christ by believing upon His name to be saved. Jesus Christ gives us clear teaching in the Scriptures regarding the nature of truth and error. 1 John 4:1-3 tells us, “Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world. Hereby know ye the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God: And every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God: and this is that spirit of antichrist, whereof ye have heard that it should come; and even now already is it in the world.”
We, as Bible-believing Christians, must judge every spiritual claim against the doctrinal realities of the gospel of Jesus Christ. If the supernatural experience of any man or woman does not line up accurately with the gospel of Jesus Christ and the revelation of the Word of God, then it must be rejected immediately. If the testimony of the individual is overshadowed by their declaration of the true gospel of Jesus Christ, and furthermore their account does not conflict with clear teachings of Scripture, then perhaps we as Bible-believing Christians should not be principally opposed to their message, even if we retain some skepticism as pertaining to its veracity.
In Mark 9:38-40 the disciples came to a similar impasse. Jesus had not committed Himself unto men to testify of the gospel, because “he knew all men, And needed not that any should testify of man: for he knew what was in man” (John 2:24-25). Yet in Mark 9 Jesus’ disciples approach Him about a man, one not following Jesus, who was casting out devils in Jesus’ name. The disciples told Christ that they forbade him to do so on the grounds that he was not in the company of Christ. From a doctrinal standpoint, this makes sense. Jesus could not verify the clarity of this man’s message, and perhaps would not want this man representing Him. This makes Jesus’ response all the more startling when He said in Mark 9:39-40, “Forbid him not: for there is no man which shall do a miracle in my name, that can lightly speak evil of me. For he that is not against us is on our part.” Thus Jesus called for the disciples to allow the man to testify, because through his work people were receiving a proper understanding of Jesus’ power and authority.
Such a tale stands in direct contrast to that of the “vagabond Jews” in Acts 19, who had no love for Christ or the gospel, and yet sought to invoke the authority of both Jesus and Paul to exorcise demons for their own purposes. Thus the Scriptures tell us in verse 13 that these men “took upon them to call over them which had evil spirits the name of the Lord Jesus, saying, We adjure you by Jesus whom Paul preacheth.” The demons response is almost comical in verse 15-16, “And the evil spirit answered and said, Jesus I know, and Paul I know; but who are ye? And the man in whom the evil spirit was leaped on them, and overcame them, and prevailed against them, so that they fled out of that house naked and wounded.”
In conclusion, my position on these supernatural occurrence is one of skepticism, but also one in which I would desire to align with the example we see in Scriptures regarding those who preach and teach concerning God. I believe it very important that we do not get caught up in the “emotionalism” of any one experience or encounter, nor should we focus upon the experience at the expense of the Truth that there is a God, that we are morally accountable to this God, and that only those who come to God through the finished work of His Son Jesus Christ by “repentance from dead works, and faith toward God” (Hebrews 6:1) may receive remission of sins and enter into the eternal life that these men and women claim to have witnessed.
I would call upon us to do that which Gamaliel, the Pharisee and member of the Sanhedrin, called upon the council to do concerning the Apostles of Jesus Christ in Acts 5:38-39, when the wise man stated, “And now I say unto you, Refrain from these men, and let them alone: for if this counsel or this work be of men, it will come to nought: But if it be of God, ye cannot overthrow it; lest haply ye be found even to fight against God.” If these men and women speak out for the gospel of Jesus Christ and maintain sound doctrine, they are doing good, not ill. And as we speak concerning them, it is our opportunity to keep the focus upon the objective realities of the gospel, and not the subjectivities of supernatural experiences. If we all can maintain these determinations of patient evangelism and care, we may not ever need to bicker among ourselves as to whether or not these experiences actually happened.
With this foundation laid, there are 3 particular concerns that I have with Heaven Is for Real specifically that I would like to address:
The first problem is the biggest problem: what I would call the “gospel problem”. There is not one instance in the book where the gospel is clearly articulated. Furthermore, when Colin is asked in his movie interview “what [he wanted] people to take away from Heaven Is for Real the movie”, His response was, “I hope they find healing and that they can get wisdom from it, so that they know no matter what happens, God is always there helping you. And no matter what Satan may put you through, God can overcome it.” True words, as long as his intended audience for the movie is the born-again Church of God, and not unbelievers. Unbelievers may walk away (at least from the book) more convinced of heaven, but they won’t necessarily be closer to understanding why they should care, or how they can get there. This is a major problem, and strongly speaks against the spiritual value and authenticity of this book.
The second problem is the “experience” problem. I referenced this in the general comments above, but there is something very unsettling in our age about “Christian experiences”. We are well aware that “Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light” (2 Corinthians 11:14), and so we cannot inherently trust those things of which our physical senses would seek to convince us. We furthermore know from Hebrews 11:1 that “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Thus we know by its very definition that these people are not claiming God on the ground of faith, but on the grounds of “experience. Ephesians 2:8-9 tells us, “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast.” Hebrews 11:6 reminds us, “But without faith it is impossible to please him: for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him.” Thus we must understand that any physical or material “experience” that we might have as believers is only as good as the role it plays in leading us into faith in the unseen. Supernatural experiences have no ability to stand alone in their spiritual efficacy. I am concerned with this book and movie that the experience is attempting to stand alone, and that is a problem indeed.
The final problem is that of association. It was very troubling to me when I saw, in my “Special Movie Edition” of the book, a picture of the Burpo family with Producer T.D. Jakes. T.D. Jakes is a man who is ambiguous at best concerning the doctrine of the Trinity, and had close associations with “Oneness Pentecostalism” or “Modalism”, which openly denies the doctrine of the Trinity in favor of an old heresy taking another turn around the block which teaches that God is a single person who manifests Himself in three different ways (or modes), as opposed to God being three distinct persons as the Bible teaches. Furthermore, Jakes has revealed himself to be a false teacher on many occasions, preaching a “prosperity gospel” of health and wealth through several blatant Scriptural misinterpretations. Finally, Jakes revealed during the 2008 Presidential election of Barak Obama that he is a man willing to forgo Biblical principles and spiritual discernment in favor of superficial social issues. His open support for President Obama simply because he is a black man, in spite of Obama’s support for facilitating the murder of children, is absolutely disgusting. For the Burpo family to align with a man of such dubious spiritual fruit is to reveal a lack of discernment at best, and deception at worst.
It is for these reasons that I cannot endorse Heaven Is for Real in any of its forms. The spiritual intent of the message is confused, the spiritual associations of the message are dangerous, and the spiritual fruit of the message is unclear. These are not evident manifestations of the Holy Spirit’s work, and we as believers should seek “higher ground” in our declarations of the truth both in the Church, and to a lost and dying world.