JACKSON, Tenn. (BP)–Unless you have been hiding under a rock for the past couple of months, someone has likely told you about the most recent evangelical publishing phenomenon: “Heaven is for Real.” Authored by Todd Burpo, a pastor from Nebraska, and writer Lynn Vincent, the book tells the story of a four-year old boy who claims to have been near death, gone to heaven, and come back to tell his story.
The boy, Colton, was rushed to the hospital with a burst appendix — a scenario to which I can relate since I went to the hospital at age four under exactly the same circumstances. But while I woke up wanting to talk to my Grandpa Taylor about Evel Knievel, Colton came back saying that while he was in surgery, he went to heaven and had experiences with various biblical figures and yes, Jesus Himself.
Initially, Colton’s stories about his time in heaven were met with caution by his parents, but the detail with which he described the events baffled Todd and Sonja, his father and mother. While Colton was only “there” in heaven for about three minutes, he purportedly: sat on Jesus’ lap, heard about a coming battle with Satan at the end of the world, reported that Jesus sits at the right hand of God the Father, realized that God is a Trinity of persons, and learned that no one grows old in heaven, among other things.
Thomas Nelson picked up the book produced from Colton’s episodes. To say that it went gangbusters would be the publishing understatement of the decade. It had sold well over 1.5 million copies, prompting The New York Times to cover the story since the title had raced to the No. 1 position on its paperback nonfiction list.
When a book becomes that popular, it should expect criticism — which Heaven is for Real has gotten. But I am not really interested in criticizing the boy, the book or even his experiences — whatever they were. People have been reporting near-death experiences for as long as anybody can remember, and the subject has become fodder for academic research, beginning with psychiatrist Raymond Moody’s Life After Life, first published in 1975.
What disturbs me are the reports I am hearing anecdotally from people about how Heaven is for Real is regarded as “powerful evidence” for biblical Christianity. One of my friends called me to say that he received a copy of the book from his in-laws as a gift for Father’s Day as a way of helping him bolster his faith. His father-in-law has bought dozens and dozens of copies of the book and is using it as a kind of alternative apologetics book.
Aside from the fact that, as Bill Hybels once wisely pointed out, you don’t lead with your best “weird God story” when you’re trying to evangelize someone, I am more bothered by the high regard and sheer enthusiasm many well-intentioned lay evangelicals are affording to the book.
Nor am I embarrassed by the discussion of evidence for the afterlife, having written about it previously, and commending Dinesh D’Souza’s fine book about the subject along the way.
What bothers me about the reception of Heaven is for Real is what it says about the relatively low view of the sufficiency of Scripture among evangelicals today. In other words, it’s not good enough for us to hear about heaven from the holy apostles. No, we need a little boy sitting on Jesus’ lap to tell us that instead. Then we will believe it. And that phenomenon ultimately bodes ill for everyone who really does love the Bible: pastors, teachers, parents, and yes, even children.
This column first appeared at the blog of BibleMesh.com. Greg Thornbury, is dean of the school of theology & missions, and professor of Christian thought & tradition at Union University in Jackson, Tenn. He also served as theological editor for BibleMesh.com and a senior fellow for KairosJournal.org.