“Heaven is for Real” review

Heaven is for Real coverHeaven is for Real:
A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip
to Heaven and Back

by Todd Burpo (with Lynn Vincent)
Thomas Nelson Publishers
2 November 2010

I’ve had this review in the back of my mind for almost a month trying to decide how to write what I think about Heaven is for Real. If I take it wholesale and tell people it’s amazing and “finally, some proof of (a Christian) Heaven!”—which I don’t believe—I’ll be written off as someone who believes too easily. (Another reviewer didn’t like the idea of “finally having proof” either, but for a different reason than I don’t like it.) If I criticize it the way I’m inclined to do—as a skeptic—I’ll be told I “need to have faith to understand this kind of story”…

Well, either way, this 160-page memoir is an easy read. The story is about a young boy, Colton, who becomes gravely ill from a burst appendix at the age of four and then, after a life-saving surgery, claims to have been to Heaven. His father, Todd Burpo, a pastor at a small church in Imperial, Nebraska, narrates the story. After a series of Bad Things Happening to the Burpo family—so much so that Todd’s congregation begins calling him Pastor Job—things finally start to settle down and the family goes on a trip, partially in celebration of having survived that year so far.

Then, during the trip, Colton gets sick and eventually, the parents decide to take him to the hospital. The doctors rule out appendicitis almost immediately and try a lot of other things, but Colton keeps getting worse and worse. Finally, the Burpos move him to another hospital, where the doctor takes one look at the kid and tells them it’s obviously a burst appendix and that if they don’t perform surgery immediately, Colton will die. Colton has the surgery and (miraculously) survives and then, sometime later, tells his father that during the surgery he visited Jesus in Heaven.

It only gets more… faith-based from there. I don’t want to say “it gets stranger” because the Burpos fully and truly believe that their son went to Heaven. The kid was only four at the time, Todd Burpo says, why would Colton make that stuff up? Well, he probably wouldn’t. During the months and years following Colton’s surgery, Todd and his wife (Colton’s parents) cautiously extract details about Heaven from the child. They begin playing a game, “What’s wrong with this painting of Jesus?” Since Colton saw Jesus in Heaven, when he looks at a painting of Christ, he can usually tell something’s wrong with it, even if he’s not able to pinpoint the exact wrongness. (The artists of these paintings aren’t claiming to have seen Jesus, after all; this is just how they imagine him.) Then, they see Akiane‘s painting, Prince of Peace. Akiane is a child prodigy who also claims to have been to Heaven and seen Jesus, and her painting of him is the only one with which Colton seems to find nothing wrong.

Colton’s mother and father ask him more and more about Heaven, and he always gives them answers without hesitating. He also met Todd’s father there (a man who died decades before Colton’s birth), and a child the Burpos lost to miscarriage before Colton was born (a child he never knew about before). He told them about Mary, mother of Jesus, and all the animals he saw while he was in Heaven. There, he says, “Nobody is old and nobody wears glasses.”

I must admit, I read Heaven is for Real sort of under the assumption that it was fiction because it was easier to suspend my disbelief than it was to take the story at face value. Though, it does not purport to be fiction. It’s presented as a true story that happened to real people, and—who knows?—it may be. Who am I to tell the Burpos that maybe their son was actually hallucinating, or maybe he just has an overactive imagination, or maybe they’re believing in miracles because they can’t find any other explanation (regardless of whether or not there is another explanation), or maybe God presented himself to Colton in a way he knew Colton would understand because the family is Christian? I don’t know. Maybe it’s true. I can’t tell them it’s not. But I’m more like Doubting Thomas: I’m unlikely to believe it if I can’t see it for myself.

I believe in Heaven, but I don’t know if I believe that people can know what’s in Heaven before we go there ourselves for good. If you’re a Christian who believes in miracles and likes happy endings, Heaven is for Real is a good read. If you’re not a Christian but like reading about unexplainable-by-science recoveries and don’t mind strong Christian overtones, this book isn’t a bad read. It’s fast—you could read it from cover to cover in 12 hours or less. As for me? I’m giving the book to my mother, who’s a sucker for this kind of story. She’ll like it much better than I did, if only because she actually believes it already. More power to her, and more power to the Burpos as well.

DISCLAIMER: I received Heaven is for Real free from Thomas Nelson Publishers in return for a review of the book. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

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