Book Review: Heaven is For Real

Heaven is For Real: A
Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back
by Todd Burpo and
Lynn Vincent

 

You may have heard of this book – it has spent at least ten
weeks at the top of the New York Time’s best seller list for non-fiction.  It’s only 150 pages long and is a very
engaging and easy read.  It chronicles in
somewhat haphazard fashion the insights of 4-year old Colton Burpo after a
three-minute visit to heaven as he underwent emergency surgery to save his life
from a ruptured appendix that had gone undiagnosed for five days.  In the months that followed his recovery
(itself miraculous), his parents realize that Colton has seen and experienced
heaven, and is able to substantiate this with information that he could not
have possibly known otherwise. 

How’s that for a simple premise?

This is really the crux of the book.  At times it seems like a lot of filler around
a few rather basic revelations.  There
are a few photos in the center of the book of people integral to the
story. 

As a theologian, I was naturally curious about the specific
statements/assertions that are made about heaven.  On the whole, I don’t see anything that
specifically contradicts Scripture in any way, and most of what is presented
does have some sort of Scriptural foundation even if at times it seems
somewhat stretched.  I come away from the
book willing to accept that Colton experienced Jesus and heaven for three
minutes.  That’s a blessing to this boy,
his family, and Christians around the world who are apparently reading this
book like crazy.

I don’t see any reason to discourage people from reading the
book.  If you like slice-of-life stories
and are interested in Colton’s experiences, you should enjoy the book.  I do have two specific complaints with the
book.  The first is that, in a couple of
places the authors echo a mantra that is common in our culture today – the idea
that the simple, child-like faith is what we all need to aspire to, and that
the more complex world of theological wrangling is something that ought to be
avoided.   This is a tricky thing.  Yes, our faith ought to be childlike, resting
in the assurance of our salvation from sin and death through the incarnation,
death, and resurrection of the Son of God, Jesus of Nazareth.  However,
we are also exhorted repeatedly in Scripture to move intellectually beyond the
basics of the faith in order to apply the faith more consistently to our lives.  Baby food is important for babies, but as
babies grow into children and then adults, they need heartier fare capable of
sustaining their needs in the increasingly complex world they grow into. 

As such, we need to be theologically intelligent and mature.  “Jesus loves me, this I know – for the Bible tells me so” with an emphasis
on the latter portion there.  We need to
be able to read and discern Scripture properly so that we know what the first
part of that verse means, and what it should lead us to in our lives.  That requires grounding in Scripture and some
careful lines of theological inquiry and study. 

My second complaint with the book is related to the above
issue.  While the book quotes plenty of
Scripture, primarily as support or validation of Colton’s experiences and
reports, it doesn’t ultimately direct the reader back to Scripture as the
authoritative, primary source of information.  The
book wraps up sort of with a gee-whiz-we-can’t-believe-this-all-happened-to-us
sort of mentality.  But that sort of
amazement – as well as the reports of little Colton – all have a deeper context
in Scripture.

It is in Scripture that we meet the God who reveals himself
to us and outlines the proper relationship of all things.  Without this context, what is the reader to
make of Colton’s experience?  Is it a
bizarre anomaly (no, it isn’t).  Is it
necessarily authoritative and convincing in and of itself (no, it’s not).  Colton’s experience appears to be one of a
long line of divine revelations to unlikely people at unpredictable times.  These revelations have consistency with one
another and ultimately in the God who provides them, and Scripture is where we
see this laid out over and over and over again. 

And it is Scripture that teaches us that whatever our
individual experiences may or may not be, those experiences need to be vetted
against the revelation of our creator God. 
It is in this context that our experiences take on proper meaning and
significance, and it is this contextualization that helps to prevent us from
taking the wrong things from our experiences. 
This is a key thing in a culture that is obsessed primarily with
individual relationships and experiences as the basis for truth and
reality.  Experience and relationship are
good and wonderful, but they require a deeper context to make proper sense of
them.  This book doesn’t really provide
that.

What it provides is an encouragement and hopefulness to
those of us who already have faith and trust in Jesus Christ.  It will not be very convincing to someone who
isn’t already a believer.  But it’s worth
reading so you know what your friends and relatives might be reading, and it
might give you the opportunity to talk with them about your faith and trust in
heaven and in Jesus.  Heaven is indeed
for real, and that’s something we never want to forget!

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