With the release of a movie recently, many, many people are talking about Heaven. That’s a good thing, right?
Heaven Is For Real, a movie produced by mega-church pastor TD Jakes, and a book about a 4-year-old view who allegedly “visited Heaven” when he died on an operating table, has taken the nation by storm. Over and over, I have the same conversation. Someone will know that I’m a pastor and so must LOVE this enterprise, says, “I saw Heaven Is For Real last night. SUCH a good movie! I totally believe it!”
Then my face, which I imagine looks a bit like a boy being pinned down by his older sister and her friends for a “makeover,” launches us into a different discussion. “What? Did you not like it? Did you even see it?”
I have not seen the movie, but I have read the book. And I hated it. Sure, it was a pleasant read. But the response from everyone to accept this as Scripture is troublesome. As a pastor, I write this post to help redirect hope to places that can properly offer it, rather than placing it on an unconscious, anesthesia-induced toddler.
Here are my four biggest “problems” with Heaven Is For Real, in increasing severity.
The depiction of Heaven is Cheesy.
Admission: when Colton Burpo comments about meeting family members he’s never been told about (supposedly), or about a sister he never really had (due to a miscarriage), I don’t know what to do with that. But the rest of his “vision” is highly suspect.
The depiction of Heaven that Colton gives is unbelievably similar to every children’s bible and every illustrated Christian Kids’ book EVER. My son is currently two, and for at least a year, has been able to “point to Jesus” on a page in his children’s Bible. Yet Todd Burpo (Colton’s dad and the book’s author) makes this sound miraculous.
According to Burpo, Jesus wore white robes with a blue, miss-America-style sash across his shoulder. Sound familiar? Or the fact that Jesus has “markers”—what Burpo calls Jesus’ scars—on his hands. These and others seem to me to be a boy who dreamt what he had already seen in his short life as a pastor’s son (where he was more exposed to Church and Christianity than most children whose parents are not pastors).
The whole image, and the Bible verses cherry-picked to “prove” it, reveal the same kind of thinking that these children’s books are based on.
As far as his “out of body” or “remote viewing” experience in the Hospital, these happen all the time, and are in some sense proof that we are not our bodies. We have a body and a Soul that can live on without it. On this point, I will give Colton the benefit of the doubt, and suggest that this part of his recollection was a genuine experience from the moment when his body died on the table.
The Bible Says These Things Don’t Happen
David Platt points this out more thoroughly than I can, so I will link to a video where he has covered the Scriptural side of this debate with great detail.
I will add one thought that he doesn’t mention though: Jesus told a parable about the afterlife, where the lesson seems to be that this sort of thing explicitly does. not. happen.
In Luke 16:19-31, Jesus tells the story of a Rich man, and the poor beggar at his gate, named Lazarus, whom he spent his entire life ignoring. In the parable they both die, and Lazarus is in the arms of Abraham, and the Rich Man, “in Hades, being in torment.” The Rich man pleads for Lazarus to dip his finger in the water and cool his tongue (relieve his suffering), and Abraham’s response is, with more words, “No.”
Then the Rich Man says, “If I cannot be saved, at least send Lazarus back to warn my five brothers about the ‘place of torment’ and the reality of the afterlife.” (I’m paraphrasing. Go read the parable here for the full text).
Abraham’s response again was (without paraphrasing), “If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.”
In other words, God has given us Scripture to be taken seriously and to be our guide to knowledge of him. He has chosen NOT to use fanciful warnings and exhortations from 4-year-olds-turned-modern-prophets.
Here’s David Platt on the book:
The Message Contradicts Jesus’ Message.
Christianity has long suffered a very simplistic description of salvation. Yes it is “by grace through faith,” but what does that even mean? What does it look like? The New Testament speaks to this question way more than our modern churches do. Paul describes the Christian life as “putting off the old self with its deceitful desires, and be renewed by the spirit in your minds” (Eph. 4:22). He says this over and over. Becoming a Christian means changing your worldview to align with God’s character.
Jesus’ own message isn’t much softer. In fact, Paul is the one that talks of “Grace.” Jesus taught repentance from sin, bearing fruit (that is, producing for the Kingdom), “cutting down” those who don’t bear fruit (and throwing them in the fire), baptism, decrying all you own for his sake, and “obeying” his commands.
Furthermore, those “sinners” that he always ate with (looking at you, liberal thinkers!) were described as “the sick” who needed a physician, and the “lost” who needed to be found. They were told to repent, turn back, change their ways, and “go and sin no more.” Yes, he showed grace, but it was never static; it carried with it a command to be changed.
These are not all “conditions” for salvation, but they are necessary parts of his message for what it looks like to follow him.
By contrast, Colton Burpo “went to heaven,” and spent lots of quality time with Jesus. If he was a prophet, being given revelation to give to mankind, this is Jesus’ opportunity to communicate it. And the content of that message to the world was, “I love you, and want you to be in heaven, too.”
When a four-year-old’s depiction of Jesus looks like Sunday School Jesus, and sounds like Sunday School Jesus, chances are, he is just the boy’s mind meeting with his conception of Sunday School Jesus.
We’re left with the impression that Jesus said to little “angel” Colton, “Did I say, ‘Go to all the nations, baptizing them and teaching them to obey all I have commanded?’ What was I thinking?!? I don’t even remember saying that. What I meant was, “Go to the nations and tell ‘em I love ‘em, big time.” Are we ready to ascribe this kind of revision to Jesus himself?
This message robs the Gospel of any talk of sin, salvation, Jesus’ sacrifice and atonement, God’s holiness and glory (see video above), obedience or self-denial. All were present in Jesus of Nazareth’s message, none were present in his “revelation” to this little boy. Are we to believe that Scripture has been edited? Can we scratch out those passages in the Gospels?
Or should we be a little more skeptical of this message from a toddler?
The problem of “Extra” revelation.
This is the most troubling, so I’ll just jump in and say it like it is. If you blatantly deny Scripture because this book “convinced you,” you forfeit any right to deny the validity of the Koran, the Book of Morman, or any other modern “prophet” claiming to have a “new” revelation from God.
Over and over, as I have had these discussions, people schluff off any Scriptural references as “opinion,” and boldly state, “well, I still believe it.” The claim is made as if their faith is somehow more sophisticated because they believe this book, as if I should aspire to have faith like them.
At stake here is the question of the Bible as a “closed canon,” or a “closed collection” of authoritative documents. To remove the authority from Scripture and accept “new revelation” because it sounds convincing is to align yourself with any number of other such claims through out the last 2,000 years.
The Muslim prophet Mohammad claimed to have a “new” word from God. So did Joseph Smith when he founded the Church of Latter Day Saints. Or Sun Myung Moon and the “Unification Church.” So has every cult leader and heretic of the last several hundred years. And the Charismatic movement claims “prophecy,” “extra revelation” from the Holy Spirit, and even names “apostles” to this day, to supplant the teachings of Scripture.
Is this book as damaging as those things? No, but if we accept it without checking its claims with Scripture, we put it in the same category.
If you are going to claim that this little boy “got it right” just because the message gives you warm fuzzies, and try to denounce the book of Mormon, the Koran, the Watchtower Bible that Jehovah’s Witnesses use (their own, “correct” translation), or any other claims of a “modern” prophet who heard from God, you are being seriously inconsistent.
To accept one gives validity to all.
To be clear, I have read this book, and The Shack, and Left Behind, and any number of other books that are fanciful fiction but the church takes as Gospel. Simply reading them is not the problem.
My fear as a pastor is that people would take them and build their theology about God around them, ignoring the revelation he has already given about himself. These are theological junk food. A Snickers bar here and there won’t kill you, but last I checked, basing your entire diet on junk food only leads to problems. My fear is that we would put our hope in a message that cannot bear up under the weight. And, my fear is that we would “get in touch” with our emotions and our self, but never pursue relationship with God.
We prefer the created thing over the creator.
And I think that God takes that pretty seriously.