At age four, Colton Burpo visits heaven during an emergency operation. This isn’t a near-death experience, since he never died on the operating table. Nevertheless, he freaks out his parents as he tells them what he saw in heaven. This 2014 movie came from a book that claims to be a retelling of true events.
The movie opens with father Todd Burpo. He installs garage doors, and we see him installing a door at a carpet warehouse, taking carpet in trade (though he has bills to pay), and giving the carpet to the church. He’s the wrestling coach, he puts flowers at a grave, he’s a volunteer fireman, and he’s a pastor. Quite a guy.
In addition to his bills, God burdens him with some medical difficulties of his own, and then he has the close call with his son.
A pastor whose own son personally visited heaven? Sounds heavenly, but it causes division in the church. Sure, they’re good Christians who believe in heaven, but as a place that you could visit? You mean, like actually believe in heaven? They don’t want people laughing at their church.
It’s like the story of Peter getting out of prison in Acts 12. An angel frees him, and he returns to a house where supporters had been praying for his release. The servant runs to tell the supporters, but they think she’s crazy. They won’t believe that Peter was freed though that was precisely what they’d just been praying for.
Do modern Christians actually believe what they’re supposed to believe?
(Spoiler, of sorts.) The story culminates with a packed church. The press is there, curious to hear more about this nutty story. There are the church elders, who have given Todd an ultimatum—get the church back on a sensible track or else. His wife and two kids are there, and this experience has been challenging for all of them. There’s even the psychology professor who Todd had visited to get more information about claims of heavenly visits. As an atheist, she stands in for the skeptics in the audience.
Todd’s job and reputation are on the line.
He begins by suggesting to the congregation that if they actually did believe in heaven, they’d all lead different lives. But what is heaven? It’s simply the best of life on earth—“on earth as it is in heaven,” as the Lord’s Prayer says.
This is the “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus” approach to heaven. Do you believe in sunsets, puppy dogs, and children? Well, there you go—that’s heaven. Bypassing the supernatural makes this easy to accept, but I don’t think everyone will be satisfied.
Pastor Todd brings the church community together, keeps his job, and soon discovers that his wife is pregnant again. After a few years, his money problems are taken care of, too. The book, written with the help of Sarah Palin’s ghost writer, was a bestseller in 2010, and the movie pushed it back to the top of the bestseller lists.
The journey of this story parallels that of the gospel story. We’re seeing a movie, which came from a book, which was the result of an editorial process on a draft written by an outside author, which came after years of oral history within a Christian household.
As a sweet Christian story, this movie works fine. It’s not my cup of tea, but then I’m not the intended audience. But, as usual, the claim of serious evidence to support the towering claim that the universe has a supernatural creator falls flat. The boy’s testable claims of things he could only have learned in heaven are that (1) he saw his parents in separate rooms in the hospital as he had his out-of-body experience, (2) he could identify his father’s grandfather by a photo, and (3) he knew that his mother had had a miscarriage. That’s it. Like the stories of modern-day appearances of Mary, limbs growing back, and dead being resurrected, I await serious evidence. (I’ve written about fallible memory here and tales growing over time here.)
The story is bookended by Akiane Kramarik (a real person, now 19) who paints about her impressions of heaven after God spoke to her when she was three. Colton confirms that, yes, her painting is a correct rendering of Jesus. Apparently we’re to connect the dots. God isn’t so hidden after all. He’s planting visions of heaven in the minds of children.
A tip for God: next time, give a camera crew a visit to heaven. The evidence would be more believable.
Not only is there financial motivation for the family to push this story, accurate or not, but the publisher and every other company in the distribution chain is so motivated. Where’s the vetting? Where’s the skepticism? These may be silly questions when there’s money to be made, but someone has to at least ask.
There has been some pushback. The boy behind another visitation book, The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven (the ironically named Alex Malarkey), admitted that the story was invented, and the publisher, Tyndale House, has since stopped selling the book. Shortly afterwards, LifeWay, one of the largest Christian bookstores, announced that it would drop the entire genre of “heaven visitation resources.”
I wonder how hard it was to do the right thing.
At age 4, the inability to distinguish
between fantasy and reality is charming.
Among American adults, widespread identification
with the mind of a preschooler is scary.
Only in America could a book like this
be classified as non-fiction.
— Susan Jacoby, commenting on the book
(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 4/16/14.)
Photo credit: Deadline