In Heaven Is for Real by Todd Burpo with Lynn Vincent, a four-year old boy named Colton awakens from emergency surgery with a tale of heaven. His “divine” vision includes images of a rainbow-colored horse that only Jesus could ride, God and his chair that are “reaaally big,” and the Holy Spirit that “shoots down power” from heaven to help us. Along the way, the young boy meets his grandfather for the first time and, of course, hears a message of a coming last battle and glory for Christians.
Because I’m a skeptic at heart, a book like this wouldn’t usually catch my attention. But I just had to read about this rainbow horse! However, when I realized the book is actually written by the young boy’s father, Todd Burpo, all visions of magical ponies vanished from my mind and suspicion set in. Burpo is a pastor of Crossroads Wesleyan Church in Imperial, Nebraska (population: 1,762), from where he broadcasts Sunday sermons via the local radio station. Would this religious man take advantage of his young son?
Reading the book with a critical eye, I found it hard to take this young boy’s after-death story seriously. His descriptions fit the way a child would talk, but it still left me with the feeling that the lines were being fed to him by an adult. Heaven Is for Real felt like just another ploy by mass market publishers eager to pander to the segment of the Christian population that is hungry for tales of what awaits them in the afterlife.
If one reviews the medical records, she or he will learn that Colton Burpo did not actually clinically die before he told his story. What’s more, it actually took him several years to tell his story; by the time Burpo wrote the book, Colton’s memories were several years old. And we all know how fallible memory can be. During the intervening years, Colton’s memory had plenty of time to elaborate on his “visions”—most likely with influence, even indirectly, from his preacher father.
Despite being a New York Times best-seller, Heaven Is for Real is hardly credible or well-written. Colton’s is a simple, heartwarming tale of a biblical journey overshadowed by his father’s voice. Burpo seems astonished that his young son could know “such things” about heaven, yet he freely admits that it is rhetoric Colton would have heard on Sundays at his father’s church services or in Sunday school and that it is consistent with the Bible.
Instead of feeling blessed after reading this book, all I felt was sympathy for the boy. Colton found himself in this medical predicament that required emergency surgery because his parents misdiagnosed as food poisoning what was actually appendicitis. By the time they took him to the hospital, Colton’s appendix had burst and was filling his tiny body with poison.
Not even the pictures in the book of a blond, blue-eyed, picture-perfect family could assuage my suspicion. The only effect they had on me was to incline me to wonder what the real family dynamics were behind the staged photos. Colton is surely a sweet boy, but I just cannot trust what this paperback proclaims.