NEWS BLOG (WSAU) Colton Burpo was four years old when he nearly died from a ruptured appendix. His temperature spiked to 105 and he almost didn't arrive at the hospital in time. Emergency surgery saved his life. He had a near-death experience. During that time, he claims he was in heaven. His story, and how his father (the Rev. Todd Burpo) and others respond to it, is the subject of the new movie Heaven Is For Real . I saw it last weekend.
First, little Colton is telling the truth. He's too young and innocent to make it up. And his story is too convincing to be disbelieved. He described his father praying in the hospital chapel, and throwing a chair in frustration. There are events and places that he'd never seen would have had no knowledge of. He learned of a sister that he didn't know he had. Colton described family members he'd never met. His story is so convincing that you have to suspend disbelieve not to believe him.
Colton's story gets my attention because its so pure and simple. Near-death or back-from-beyond stories are fairly common but usually they happen to adults. By then people have a lifetime worth of religion on here-after beliefs that probably shape their experiences even after being brought back from the dead. The stories are similar: a feeling a being at peace, a floating above their mortal body, moving towards a light, and then deciding to go back to this earthly realm. And many near-deathers have worked parts of their own religious experiences into the story. Christians have visions of Jesus; Jews see or hear Moses; Islamists are called by Mohammed. But near-death experiences in the very young are very rare. Colton's story carries extra weight because its a story he probably isn't sophisticated enough to make it up.
The movie, though, is not perfect. Its slow and plodding. Its manipulative, because if you haven't read the book you know someone is going to be seriously hurt but you can't be sure who. And people, especially God-fearing Christians, falter when they can't accept something that their own faith says is true.
Heaven Is For Real raises interesting questions.
- If heaven is truly paradise, wouldn't my heaven be different than Colton's?
- I have many loved ones who've died, yet nowhere in Christian scripture does God promise us a family reunion in heaven. I think God's plan for eternity is likely to me more than a never-ending picnic under a shady tree with my long-lost grandparents.
- And there is the question of what does Jesus look like? This is one of the areas where I agree with the Muslim tradition, where it's blasphemous to create an image of the Prophet. Colton has a definite picture of what Jesus looks like. Would Christ look the same to me? Or to you? I suspect not.
So what are we to make of this story? I think its simple. God will never offer us definitive proof of his existence to mankind. That would take away faith the individual making up of our minds that each of us must go through. That's what the Heaven Is For Real story is about; do you have sufficient faith to believe it?
Image: Guido Reni's painting in Santa Maria della Concezione, Rome, 1636 at the St. Michael Altar inSt. Peter's Basilica, in the Vaticanvia, via Wikicommons.