Thursday, September 20, 2012

Book Review: “Heaven is for Real” by Todd Burpo

For the living know that they shall die: but the dead know not any thing, neither have they any more a reward; for the memory of them is forgotten. Also their love, and their hatred, and their envy, is now perished; neither have they any more a portion for ever in any thing that is done under the sun.
~ Ecclesiastes 9:5-6 (King James Version)

The boundaries which divide life from death are at best shadowy and vague.
Who shall say where one ends, and the other begins?
~ Edgar Allan Poe

In Heaven is for Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2010), author Todd Burpo (with coauthor Lynn Vincent) inadvertently tells a very sad (not to mention infuriating) story, even though it was intended to be inspiring and uplifting. By way of introducing the book, I quote from the New York Times’ report on the backstory that resulted in the writing of the book:

Just two months shy of his fourth birthday, Colton Burpo, the son of an evangelical pastor in Imperial, Neb., was rushed into emergency surgery with a burst appendix. He woke up with an astonishing story: He had died and gone to heaven, where he met his great-grandfather; the biblical figure Samson; John the Baptist; and Jesus, who had eyes that “were just sort of a sea-blue and they seemed to sparkle,” Colton, now 11 years old, recalled.

Colton’s father, Todd, has turned the boy’s experience into a 163-page book, “Heaven Is for Real,” which has become a sleeper paperback hit of the winter, dominating best-seller lists and selling hundreds of thousands of copies.

The article goes on to report that more than 1.5 million copies of this book have been printed. In addition, there is now a children’s version of the book and a DVD-based curriculum for churches and small groups. There is also a movie adaptation of the book in the works.

Ka-ching! I imagine every time Todd Burpo and his wife Sonja see or think of their son, they think, well done, kid!

In the book, Burpo relates what his four year-old son Colton told him about what he remembered of his alleged trip to heaven. Here are the main details:

John the Baptist is “nice.”

Jesus has a rainbow-colored horse

There are lots of colors in heaven, because heaven is where all the rainbow colors are.

Jesus has “markers” (red-colored wounds in his hands and feet). He has brown hair and a beard. His eyes are very pretty. He wears white clothes with a purple sash, and he is the only one in heaven who wears purple. He has a circular “gold thing” on his head with a pink-colored “diamond thing” in the center.

Jesus teaches children in heaven, and gives them homework.

Everybody has wings in heaven, and everybody flies. But not Jesus. Jesus is the only one in heaven who does not have wings. He just goes up and down “like an elevator.”

People in heaven look like angels and have lights above their head. They all wear white with yellow sashes. They wear different colors than the angels do.

The angel Gabriel sits on the left side of God’s throne. He is “really nice.”

In heaven, Colton sat in a little chair next to the Holy Spirit, who was “kind of blue.”

No one is old in heaven, and no one wears glasses.

Jesus “shoots down power” to pastors when they are about to preach.

Angels carry swords in heaven to keep Satan out.

Besides Jesus’ rainbow horse, there are other animals in heaven, including dogs, birds, and a friendly lion.

Colton met Mary, the mother of Jesus. She “still loves him like a mom.”

Todd Burpo insists that Colton could not possibly have just made up these kinds of details:
I was pretty sure neither Sonja nor I had ever talked to Colton about what Jesus wore at all, much less what he might be wearing in heaven. Could he have picked up such a detail from the Bible stories we read to the kids? More of Colton’s knowledge about our faith came from that than from a month of Sundays. But again, the stories in the Bible storybooks we read to him were very narrative-oriented, and just a couple of hundred words each. Not at all heavy on details, like Jesus wearing white (yet Scripture says he did). And no details on what heaven might be like (p. 68).
Burpo is just wrong, and he is obviously reaching, stretching logic to its breaking point. A child can make up stories such as the one four year-old Colton came up with, without any outside help. In fact, it is actually very easy to do. Is Burpo really so dense as to believe that a young child – raised in Sunday school all of his four years – could not have just imagined rainbow horses (has Colton by any chance seen The Wizard of Oz?), a bearded and blue-eyed Jesus consistent with most Sunday school pictures, and ideas of people having wings and halos in heaven? Moreover, we are dealing here with a four year-old who had been steeped in religious training since he was born. The mind of a young child is like a sponge; children absorb a great deal of what their parents tell them and inculcate much of their behavior.

Another question we might ask, assuming for the sake of argument that Colton really did have some kind of vision, is how he knew that the bearded, purple-sashed man with the brown hair, blue eyes was actually Jesus. Did this figure have an ID card handy? Does Colton just arbitrarily believe anyone who claims to be Jesus Christ? For all Colton (or his father) knows, the man he met might have been David Koresh. And we can go further with our hypothetical acceptance of Colton’s story. Colton could have gone to hell, where his mind was fed a deceptive illusion by Satan in which he saw his great-grandfather and Jesus and all the other details listed above. Maybe Satan implanted this illusion in the child and then sent him back in order to popularize the book, thereby leading millions of people directly to hell.

I invite you to prove me wrong, Mr. Burpo.

Burpo discusses at some length what he considers to be the “smoking gun” evidence that his son visited heaven. Little Colton apparently knew details about his family about which Burpo claims he was never told prior to his near-death experience. This included information about Colton’s great-grandfather, who died in an auto accident over twenty years before Colton was born. But even the book’s account makes it clear that Mr. Burpo himself dragged the details out of Colton. After his near-death experience, Colton also allegedly knew that when his father was thirteen years old, he felt called by God to be a pastor. “But we had never told Colton about it,” Burpo writes (p. 92). Most impressively of all, Colton allegedly knew about his deceased sister, who miscarried in her mother’s womb in 1998. Although the parents claim they had never told Colton about this miscarriage, he claimed to have met her in heaven.

Now obviously, I was not privy to the family conversations that happened in the Burpo family during the first four years of Colton’s life, but time has a way of passing and people have short memories. This book was written seven years after the events related – plenty of time for gaps in memory to be filled with false details. As the author himself admits,

[O]ur emergency dash from Greeley to the doctor in Imperial turned out to be only the beginning of the story . . . we received the details of Colton’s extraordinary journey [to heaven] in bits and pieces over a period of months and years. So though it’s been some time since his brush with death, the rest of the story took a while to unfold [p. 151, emphasis added].
Parents do not always remember what they did and did not tell their children about family history. A much more plausible scenario is this: what Todd Burpo thinks he remembers as his four year-old son volunteering information, without anyone telling him anything or asking leading questions, was actually a case of his son regurgitating information told to him at some point in the past – either before he was four years old, or even afterward, before the book was published seven years down the road.

The reason I find this to be a sad story is because, despite the fact that the family has gained great wealth as a result of the incident, this story is bound to have one of two possible effects on Colton. He will either (1) develop a lifelong sense of his own infallibility, living the rest of his life with the fact that a silly fantasy he either made up or dreamed up was taken so seriously by the adults that it became the basis of a bestselling book franchise and movie deal, or (2) he is going to live in perpetual fear for the rest of his life, afraid that people will one day discover that he was deceiving everyone the whole time.

I hasten to add that in suggesting the latter possibility, I am not claiming that Colton has been consciously lying about his alleged experiences or in any way attempting to make anything up. Colton’s experience could very well have been a vivid dream, a personal fantasy, or a piecing-together of disparate memories that he is convinced was absolutely real. There is no reason to accuse Colton Burpo of intentionally deceiving anybody in order to be skeptical of the reality of his journey to heaven. I merely suggest it as a possibility, in the interest of exhausting all possible natural explanations before accepting an even more implausible supernatural one. Let us remember what the philosopher David Hume said in his famous essay “On Miracles,” published in his 1748 book An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding: “No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavors to establish” (quoted from editor Charles Hendel’s edition, New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1955). The example Hume gives holds immediate relevance to the case we are considering here:

When anyone tells me that he saw a dead man restored to life, I immediately consider with myself whether it be more probable that this person should either deceive or be deceived, or that the fact which he relates should really have happened.
While on the subject of more probable explanations, it bears pointing out that there is a clear difference between the way a child handles a vivid dream (or whatever Colton’s experience happened to be) and the way an adult handles one. This may seem like an obvious observation, but it is an important one in the case before us. When an adult awakes from a nightmare – and I speak from personal experience, because I have many of them – he or she may initially pant for breath, and then take a moment to become oriented to reality, and then mentally note, “Oh, I just had a nightmare. Carry on.” When a child awakes from a nightmare, on the other hand, he or she will often run to the parent’s bedroom, insist that the closet be checked for monsters, and will generally treat the dream with all seriousness until he or she is sufficiently talked down to by a rational adult.

My point is this: Colton Burpo did not have any rational people around him in his household. Thus, when he woke up from surgery and almost four months later began talking about meeting his long-dead great-grandfather and Jesus and Samson in heaven, his parents did not say anything like, “No, you probably didn’t; it was just a dream.” Colton’s parents instead saw in Colton’s fantastic story a validation of their religious beliefs. Perhaps more importantly, they saw an opportunity to become rich by writing a book (although, I must admit I am rather surprised that they even they went along with the “sparkly, blue-eyed Jesus” bit).

The fact that this book became an instant bestseller illustrates the special dispensations accorded to religion by modern society. Consider: if this had been a story about a child meeting anybody else besides Jesus and other assorted Bible characters, the story would probably not have been written, much less published. Burpo mentions in the book that Colton’s favorite superhero at the time of his ordeal was Spider-Man (p. 25). Imagine if Colton had claimed to have visited Spider-Man or any other fantasy character that appeals to small children. Nobody would have taken him quite as seriously as his religious parents did when he told them he met Jesus in heaven. I am reminded of what Sam Harris wrote in his book The End of Faith (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2004): “It is merely an accident of history that it is considered normal in our society to believe that the Creator of the universe can hear your thoughts, while it is demonstrative of mental illness to believe that he is communicating with you by having the rain tap in Morse code on your bedroom window. And so, while religious people are not generally mad, their core beliefs absolutely are . . . billions of us [believe] what no sane person could believe on his own” (p. 72).

I submit that beliefs about Jesus’ rainbow horse and about Jesus zapping preachers with spiritual power from above fall squarely in the category of “mad core beliefs.” And then there is this little tidbit shared by Colton:

“There’s going to be a war, and it’s going to destroy this world. Jesus and the angels and the good people are going to fight against Satan and the monsters and the bad people. I saw it.”

I thought of the battle described in the book of Revelation, and my heartbeat stepped up a notch. “How did you see that?”

“In heaven, the women and the children got to stand back and watch. So I stood back and watched.” Strangely, his voice was sort of cheerful, as though he were talking about a good movie he’d seen. “But the men, they had to fight. And Dad, I watched you. You have to fight too.”

Try hearing that and staying on the road. Suddenly, the sound of the tires whirring on asphalt seemed unnaturally loud, a high whine . . .

“Um, Colton . . . what am I fighting the monsters with?” I was hoping for a tank, maybe, or a missile launcher . . . I didn’t know, but something I could use to fight from a distance.

Colton looked at me and smiled. “You either get a sword or a bow and arrow, but I don’t remember which.”

My face fell. “You mean I have to fight monsters with a sword?”

“Yeah, Dad, but it’s okay,” he said reassuringly. “Jesus wins. He throws Satan into hell. I saw it” (pp. 136, 138).

It should be clear now exactly what I meant when I said that Colton is not being raised by rational people. In fact, as I read the passage quoted above, I could not help but think of the 2002 movie Frailty, in which Matthew McConaughey stars as deranged religious fanatic who believes he has been visited by a heavenly messenger who tells him God has given him a special mission: find demons disguised as humans and kill them. What follows is a murder spree motivated by his belief in the reality of his vision, a grisly undertaking into which he tries to recruit his two preteen sons.

Some of my readers may have strong objections to such a comparison. After all, what can possibly be the harm in allowing the Burpo family to share what they believe happened to their son, without questioning them and subjecting their story to critical scrutiny? Well, for one thing, read what kind of attitude toward life Colton’s parents have fostered in him as a result of his experiences:

That day, I bought vanilla cones, one each for Colton and me. True to form, when we walked out the door, he took his treat and darted out into the parking lot, which is only a couple dozen feet from Broadway.

Heart in my throat, I yelled, “COLTON, STOP!”

. . . Just then, I noticed a little pile of fur right out in the middle of Broadway. Seizing what I thought was a teachable moment, I pointed to it. “See that?” . . . “That’s a bunny who was trying to cross the street and didn’t make it,” I said. “That’s what can happen if you run out and a car doesn’t see you! You could not only get hurt; you could die!”

Colton looked up at me and grinned over his cone. “Oh, good!” he said. “That means I get to go back to heaven!”

I just dropped my head and shook it, exasperated. How do you scare some sense into a child who doesn’t fear death? (pp. 113-114).

Therein lies the danger and the harm of religion, especially in the lives of impressionable children who believe everything they’re told.

For me, as an aspiring investigative journalist, one of the most disappointing (but by no means surprising) aspects of the book is its one-sided reporting. If any of the details given by young Colton happened to be wrong, we the readers do not get to hear about those wrong details against which to measure chance probabilities of Colton receiving insights by other-than-normal means. Colton’s parents, along with several other people in their circle who helped produce and promote this book, have looked only at the generalities of this incident. These generalities grew into a story who key elements are a little boy going to heaven and there meeting his great-grandfather and Jesus. But what about all the other smaller details that must have manifested, including any disconfirming data? This book subtly and misleadingly portrays Colton Burpo as much more than just a little kid who I suspect is just as fallible and human as the rest of us. One gets the impression that Mr. Burpo thinks his son is incapable of either lying or being deceived, and even that God pays special attention to his prayers:

[W]hen, in the spring of 2004, the most brilliant rainbow we’d ever seen appeared over Imperial, we called him [Colton] outside to take a look . . .

“Look at that rainbow, Colton,” Sonja said. “There definitely should be a big pot of gold at the end of that thing.”

Colton squinted, peering up at colors pouring across the sky.

“Cool,” he said with a nonchalant smile. “I prayed for that yesterday.”

Then he turned on his heel and went back to play.

Sonja and I looked at each other like, What just happened? And later we talked again about the pure-faith prayers of a child. “Ask and it will be given to you,” Jesus said. He put that instruction in the context of a child asking a father for a blessing . . .

Colton Burpo hadn’t seen a rainbow in a while, so he asked his heavenly Father to send one. Faith like a child. Maybe, Sonja and I thought, we had a lot to learn from our son (pp. 108, 109).

What else might Colton Burpo not have seen in a while, if at all? What about the worldwide suffering caused by human cruelty and natural disasters? Has Todd Burpo, who believes that God pays special attention to his son’s prayers, advised his son to pray that scientists will find a cure for cancer, or that God will miraculously restore lost limbs to the nearly 2 million amputees living in the United States alone? Apparently not, if what he says about the special supernatural dispensations afforded to his son is true.

The only reason Colton’s parents believed his son’s fantastic tale is because they already believed that people go to heaven to meet Jesus. They were primed to believe it, not only because of the formally-stated doctrinal tenets they strongly associated with, but also on an emotional basis: they wanted to believe that their deceased infant daughter was waiting for them in heaven. They did not believe their son’s story for any evidential reason (i.e., the claim that he could not possibly have made it up). Instead, they wanted desperately to believe Colton for emotional reasons and they already believed in a heavenly afterlife for departed loved ones. Todd Burpo and his wife were bound to find some truth in what Colton said, regardless of what he said, because they were looking for that truth with blinders on.

In the final analysis, Todd Burpo was not thinking skeptically or critically in writing Heaven is for Real, a book which is the product of a failure to analyze details that I suspect would go a long ways toward demonstrating whether or not the information Burpo received from his four year-old son is reliable. But then again, why would he enter into a critical analysis that had the potential to ruin a great story? Where is the money to be made in that?

Further Reading

Claims of near-death experiences, out-of-body experiences, and astral journeys to the afterlife are everywhere to be found. Heaven is for Real by Todd Burpo is merely one of the latest additions to a vast body of anecdotal claims that rely not only on circumstantial evidence and selective data, but also on questionable science.

Fortunately, there is a large and ever-growing literature providing a much-needed skeptical perspective on NDEs, OBEs, and the like. Several excellent books and articles have examined the phenomenon in a less credulous and more critical manner, and present strong and detailed arguments demonstrating why the data from NDEs do not offer any evidence for the existence of an afterlife. For the interested reader, I recommend the following books and articles:

Susan Blackmore, “Out of the Body?” in Robert Basil, ed., Not Necessarily the New Age: Critical Essays (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1988), pp. 165-184.

Susan J. Blackmore, Dying to Live: Near-Death Experiences (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1993).

Mark Fox, Religion, Spirituality, and the Near-Death Experience (New York: Routledge, 2003).

Gerald Woerlee, Mortal Minds: The Biology of Near-Death Experiences (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2005).

Keith Augustine, “Hallucinatory Near-Death Experiences,” Internet Infidels: Secular Web, http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/keith_augustine/HNDEs.html.

Victor J. Stenger, “Life after Death: Examining the Evidence,” in The End of Christianity, ed. John W. Loftus (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2011), pp. 305-32.