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January 13th, 2011

               If you haven’t heard about this book, you probably will soon.  Word is that it will be #1 on the New York Times Bestseller list January 23.  When I realized it was skyrocketing in popularity, I bought it because I thought it wouldn’t be long until people started asking me what I think.  (Nobody has yet.)

Todd Burpo is Wesleyan (think “conservative Methodist”) pastor in Nebraska, the father of three children.  This book is about the middle child, Colton, who underwent an emergency appendectomy at age four.  His survival was, to use a cliché, “nothing short of miraculous.”  He almost died.  Or should “almost” be taken out of the last sentence?

In the months that followed, Colton began to talk about heaven.  He said he had been there.  He had met Jesus.  He had seen God’s throne.  He had mother’s maternal grandfather, “Pop,” who was in his prime.  He had met his sister, who had been miscarried and still had no name.  He had seen Satan, and wouldn’t talk about the experience.

The book is definitely reminiscent of Don Piper’s Ninety Minutes in Heaven, which I read several years ago.  Piper, in fact, writes the first tribute to the book inside the front cover and has a quote on the front as well.  You can buy both books with one click on Amazon.com.

There’s a big difference between the books, of course.  Piper looks like he’s 60-ish (I couldn’t find his birthday) and the accident that ushered him to the Pearly Gates was in 1989.  So he had had plenty of time to develop a theology of heaven.  Not surprisingly, when he died and came back, what he described looked just like what he had been taught from the Bible.

But Colton Burpo was 4.  He came back telling his pastor-dad what he had seen in heaven which was not anything he had read or understood as a typical 4-year-old.  What of that story?

I have no desire to undermine the story or the faith that inspired it.  Perhaps everything there is quite true and God has graciously given a four-year-old boy and his family a boost not only to their faith but to those who will read a New York Times bestseller.

Neither do I necessarily feel I need to accept all the descriptions of the afterlife based on the witness of a comatose four-year-old.  I may be wrong, but I think many of the Bible’s descriptions of heaven are metaphorical – heaven is “like” things we already know on earth.  Paul writes that we cannot possibly imagine, much less see, what God has planned for us in the afterlife (1 Corinthians 2:9). 

In Burpo’s book, I’m especially skeptical as I read the chapter on “The Throne Room of God.”  Jesus’ Dad sits in a big chair, with Jesus on his right and the angel Gabriel on his left.  The Holy Spirit is a blue light in the throne room, and they brought in a little chair for Colton to sit in.  I’m kind of wondering where were the other millions of believers in heaven besides Colton, Pop, and his unborn sister.

The Bible’s descriptions of heaven are meant to give us a longing for something far greater than we have experienced.  But describing heaven to a human being is like telling a North Carolina spider about the Grand Canyon.  There’s nothing in the spider’s experience that can compare to the real thing.

So, before anyone asks me what I think, here it is.  This book will boost the faith of many Christians, and I’m really happy for them.

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