What Kind of “Heaven is for Real?” By Bruce Epperly

Bruce Epperly offers us another Christmas gift -- a response to the highly popular "testimony" of a three-year old about his near-death experience.  Bruce offers a reasoned and critical, but sympathetic read.  Check it out.  What do you think of the book and Bruce's reading of it?


What Kind of “Heaven is for Real?” 
A Response to the Best-selling Narrative of a 
“Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back”
Bruce G. Epperly

It has been said that philosophies err more in what they deny than in what they affirm.  I believe the same holds true for theology.  So, I was positively disposed toward Todd Burpo’s story of his three year old son’s near death experience.  After all, many liberal Christians deny the reality of survival after death and find it an irrelevant appendage to the authentic this-worldly social message of Jesus.  In contrast, many conservative Christians are too certain about the nature of heaven and how to get there, and deny the veracity and value of any path but their own. Moreover, there has been a proliferation of interest as well as research on the afterlife and good theological reflection must take into account both scientific and anecdotal evidence.

 As Todd Burpo’s story goes: at a critical juncture in an emergency surgical procedure young Colton Burpo had a mystical experience.  Lifted above his body, he could see his parents on the phone and praying in a hospital waiting room. He observed the physicians and nurses trying to save his life.  And, more dramatically he went to heaven where he claims to have met Jesus, caught a glimpse of God and the Holy Spirit and had encounters with his great-grandfather and his sister, who died before his birth as a result of a miscarriage.  According to his parents, he had no knowledge of either his great-grandfather or his sister, with whom he communicated extensively in his “three minutes in heaven.”

Now, I happen to believe that near death experiences occur and may provide a glimpse of our destiny.  I believe that the world is multi-dimensional and that through spiritual practices, synchronicity, mystical moments, and prayer and meditation we can experience realities typically unavailable through the media our five senses.  I have no reason to doubt young Colton’s experience and the child-like way in which he describes it.  Having affirmed the experience (although I remain humble about designating its source), I believe that our interpretations of such mystical experiences are always finite, relative, and conditioned by our belief systems.  For example,  while the majority of near death experiences are described as comforting and suggest some form of universal salvation or evolution following death, the handful of published accounts from fundamentalist or evangelical Christians point to the clear superiority of Christianity, the vision of an omnipotent God, and the eschatological dualism of heaven and hell.  This applies to Burpo’s account of his son’s experience: it could be taken straight from the sermons and church school resources of most conservative Christian congregations in contrast to the universalistic accounts of near death experiences given by many seekers, new agers, and more liberal Christians and persons of other faiths.

I came to Heaven is for Real with an open mind and was rewarded with a pleasant Christmas night read after the family had retired to bed.  There was nothing unusual or surprising in the theology espoused or the descriptions Colton’s experiences.  After reading the text, I came to the conclusion that the child experienced something holy.  I also believe unconsciously he filtered his interpretation of that experience through the lens of his Wesleyan religious culture.  Heaven
was - for this little boy, raised on a diet of bible stories and an ethos that framed salvation in solely in terms of a personal relationship with Jesus - a place where “the angels sang to me” and a child could “sit on Jesus’ lap.”   No doubt his heaven was also a place where the question regarding a recently-deceased man, “Did the man have Jesus in his heart?” pointed to a deeper issue: “He had to have Jesus in his heart.  He had to know Jesus or he can’t get to heaven.”

Burpo is rightly amazed that this young child encountered his great-grandfather and sister who died in utero, and most likely he should be, although it is possible Colton heard things about them in passing conversations and unguarded moments and then projected them onto the landscape of his mystical experience.  He might also have received this “knowledge” unconsciously through the feeling tones of his family system. 

Burpo is equally amazed at his son’s “orthodoxy” – everything Colton reports could have come straight out of a conservative Christian baptismal “catechism.”  Here, I think his amazement is unwarranted. As the child of a Baptist pastor myself (young Colton’s father Todd is also a preacher), the faith of our parents is the air we breathe.   We “know” doctrine and have images of heaven and hell, and hear calls to conversation before we can intellectualize them.  You might say that it is bred to the bone theologically for us. Accordingly, my belief is that although Colton had a near death experience or mystical experience of another dimension of reality and may have encountered “deceased” relatives, his description of that experience was colored by the faith of his parents and their church.  This does not discount his experience, but sees it as providing one of many possible interpretations of the afterlife.

This begs several questions that I’m not fully prepared to respond to at this moment, but that can be foundational for any dialogue about the afterlife as revealed through mystical or near death experiences:
·         If our visions of the afterlife reflect our current religious ethos and belief system, does this imply that our near death experiences are always filtered through our cultural and religious belief systems? 

·         Are there many possible legitimate afterlife experiences reflecting the beliefs we hold in this lifetime? 

·         Could it be that God accommodates our post-mortem experiences to reflect our personal identify and beliefs?  Accordingly, some persons (like little Colton) may have actual post-mortem experiences of a personal Jesus and others may have experiences of a more impersonal force; some may experience complete acceptance while others may discover life after death as a combination of grace and judgment.  This might be as much God’s doing as our own, preparing us for the journey ahead by responding to us in the symbols and beliefs we’ve lived by before granting us larger visions of God’s love and glory.

I am appreciative of Todd Burpo’s book, and the faith of a three year old.  As Plato notes, children may be closer to the divine than the adults, trailing clouds of glory into this lifetime from their prenatal adventures.  While I don’t share Todd’s or Colton’s experience or belief systems about the afterlife, I think that Heaven is for Real opens the door for discussions of the possibility of the afterlife and what we might expect in our postmortem adventures.  As such, I commend it as evocative text for personal and group reflection.

Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, pastor, and author of twenty two books, including Process Theology: A Guide to the Perplexed, Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious LivingPhilippians: An Interactive Bible Study, and The Center is Everywhere: Celtic Spirituality for the Postmodern Age.  His most recent text is Emerging Process: Adventurous Theology for a Missional Church to be released in January. But, above all, he seeks to share good news in ways that transform lives and heal the planet.  He may be reached at drbruceepperly@aol.com.


John said…
If God is relational, where God seeks to share our experience of this life, and if God speaks to us in our own spiritual language while we are alive, should we not expect to discover that our experience of life after death would also be an idiosyncratic experience, where we encounter the divine relationally, in a shared experience, manifested in a dimension which reflects ourselves (including our joys, expectations, and our wounds) as well as our divine partner?
Steve Kindle said…
I am reminded of Hans Kung's point in his "Life after Death?" than in none of these experiences did the experiencer actually die. All we know for sure is that the mind/body does prepare us for the transition to actual death; what actually happens at death is uncharted territory.
Brian said…
A 3 year old child has an experience. The parents help the child to make sense of it through their own understanding. = Normal and beautiful.

A 3 year old child has an experience. The parents help the child to make sense of it by offering a story that has a built-in demographic (easy sell) = snake oil.

Wouldn't the most reasonable position be that the parents are lying? After all, they must be making serious bank off of their kid. Besides, now they get to go on TV and become evangel-stars.

(Kindle: Good call on the Kung)
John said…

Not snake oil but interpretation from within a given context. Neither the child nor the parents have much hope of escaping their interpretational context - who does? Do we not all envision - or construe our visions - that which affirms our deepest beliefs? And how would we interpret something which is inexplicable, or which inexplicably confounds our dearest beliefs? Perhaps as cautionary tales, but surely not as disagreeable truths.

Exploitation of the child? Hard to disagree, but I think the exploitation is not only monetary (which may in truth be a secondary motive) but for evangelistic motives. The childs interpreted vision offers itself as a unique tool to communicate about the family's faith, a faith which (forgive my own biases) discounts and devalues the gift of physical creation in favor of a hope for survival into a spiritual eternity.
Anonymous said…
The most damning critique of this book is the lack of a child-appropriate interviewing technique. Police and prosecutors have learned, through many over-turned abuse cases, that interviewing a child calls for a specific expertise that recognizes the need for precisely worded questions and a delicate attitude that does not create an atmosphere of expectated answers and does not preclude honest unrestrained answers from the child.

If such a technique is not used, the testimony of the child is useless. Such is the case here. While the child had a near-death experience, the reported details and the entire narrative of the experience have been so polluted by the unqualified interviewers as to be fatally flawed in its entirity as a reliable testimony.
Unknown said…
If the boy did went through unto the other side and saw his parents, that would be a difficult feeling. He would have wished to come back to his parents in the waiting room without any commercial direct tv to help them divert their attention from fear of losing him.

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