I have to confess that I came to Heaven is for Real by Todd Burpo as a skeptic. I'd heard plenty about the book and just as many critiques about the book, but I didn't feel I could really address the book without having read it myself. After reading it, I can clearly see that the Burpo family had a very tragic experience as Todd and Sonya Burpo struggled over watching their son hover between life and death. I read the story as a father of three young children myself, and I was angry over the doctor who misdiagnosed Colton Burpo and I related to how much the Burpos wanted their son to be okay. It's a sad and ultimately hopeful story as you watch God work through their tragedy to bring Colton Burpo out of the clutches of death. People loved the Burpo family and prayed for them relentlessly. The book also clearly lays out faith in the gospel of Jesus' death and resurrection as the way to be with God after death. So, as a first-time reader of Heaven is for Real, I will say that it is a compelling story about God's grace in tragedy.
That leads back to the question for which I decided to read the book in the first place. Do I believe that Colton Burpo went to heaven and came back? After reading it, I can't say that I do. Of course, I come to the story as a father of a five-year-old, four-year-old, and three-year-old. I've had the experience countless times of my kids saying something that I wonder where they got it. My wife and I will hear them repeat things we've said that we never knew they were listening in on. They have incredibly active imaginations. Now, if they started saying things about a visit to heaven, it would make me wonder where they were getting their information. But what struck me about the book is how quickly Todd and Sonya Burpo accepted what Colton, a three-year-old, said about heaven. I appreciated that Todd Burpo didn't want to ask leading questions that would draw certain responses from his son. However, many of the things that Colton says throughout the book are in response to questions by his parents. Colton says many things that are unverifiable and borderline unbiblical.
Colton says that people in heaven have wings. Nowhere in the Bible is there any indication that people will have wings in heaven. Of course, it doesn't explicitly say that we won't have wings, either. It's simply unverifiable whether what he said is true or not. Colton claims to have met his sister in heaven, a sister that his parents miscarried before he was born. The Burpos didn't know the gender of their baby, and they believe that Colton confirmed that the baby was a girl. Again, unverifiable. Possible, maybe, but he has a 50/50 chance of getting it right. Colton's revelations begin a few months after his experience in the hospital. Plenty of time for Colton to pick up information that his parents don't realize. Todd Burpo mentions Colton's Sunday school teachers several times, but never questions what things he may have learned about heaven from them that he was unaware of.
I would never claim that Colton or his parents were lying about any of what is related in the book, but I think what Colton shares is the result of either his imagination, some very vivid dreams that he had while asleep in the hospital, or he really believes what he says really happened. There are some things that do seem odd about his story, but I think there are probably some alternative explanations for how he knew what he knew.
Many people treat the book as if it is dangerous. Though I think there are some theological issues that don't line up with Scripture, they're not major issues. Of course, the idea that people can go to heaven and come back has become a very popular one in recent years. This book is only one of many. However, I don't think the book is necessarily dangerous. The book communicates the gospel and gets people thinking about heaven. It could easily be a launching point for conversations about faith and what the Bible really teaches about heaven.