In the shadow of the movie’s release, I thought it apropos to regurgitate this (one of my first) posts…
This annoying little book is not going away. Upon hearing his 4-year-old claim that he had visited heaven and met Samson and a blue-eyed Jesus, Pastor Todd Burpo encountered the same challenge all parents of toddlers frequently face. When my boy claims that he is actually Superman I wrestle with an identical dilemma: Do I just smile and play along til he grows out of it, or do I write a book sharing the claim with the world? What to do, what to do?
Pastor Burpo didn’t chicken out and opt for the condescending smile-and-nod approach most of us lazy dads do. No, he employed a literary agent who successfully lured Thomas Nelson Publishers into eventually putting 1.5 million copies into print. (If anyone can get me that agent’s number, I’m very interested!) Dad
exploited assisted his boy to polish his story, and Nelson presented their newest father-and-son trophy as the very yellow “Heaven is For Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back.” It shot to #1 Bestseller for non-fiction.
The NY Times ran an article facetiously titled “Celestial Sales for Boy’s Tale of Heaven.” In it there is a priceless explanation of why reputable literati types would stoop to promoting this project. Patricia Bostelman, the vice president for marketing at Barnes & Noble admitted: “When you buy the religion subject, you are presented with many stories about heaven, personal experiences about …the afterlife,… But what was unusual about this book was that it was the story of a little boy. It deactivated some of the cynicism that can go along with adults capitalizing on their experiences.” In other words, when you rub shoulders with the gullible folk who “buy the religion subject” you are bound to meet shameless kooks who try to profit from fanciful lies. But this one we could promote, because it will sell. And why will it sell? Because the picture of a little boy will “deactivate” some of the normal discernment that might hinder sales.
This “non-fiction” bestseller has done embarrassingly well. Not that the Burpos are embarrassed, they’ve gone on TV News stations to promo their product. It’s the evangelical world that is shuffling its feet. What do we do now? It’s not like we don’t believe in heaven. But do we really want Colton Burpo as our Exhibit A in the case for eternity? So how do Christians who already believe heaven is for real deal with claims from people who appear to be on our side? Do we add them to our menagerie of evidences that the Bible is true? Do we stock this account next to the Shroud of Turin, the Ark-shaped mountaintop, and that big skeleton that Goliath supposedly used?
Here is a what I hope is a helpful suggestion on how to respond when people make claims expecting you to believe them…
The Nutshell: “Heaven is for real…well, duh, of course it’s real, God said so. Am I more/less convinced that it’s real because a toddler says so? No. I already have the more sure word of God (2 Pet 1:19).”
Read 2 Peter 1:16-21 (text found below this article). Follow Peter’s argument: “I didn’t make up the story about the mount of Transfiguration; I actually did hear the audible voice of God confirming that Jesus is the Messiah. But I don’t expect you to accept that. What I do expect you to pay attention to is the more sure word, the Bible.”
When someone claims to have a mystical experience, I would start by believing the best (perhaps they aren’t lying but truly believe it), but I would also take them to this passage and try to explain that personal experience is unsure, untouchable, and unverifiable.
Unsure. No personal experience is trustworthy enough to stake your soul on it. “Are you saying that the Bible is more sure than what I can see with my own eyes??” Yes. Ever been to a magic show? I have seen a lady chopped in three and then reassembled, but I wouldn’t try it at home. Our senses are not reliable enough to gauge spiritual truth by them. Contrast that to the Bible as Peter describes it: “no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation.”
Untouchable. Experiences are subjective, not open to critical examination. If you claim, “I saw heaven,” and I ask, “How do you know there was no LSD in your iced-tea?” You can simply reply “I just know it was true.” End of discussion. You and your subjective experience is untouchable. But how does that compare to Scripture: “No prophecy was ever produced by the will of man…”
Unverifiable. It’s open to deceptive people using the claims for their own gains. Peter says he didn’t “follow cleverly devised myths.” When your church cultivates an environment in which people believe claims of “God told me so,” you are throwing down the welcome mat for liars to run your church. Imagine a deacons’ meeting where one guy wants the carpet to be blue and the other prefers beige. The first one to say God sides with him, wins. You are asking for liars to come in and get attention they don’t deserve.
And when a new “evidence” for the supernatural surfaces, I’d simply say–in a pleasant sort of way–“Well duh, God said so.”
2 Pet 1: 16 For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. 17 For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” 18 we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain. 19 And we have something more sure, the prophetic word, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, 20 knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. 21 For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.