Retrospective: Colton Burpo

For this round I have a look back at a review I posted in 2011 of the story of Colton Burpo, a little boy who allegedly had a vision of heaven. The story has taken on a questionable edge in light of how another such alleged juvenile visionary, the ironically-named Alex Malarkey, has disavowed his own alleged vision of heaven as a child as fictional. Colton Burpo remains standing by his own story, but even if he stands by it until he is 95 years old, it will never replace a sound apologetic.

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Heaven may be for real, but no matter how emotionally appealing you find it, the story in this book – isn’t.

These days there are more than a few “near death experience” books making the rounds that were written by Christians. This one’s a little different in that the witness is a very young boy, Colton Burpo – which makes the emotional appeal all the harder to wipe out with rational analysis.

However, like it or not, from an evidential perspective, the details in the book don’t add up to a reliable testimony.
Not that there is much useful that could be used for that. Over 99 percent of the book is simply narrative, with nothing with which the spirits can be tested save a few details, which can be classified into two categories.

The first category could be good proof for the veracity of Colton’s experiences, if they could surely be found to be valid – which they unfortunately cannot. The second category, however, absolutely proves Colton’s story to be merely a case of imagination – and we’ll get to that shortly.


The first category has to do with events allegedly perceived by the subject NDE experiencer which occur during their indisposition – typically, things like allegedly seeing loved ones from some higher vantage point. I’m not out here to determine whether NDE experiences are real or not, but I will judge whether the evidence given shows that this one is, and the evidence in this first category, while seemingly impressive on the surface, doesn’t add up to enough significance to be determinative:


xx-xxi, 61 – Colton claims he left his body and saw what turned out to be an accurate (but very vague) description of what his parents were doing at the time: His father praying in one room, and his mother on the phone and praying in another.


43 – Colton indicates knowledge that he had nearly died.

91 – Colton tells his father that Jesus had called him (Todd) to be a pastor when he was younger.

94-5 – Colton shows awareness of having had an unborn sister who had died while still enwombed.


122-3 Colton recognizes a photo of his deceased grandfather as a younger man, matching it to a man he reputedly met in heaven.


Finally, here and there, there are examples given where Colton describes details in accord with some Biblical text (particularly Revelation).


Todd Burpo assures us that he shared none of these details with Colton, but there is little done to validate this assurance. For the second example (43) he wonders if the medical staff of the hospital could have said something Colton overheard, but this is not investigated at all. For the rest, there is nothing to show that these details were not somehow gathered by some other means by Colton – whether from other relatives, members of Burpo’s church, or overheard conversations with other parties.

That’s the first category. The second has fewer entries, but it far more damning for the authenticity of Colton’s experiences, especially as far as the Christian is concerned: How well do Colton’s experiences accord with external evidence not found in the Bible? It’s the sort of thing that could never occur to someone like Colton’s father Todd as a small town pastor whose theological education is quite limited (a BA in Theology), and so offers an ideal way to “test the spirits”.


100-1 – though rightly offering the Biblical detail that Jesus sat at God’s right hand, Colton offers the non-Biblical detail that Gabriel sits at God’s left. However, in reality, this would be a serious violation of the protocols of honor and hierarchy, and difficult to explain barring an overhaul of theology as we know it. Gabriel being seated at God’s left would amount to just about making him a co-ruler with God and His rough equal. If any ought be seated on God’s left, it is the Spirit. (Good thing Colton did not say it was Michael, or the JWs would have to rework their whole christology!)

133 – highly problematic for me as a preterist, Colton sees Satan running around free.

67 – However, the detail that ultimately invalidates Colton’s experiences irrevocably is that he describes seeing the wounds of Jesus’ crucifixion. Apart from questions of whether the wounds were indeed present after the Resurrection (the showing of the hands and feet is better related to the social concept of hands and feet as “zones of interaction” validating Jesus’ physical presence), Colton places then in Jesus’ palms and the middle of his feet – whereas genuine crucifixion victims had nails driven into their wrists and heel. Ironically, Todd Burpo does not believe his son ever saw a crucifix, and says, “We know where the nails were driven when Jesus was crucified” – but with this, he unwittingly shows that Colton’s vision of a wounded Jesus did come from some more modern image, because the fact is, he and Colton do NOT know where the nails went.

144 --Just as damning is the fact that Colton identified Jesus with a portrait done by Akiane Kramarik, who was also a very young child who claimed an NDE and a heavenly visit. While Todd Burpo sees in this an amazing validation, a look at Kramarik’s portrait shows it to be the white, Anglo-Saxon Jesus of modern, Western culture – a being that would have been recognized as a foreigner in first century Jewish Palestine.


Sadly, there is more at stake here than a child’s winsome but wayward tale of heavenly experiences. There is not much theology in this book, but what little there is, is highly questionable (such as a poor theology of prayer s a gumball machine, 109). Far worse, however, is that this book will draw us much further into the trap that is emotional and experiential authentication and away from support for our loyalty (faith) in evidence. Having been a #1 New York Times bestseller, the success of this book is more a tragedy than something to be celebrated.


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I also posted an update in response to some questions to the above.
 
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 How can we be sure that heaven is still following all the principles of honor, shame, hierarchy, etc? The real question is, why should we think otherwise? 99.9% of people who have ever lived have been agonistic and collectivist. It is imperialist arrogance to suppose that heaven has changed for our sake, or to think that we’ll have a special section set aside for People Like Us. When people ask me about how we’ll deal with honor and shame in heaven, I always say – we’ll learn. The hard way, if needed.

How do we know Colton’s vision wasn’t adjusted by Jesus to make him more comfortable? This is merely a contrivance. There’s no reason why Colton would not have been comfortable with a Jesus who had darker skin than he expected -- the Burpos are not racist, are they? – and yes, the difference would be quite noticeable. It is asked if I expect Jesus to look the same through eternity; the answer is that I expect some reason to be given why he would not be, and why (conveniently!) he happens to manifest as a white Anglo-Saxon. The idea that Jesus manifests differently to different people is, like the rest of this, a wholly modern notion designed to accommodate uniquely individualist sensibilities. Paul did say he became all things to all men, but this is a principle of evangelism, and no one needs to be evangelized in heaven.

Nor would there be any reason for him to lack comfort with “nail holes” someplace other than his palms. Indeed, it is just as well to say ask why God would allow such details to be wrong, knowing that so many people would see that they are; it's the sort of error that gives critics fodder that is hard to refute. Medical evidence shows that the palms are unsuitable for crucifixion and will tear. Adding in ropes doesn’t solve the problem – it admits there is one and tries to get around it.

Maybe Colton made some mistakes. If that is so, then where is the line drawn as far as how much to believe about his testimony? And as a reader also put it (in a comment Google ate):

….how would the boy recognize Gabriel? Wouldn't he have noticed the extremely peculiar sight of six-winged seraphs, who fly above God and whose voices can shake the doorposts and thresholds of the temple? You'd expect a child to be amazed by such a sight, but did he mention any of what we do know about heaven from the Bible?

Also, why would Jesus retain the scars while he is now in heaven? Paul said in Philippians 3:20-21,

20 But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.

Does this mean that we will also have the same scars that Jesus bore, or does he mean that Jesus no longer has the scar-riddled lowly body and is now transformed into a glorious body?

In the end, readers may wonder why I am so intent on this matter. The answer is that books like this one are not only shot through with error, they also make it impossible to convince Christians of the importance of apologetics. Why care about the textual reliability of the NT? It must be guaranteed, because little Colton saw Jesus in person, dude.

And that’s an attitude that lies at the heart of our problems in the Western church today.
 

Comments

Joe Hinman said…
John 3:1-21English Standard Version (ESV)

You Must Be Born Again
3 Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. 2 This man came to Jesus[a] by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” 3 Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again[b] he cannot see the kingdom of God.” 4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born?” 5 Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.[c] 7 Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You[d] must be born again.’ 8 The wind[e] blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? 11 Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you[f] do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.[g] 14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.[h]

For God So Loved the World
16 “For God so loved the world,[i] that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. 20 For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. 21 But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.”

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