Are You For Real?

The best-selling non-fiction book of the year so far is Heaven Is for Real by Todd Burpo with Lynn Vincent. It purports to be the story of a four year-old boy’s near death experience during a harrowing appendectomy and a three-minute visit with Jesus in Heaven.

Before I started reading it, on a Hertz courtesy bus in Charlotte, North Carolina, with piped-in gospel music, I assumed little Burpo would bring back some wisdom from Jesus. I was wrong. The savior Burpo meets has little to say to the living beyond a few platitudes about loving children and how “nobody’s old in Heaven … and nobody wears glasses.”

No, the book’s real purpose – and, I suspect, its appeal – is deeply apologetic. It claims to provide nothing less than “documentary” evidence for the existence of God. Again and again, Burpo’s father is astounded by his son’s seeming omniscience while under the knife: “How could my little boy know this stuff?”

The elder Burpo is a pastor in what he describes as a “one-horse town” in Nebraska an hour from the nearest Wal-Mart. To a skeptic, little Colton Burpo’s “evidence” is underwhelming. For example, he describes Jesus as having beautiful eyes, a white robe, a sash, a gold crown and wounds. “How could my little boy know this stuff?” repeats his father. Perhaps he saw a picture — say — at church?

Colton Burpo comes back to life spouting the basic dogmas of Evangelical Protestantism. The Jesus he meets seems not to have read anything other than Daniel and the Book of Revelation. “There’s going to be a war,” the boy warns, “and it’s going to destroy this world.”

Make no mistake, the stakes are high for Evangelicals, as high as forever. It’s touching to witness how desperate they are to find conclusive proof they are right, after all.

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