There has been a book of personal testimony making waves in Evangelical Christian circles for the past few months. Indeed, it isn’t just limited to Protestant Evangelicals; the person who recommended it to our family is a devout Catholic liberal.
The book, entitled Heaven is for Real, is the real life story of Todd Burpo, a small town Christian pastor, and his family as they pass through a life crisis of Todd’s illness and resulting financial problems. As they seemingly reach the end of this crisis and take a family trip that combines a family vacation with a ministerial conference, their toddler son Colton is stricken with a burst appendix that is mis-diagnosed until the infection brings the child to death’s door. Instead of being over, the life crisis has only deepened beyond anything they could have feared.
Colton does survive and, then, over a period of time — with all the innocence of the old “kids say the darndest things” television show — starts dropping casual details about the time in the hospital when he died and spent time in heaven. Since the details include things like Jesus not being angry because Todd got mad at God in the hospital chapel while Colton was in surgery, something Todd had carefully hidden from everyone, Todd begins to pay attention.
Indeed, Colton describes meeting in heaven his great-grandfather who died thirty years before he was born. He is later able to pick out “Pops” from a picture his grandmother has, but which he has never seen. Similarly, he is introduced to an older sister — one who died from miscarriage in the womb — and his recitation of that meeting heals a deep pain and sense of loss in his mother’s heart.
Just as Colton knows things he shouldn’t about his family, he also casually drops details about heaven that are dear to the Evangelical world view, but aren’t covered in his age group in Sunday School. The Jesus he meets wears a purple sash, but Colton doesn’t know that purple is the color of royalty, or how to describe a sash. He keeps saying that the pictures of Jesus are not what Jesus looks like — until he is shown the picture above, and says “that’s right”. Jesus rides a great white horse, while all of the others in heaven have wings. (Even Colton has wings, but his are only little; he still has a lot of homework to do.) Colton gets to sing songs like “Jesus Loves Me” with the angels, but for some reason, they won’t allow him to sing “We will, we will, rock you!”
And Colton is strongly convinced of two things: Jesus REALLY, REALLY loves children, and people HAVE TO, HAVE TO have Jesus in their heart when they die. When his father goes to visit someone whose believing loved one has died, Colton rushes into the confident, comforting role. But when a person has died without belief, Colton is inconsolable.
Finally, Colton is convinced that a great battle between good and evil is coming soon, and that his father will have to fight in it.
Now, I am somewhat cynical, as most of the readers here well know. I am well aware that once an author learns to fake sincerity, the rest is easy (particularly when the co-author is a professional writer). Nevertheless, sincerity and humble faith leap out at me from the pages of the book, and it was definitely faith-promoting to me even when I didn’t share particular theological agreement. A critical reviewer at Amazon, Matthew Hickman, put it this way:
“Don’t use this book as a basis for theological discernment about either the afterlife or the end of time. Take this book for what it is: a sweet story of the love of parents for their child, the care of Christians for each other in times of crisis, and the surprising mystery of the grace of God.”
But if I am not to use it for theological discernment because it doesn’t match my theology, what am I to make of the variation in visionary experiences from other sources? I don’t recall any accounts of visitation by Moroni that depict him as possessing wings. Do Mormon angels have wings? In other words, am I to be put off because the experiences we have don’t match each other in details, but rather seem to reflect the expectations of our particular religious culture?
For example, the testimony of John Gustav-Wrathall here comes across as equally sincere as that of the Burpo’s, even though they might recognize little more that they shared together theologically than that they had had an experience with Christ.
Can we see the spiritual experiences of other traditions — perhaps even beyond Christian traditions — with a sense of divine grace, or do we only regard grace as coming with the proper brand name?