• "Phenomenon": Colton Burpo, with parents Sonja and Todd, "died" in the operating room when he was 4 and says he went to heaven. He came back with amazing stories, which are recounted in Heaven Is for Real.

    By Robert Deutsch, USA TODAY
    “Phenomenon”: Colton Burpo, with parents Sonja and Todd, “died” in the operating room when he was 4 and says he went to heaven. He came back with amazing stories, which are recounted in Heaven Is for Real.
By Robert Deutsch, USA TODAY
“Phenomenon”: Colton Burpo, with parents Sonja and Todd, “died” in the operating room when he was 4 and says he went to heaven. He came back with amazing stories, which are recounted inHeaven Is for Real.
We’ve seen the bright light. We’ve been to heaven and back. The latest best seller is about a round trip visit to the netherworld. The book has broken all sales records for the publisher, Thomas Nelson, which specializes in Christian publications. The protagonist is an 11-year-old boy who claims he died, went to heaven and returned to the living to give us his tale in Heaven is for Real: a Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back. The book is titled under non-fiction, because after all the father claims that everything the boy says in the book is “all true.”
What a great formula for success: to a broth of established religious superstition add a pinch of life, death and heaven, stir in some pabulum, add a cute little innocent boy and simmer until a gullible public anxious to hear anything to validate a belief in the unbelievable lines up to buy the story — and voila, a best seller. The boy’s journey is presented to us by his father, the Rev. Todd Burpo, who leads a small evangelical congregation in Nebraska. The book is co-written by Lynn Vincent who gave us that stirring tale, Going Rogue, with Sarah Palin. Note that the trip to heaven happened to a boy who coincidentally comes from an evangelical family who already believed in an afterlife prior to the brief visit there; and that we are taken on his journey by a writer with an established conservative agenda. What we are not told is why anybody would want to return to earth from heaven — after all, it’s heaven.
The success of this book, and others akin, demonstrates an odd paradox about the faithful. We are told by believers that faith needs no proof. Faith alone is sufficient to believe in God. Any attempt to refute the existence of any higher power using logic, evidence or reasoning is shut down with a dismissal of rationalism as a secular plot perpetrated by humanists incapable of understanding the meaning of faith. But oh how those same believers immediately glom onto “evidence” for their beliefs like iron shavings to a magnet, no matter how ridiculous or absurd, quickly forgetting the idea that faith needs no proof. So people cite as evidence, of which they purportedly have no need, weeping statues of the Virgin Mary, out-of-body experiences and Christ’s image captured on the Shroud of Turin. Among the most notable miraculous relics of Catholicism is the much publicized “blood” of San Gennaro, patron saint of Naples. Since the 14th century, a substance said to be the dried blood of the martyred saint periodically liquefies and reddens, indicating good years and bad according to legend. Virtually the entire metropolitan congregation turns out once a year to wait anxiously as the miracle proclaims the city’s fate. The explanation is absolutely trivial. Many substances, including mixtures readily available to medieval chemists, have the property exhibited by the purported blood.
The burden of proof when citing evidence to substantiate faith is disturbingly low. Here is the truth filter in the Burpo case, according to the father’s logic about this son: “If he was making it up, he would have gotten something wrong. But he got nothing wrong. He got it all right. That’s what started our journey.”
So let’s see. The boy got nothing wrong (repeated again as the opposite, he got everything right). That’s it. That’s the proof. We are not told against what metric that right and wrong are measured, or how the father evaluated that since he has not yet made the journey himself. But the boy got everything right (got nothing wrong), so we are off and running.
In these stories providing evidence for the faithful that their beliefs can be substantiated by worldly happenings, the storyteller is often shocked or surprised at finding the evidence, amazed that out of nowhere the statue of the Virgin Mary started weeping blood. So we are not surprised to learn that the Burpo family was “completely unprepared to have this discussion” and that the father said, “I questioned my son, too.” I suspect most parents would if their son mentioned a vacation in heaven.
Since the human brain is the organ generating these silly thoughts of unreason that allow adults to accept the fantasy world of a 4-year-old as true, my doctorate in neurophysiology prompts me to challenge the embarrassing nonsense. We know from established experiments in neurobiology that many experiences described by the faithful, including visions of god, can be replicated in the laboratory with relatively simple manipulation of brain function. Simple rotating magnetic fields directed at the temporal lobe will do the trick. But others dispute the experimental design, and claim that the subsequent religious or spiritual experience reported by subjects was a consequence only of their particular degree of suggestibility, not any manipulation of neuronal activity through external magnetic fields. In either case, a spiritual experience can be induced in the laboratory, even if only as a placebo effect. Fire a few temporal lobe neurons and God is your witness, or vice versa.
How can the audience for this book be so easily duped? Because this is what we have become: Former NASA administrator Dan Goldin, while defending funding for the space agency, was famously asked, “Why are we building meteorological satellites when we have the Weather Channel?” That silliness is no more ridiculous than believing a boy went to heaven and back. Everything is possible and nothing is absurd when unconstrained by fact, reason or reality.
The commercial success of Heaven is for Real is a sad consequence of our declining public schools, which have failed to teach our youth how to evaluate dubious claims. This inability to think critically matters. Political candidates can make absurd claims, factually untrue and easily verified as false, which are accepted as Gospel by the faithful. Thinking critically matters to our very survival unless we wish to succumb to demagogues.
Thinking critically matters if we wish to maintain a viable economy in a future based on high tech. A society that is largely scientifically illiterate will clearly be ill equipped to survive in the 21st century, unable to guide advances in science and technology toward the greater good. Although understanding basic science is critical to everyday life in a technology-driven world, the subject is given grossly inadequate treatment in most public schools today. As a result, people are often poorly equipped to understand the complexities of an issue before forming an opinion about the costs and benefits of adopting or restricting a particular technology. They believe a boy went to heaven and back. The inability to think critically underlies many of our cultural wars. Nearly all the great ethical challenges facing society today are exacerbated to some extent by rapid advances in science and technology. Current political, religious and educational institutions are improperly armed to address the moral consequences ensuing from scientific achievements. In any society dominated by religion and religious morality, technology often proceeds at a pace greater than society’s ability to address the associated moral dilemmas. The issue of therapeutic cloning offers a prime example. Religious bias and scientific illiteracy combine powerfully to restrict a technology with extraordinary potential for good, with little associated risk. The solution is not to retard technologic advances, from which people benefit greatly, but to adapt school curricula accordingly and accelerate the adoption of an ethical code capable of addressing these challenges. But we can’t do that if people believe a boy went to heaven and back.
The degradation of our institutions of education are nowhere better illustrated than by the issue of evolution as taught in the United States. The evangelical battle against this established fact exemplifies all that is wrong with our schools. Evolution is one of the most successful, thoroughly documented scientific discoveries in human history. However, more than 75 years after the trial of State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes and despite incredible advances in biology, many public school boards strive to eliminate the teaching of evolution from the curriculum. Rather than keeping apace of scientific advances, the U.S. system of education has fallen woefully behind. That is why Newsweekasks on its cover, “How Dumb Are We?” If a scientific discovery as important, mainstream and established as evolution can be a source of controversy for school curricula, even if only in a few states and only sporadically, society is extraordinarily vulnerable to the results of a general decline in science training at the most elementary levels.
More than 40 years elapsed after the Scopes trial before the Supreme Court ruled in 1968 that banning the teaching of evolution was unconstitutional (Epperson v. Arkansas). The anti-evolutionists then changed tactics by attempting to equate evolution with a religious belief, arguing that evolution was not an established fact. The word theory associated with the discovery was grossly misunderstood or intentionally twisted by those seeking to force on public school students a single religious view of creation. Creationists and their allies express no reservations about teaching the Theory of Relativity as fact, but they attempt to sow confusion by absurdly calling evolution a belief on equal standing with the Theory of Creation.
Teaching evolution is equal to teaching that the Earth is a sphere or that the sun is the center of the solar system. All are established facts. Some may still believe that the sun revolves around the Earth as the Bible implies, but including such an idea in a school curriculum is unacceptable. Teaching creation according to Genesis also would require the science curriculum in public schools to include the notion that a great fish swallowed Jonah, that Joshua made the sun stand still, that Noah put a breeding pair of every animal species on a boat and that the Earth was created in six days, along with a host of other literal interpretations of the Bible.
How can society hope to teach children the basics of science, which are essential for being able to evaluate the moral implications of technical issues, when forced to fight this primitive battle? The public education system is broken and desperately needs focused attention, but civil society is forced to divert time and resources to a ridiculous battle more appropriate to the 1600s. But fight we must. The religious right must be stopped to ensure that children receive an education that prepares them for modern life in a technologically advanced society.
Without winning the battle on teaching evolution, there is no hope of conquering scientific illiteracy in general. Understand that Heaven is for Real is sold as non-fiction. Failure to improve our literacy has serious consequences. Ignorance of scientific principles prevents the public from distinguishing the dangerous from the harmless and from preventing the abuse of science for malevolent purposes. On the basis of bad science, governments support costly efforts to enforce ill-conceived laws to protect consumers from nonexistent or negligible risk, while draining resources from areas of critical need.
Ignorance of science allows the public to be deceived by a barrage of dubious claims. The anti-vaccine movement is a classic case. Vaccines are one of the greatest achievements of modern medicine, saving hundreds of millions of lives and improving the quality of life for countless others, but because of medical illiteracy and misplaced religious zeal, some parents are, in a display of dangerous ignorance, forcing school boards across the country to accept students with no vaccination history.
Vaccinations however are only the tip of a dangerous iceberg. Scientific illiteracy is pervasive, and the list of consequences almost endless. The public is unable to filter exaggerated claims by environmental groups (Alar in apples) from legitimate concerns (global climate change). People opposed to irradiated food ignore the existence of more than 50 known strains of E. coli that can cause bloody diarrhea, kidney failure and death. This is a typical case of poor risk-benefit analysis. People are duped by claims of harmful emissions from cellphones. Life-saving diagnostic X-rays are eschewed from fear of radiation, and vulnerable people are persuaded to rely on crystals and astrology for guidance.
The success of Heaven is for Real is a symptom of a cancer eating away at society’s vital organs. In a healthy community the publication of such a book would be laughable, a joke to be dismissed on late night television and then soon forgotten like a freak show at the local circus. Yet we publish the book as non-fiction and see sales approaching 3.5 million copies. That any American would take this seriously should cause us all to weep in frustration and fear. Unless we educate ourselves to dismiss such nonsense our future is in peril.
NEW YORK — Colton Burpo is having a late lunch at a T.G.I. Friday’s in Manhattan. He orders a Mountain Dew, then shares some baby back ribs with his dad, munching on the french fries, passing on the cole slaw.
By Robert Deutsch, USA TODAY
“Phenomenon”: Colton Burpo, with parents Sonja and Todd, “died” in the operating room when he was 4 and says he went to heaven. He came back with amazing stories, which are recounted in Heaven Is for Real.
By Robert Deutsch, USA TODAY
“Phenomenon”: Colton Burpo, with parents Sonja and Todd, “died” in the operating room when he was 4 and says he went to heaven. He came back with amazing stories, which are recounted in Heaven Is for Real.
But before the ribs are gone, he puts his hand in the air. “Miss! Oh, Miss!” he says, flagging down a passing waitress. “I’d like some dessert.”
He orders something called Oreo Madness. When it arrives, it is devoured in less than a minute.
Heaven for any 11-year-old boy. Well, almost heaven. Colton knows the difference. He says he has already been to the real one.
Colton is famous for being the boy who had a near-death experience when he was 4 years old during emergency surgery for a burst appendix. Doctors offered little hope he would survive.
Not only did he live, he says he went to heaven during the operation, met Jesus, John the Baptist, his great-grandfather and a sister he didn’t even know he had (she was miscarried before he was born), then came back to tell his folks about the trip.
A book about Colton’s journey —Heaven Is for Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back (Thomas Nelson, $16.99) — is such a phenomenon that its Nashville publisher says it has broken all sales records for the company. For the past three weeks, it has been No. 1 on USA TODAY’s Best-Selling Books list. Today it drops to No. 2, behind Water for Elephants.
About the book
It took a few months, but Heaven Is for Real finally reached No. 1 on USA TODAY’s
Best-Selling Books list. Here are the book’s ups and downs:
“So far, the book shows no signs of slowing down. It’s a true phenomenon,” says Matt Baugher, vice president and publisher of Thomas Nelson, which specializes in Christian books and Bibles.
“We now have 3.4 million books in print, and that doesn’t include the popular e-book version. This little book of hope and comfort is being bought in bulk by people all over the world.”
Heaven, released in November as a paperback original with a first printing of 40,000 copies, was written by Colton’s father, the Rev. Todd Burpo, who has a small evangelical congregation in Imperial, Neb. It was co-written by Lynn Vincent, who collaborated with Sarah Palin on the best seller Going Rogue.
Jane Love, buyer of books in the religion category for Barnes & Noble, calls the mega best seller a “crossover,” meaning the book isn’t being bought by just evangelical Christians.
“I don’t know what percentage of the readers are Christian vs. the merely curious, but it has crossed over enough that it’s No. 1, so there are lots of people buying it,” she says.
Stories about people going to heaven and reporting on the trip are surprisingly common —Ninety-Minutes in Heaven, The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven, The Five People You Meet in Heaven — but Love believes the Burpo book is different.
“This one is very specific, in a voice people can relate to, from a child’s point of view. From the mouth of babes, as they say,” she says. “People buy it, believe it, and talk to their children about it.”
Too many coincidences?
Three things convinced the Burpos their son had gone to heaven: his knowledge of where they were when he was being operated on, his claim that he met a sister he never knew even existed, and his declaration that he met his great-grandfather, a man he never knew but could readily identify later from photographs of the man at a young age. (The good news, Colton says, is that people are younger in heaven; and his miscarried sister was a little girl with a striking family resemblance who introduced herself.) His total time in heaven: three minutes.
Blogs, not surprisingly, are alive with doubting Thomases.
But Colton is very specific about what he saw and heard, right down to what the angels sang to him. “Well, they sang Jesus Loves Me and Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho,” he told his parents. Heaven also was filled with bright colors and lots of rainbows.
He knew exactly where he was, too. “I was sitting on Jesus’ lap,” he said, looking his father right in the eye when he shared that piece of information.
In Nebraska, Todd Burpo also runs a garage door company and is a wrestling coach and a volunteer fireman. The Burpos have two other children, Cassie, 14, and Colby, 6. They are a Midwestern family to the core.
“We’re parents like any other parents. We have the same issues every parent deals with. We question God, too. We run into the same storms as anyone,” Burpo says, referring to Colton’s fight for his life when he was 4.
But how do you handle a kid who says he has been to heaven, a kid who is now yawning through this discussion while waiting for dessert?
His mother says her son hasn’t changed all that much since the otherworldly trip he says he took seven years ago. She says it also helps that “we know him.”
Colton is a wrestler and is active in his school’s music program. He sings, plays the trumpet and, for his recent piano recital, played two numbers, The Star- Spangled Banner to open and the theme from The Pink Panther to end. He wants to be a musician when he grows up.
Suddenly, a busy boy
“We try to keep his life as normal as possible,” says his mother, an office manager — though he has missed 10 days of school lately promoting the book, to which he quickly replies, “Ah, that’s OK.” He’ll be a seventh-grader in the fall, and recess is still his favorite period.
His friends now take his heavenly journey in stride, as do the townsfolk who have heard the tale for years now. He also has book signing down to a science. After the title Heaven Is for Real (which is what he told his dad upon his return), Colton writes “… and you’re going to like it!”
“Some (people) ask if I’m going again, can you bring them back something,” he says with a laugh. He says his memory is fading a bit, that he can’t remember the names of all the kids he met in heaven, for instance.
Colton’s fame is growing. He is scheduled to be on NBC’s Dateline on May 1 and has already done a round of TV including Fox & Friends and the Today show. There is even talk of a movie deal, but no decision has been made.
Todd Burpo had his son read Heaven Is for Real before
he sent it off to the publishers. Colton’s response? “It didn’t put me to sleep.”
“My relationship with Colton matters to me,” his father says. “What he says is important to me.” Burpo likes that Colton says what’s in the book is “all true.”
Doubts emerge
But Susan Jacoby, who bills herself “The Spirited Atheist” on the blog she writes for On Faith in The Washington Post, cuts to the chase. “Only in America could a book like this be classified as non-fiction.”
She ends her scathing review with this: “What is truly disturbing about (the) book’s huge commercial success is that it attests to the prevalence of unreason among vast numbers of Americans. … At age 4, the inability to distinguish between fantasy and reality is charming. Among American adults, widespread identification with the mind of a preschooler is scary.”
C. Michael Patton of Credo House, an evangelical theological center in Edmond, Okla., reviewed the book in a more measured and academic style, although even he concedes much of the contents “leave me scratching my head.” How did a 4-year-old know about the Holy Trinity, for instance?
But in the end, he recommends Heaven Is for Real “for its ability to cause you to think, wonder and process. … The truth is that we do believe in an afterlife. Perhaps Colton did catch a glimpse of heaven just as Paul did.”
Todd Burpo is used to all the debate by now. He says he understands.
“I questioned my son, too,” he says after saying a prayer before Monday’s lunch in New York. “We were completely unprepared to have this discussion, but when he told me where I was when he was being operated on, that got my attention because no one knew where I was, including his mother.” (He was in a hospital room both praying to and lashing out at God.)
“If he was making it up, he would have gotten something wrong,” Burpo says. “But he got nothing wrong. He got it all right. That’s what started our journey.”
Colton’s mother, Sonja, initially called her son’s revelations “shock and awe” as they started coming out shortly after his surgery. When the stories first began, Todd Burpo says he didn’t want to hear them.
“It scared me,” he admits.
After Todd Burpo began preaching about his son’s story, a pastor friend offered to make some introductions in the publishing world, and Thomas Nelson bought the rights.
Despite the book’s huge success, the Burpos have no plans to leave Nebraska.
“It’s home. He’s normal there,” Sonja Burpo says of her son. “His friends just think, ‘Big deal!’ And we think that’s healthy for him.”
As for the money they’ll make from the book, much of it will go to others, the family says. Colton’s mother says the family already supports four orphans in Kenya.
“Now we’re fortunate enough that we’re looking into doing much more. We’ve never had a chance to be generous.”
And now that they do, one suspects Colton would like another dessert.

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