Heaven? For Real?


Despite being a hardcore skeptic, I’ve always wanted to believe that there is some kind of afterlife. One lifetime is just not enough to watch Lost reruns as many times as I’d like. And speaking of great things to watch, Daniel Petrie’s 1980 film Resurrection has been on my all-time top 10 ever since it was released — for several reasons, not the least of which is that it provides a compelling, deeply moving (and mostly secular) portrait of renewal, redemption, and hope in the face of death. And I can’t think of a more haunting cinematic sequence than that of the windmill collapsing to indicate the passage of time.

But I digress. The point is that unlike a good many other people, I don’t allow myself to believe something just because it suits my fancy (hence this blog). Nonetheless, I’m always quite curious to hear alleged evidence about this thing that so many people accept merely on faith. And thus, I was quite interested in reading the book Heaven Is Real, which now has been made into a motion picture.

The book, written by Todd Burpo in 2010, recounts the experiences of his nearly 4-year-old son Colton a few years earlier.  After nearly dying during emergency surgery, Colton later reported that he’d briefly visited Heaven, where he even sat on the lap of Jesus — who he says rides, I kid you not, a rainbow-colored horse.  While many Christians have dismissed his story as absurd and even contrary to “scripture”, many others have latched onto it as “proof” that their dogmatic views on cosmogony are spot-on. Note that Colton never actually flatlined during surgery, which means that these folks maintain he visited Heaven while he was still alive.

This book is hardly unique. Other recent volumes that recount similar putative glimpses of the Great Beyond include Proof Of Heaven, 90 Minutes In Heaven,  The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven,  and, in the interests of equal time, 23 Minutes In Hell.

Nor is this a new phenomenon.  For ages, there have been accounts of what have come to be known as near death experiences (NDE).  And quite often, individuals undergoing such experiences have reported afterward that they perceived existence on some kind of spiritual plane during their period of recess from physicality.  In 1975, psychiatrist Raymond Moody published a popular book called Life After Life (not to be confused with the recent novel of the same title) which examined 150 such cases. By no means do all of these purported travelers between planes describe the same kind of itinerary. In most cases, it’s much more vague and general than the Colton cruise: just a sense of white lights, love, and sometimes the presence of lost loved ones.

Since I began on a personal note, let me mention  that I’ve been well acquainted with two individuals who had undergone clinical death at some point in the past. Both convinced me that at the very least, their experiences were profound and life-altering. Neither’s recollections of their perceptions were of a religious bent. One became a progressive Christian, though she admitted she had no idea why she felt drawn to do so, and the other eventually became a Sufi. Both were broad-minded, compassionate, dynamic personalities who credited their NDEs with bringing focus and perspective to their lives.

Then there was another of a much briefer acquaintance, who apparently had been a Christian even before her episode, yet she still did not indicate she glimpsed anything like “Heaven”. And while her incident seemed to have transformed her positively in some respects, she still was quite judgmental toward certain groups of people, particularly gays. It’s hard to see how a genuinely spiritual experience could leave a person bigoted; the bigotry was particularly striking in her case because she was African-American.

It appears that what people see when they die — or at least when they temporarily “die” — hinges on their personal beliefs, or at least on the belief paradigm they feel most at home with. And Todd Burpo, Colton’s father, is — surprise — a Christian minister. The child grew up in a home saturated with fundamentalist dogma. What did you expect him to see when he momentarily checked out of his body?

He was also a big fan of Star Wars action figures. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that he reported there would be a big battle ahead in which the Blessed Ones in Heaven would clash with the Forces Of Evil using swords. What kind of paradise is it if you get drafted to go go war? With a sword, no less?

Discussing the book’s popularity in The Washington Post, Susan Jacoby writes:

What is truly disturbing about this book’s huge commercial success is that it attests to the prevalence of unreason among vast numbers of Americans. (The book is way down in the ranks on Amazon.com in the United Kingdom.) The Americans buying the book are the same people fighting the teaching of evolution in public schools. They are probably the same people who think they can reduce the government deficit without either paying higher taxes or cutting the military budget, Social Security and Medicare benefits. In this universe of unreason, two plus two can equal anything you want and heaven is not only real but anything you want it to be. At age four, the inability to distinguish between fantasy and reality is charming. Among American adults, widespread identification with the mind of a preschooler is scary.

This “universe of unreason” that Jacoby bemoans seems to have three major root causes: (1) the nearly universal desire for immortality in some fashion; (2) confirmation bias — the common tendency to select those facts which support one’s convictions and discard those that don’t, and (3) the extremely pervasive, extremely influential Christian fundamentalist arrogance that presumes to know not only how everyone should live their lives, but how everyone will live after their lives are completed. She is talking about how absurd the whole “Heaven Is Real” phenomenon is on the face of it; but Christians often have a response to such a criticism: things that seem absurd or improbable or nonsensical to us are just things that are beyond our limited human understanding, yet they fit perfectly within the divine scheme of things. But if you actually read the book — and do your homework — you’ll find plenty of details that validate Jacoby’s alarm over the gullibility of the American public.

For one thing, young Colton mentions that he saw the nail scars in Jesus’ hands. Why shouldn’t he? We all know that the resurrected Jesus had nail scars in his hands, because there are countless paintings, poems, songs and sermons that tell us so. Trouble is, it’s highly unlikely that victims were crucified through their hands, because under normal conditions the weight of the body would have caused the nails to rip right through. Most scholars concur that the nails were driven through the wrist instead. But “nail-scarred palms” or “nail-scarred hands” just sounds so much cooler.

Colton also says everyone in Heaven has wings and halos. In other words, we all are transformed into angels after we die, provided we have a reservation in the upper suite. And we all know that angels have wings and halos, right? Well, if they do, they’ve only done so since the Middle Ages; the Bible doesn’t say anything about angels having either one. (These iconic traditions may have started with someone confusing angels with cherubim and seraphim, which are winged critters of a different order. As for the halos… well, probably just visual metaphor, perhaps of pagan origin.)

One interesting bit of “corroboration” of Colton’s story is his take on the likeness of Jesus. After rejecting several portraits his father had shown him as having something “wrong” with them, he zeroed in on one that he insisted was “right”, which his father took to mean that it was the spitting image. The portrait in question was painted by art prodigy Akiane Kramarik (pictured) when she was eight.



Akiane also had visions of paradise when she was 3 (apparently the spirit world likes to get them while they’re young) but without a near-death experience; after which she began putting her visions on canvas, including her take on what Jesus of Nazareth looked like. And because she was born into an atheist household, the believers insist that she must have obtained her inspiration straight from the source, without outside influence. Which is utter poppycock. It’s unthinkable in this day and age that any child could possibly be unexposed to Christian iconography (except perhaps in such drastically totalitarian societies as Iran or North Korea). What’s much more likely is that because of her godless upbringing, she was unexposed to the Westernized likenesses of Jesus that have become standard in American culture, and somehow tuned in to the more authentic Middle Eastern features that Jesus would have had; and that Colton either also picked up on this or just singled out her portrait because it was different.

The emphasis on the portrait as “proof” of the accuracy of  traditional Christian set dressing illustrates a common problem with dogmatists: the presumption that any unexplained phenomenon can have only one possible explanation — namely the one that suits their beliefs. Many individuals (including Colton) who have undergone near-death experiences subsequently have conveyed information that they supposedly could not have obtained except through a transcendent out-of-body experience (e.g., supposedly overhearing a distant conversation or recounting an encounter with a long-deceased relative identified from a decades-old photograph the subject supposedly has never seen). But this discounts the extraordinary capacity of the subconscious mind to assimilate information from only the most fleeting exposure. In addition to that faulty conclusion, the belief about Colton catching glimpses of Heaven commits two more: (a) that if he had a genuine transcendent experience, it necessarily validates his account of Heaven, and (b) that even if we could grant his visit to Heaven was reasonably authentic, it necessarily validates Christian dogma in general.

Maybe most of us do want to believe that we will live forever. Maybe there is even some respectable (if less than airtight) evidence that this is true. But when it comes to convincing hardcore skeptics of the reality of something on the order of the traditional concept of “Heaven”, it’s going to take a hell of a lot more proof than this.


9 Nutty Narratives About the Nevada Standoff

nevada standoff

Every now and then, an event occurs which takes the term “media circus” to a whole new level. This was the case in recent days when the media elected to make a cause celebre out of Nevada cattle rancher Cliven Bundy after he placed himself above the law. His refusal, over a period of decades, to stop grazing his cattle on BLM land or pay the taxes for doing so, landed him so much in the spotlight that a gaggle of armed “militia” characters flocked in from elsewhere in the country to confront government officials who were there to enforce the law. Miraculously, nobody was hurt, but it certainly wasn’t because the media didn’t make an all-out endeavor to draw blood.

Irresponsible media demagogues have nothing to lose if they incite violence, but they have a great deal to gain. They’ll have fodder for more sensationalism. They’ll be more revered than ever by their gullible fan base. They’ll greatly stoke the flames of hatred toward all the people whom you’re supposed the hate: the government, them librulz, and above all, President Obama. Thus, we saw them pursuing certain readily identifiable story lines, all of which were quite comical — or at least would have been, had it not been for the fact that so many people took them seriously. (A curious exception to the almost unanimous chorus of frenzy among wingnut babbling mouths was Glenn Beck.) These narratives were among the most common:

Narrative # 1: A noble hero

While denouncing President Obama as being, somehow, “lawless”, the punditocracy exalted Bundy, who has broken the law repeatedly, and even threatened violence against government officials. But somehow he’s a hero. Oh yes, and according to Sean Hannity, his disregard for the law will help bring down the price of meat. But listen carefully when Sean’s caught off guard, and you’ll hear him seem to inadvertently acknowledge that Bundy is a criminal.

There are legitimate ways to challenge a law a you don’t like, and not one of them involves a gun. If, as Bundy asserts, he owns the land in question, he should be able to produce a deed or some kind of documentation.  But after 20 years of fighting the BLM he’s been unable to establish a claim to the satisfaction of the courts. You’d think he might take the hint that he’s in the wrong. Instead, he and his supporters draw the conclusion that the Big Bad Guvmint must be evil. The best he can produce is a bogus claim that his ancestors have been freeloading just like him for nearly 150 years — he seems to be off by 75 years or so.

This noble “conservative” hero, by the way, used his newfound celebrity to air his intellectual views on race. (Don’t even bother trying to affect an astonished expression.) After a delayed reaction lasting several days, some — only some, mind you — of the wingers who’d exalted him backed off, even though his rhetoric was quite similar to some of the things they’ve said in the past.

Narrative # 2: Armed thugs

The wingers made a big deal out of the fact that law enforcement personnel who descended on the scene of the crime were — gasp — armed.  They ignore the fact that in 2012, unarmed federal authorities were threatened with violence when they tried to round up Bundy’s rogue cattle. Whoever heard of law enforcement being armed, anyway? We all know that only deranged, radical citizens who hate the government need guns. So they can plot how to kill federal agents when they get the chance.  And intimidate residents of the surrounding community. There, that’ll teach the guvmint to be thugs.

Narrative # 3: God is on our side

By now, nobody should be surprised that in any given conflict, the right-wing loony fringe will claim to have received its marching orders directly from the Almighty. Always.  And yet there is invariably a jaw-drop factor to it. One of the signs displayed at the “militia” orgy read “Liberty – Freedom – For God We Stand”. Never mind trying to diagram that grammatically. Just try to diagram it logically.

Narrative # 4: States’ rights

Wouldn’t matter. The state is constitutionally bound to honor the directives of the United States government. Not necessarily by the U. S. Constitution, but by its own constitution. Nevada attained statehood in 1864, which was well before the Bundy clan moved in and took its own turn at taking the land away from the Indians. When it did so it adopted a constitution, still in effect, that included something known as the Paramount Allegiance Clause (Article 1, Section 2) which mandates not only Nevada’s primary allegiance to federal law, but the use of force to ensure it.

Bundy has stated that he is loyal to the laws of Nevada, but doesn’t even recognize the existence of the United States of America. No word on what country he believes Nevada belongs to, or why he likes to strut around brandishing the flag of a nonexistent nation, but his utterance is nonsensical: allegiance to Nevada necessarily entails allegiance to the U.S.

Narrative # 5: Patriotism

So what do we call someone who hates the president, hates the government, flouts the law of the land, threatens government employees, and denies the very existence of The United States? Why, a patriot, of course! Bundy and his cohorts in the Tea Party/ “militia” crowd believe that their hatred for their country proves how much they love their country.

Ah, but you see, this country is not really THEIR country. THEIR country has been stolen by the big bad black guy in the formerly White House. THEIR country hearkens back to the Founding Fathers like…well, George Washington. Now there’s a president they really could stand behind.

Oops. It appears that they know about as much about history as they do about civics. Because by their standards, The Father Of Somebody’s Country was more badass than Obama has ever even dreamed of being.  Not only did he believe in people paying their taxes, but during his time two anti-tax revolts were crushed (or at least suppressed) by military might. (And if you don’t love Jon Stewart already, you will after you’ve seen him school Sean Hannity about this.) President Washington himself led an army to stop the Whiskey Rebellion. And a couple of years before he became president, Shays’ Rebellion resulted in four protesters being killed during armed conflict and two of them being hanged afterward. And please note that the rebels in these skirmishes were countered by militias in the true sense of the word: civilian forces mobilized to fight for rather than against the government.

But Obama is no George Washington. Rather than saddle up and ride out to smash the insurrectionists like bugs, he called off the troops for the time being, thereby thwarting the protesters’ grand scheme to achieve a Darwin Award. What a scumbag. (Incidentally, that great “conservative” demigod Ronald Reagan also didn’t do much to warrant the adulation of the anti-tax mob. He raised taxes during 7 of his 8 years in office and even issued an executive order setting the grazing fees that Bundy now owes.)

Narrative # 6: The tortoise

Because the disputed land was home to an endangered species of tortoise,  the story line developed that this was the whole reason the government wanted “Bundy’s” land. Because, you see, according to perennially popular narrative, the government cares more about animals than it cares about people.

But the tortoise, which has progressed from endangered to threatened, was not really the feds’ main concern. And it’s interesting that at the same time the wingers were asserting that the government cares more about the tortoises than the people, they were also circulating the rumor that the government was euthanizing the critters.

Narrative # 7. Hamburger holocaust

And then there’s the one about the government slaughtering Bundy’s cows — yep, the same cows that were being seized to satisfy his tax bill. The “proof” of this allegation is that the BLM killed TWO of the cattle out of safety concerns; and apparently 3 or 4 additional cows were killed accidentally, or humanely because the animals were injured. That sort of thing is not unusual in cattle roundups even under the best of conditions, and the conditions here are very far from ideal. The result has been very minimal cow-lateral damage considering all that’s going on. But it’s enough to fuel winger rumors about bovine extermination and “mass graves” — which they substantiate with a photo of dozers pulling three animals out of the ground.


So let’s see: the government will send in armed forces because it loves tortoises more than humans — and yet it also will slaughter scores or hundreds of cows, which are an animal that most humans depend on heavily for food, and a very valuable asset needed to resolve a tax debt?

Narrative # 8: The solar energy scheme

No matter what the issue, the incomparable Alex Jones can be counted on to pump up the lunacy quotient. And he came through once again, helping to spread the rumor that Nevada Democratic Senator Harry Reid was behind the “land grab” so his son could profit from using the land for the site of a solar farm to be built by a Chinese company. Like a good many other rumors, this one began with a couple of facts that were twisted into a pretzel.  Chinese developers were interested in a solar farm in the Nevada desert, but they abandoned the plans. Furthermore, the proposed site was nowhere near the disputed property. But what is perhaps most interesting about this narrative is that it bluntly contradicts another common talking point: that the feds should just grant Bundy free access to the land because “nobody else wants it”.

Narrative # 9: Victory! (for Liberty, of course)

The official spin is that these “militia” dudes, by not getting their dumb asses blown away, defeated the Evil Empire ruled by that lawless dark-skinned dictator who had the audacity to win two elections, and thus scored a huge victory for liberty, God, truth, justice and the American way (or the way of whatever country they believe they live in). But the feds have made it clear that they’re not giving up on collecting Bundy’s taxes. They just decided it wasn’t worth risking the safety of their agents or spilling the blood of civilians, no matter how much the civilians may be begging to have their blood spilled. Trouble is, their withdrawal sets a very dangerous precedent; it likely will embolden “militia” types to try further stunts and become even more confrontational in the future. The only victory here is a victory for insanity — and media ratings.

These people like to invoke the specters of Waco and Ruby Ridge because they are under the delusion that in those episodes government was entirely at fault — just as they are convinced the government was at fault in the ‘Battle of Bunkerville”.  But there is at least one major difference between those past cases and this one.  This time, the government had the option of stepping down.

It’s quite possible that sometime in the near future, another incident like Waco or Ruby Ridge will arise, and once again senseless violence and even deaths will result. And when that happens, it’s a good bet that Fox “News” and friends will be on the sidelines cheering it on.