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 For 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 For 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.