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.



  1. Great post as usual. Kind of unrelated (but only kind of), what is your take on the suggestion that Islam is inherently violent, more so than other religions such as Christianity, Judaism, or Hinduism? It seems to be a characteristic of the right to despise everything and anything Islamic, and their justification for this seems to be that among religions Islam is uniquely destructive to Western culture. Certainly this is something I’d disagree with, but what is your opinion on the matter?

    • I don’t think Islam is inherently more violent than any other religion. Fanatical followers of any religion can cherry pick passages from their scriptures that seem to advocate violence. There are certainly quite a few radical Muslims doing this at this particular point in history, but that doesn’t mean that Islam itself is violent. Most Muslims seem to be quite committed to peace.

  2. Excellent analysis. This is just another book (and movie) that makes me want to guzzle anti-freeze, as the great Charles Pierce describes it.

    In a nation of 330,000,000 people we find thousands, even hundreds of thousands of people who fervently believe in weird things, things that make most of us roll our eyes and snicker. But their small numbers make them relatively harmless. Not so with fervent fundamentalists, whose numbers are not huge but the strength of their zealotry has enabled them to influence and even control entire states and capture an entire political party.

    On the other hand, it is a great country indeed, where any impecunious writer willing to stifle their conscience can live quite well writing novels featuring clean-living, God-loving Christians beset on all sides by secular governments, courts, imperious scientists, angry snarky atheists, and Black (Muslim) Presidents who are all out to destroy Christianity. Or write a book about a 4-year-old who tells adults he saw Jesus riding a rainbow colored horse. Wow, instant best seller and a movie deal.

    • Yes, it certainly occurred to me that whether or not the Burpos view their child as a prophet, they do seem to view him as a profit.

  3. Hello POP,

    Please excuse the length of this post, I may have gotten carried away.

    I’ve got to tell you that it surprises me to see a post like this from someone who considers himself an atheist, or at least doesn’t give religions a great deal of credit for practicing what they preach, so its kind of refreshing to see this unexpected one from you.

    In my opinion most religions have basically the same message, and also share the same shortcoming of not practicing the message they preach. This obviously includes Christianity. Your post therefore shows a degree of open-mindedness about religious experiences, that many Christians and those of other faiths themselves, fail to display. and I agree that the knowledge held by scientists involves what is objectively true.

    During the past few years I have been reading about NDEs and I have what I consider a natural curiosity about those things that open-minded people of faith try to convey. But, increasingly I get the feeling that the Icon’s who founded the many kinds of commonly practiced faiths, were themselves, being straight about what they taught, and also, set incredibly loving examples by their physical actions. Sadly though,I think those who came after them, fell into the familiar trap of using many so called, articles of faith, in order to gain personal benefits or to rationalize and justify reasons to wage wars, or, just to make others conform to their own brand of beliefs, rituals and practices. While some of the basic message (despite the mentality of the messenger) has been transmitted, a great deal of it has gone unsaid or perhaps, become distorted to suit the needs of greedy religious leaders.

    I agree that most of us would like to believe in something which promises the continuation of familiar experiences after death which would make the entire process more comfortable and less scary—I am certainly among them. But I am not really sure that when someone like Jesus discussed “heaven,” or, his “father’s house,” that he was describing a place where our personalities could go on without dying. Most of us would like to think so, along with the fact that we would not be required ever to be without our beloved friends, and family members—therefore making death not nearly as fearful and traumatic. However, Jesus told us plainly that in order to be born again, we first must die! So this raises the question about what death really is, and whether our customary personalities will continue without end. In this sense I have been impressed by many Eastern religions whose focus involves overcoming ego, and therefore the limits of an (I) that organizes its own views of the world, and that supposedly would exist after death. But, if enlightenment, which might be considered synonymous to being “born again,” is the expected reward for believing, we could conclude that, as long as the existence of one’s ego, or one’s (I) survives, that one can never be one with the Universe—as enlightenment is frequently described in eastern religious traditions. In fact, many Buddhist monks put this in a way that sounds almost idiotically simple—they describe enlightenment as (“one, not two.”).

    I have also noticed that, although many NDEs do indeed contain a large amount of cultural symbolism and imagery, they also include many strikingly similar qualities that those who claim to have them, commonly experience and share.

    Of course it makes sense that Jews might see visions of Moses or Abraham, Hindus visions of the many symbolic deities in their faith, Muslims, scenes dominated by Mohammed or any of the prophets they recognize in other faiths, and Christians, images of Christ, the disciples, angels and demons etc., But,what is particularly relevant are the basic ideations and personal impressions that are often present during the course of their out of body, or, near death experiences—which are often commonly shared. I have even reads accounts from atheists who have had similarly profound NDEs—excepting that, their interpretations about what happened, differ in that they are likely to describe the profundity of what is experienced as coming from a deep intuitive center “within them,” which, although being a common cliché phrase, is very similar to the way Icons like Jesus described paradise, saying, “the kingdom of heaven is within you—just as Buddhists are apt to refer to a calm center, or perhaps, a higher Nirvana or Satori, which represents a unified and common consciousness within us, typified by oneness with the universe.

    Many of those having NDEs refer to great feelings of indescribable calm or beauty that emanate from a beautiful colored light (gold also being common along with white), that contains all wisdom and truth and, is calling them to enter. Many report walking down a tunnel towards this light, while they are flanked on either side by the images of lovers, friends and relatives who are long gone, but who played primary and important roles in their lives. These people are often described as beckoning the person having the NDE to move forward and into the light.

    Of course there are a variety of symbolic images described in these episodes, such as, seeing a doorway that one knows leads to a place of incredible peace and calm, or, like the experience of one person I read about, who saw figures on her left and right—one side representing a stream of words which represented great praise and approval of her, and the other figure, a stream of words including only condemnation and insults. However, a third figure in the middle remained perfectly calm, saying, “none of that matters, you are with me now.” This was not some frightening macabre presence but rather one who she said she knew, was Jesus Christ—and who represented incredible love and compassion.

    No matter what figures, personal entities or profound revelations happen to those who have NDEs, they include a common theme which involves the presence of incredible beauty wisdom, or, just plain transcendent love that fills them with incredible peace. Of course as you say, there are others who report hellish journeys, filled with fear and intimations of being banished to Hell. But I thinks (significantly) that all of these experiences happen on the way to “the other side,” while they are not literally the other side itself.

    Many of the things seen and felt during these experiences, have also been common in the visions of those who use psychedelic drugs—such as LSD, Peyote, or magic mushrooms etc. It also happens that some people, like your friends, whom you describe as broad-minded, compassionate and dynamic personalities, who report having NDEs, credit them as opening their eyes, or providing them with a new focus and a perspective. Even though these lack provable information, those who report them, still feel and know the profundity of what they experienced.

    I have no doubt that many of the things seen and felt during these unusual experiences originate from the subconscious and include symbols implanted by cultural conditioning; Yes, a young child who comes from a religious family can be expected to experience Jesus riding a rainbow-colored horse. And others may describe beautiful blue skies and grassy meadows—images which they associate with great peace and beauty, and perhaps, with “God.” However, many others having NDEs are also very intelligent and aware adults who, although from all walks of life, and with many differing backgrounds, still have experiences which at the center, are very similar to those of others.

    In many ways, I think some of the various scientific explanations offered to account for NDEs are often more incredible and unlikely than the subjective accounts of those having out-of-body NDEs themselves. It seems unlikely that a misfiring optic nerve, can create a myriad of visions with the common theme of going down a long tunnel towards a beautiful light. Perhaps the vision of a tunnel might be feasible, but because the mere presence of a tunnel is not automatically associated in conjunction with profound experiences of peace love and joy—especially when shared among those from numerous backgrounds and cultures, I think this scientific explanations is at least as inconclusive as any religious, or spiritual one. These experiences do involve a “light at the end of the tunnel,” but I doubt that all cultures share the same identical metaphors, nor do such metaphors necessarily include being flanked by friends and loved ones on either side.

    My own theory (which I don’t have any reason to believe is exclusively mine) is that, while many of these NDEs are dressed in culturally different symbols and traditions, at their heart, or at their center, they contain transcendent qualities which are shared in common. So, for this reason, I just believe that they are not merely the death cries of traumatized optic nerves that can be used to explain away the many similar experiences composed of differing culturally relevant symbols and themes—especially when isolating a common transcendent thread present throughout them. Nor do I think they can explain what we know simply by referencing psychology. Drug users who share exciting but trivial highs from using psychedelics may exclaim, “Wow man! Look at the colors,” when they are under the influence, but are, in no way, typical of those having profound life changing experiences after first hand exposure to the mystery of NDEs.

    I think the following analogy describes my point:

    Two men are vacationing in the same area of Italy and, one of them is an American who speaks only English, while the other is from Spain and speaks only Spanish. On a beautiful morning they both get up and go out on the balcony of their hotel rooms and observe an incredibly beautiful sunrise. The American exclaims in English, “what a gorgeous sunrise!” The Spanish person, when looking at the same scene describes it in exactly the same way, but by using his native language. So, while both men see exactly the same view and experience it in exactly the same way, the only way they can describe it is by using their two different languages, containing many completely different symbols.

    I think this sort of thing is significant since, like these men, many of those having NDEs are from different backgrounds, different religious traditions and speak different languages. But just because their descriptions are given using differing symbols (such as those used in different languages), they are both actually reporting the same wonderfully and pleasant experience, such as seeing the same beautiful sunrise. Even atheists who reject all religious faiths, sometimes report the same types of feelings and experiences having to do with peace love, and personal elation.

    The only other thing I’d like to mention is a scene from the last Harry Potter film, which completely violates all the rules of objectivity and logic, yet which seems particularly profound to me. In one of the last scenes, Harry dies and meets one of the wizards who wisely instructed him at Hogwarts. The scene is dreamlike and has a spiritual quality. During it, Harry gazes upon a shriveled and frightened entity who is about as large as a baby or a small child. Harry asks his mentor who it is, and he is told that it’s Valdimor as he really is, (which I think was the name of the evil wizard who is Harry’s nemesis throughout all of the films). Since this is how Valdimor truly appears, minus the outer illusions of being menacing and powerful, Harry protests that this place, in which he is being counseled by his former teacher, must be an illusion and therefore not real. The wise old teacher replies something like, “Of course this is all in your mind, but that doesn’t mean it is not real!”

    When one tries to explain certain intuitive experiences in completely rational terms one sound more and more metaphysical and fanciful—as I may have seemed when making this comment. But personally I believe that what we experience during our dreams, NDEs, and even certain drug induced states of mind, can grant us access to intuitive truths that come from previously unknown places, yet may be subjectively valid—even to the most intellectually skeptical and practical minded among us.

    There is no way I can prove any of these beliefs and personal impressions that I have—therefore I cannot rely on objective knowledge to affirm them. But sometimes human intelligence involves intuitive wisdom and feelings, which are hard to rationally express. Jesus said, “Ye of little faith, lest you see miracles you will not believe.” And by his example he indicated that GOD is purely and simply, love itself. Yet whenever I try to discuss my beliefs about such things, I invariably come across as very foolish to some, and probably as someone who is preaching unintelligibly from his own private soap box. All of that may be true, but doesn’t necessarily mean that none of what I say is real.

    • I’ve always had a fascination with spirituality — I’m just not sure what that means. But I do know that after discussing their NDEs with my two friends, I was always envious that I never had one myself.

  4. I don’t believe in Heaven or Hell as destinations to which we travel after death. I do believe in an “afterlife” of sorts and, I think, the continuing immortal life has been scientifically proven. My children and their children are my immortality for a portion of my existence will live on in them as a snippet of DNA in every cell of their bodies just as snippets contributed by each of my ancestors lives on in me.

    Does that include ancestral memories and thought patterns? I think that it does. After all the mechanisms by which we process the electrical signals coursing through our brains are inherited just as are the color of our eyes or the long lost colors of our hair and the melanin content of our skins.

    Once, long ago, I asked my mother if she believed in an afterlife and she replied, “I think so for I cannot conceive of an end to intelligence.” Some how I believe that she is reading this and approves this message.

  5. I was raised a Christian, and am studying Kabbalah. I kind of stumbled into Kabbalah and the whole thing snowballed. I truly believe Kabbalah is the way our creator meant for us to live. Christianity is filled with too much dogma. I’ve read the book Heaven is for real and recently saw the movie. I have to wonder if Colton isn’t just parroting everything he has heard his whole life~however how do you explain him knowing his sister who died and a grandfather he had never met…I do believe Heaven is real, but not in the Christian only sense~you can’t put God in a box, people can chose to live there. And many do, especially deeply religious people. Faith and religion or two different things…

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