Saturday, January 25, 2014

"Heaven is for real"

I'm going to comment on a three evangelical book reviews of an alleged NDE:

Let me say at the outset that I haven't read the book, and I don't intend to. I'm also dubious about the recollections of a 3-4 year old. I'm not a child psychologist, but to my knowledge, kids that age have underdeveloped short-term memories. BTW, it's odd that reviewers disagree on whether he was 3 or 4 at the time. 

In addition, kids that age don't clearly distinguish between reality and make-believe. So I don't consider Colton to be a reliable witness. 

Furthermore, how trustworthy this is depends on the credibility of the parents as well as the boy. 

If I wanted to disprove Colton’s experience on grounds of logic or consistency I might point in a couple of different directions. In the first place, Colton is a toddler who speaks like an adult. His verbatim quotes sound nothing like a 4-year old, and I think I can say this with some authority as the father of a 4-year old (Challies). 
Some of the words that Colton supposedly spoke as a four-year-old seem more like words an adult would speak, but perhaps that’s due to his father’s memories as he tried to reconstruct his son’s words from years earlier (Alcorn).
Of the reviews I've read, that's the most cogent criticism. How much of this account is Colton's, and how much is Todd's reconstruction or embellishment? 
This kind of proof is exactly the kind of proof we should not need and should not want. Blessed are those who do not see and yet believe (Challies).
i) I agree that we shouldn't use NDEs as proof. That doesn't mean they can't furnish evidence. 
ii) Moreover, it's not necessarily a question of wanting it. Given the prevalence of reported NDEs, it's a question of evaluating this phenomenon one way or the other. 

I’ve already given you the broad outline. Colton dies (or something close to it) and visits heaven for an unknown period of time. He returns to his body and over the months and years that follow tells his parents about his time in heaven. He tells about spending time with Jesus, about meeting the sister he never knew he had, about fluttering around with wings, about the pearly gates, and on and on (Challies). 
Heaven is for Real is written by an evangelical pastor, Todd Burpo, and tells of his then four-year-old son Colton, who survived emergency surgery and later told his family that he went to Heaven. Colton described seeing Jesus and meeting his miscarried sister and his great-grandfather, who died before he was born (Alcorn).
It's odd how Alcorn and Challies gloss over these details. Yet if this is accurate, then it would be classic evidence of a veridical NDE and/or OBE. Information Colton could only acquire if he crossed over. Do Alcorn and Challies not understand the criteria for assessing veridical NEDs and OBEs? 
Many supporters of the book claim that any and all objections pale in the face of the supernatural knowledge that Colton reveals--things that were humanly impossible for him to know. For example, he said that he had met his other sister in Heaven. When told by his mother that Cassie was his only sister, his shocking response was, "No....I have two sisters. You had a baby die in your tummy, didn't you?" (p. 94). Colton had never been told of the "painful episode" of the miscarriage, and his parents never knew the gender of the fetus. Colton added, "In heaven, this little girl ran up to me, and she wouldn't stop hugging me....She said she just can't wait for you and Daddy to get to heaven" (Berean). 
That experience took place when three-year-old Colton was undergoing emergency surgery for a ruptured appendix. Not too long afterward, he told his parents that he saw them praying for him outside the operating room. When they asked how he knew what they had been doing he said, "Cause I could see you....I went up out of my body and I was looking down and I could see the doctor working on my body. [Scripture tells us that death takes place when the spirit vacates the body. Yet there was no medical report of a clinical death during Colton's surgery.] And I saw you and Mommy. You were in a little room by yourself, praying; and Mommy was in a different room, and she was praying and talking on the phone" (Berean).
This misses the point. Suppose his clinical death wasn't medically confirmed. Yet he was in the O.R. at the time. So how could he be aware of what was happening outside the O.R.? For that matter, he couldn't even see what was happening in the O.R. He was unconscious at the time. 
So assuming this is accurate, it's either a case of clairvoyance or an OBE. 
What we do know about that and other types of drug-induced conditions of mind (even dream states, meditation, and an overworked imagination) is that multitudes of people have reported experiences that seem to validate everything from clinical or near-death events to past-lives journeys to abductions on UFOs. They also reveal information for which they had no basis of knowledge prior to their experiences. It may be that an altered state of consciousness creates a condition in which the mind is like a blank screen, open to outside input. Spirit entities, whose goal it is to undermine the Word of God and deceive the world, might have that ability to program the blank screen and could therefore take advantage of anyone in such a highly susceptible condition (see Dave Hunt, Occult Invasion , pp. 187-90). But again, no one knows for sure how such things take place (Berean).
This assumes a demon knew about his late sister, and grandfather, as well as where his parents were, and what they were doing, during surgery.  
Now, what do I do with a book like this one? It seems to me that there are only a couple of options available to me. I can accept it, agreeing that this little boy is legitimate—he went to heaven and is now telling the tale for our edification. Or I can reject what this boy is saying—he did not go to heaven and this book is fictitious. If I go with this second option (which is exactly what I am doing) I now have two choices before me: either the boy (and/or his parents) is a liar or he genuinely believes he experienced something that he did not actually experience (Challies).
i) Even if the boy is mistaken, that doesn't make him a liar. As I said before, I think kids that age naturally blur reality and make-believe.  
ii) Now we do have to make allowance for the possibility that his parents are hucksters who wrote the book to make money. At the same time, they didn't know ahead of time that this would be a best-seller. So we're judging that in retrospect. 
More seriously, I was concerned about Colton’s claim that people in Heaven have wings (he says he too had wings while there), and other details that fit popular lore about Heaven, but don’t fit Scripture. In the Bible, some angels are portrayed as having wings, most are not. But never is any human being in Heaven or anywhere else said to have wings. Some beings in Heaven, according to Colton, have halos. But that’s not in the Bible. It’s from popular art in the Greek and Roman era and more recently in the Christian art of the Middle Ages. And of course we see it in our popular culture depictions of heaven, including cartoons.These things suggested to me that perhaps this child has seen and heard things about Heaven that worked their way into his imagining Heaven, as opposed to coming from an actual experience in Heaven (Alcorn).
I think that's pedantic, as well as naive.
i) To begin with, the Bible records visions of heaven. Yet the imagery is cultural accommodated. So, in principle, God could accommodate a child's understanding. The child could experience heaven in terms comprehensible to a child. An age-appropriate heaven. 
ii) In addition, Alcorn seems to be assuming that heaven has objective features. But the intermediate state is a disembodied state. So it's more like a collective dream or VR program. Simulated sensory input. 
iii) The artistic device of "halos" represents the underlying fact that heavenly beings are luminous. There are many examples in Scripture. 
First, the Bible gives us no indication whatsoever that God will work in this way and that he will call one of us to heaven and then cause us to return. It is for man to die once and then the resurrection (Challies). 
Does Challies deny that clinically dead patients are sometimes resuscitated? What happens to their consciousness during the interval between clinical death and resuscitation? Unless Challies is an annihilationist, he doesn't think the soul ceases to exist.   
The only biblical example we have of a man being caught up to heaven is Paul and it’s very interesting that he was forbidden to tell anything about it. And the reason he even mentioned this experience was not to offer encouragement that heaven exists, but to serve as a part of his “gospel boasting.” He saw heaven and was told to say nothing about it. This was a unique experience in a unique time and for a unique reason (Challies).
That's very selective. The Bible records several informative visions of heaven. 
So what's the bottom line?
i) Assuming that Colton had a veridical experience, I think the most plausible interpretation is that his account combines elements of recollection and imagination. 
ii) And, of course, this isn't coming straight for Colton. This is filtered through his dad's editorial voice. So there's the question of how much his dad filled in the gaps with creative interpolations. 
iii) How seriously we take this account depends, not only on Colton's reliability, but his parents. 
In sum, I think this account is too iffy to put much stock in it. At the same time, I think it exposes a lack of sophistication on the part of evangelical reviewers. They have a rigid, compartmentalized outlook that fails to ask the right questions or draw necessary distinctions. 


  1. Anna Bågenholm is a fairly famous case of someone who was clinically dead but then resuscitated. She was likely clinically dead by the time a rescue team arrived to save her, but certainly by the time she reached the hospital. Her heart had already stopped beating for something like 1.5 to 2 hrs. If the heart has stopped beating, then there's no blood flow to the rest of the body including the brain, and the brain is highly sensitive to blood flow where it only takes a minute or less without oxygen (which is carried by the blood) for brain cells to start dying. Anyway, she should be dead, or at least severely brain damaged. But instead she made an almost full recovery.

    Here is a video about what happened to her.

  2. Here's a link to a collection of links to some articles on NDEs found here on Triablogue (most by Jason Engwer)

    Near Death Experiences and Christianity