This is the first I’m hearing of a book called Heaven is for Real: a little boy’s astonishing story of his trip to heaven and back, by the boy’s father, an evangelical pastor named Todd Burpo. So far my library has only ordered a large print version of this for two locations, but if it’s really a runaway bestseller like the New York Times reports, we will inevitably have to get more.
Its popularity overwhelmed the publishing house, Thomas Nelson, which only printed a small first run of 40,000 copies. It’s been back to press 22 times since November in attempts to cope with demand. Word of mouth combined with marketing on religious networks and a few other stations has helped it gain momentum.
The book has sold just as strongly in national chain bookstores like Barnes & Noble as it has in Christian specialty shops, said Matt Baugher, the vice president and publisher of Thomas Nelson. Mass merchants like Wal-Mart have pushed the book heavily in their stores, and large orders from churches and ministry groups are growing steadily.
“We all are perhaps desperate to know what is on the other side of the veil after we die,” Mr. Baugher said, adding that his initial skepticism about the Burpo family’s story was short-lived. “This was a very down-to-earth, conservative, quote-unquote normal Midwestern family. We became fully convinced that this story was valid. And also that it was a great story that would just take off.”
Here’s the “great story” in a nutshell. Colton was not quite to the age of four when his appendix burst and he was rushed to emergency. Upon recovery, he told his parents he’d seen heaven, Jesus, God, and a whole pile of other people, including a great-grandfather and his miscarried sister. According to the blurb posted on Amazon about that part, he “then shared impossible-to-know details about each.”
Let’s just see about that. From the Times:
Colton told his parents that he had met his younger sister in heaven, describing her as a dark-haired girl who resembled his older sister, Cassie. When the Burpos questioned him, he asked his mother, “You had a baby die in your tummy, didn’t you?” While his wife had suffered a miscarriage years before, Mr. Burpo said, they had not told Colton about it. “There’s just no way he could have known,” Mr. Burpo said.
Did Cassie know about the miscarriage and share that with him? I’d consider that possibility before I’d believe he went to heaven.
And the Burpos said that Colton painstakingly described images that he said he saw in heaven — like the bloody wounds on Jesus’ palms — that he had not been shown before.
He’s probably injured his own hands before (or seen Cassie or his folks hurt themselves) and heard the stories of how Jesus was hung on the cross. I think kids are capable of making connections. They’re also capable of elaborating on insane stories when they think they’ve got an attentive audience, as Pastor Dad and Faithful Mom must have been. They may have been dubious of his storytelling initially, but they still encouraged him to continue talking about it. And sometime during that they set reason and rationality aside because, more than anything, they wanted to believe their son had seen God in heaven and verified everything they ever told him about the place.
Worse, the more he talks about it, the more he’ll convince himself it really happened. Even adults fall victim to memory tricks like this, and it’s known that stress hormones affect the memory as well. Plus, how much were his folks praying and saying on the way to the hospital? They had to be worried about his survival and they could have been saying all kinds of crap – things they shouldn’t have said, things they don’t remember saying (maybe this is how he learned of Mom’s miscarriage?) – that later got jumbled by his stress-addled young brain. We’ll never know.
You know what I’m hoping? That Colton’s current interest in Greek mythology leads him to realize that all religion belongs in the mythology department and in another 10 or so years see him admit he’s become an atheist. Ideally he’d also wind up annoyed with his folks for making a little messiah out of him and for making more than a little moolah off him in the process. I understand why they wanted to share his story but I don’t think it’s a book that needed writing.