“Heaven Is for Real”: A Nickell-odeon Review

June 11, 2014

Based on the bestselling book of the same title, this is the story of a little boy, a pastor’s son, who had what is known in the parlance of paranormal claims as a “near-death experience” (NDE). That is taken as proving what the title declares, Heaven Is for Real.

As the narrative unfolds, the Burpo family in Imperial, Nebraska, consists of Crossroads Wesleyan Church pastor Todd Burpo (Greg Kinnear), his wife Sonia (Kelly Reilly), and their two children: Cassie (Lane Styles) and her four-year-old brother Colton (ably played by Connor Corum). Colton becomes very ill from a ruptured appendix, and—during emergency surgery—has a dreamlike vision. Believers rush to claim this is proof of heaven (in Christian mythology, the upper firmament, also called paradise, that is the abode of God and redeemed souls). Skeptics were just as quick to disbelieve.

From a scientific standpoint, NDEs are hallucinations. They often involve an out-of-body experience (or OBE—a sense of floating that can occur during an altered state of consciousness), a sense of passing through a tunnel (the effect of oxygen depletion on the visual cortex), seeing one’s life flash by (the stimulation of memory-associated areas of the brain), and otherworldly visits (a product of the imagination). (For more, see my The Science of Ghosts, 2012, 43–45, 153, 254, 350–351; Entities 1995, 172–176.)

Skipping to the book (which is less hollywoodized), we learn that young Colton Burpo experienced an OBE, and went to heaven, where angels sang to him and he sat on Jesus’s lap (pp. xvii–xviii). He got to pet Jesus’s “rainbow horse,” explaining to his father that heaven is “where all the rainbow colors are” (63). Jesus, he said, had “pretty eyes,” was dressed in white (although with a purple sash), and wore a gold crown with a “kind of pink” diamond in the middle (65–66).

If this seems only a child’s fantasizing, Todd Burpo is more convinced by Colton’s seeming to know things he supposedly could not have learned except by visiting heaven. For instance, the boy mentioned encountering another sister there, and, when his mother failed to understand, he asked her, “You had a baby die in your tummy, didn’t you?” (94)—sounding just like what some adult had explained to the little boy. And whereas he described the heavenly sibling as a little girl, in fact his parents had never learned the sex of the fetus which—of course, in any case—never reached the age of the girl Colton imagined.

When we consider that seven years elapsed since the events of 2000 were recorded in a book published in 2010, we see how the well-known fallibility of memory could have come into play—improving what is, in any event, nothing more than anecdotal evidence.

Besides, as medical records show and the book (78–79) and movie admit, Colton did not die: neither did he cease breathing nor his heart stop. As the Rev. Burpo concluded, “People have to die to go to heaven.” In fact, however, it is not necessary to die to have the effects of an NDE, which can occur under many other conditions—as Colton’s case indeed shows. Thus, Heaven Is for Real is proof of little other than imagination and the will to believe—rainbow horse and all.

Three Nickels

Rating: One and a half wooden nickels (out of four).


#1 sowellfan on Thursday June 12, 2014 at 9:13am

So, if/when I get to heaven, does *everybody* get a rainbow horse, or is there just the one rainbow horse for Jesus, and everybody else has to slum it, riding lavender horses and whatnot?

#2 Kirsten Namskau (Guest) on Thursday June 12, 2014 at 10:21am

I’m sorry, but this has nothing to do with this piece but I know you are also investigating Spontaneous Human Combustion. Since I just saw a program about it on Discovery Science, something came to my mind. . .
Once a man came and took me , without my accept (you can call it kidnapping or abduction). He was from an organization and they wanted me to do some ”work” for them in which I didn’t want to do.  Because of that I was brought to this place to be shown what they could do with me if I denied . At this place it was a small chamber of glass. It was electric cords all over the room, (floor, walls and ceiling) Then they went into another room with view to the chamber. They put a dog in the chamber. From the other room they turned on the electricity. One could see how the dog got electrocuted as the power got stronger and stronger.
Suddenly the man controlling the power, turned it on full power (I don’t know how much it was) but in a flash of a second the dog, with bones and all turned into ashes. 
When I saw the program on TV, I came to think about following: Is it possible that those people it has happened to, has been in the hands of one or another (satanic) organization who has made some implants of electrodes in the body of those human, they use to force to do some ”work” for them. (ex: one in the head, one in each arm and leg) When it comes to a point were the person do not want to follow order, they turn on the electrodes by remote control.
Today it is so much science we ordinary people are not aware of and it is no problem at all to make something like this for such sinister people.
Has this possibility been taken to consideration?
(I never did the “work” for them anyway….I rather die….. so maybe I’m the next person to experience the “spontaneous Human Combustion” )

#3 Mike Tammaro (Guest) on Thursday June 12, 2014 at 6:48pm

The woman above me is clearly off her meds.

#4 Kirsten Namskau (Guest) on Friday June 13, 2014 at 4:57am

Mike Tamaro: You can maybe explain Spontaneous Human Combustion? It is so many theories and mine is only one of them….like as good as any others, ex.: aliens terror,that we contain aceton, that it is God sending the person to burning hell ..... I assume it is many of us who is off medication then. Even scientists! !  It is good that you continue to use yours medication thou, so you don’t have to think by yourself. For you, it is best to continue to be a zombe.

#5 Mike Tammaro (Guest) on Friday June 13, 2014 at 7:33am

Not only is this woman off her meds but her Spell Check is broke too.

#6 Elizabeth Chislett (Guest) on Friday June 13, 2014 at 10:17pm

Mike Tammaro, your Grammar Check is broken, too.

#7 Mike Tammaro (Guest) on Saturday June 14, 2014 at 4:58am

As is yours.

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