The astounding story of a little boy’s trip to heaven and back
Todd Burpo can still recall an experience he had just before writing his bestselling book, “Heaven Is for Real.” On a trip to Washington he noticed the great monuments, many holding the inscription “God.” He saw the Bible on display. “But there was something grossly missing,” Todd said. “I never saw the name of Jesus—it was like it was okay to talk about God but Jesus was missing. This is a country which says it’s one nation under God, but it doesn’t have a clue who God is.”
More than 10 years ago, Todd’s son, Colton, came dangerously close to losing his life at the age of three during an emergency surgery to remove his appendix. In the wake of the surgery, Colton claimed he had visited heaven during his operation. Today, Colton says that his experience in heaven has directed his life.
“He talked about family members, a daughter we had, that he met in heaven. He didn’t know we’d had a miscarriage,” Todd said. Colton explained that God was caring for her and that she couldn’t wait for her parents to get there. Colton told his sister that when their dad got to heaven he’d hug her because he gives all his kids lots of hugs. “In that moment my pain turned to peace,” Todd said. Offering others that same peace was the catalyst for writing the book. As a weekend pastor, Todd is often called to the bedside of the dying or to preach a funeral. He’s been educated in grief counseling that it’s important to help the loved ones find closure. But as Todd explained, “God’s plan is so much greater than closure. His plan is reunion. God wants to reunite us with our loved ones and that’s one of the strongest messages of the book that we want people to receive.”
One of the first questions people usually ask Colton is “what is heaven like?” “I remember the first time I went to New York, and how difficult it was to describe it all to everyone when I came back,” Todd said, “the sights, the sounds, the smells.” He’s often considered what a complicated task his son has been given—to explain heaven to people who have never been there. When it comes to the scenes depicting heaven in the film version of Todd’s book, Colton tends to share a similar viewpoint. “I know they did the best job they could, but heaven is so much better than that,” Colton said.
The best definition Todd has been able to come up with is that heaven is “God’s house.” In John 14:2, Jesus says “In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?” Todd thinks it’s easy to get sidetracked by the pearly gates and the streets of gold. “What really makes heaven heaven,” Todd said, “is that God is there.”
One of Colton’s favorite places in heaven was God’s throne room. Colton has tried to explain to his father how big God is, and often talks about how God has wings. “In the Psalms, David asks God to protect him with his wings,” Todd said. “I thought, ‘okay, David and Colton saw the same thing.’” Colton’s also talked about how Jesus sits next to God. When Colton described Jesus’ place in the throne room at the right hand of God, the words from the epistle to the Hebrews came to life. “I asked Colton if anyone was sitting on the left,” Todd said. “He told me right away, ‘that’s easy, that’s where Gabriel sits.’” Although Todd was unaware that anyone sat on God’s left side, the scripture does in fact say “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God.” Colton continued. “Dad, I sat next to God, the Holy Spirit. Do you know God’s three persons?” Colton asked.
Todd was stunned by the accuracy of his son’s words. Colton also said there was no night in heaven, which is referenced in scripture. “Colton talks about things we haven’t thought of, like that we’ll all have wings in heaven,” Todd said. While there is no scripture to support that statement, the idea that we are created in God’s image, corroborated with the Bible saying that God has wings, lends some support to Colton’s claim that our glorified bodies will have wings too.
Todd believes that the reality of us having been created in God’s image is important. “I think a lot of people forget all the truth that’s wrapped up in that simple statement,” Todd said. “There’s so much we mess up about God because we forget who we are.”
It’s hard for Todd to accept that he is the epitome of God’s creation when he looks in the mirror. He often sees his own failures. “Colton told me he saw me from above, yelling at God,” Todd said. “I wasn’t proud of that moment, but I consider the grace of God when I think of him hearing and responding to my prayers.” Todd believes that most people think in terms of scales. “They think that if the good outweighs the bad then you get in to heaven,” Todd said. “They have a hard time understanding grace. For example, there’s no way I would just randomly walk into a stranger’s house—in my own home, if someone broke in and began tearing things up, hurting my family, I would throw them out. Just like Jesus said to his disciples, ‘I’m going there to a prepare a place for you’—and you don’t have to worry about going there because he’s going to come back and take you. You have a relationship with him, he’s going to take you to his father’s house, and because you know him, going there isn’t a problem,” Todd said.
Todd believes that many people have the attitude that they’re going to get to heaven their own way, by just walking in the door. “We can’t do that here,” Todd said, “so why would we have the audacity to think we could do it with God’s house?”
Todd thinks that people believe pastors are supposed to somehow handle life’s problems holier than others do. But as he saw his son dying, he was a father first.
As for myself, I’m writing this the day of my own son’s seventeenth birthday. When I imagine the pain of the loss of a child, I whisper a silent prayer that my son will be blessed with a long life. My thoughts then shift to the Father God and the great price he paid in giving his Son to die so that I could have eternal life. “No matter how long we live, this life is just a blip on the radar in the context of eternity,” said Todd’s wife, Sonya.
Todd still struggles with questions. Why was his imperfect prayer answered while others are not? One woman once told him that when she read his book she finally understood that God loves her kids more than she does. “I guess that’s just the thing that amazes me about God more than anything else—the depth of his love, to discover that and be a part of that,” said Todd. “We can see only a poor reflection now, but one day we will see God face to face as Colton did.”
It’s an experience he longs for, to know more of that love and see it face to face. “It’s kinda hard to describe God’s love,” Colton said, “because he loves you so much. It’s sort of indescribable of how much he loves you.”
By Michelle Wallace