A young boy’s claim that he visited heaven, interacted with Jesus and met long-deceased family members has both inspired the masses and been dismissed by critics. Regardless of the debate, Colton Burpo, now 14, believes his story is truly transforming lives.
Colton and his parents, Todd and Sonja Burpo, recently visited TheBlaze’s New York City newsroom to speak about their family’s triumphs and struggles, and “Heaven Is for Real,” the feature film about Colton's story that opens nationwide Wednesday.
It's been more than 10 years since Colton came perilously close to dying during emergency appendectomy surgery when he was 3 years old. Far from scarring him, he says he can embrace life to the fullest because he's not afraid of what's on the other side.
'Not Scared of Death'
“Well, I’m not scared of death because I know where I’m going,” Colton told TheBlaze. “And the funny thing is that the worst thing Satan can throw at you is death. So if I get death, I get heaven.”
They are remarkably confident words for a teenager with the world at his fingertips and everything still to live for.
Parents Todd and Sonja Burpo and their son Colton Burpo visited TheBlaze newsroom (Photo credit: TheBlaze)
“If I don’t die I get to keep doing what I’m doing now and I get to help people out," he added.
Colton said he hopes the film shows audiences that God truly loves them and wants them “to go to heaven.” It’s this message of eternity that he’s hoping will resonate and help people look to God rather than focusing on material and perishable riches.
“The problem is we’re too attached to things in this world and they can’t go into heaven,” he said. “So when you love Jesus and you decide to follow him, it’s easier to let those things go so you can be in heaven for an eternity.”
Helping the Terminally Ill
While spreading the Christian salvation message is one of the teen’s main motivations, he’s also using his story to bring comfort to terminally ill children. Colton described one young boy who died just one day after they talked on Skype.
“He wore frogs [on his clothing]. Yeah, he really likes frogs -- and he read the ‘Heaven is For Real' kids book to me and we got to talk about it a little bit,” Colton said. “And the sad thing is the next day he passed away.”
The teen said he believes sharing his story with sick kids helps them through their health struggles by giving them hope about the afterlife. Colton also said it helps their families better cope with impending loss.
“It helps [the kids] realize that, ‘Hey, I don’t have to deal with all of this pain or all of this disease. I got something better waiting for me,’” he said. “It also helps out the family, it reassures them because, sure, after you die, if you go to heaven you’re having the time of your life, it’s hard for everyone else down here.”
Responding to Critics
While the Burpos say they’re using Colton’s story for good, they've also been on the receiving end of sharp criticism. Todd Burpo, a pastor, said there are some who simply want them to stop telling their story.
“When you actually reach past [the critics] and you can actually reach some of these people like that it’s just like God saying, ‘You can’t stop,’” he said. “It’s like, ‘No we’re not going to.’”
Todd Burpo said it's fellow Christians who are sometimes the most vocal, and who say Colton’s story can't possibly be true.
Image source: TriStar Pictures
“The atheists, you’re like, I expect that from them, but when you see a person who claims to be a Christian attacking you’re like, ‘This is awful,’” he said.
Todd Burpo says his son's story has never changed and that there are thousands of people in their small town of Imperial, Neb., who would corroborate and defend the details.
Colton, too, is aware of his critics, but said he pays them little mind.
“Well, with me, my main response is, ‘OK you can believe what you want to. That’s not going to stop me from sharing what I saw,’” he said. “I am decently easygoing. It takes a lot to rattle my cage, so I take the pacifist approach.”
Some skeptics point to the fact that Colton never actually flat-lined during the surgery — something they say would preclude him from a visit to heaven.
Todd Burpo doesn’t dispute that his son never stopped breathing or actually died on the table, and has spent time reading scripture “soul-searching” to understand how his son’s experience could be possible.
“In the Bible there’s several examples of people who actually died and came back, but there’s several examples of people who never died,” he explained.
While Todd Burpo admitted to not having all the answers, he said the theology surrounding heaven is complicated.
One of the family's claims is that Colton was able to identify a picture of Todd’s grandfather that was taken back in the 1940s – a man he never met on Earth, but said he interacted with in heaven.
“Medically explain that. There is no medical explanation for that,” Todd Burpo said. “There’s only a heavenly one, that’s it.”
Colton also says he met a little girl in heaven who said she was his sister who died in his mother’s “tummy.” Sonja Burpo previously had a miscarriage that Colton was said to have known nothing about at the time.
Telling a Story for Financial Gain?
Even with a best-selling book and now a feature film about their family's experience, Todd Burpo says financial gain was never part of their reasoning for sharing their story.
“People will say that we did it to pay all of our medical bills. No, we didn’t,” he said. “Do you know fewer than 20 percent of books make any money? And then fewer than 10 percent of books ever make anything in royalties. And people don’t even understand that.”
The Burpos live in the very same home they were in when Colton fell ill in 2003. Asked why they haven’t left their home and town, Sonja Burpo was candid: “Why should we? We like our house.”
'Heaven Is For Real' Almost Didn’t Happen
Todd Burpo said the family never actually intended to write a book, and certainly never imagined it would be turned into a film.
The book "Heaven is for Real" wasn't actually published until 2010, seven years after the fact.
“I mean, we never wanted to write it. It was not something that we pursued … God brought people to us to keep prompting us to be willing to do it,” Todd Burpo said. “I never saw myself as a writer, an author, I had a garage door business, I coached wrestling, I was a fireman, I’m still the state chaplain, and in a couple of weeks I’ve got to go to state fire school and teach a class. I mean, I’ve got plenty of stuff to do.”
But the Burpos say they have been called by God to tell Colton’s story, and are determined to keep doing so.