Colton Burpo was about four years old when he found out Heaven is for real. His near–death experience after suffering a ruptured appendix so astonished his parents that his dad, Todd Burpo, wrote it up in the book Heaven is for Real. Now Colton’s story is the subject of a movie coming to theaters April 16th. In this conversation with Managing Editor Jeff McDonald, Mr. Burpo talks about how Colton’s story shows what God wants people to know.
Jeff McDonald: What impresses you most about what Colton saw?
Todd Burpo: What impressed me most was not what he saw but how he explained it. Childlike faith is so valuable to God. I think God knew that He needed a kid to talk to the world about heaven. It intrigues us adults because we recognize innocence when we see it, and realize we have lost it. When a child so innocently describes and defends it accurately with information he couldn’t have gotten down here you accept it. Many adults with near death experiences talk about tunnels or white lights and things get vague. Then Colton says specifically “angels carried me” and “I saw Jesus and this is what He looks like” and “I met family members,” his witness is unfiltered and uncontaminated.
JM: Colton reports seeing so much in a very short time in heaven. How do you explain it?
TB: That was one of my first big struggles. How could he see so much in such a short amount of time? There isn’t an earthly explanation, but a couple of heavenly ones. When God told a prophet something that was to happen a thousand years in the future and the events that prophet shared came true, it becomes obvious that God operates outside of time. I think heaven is a place outside of time. Peter says with God a day is like a thousand years and a thousand years is like a day. If you’re a mathematician you figure out how long three minutes would equal it comes to two years and 12 months. These are explanations I arrived at for how Colton saw so much in such a short time.
JM: Colton talked about being in class with Jesus, and seeing you preparing for battle. How could a four–year–old absorb all that?
TB: He could tell me about my past and talked about my future. I know what he told me about had happened, even though he wasn’t even born. It was mind blowing. There came a point where I just had to accept it.
JM: How does what you have learned impact your everyday life?
TB: Peace is a powerful thing. So many things come from peace, like hope and faith and boldness. The Bible talks about a peace that passes understanding. I experienced it that day Colton unwrapped information about my daughter. All my wife and I knew was that before Colton was born we had lost a daughter to a miscarriage. When Colton said he met his sister in heaven and that she knows my wife and me and can’t wait for us to get there, you know that you know God it going to make everything okay. It’s funny how adults sometimes debate theology or what we think is right. Colton has a peace about it. He doesn’t stoop to the level of confrontation or argument, because when you know you’re right. You just don’t get offended. When he debated faith in God with the physicist Steven Hawking, Colton didn’t argue about the existence of God, he just said “he can believe what he wants to, but I know what I saw.”
JM: How is God using Colton’s story to reach people?
TB: Let’s face it, the verses about heaven in the Bible are kind of like a big jigsaw puzzle. There are so many pieces, but no picture at the front of the Bible showing you how to put it together. Colton has given me and many people, I think, a picture of how the pieces fit together. And Colton doesn’t contradict Scripture. He just explains those dangling verses so they fit. Now when I speak to a group of people I don’t need to say well “this is what I, Todd, says,” I just want say “the Bible says this, Jesus says this.”
JM: While we are not to think God planned Colton to almost die, what message is He conveying to people through it?
TB: We’ve seen people touched in three big ways. Where people have lost someone and it really, really hurts, Colton’s story has given healing to them like nothing else. Assurances from a little kid that “I met my sister, my dad’s grandpa, and this is what he’s like,” lead people to accept that God has promised to take care of everything. Colton also delivered a message especially for me. He would approach me many times and say “Dad, Jesus wanted me to tell you He really, really loves the children.” This was something I evidently needed to realize as a pastor. I know that arriving in heaven I will be asked several questions: What did you do with Jesus and what did you do for Jesus? Colton told you I really love the children. What did you do about it? So now I prioritize and emphasize children’s ministry. Another thing I’ve been taught is just to be open and honest about my journey, about how God took something so painful in my life and turned it into something good. When I was in that hospital and my son was yelling for me not to let people wheel him away, I was so angry. It was the lowest moment in my life. At those moments do you run away from God or run to Him? I took all my anger and ran to God and said “Hey I’m in trouble here.” It was the most unpastorly prayer I have ever prayed.
After Colton recovered, I remember he was in his bedroom playing and I asked him “Son, remember when you said you came back from heaven? Did you want to come back?” He looked up at me and said “No Dad I wanted to stay.” Then like so many other times he took over the conversation. “You know Dad, remember when I was yelling for you when I woke up in the hospital? The reason was because Jesus came to me and said He was answering your prayer.” I learned that God can handle your lowest low. Many times we pretend God doesn’t know everything. But when we are honest, God can connect with us in our deepest hurt and deepest thoughts and He can handle it and is not afraid of those moments when we think we are unraveling. God wants to be there with us.
JM: So what is required on our part? Just be open and honest?
TB: Jesus said His Father looks for those who worship Him in spirit and in truth. Even in the best of our relationships, such as marriage, we hide stuff from our spouses, thinking that if they knew everything we thought or are tempted with, they wouldn’t like us very much. We forget that when we come to God, He knows our thoughts. He knows everything about me and He still sent His Son to die for me and He loves me anyway. How do you square the fact that while I was in the hospital yelling at God He was holding my son on his lap, comforting and blessing him? His faithfulness is never dependent ours.
JM: Had any kind of faith formed in Colton before this experience?
TB: I have come to think that there is an age of accountability, that we all have to take steps of faith. Colton was never baptized as an infant, and of course my miscarried daughter wasn’t either. Where was sin dealt with? On the cross. God is never going to condemn an innocent person. You just don’t get more innocent than an unborn child.
JM: Did you anticipate Colton’s story ever being made into a movie?
TB: If God had told me that millions of people would read my book and that it would become a movie I would probably have run away like a chicken. This has been too big for me to handle. One day when I was resisting writing the story I was praying “I am not an author God, I’m a fireman, I put in garage doors, I pastor, I coach wrestling. I’m just not that guy.” Then God reminded me “remember when you found out about your daughter? Remember the peace you experienced? Is it right for you to keep that peace to yourself?” I have never won an argument with God.
When do you stop helping people? When do you stop being the church? You can only be the church when you extend God’s love to somebody else. Jesus said the two greatest commandments are love your Lord God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength. The second is like it—love your neighbor as to yourself. I have to be that person who helps others. Regardless of the haters out there and the people that attack us, it’s worth it because those people matter to Him and that they should matter to me.
How many times did Jesus tell people go and share with other people what he did for them? That’s all Colton is doing. When God interrupts life and he answers prayers He address those doubts and gives people assurance and confidence that this is a big God, this is a prayer answering God, that He is still alive and hasn’t ceased answering prayers, His spirit hasn’t ceased showing up in peoples lives, heaven hasn’t stopped taking in those that love Him. We have a world out there that needs to know that God is alive and well and is still the God of the Bible, that needs to know that the God of the Bible is still relevant today. Heaven is for Real has now got contracts for thirty-six different languages and the last one they just signed as Hebrew.
JM: How do you answer those who doubt the validity of near death experiences, who think the cause is rooted in neurological pathways or something physiological?
TB: Colton was too young to have false memories or memories in place. He never knew my granddad. My granddad died before I was seven. He had never seen a picture of him. And for him to recognize a picture taken of him back in the 1940s. The only explanation for that is that he had an experience with my granddad outside the reality that we know of here; there is no other option. Tens of thousands of people have contacted us about what they have seen and experienced near death. Documenting all these stories would show how similar experiences have taken place over and over again. Some people refuse to accept it just because they can’t reproduce it.
JM: What do you hope the movie will accomplish?
TB: It is a huge conversation starter. My editor was very nervous about seeing it for the first time. Her reaction was “Wow, I can’t wait to take all these people with me to see it. A question we faced with the book was “How do you stay uncompromising without being too preachy?” The movie has maintained that incredible balance. I think this movie is going to challenge everyone sitting in the theaters, Christians and non–Christians, to consider what they really believe and should you believe in what you say you do. There are some people in my life that because of some hurt in their past or something a church person did to them will never come to a church door, but they would go to a movie with me.
Some will say “I believe in heaven, and not because a kid said so.” But other people need stories. This is an opportunity to be loving and caring for people who could benefit from seeing this film. Jesus didn’t come into the world to condemn the world. He came into the world to make it right.
JM: How much input did you have in the film?
TB: Randall Wallace, the director, and I talked on the phone many, many, many times. I didn’t tell him what to write. He did a magnificent job. Randall Wallace wrote Braveheart and Pearl Harbor and has directed many films. He is a great storyteller. Dean Semler, the cinematographer, got an Oscar for “Dances with Wolves.” The person who edited “The Passion of the Christ,” all these guys came together and agreed that this is Colton’s story and said “We have to tell it the way Colton would want us to tell it.” How have you tried to maintain a normal lifestyle for you and your family with all the notoriety surrounding your book and movie? With the notoriety and Colton how has, I guess you have had to protect him from this attention and he’s a normal kid I mean he is well spoken and he is quite direct.
JM: Now that Colton is 14, has his memory of what he saw in heaven faded?
TB: Some have faded, but a lot of them are still very, very clear. I attribute that to two things. Once we started realizing what he was sharing with us as parents we have prayed ever since then, “Oh God please don’t let our son forget this, this is too important to forget.” I believe God has answered those prayers. Second, when you talk about something over and over again you remember it. When my little son went to preschool, to kindergarten, he would talk to his friends and people in class about heaven. All his life he has never known not to talk about heaven. Now that he is a freshman in high school, he the same kids he has grown up with are still there and to them he is just Colton. The book is new, but the story is by no means new to his friends.
JM: What is Colton like now?
TB: When you meet him and hear how direct he is and black and white in his thinking you would say “yep that is the kid I read about.” He’s not perfect. He has his issues, and struggles with the teenage years and raging hormones, just like everyone else.
JM: How have you tried to maintain a normal lifestyle for your family amid all the notoriety?
TB: People ask us “You still live in Imperial, Why?” Well, because I’m a dad and here is where Colton still gets to be himself. Notoriety? He doesn’t have any here. That is why we stay here. And people protect him. One of his classmates was on Facebook last year when these people were saying terrible things about Colton. She was so mad. “How can you say these things about my friend? You don’t know him and you have never met him and I know he is telling the truth and everything he has told me has been the same since the second grade.” People will ask young people “Hey Colton Burpo is in your town, where is he?” He’s in the group but they won’t give him up. Now some friends will say “I’m Colton Burpo” and try to pick up girls every now and then and that’s kind of funny and comical sometimes.
We are not special here. People think somehow that my church is all of sudden packed and exploding because of the book. That’s not the case. There is sometimes competition between churches and unfortunately Satan kind of riles things up and the book has brought a lot of false rumors about us. People say we contradict what we say in the book. There are still some hard things about staying in your hometown. Jesus had that same problem let me tell you I am nowhere as good as Him.
JM: Did Colton come back with a strong sense of God’s judgment against evil?
TB: Even though we don’t generally talk about hell very often, we definitely talk about how Colton saw Satan and how there is a final battle between good and evil and all the followers of Jesus are saved and Satan gets thrown into hell. We didn’t skip that. In the book I write about being at a funeral service and Colton is like “Dad did he know Jesus, Dad did he know Jesus, he has to have Jesus or he can’t go to heaven.” We didn’t step away from that anywhere in the book from the beginning to the end.
JM: Are you concerned about how Christianity is understood in today’s culture?
TB: One of the things that bother me the most is how North America the Christian world is slowly in decline and it is growing everywhere else. We have such an Americanized, commercialized, materialistic view of Christianity and even though we are the most educated and maybe the most blessed country, our churches in many instances don’t reflect a biblical worldview. I think you at Salvation Army, you deal with that everyday. Your bell ringers let people know you are here to help people and people duck their heads and walk right past you. I am going to be held accountable for the people that I have influenced here and we definitely have to be more the hands and feet of Christ and show our faith by who we are and how we treat each other and help others.
As a pastor I sit down with my leadership, my congregation and say there are two types of people that go to church in America. One type of person wants to go to heaven. Then there is type of person that wants to take as many people to heaven as they can. Unfortunately the second group is smaller than the first. We’ve got to be sacrificing, giving, sharing, doing things for people who are not coming to church and those who are not in the church because we care about them.
JM: How did you come to faith?
TB: I don’t believe you become a Christian because your parents take you to church. I believe you become a Christian because you meet God. I was nine years old and at a children’s camp and all of a sudden when this man was speaking God started speaking to me and His voice overtook the man’s voice and it was like “Todd I want you, you have been following me, your parents have been taking you to church, but I need you to follow me because you want to. God broke through and God became real to me, that’s when I became Christian. You don’t become a Christian because someone convinces you that Jesus is right, you eventually open yourself up and you meet Jesus.
JM: How is God using you to reach skeptics and people from other cultures?
TB: Sometimes I have gone on TV shows and have had to debate people on the spot who say they are agnostic or an atheist. I tell them “I really don’t have an argument, I just have to ask you if you are honest because if you are honest I just want you to pray one prayer and mean it. ‘God are you for real and if you are for real prove it to me and is Jesus your Son?’ God is the one that proves himself to people. I’m just here to tell you what God did for me, but if you were to pray that prayer God is really good at answering it.”
When I was in Spain I was on a Spanish radio program on national public radio studio talking through an interpreter the host asks me “Do you believe that Jews, Muslims, and others all are going to hell? I told him “You’re asking me the wrong question. You shouldn’t ask me what I believe because my belief is just an opinion. My opinion doesn’t matter anymore than anyone else’s, but here is the deal. What you should be asking is “What did God say?” All that matters in the end is what God said. It reminds me of Colton saying “Jesus told us kids if you believe in Him and follow Him, His dad is happy with that and we get to go back to heaven.”
JM: To sum up, what problems that people that struggle with today are addressed by your son’s experience?
TB: In our very first interview the interviewer asked “Colton what do you want people to know?” He said “Heaven is for real and you are going to like it.” People are afraid of the unknown, but you don’t have to be afraid. You can get into scripture and see what Colton is saying is true and you can start looking forward the future. Jesus came to come get Colton and take him to heaven to comfort him and to deal with his hurts. Anyone who wants to give their life to Jesus, Jesus wants to do no less for them than what He did for Colton.