As death approaches, he leaves his body behind. Angels usher him out of the only world he's ever known and up into a land filled with beautiful flowers and trees. He arrives at a city whose walls beam with light.
The first person he meets is Jesus, clothed all in white. The Lord's face projects a youthful radiance, and he greets the new arrival with warmth and tenderness. The visitor then encounters a parade of faces from earth. He doesn't know them, but they are all excited to finally meet him.
Eventually, this heavenly expedition ends, and he awakens back on earth. His experience is recorded in a wildly popular book read around the world.
No, this isn't the story of Colton Burpo, the four-year-old boy who supposedly traveled to heaven during an emergency appendectomy. It's the story of Saturus, a third-century Christian martyr. Saturus recorded this ecstatic experience shortly before he was brutalized by wild animals and then killed by gladiators in celebration of Emperor Geta's birthday in A.D. 209. His account is found in The Passion of St. Perpetua, St. Felicitas, and their Companions, one of the oldest Christian texts.
Most 21st-century Christians have never heard of Saturus. But Colton's experience has become something of a phenomenon. Heaven Is for Real, his father's account of the uncanny event, has become a mainstay of contemporary evangelical apologetics. It's sold over eight million copies and has recently been turned into a hit movie.
Yet Colton's story is hardly unique. Eight million people in America claim to have had a "near-death experience" (NDE), a term coined in 1975 by physician Raymond Moody. NDE patients tell eerily similar tales: a dark tunnel, a white light, a life review, and visions of unearthly worlds and ethereal beings. They also claim to have out-of-body experiences, viewing themselves from a distance, and observing events they shouldn't be able to see. It's enough to have made non-Christian philosopher Robert Almeder theorize that humans must have extrasensory perception or clairvoyance. At the very least, he concludes, NDEs go a long way toward legitimizing belief in an afterlife.
Deathbed residents aren't the only ones taking trips to supernatural realms. The history of God's people is brimming with such ecstatic experiences. In Scripture, God regularly pulls back the curtain to give chosen observers (and readers) a peak into his spiritual machinations. These experiences begin in Genesis—Jacob dreams of a heavenly ladder with God at the top, promising to care for Jacob wherever he goes—and continue all the way to Revelation—John is shown an apocalyptic vision of heaven and the future that God has in store for creation.
But turning the last page of Scripture doesn't cork the flood of ecstatic tales. From early Christian martyrs like Saturus and his co-visionary Perpetua to Christian mystics like Francis of Assisi, Julian of Norwich, and Theresa of Avila, such experiences frequent the body of Christ. Even Christian philosopher and scientist Blaise Pascal recorded a vision of ecstasy that shook him up and renewed his religious zeal. He sewed a note describing his experience to the inside of his coat:
God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, not of the philosophers and savants.
Certitude, certitude; feeling, joy, peace.
God of Jesus Christ.
"Thy God shall be my God."
In this sea of ecstatic experiences, what gives Colton Burpo's story the buoyancy to float to the top of our cultural consciousness? Perhaps it finds just the right mix of preschool innocence and supernatural wonder to grab our attention. But I think it has more to do with its stated objective: To prove heaven exists.