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Heaven Is for Real: Fact or Fable?

Much of what Colton describes contains better theology than I've heard in many sermons. His vision of heaven is unashamedly Trinitarian—the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are personal and present. Jesus' human, corporeal body still bears the marks of his crucifixion. (Colton doesn't know how to describe wounds, so he calls them "red markers," pointing to both hands and the top of each foot.) In his overwhelming love, the Father adopts children who died in utero.

But Colton also relates some details that made me scratch my head: Angels have swords to keep Satan out of heaven, men will fight flesh-and-blood monsters in the battle of Armageddon while women and children look on, and the Holy Spirit is "kind of blue."

The truth is we don't even know how much of Colton's experience we're actually dealing with. Many of his revelations are exposed during question-and-answer sessions with his parents over a period of two years. His dad interprets his responses and writes about them in the book. A coauthor adds perspective. Factor in the publishers, editors, film director, and producers, and by the time the movie rolls on the screen, we're so far removed from the horse's mouth that we aren't even in the stable anymore.

Much of the Heaven Is for Real conversation has focused on picking at every nuance of Colton's story, in attempts either to construct an accurate blueprint of heaven or to discredit his experience. The first group sees Colton's trip as an objectively repeatable event: If I die, then I will experience the same things Colton did. His story is morphed into an empirical apologetic for the afterlife. How frustrating it is that, upon returning, he didn't immediately pull out a box of crayons and catalogue everything he saw, that he didn't create a more comprehensive heavenly field guide.

The second group is composed mostly of Christian leaders who question, with one eyebrow raised, the legitimacy of Colton's report. Some take issue with the Westernized character of what Colton saw—Jesus wears a white robe and purple sash, he has brown hair and blue-green eyes, and heaven is physically above earth. Others align Colton's description of heaven alongside those in Scripture, like two DNA profiles, to point out the discrepancies. But most skeptics are concerned with the prioritization of Colton's experience over the authority of Scripture. To be sure, this is a legitimate problem.

The book certainly has been marketed this way. The title itself implies that the ultimate value of Colton's experience is to confirm heaven's existence from an eyewitness report. Finally, readers may think, a description of heaven we can trust! Four-year-olds have no agenda; they're blank slates. Colton's story is so reliable, so relatable.

Colton's grandmother reflects this attitude: "I accepted the idea of heaven before, but now I visualize it. Before, I'd heard, but now I know that someday I'm going to see."

Critics have jumped on these types of responses, eager to stamp out embers that have already burst into flames. Most turn to Jesus' parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19–31). Father Abraham refuses to send Lazarus back to warn the rich man's family of the pain that sinners endure in the afterlife. Why? Abraham says, "They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them." If someone rejects Scripture's claims of heaven and hell, a messenger from the dead won't (and shouldn't) inspire faith. Certain writers have interpreted this to mean that because experiences like Colton's have the potential to supersede the authority of Scripture, they are worthless—possibly even demonic.

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