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, ...

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