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May. 24th, 2011 @ 03:52 pm Volume 3, Number 4
RAPTURE LITE

I recently picked up a copy of the New York Times bestseller Heaven Is for Real (Thomas Nelson, $16.99), in which Nebraska cleric Todd Burpo recounts his preschool son’s life-threatening peritonitis and subsequent surgeries, an ordeal during which young Colton allegedly enjoyed an audience with the God of Christian revelation.

Sensing an opportunity to hone my inveterate skepticism and critique the theistic worldview, I plunged into the book with a combination of morbid curiosity and mischievous glee. And, of course, there was always a chance that this presumably heartfelt memoir would inspire me to re-examine my own axiomatically fallible notions of how the universe works. You never know.

Even before I cracked the spine, my inner Voltaire was placed on alert. The front cover discloses that Mr. Burpo composed Heaven Is for Real in collaboration with Lynn Vincent, the professional journalist responsible for Sarah Palin’s Going Rogue: An American Life. Now. Deep breath. Sarah Palin. My initial thought: if Palin is allowed to accuse President Obama of “palling around with terrorists,” am I allowed to accuse Lynn Vincent of palling around with pathological liars?

I quickly realized that the question is irrelevant. Heaven Is for Real, I decided, must stand or fall on its own internal logic and intrinsic merits, not on the résumé of Burpo’s holy ghostwriter.


JESUS-MAN: TURN OFF THE DARK

The author’s—and Ms. Vincent’s—credibility goes off the rails as early as Chapter Two, when Burpo recounts his own medical tribulation: a 2002 mastectomy following what turned out to be a misdiagnosis of male breast cancer. Speaking of his initial needle biopsy, Burpo says, “The results that came back shocked me: hyperplasia. Translation: the precursor to breast cancer.” But that simply isn’t true. In the words of Dr. Susan Love, author of the famous Breast Book, “A diagnosis of hyperplasia does not put you at any increased risk for developing breast cancer.”

A few sentences later, we learn that the biblical Book of Job (a character with whom Burpo intensely identifies) is all about a man “who was struck with a series of increasingly bizarre symptoms.” Only it isn’t. Job’s misfortunes are not “symptoms”—they’re not Augustinian indices of inherent depravity—but rather God-induced traumas and afflictions. What’s going on here? I wondered. Undoubtedly Burpo and Vincent have a personal relationship with Jesus, but what sort of personal relationship do they have with the far less congenial universe of facts?

Shortly before the midpoint, in Chapter Eleven, Heaven Is for Real turns ugly and stays that way. Not long after his son’s release from the hospital, Pastor Burpo is asked to preside over the funeral of a man who “wasn’t a member of our congregation.” When Colton gets wind of this, he blurts out, ”He had to have Jesus in his heart! He had to know Jesus or he can’t get into heaven!” Bewildered by his son’s tirade—our pastor hasn’t yet tumbled to the fact that Jesus recently dandled the boy on his knee—Burpo tries to comfort him, saying, “I talked to some of the family members, and they told me he did.” The kid doesn’t buy it. “He had to! He had to! ... He can’t get into heaven if he didn’t have Jesus in his heart!”

At this juncture I found myself hoping that the late Fred Rogers, a minister I can respect, would come fluttering down from the clouds and declare, “Now wait a minute, Colton—do you have any idea what you’re saying? Jesus is not in the business of consigning non-Christians to hell. Jesus likes all decent people just the way they are.” But if any such intervention occurred, Burpo and Vincent declined to record it.

In Chapter Twelve we finally get to heaven, which is evidently a kind of ongoing Sunday School pageant staged by Julie Taymor, complete with winged grandparents and haloed angels. What makes Colton’s journey so implausible is not the parochialism of it all, but the contrived incredulity with which Dad greets each new revelation from his son. Every time our sixty-pound prophet wafts out yet another theological insight or scriptural paraphrase, Burpo maddeningly insists that the gem in question couldn’t possibly trace to Colton’s upbringing, but only to a close encounter of the infinite kind.

That is an extremely silly argument. My twin grandsons are being raised in a household that delights in musical comedy. When they started spontaneously warbling the lyrics to “Make ’Em Laugh” at age two, miming the concomitant choreography, my daughter and son-in-law never once imagined that their kids had been magically transported across time and space to a Hollywood sound stage during the filming of Singin’ in the Rain.


APOCALYPSE WHENEVER

Although Burpo and Vincent lace their text with ostensibly killer details, few of them withstand scrutiny. Consider the matter of Colton noticing “markers” on Jesus’ palms—which, of course, turn out to be the wounds he suffered during his execution. Alas, this cannot be the case. The Roman method of crucifixion involved driving a nail into the wrist (between the two sturdy bones—the radius and the ulna—that extend through the forearm from the elbow to the carpals) and into the wood beyond. A nail through the palm would have quickly torn through the adjacent flesh.

Even the most pious scholars acknowledge this historical fact, noting that the occurrence of Jesus’ perforated “hands” in John 20:25 and 27 represents a poor translation. Colton’s account would be more convincing if Jesus had said something like, “You’re probably wondering about my misplaced wounds. Well, laddie buck, in my case the Romans deviated from their normal practice, and God, being God, saw to it that I didn’t go flopping off the cross.”

Then there’s the business of Colton’s meeting his unborn sister in heaven—Burpo’s wife evidently suffered a miscarriage in 1998—and missing her terribly after he returns to planet Earth. For evangelicals this is doubtless an appealing episode, but it contradicts Colton’s subsequent disclosure that, once a dead Christian attains eternity, his essence is transplanted into a perpetually youthful, but eminently recognizable, adult body. In the case of the canceled sister, however, the rules were apparently suspended, and the fetus was required to mature in tandem with Colton, so they could enjoy a tearful quasi-reunion during his near-death experience.

In the final chapters, Burpo and Vincent completely lose it, abandoning all pretense to plausibility, and the whole thing turns into an infomercial for the bloody Book of Revelation—a text that, true to form, the authors inaccurately ascribe to “the apostle John.” Arrows are nocked. Swords come out. (All God’s angels pack heat, lest the Devil and his demons breach the pearly gates.) Standing to one side with the women and other children, Colton is accorded a sneak preview of Armageddon. “There’s going to be a war and it’s going to destroy the world,” he subsequently reports to his father. “Jesus and the angels and the good people are going to fight against Satan and the monsters and the bad people ... And, Dad, I watched you. You have to fight too.”

And who are the “bad people” in this Tim LaHaye wet dream? The little sock puppet doesn’t say, and I’m just as glad. I wouldn’t want to hear his answer.


SAINT PAUL’S FOLLY

By the evidence of Heaven Is for Real, Burpo and his coauthor boast between them the intellectual curiosity of a charcoal briquette. Take, for example, the radical disjuncture between Colton’s dispatches and the venerable Christian notion of Judgment Day. By Colton’s account, heaven is happening right now, on a plane parallel to our world. And yet, for millions of Christians, salvation is something that occurs only in an indeterminate future, after time has run its course—a doctrine routinely stamped with the imprimatur of First Corinthians 15:5: “In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.” For whatever reason, Colton’s father makes nothing of the astonishing news that, concerning the nontrivial matter of personal redemption, Saint Paul got it wrong and Bil Keane’s The Family Circus gets it right.

Burpo is equally unmoved when it develops that Colton left Jehovah’s throne room in possession of a radically deviant version of Christianity. As every schoolboy knows and every schoolgirl understands, throughout its formative years the gentile Church was obliged to deal with the rogue theology of Bishop Arius, who held that, though surely divine, Jesus exists on a lower plane than the King of the Universe, having been created by God much as a father begets a son or daughter. At the first Council of Nicaea, Arianism was roundly repudiated, and yet in Heaven Is for Real it makes a triumphant return—an astonishing development on which Burpo and Vincent mysteriously decline to remark.

A few examples will suffice. When Colton’s mother asks him whether his miscarried sister was adopted by Jesus, he replies, “No, Mommy. His Dad did.” Recalling the holy throne room, Colton remarks, “Jesus’ chair is right next to his Dad’s!” Articulating the essence of his chat with the Nazarene, Colton explains, “Well, Jesus told me he died on the cross so we could go see his Dad.” For reasons I cannot fathom, Burpo and Vincent evidently failed to notice that Colton went to heaven a Methodist and came back a heretic.

From the first page to the last, the authors of Heaven Is for Real fail to raise the most obvious questions concerning Colton’s mini-rapture. Why doesn’t Jesus vouchsafe these eschatological day trips to children more benighted than Colton—kids growing up in a Buddhist households, say, or youngsters afflicted with atheist parents, or preschoolers in Tehran? Why was Colton Burpo and only Colton Burpo elected to be the New York Times messiah? And how is it that Jesus happens to be such a four-square fundamentalist, continually implying to his pint-sized visitor that smart money rides on biblical literalism, when generations of honorable—and frequently believing—scholars have flushed out scores of contradictions and inaccuracies in scripture?

The reader searches in vain for a single moment in Colton’s excursion that partakes of the noble, the puzzling, the irreducible, the uplifting, or the unexpected. If only Burpo and Vincent had summoned the courage to have Colton say something like “Did you know, Dad, that Jesus doesn’t really upchuck when rich people have to pay proportionally higher taxes?” or “Did you know, Dad, that Jesus is simply crazy about Darwin’s theory of natural selection?” or “Did you know, Dad, that Jesus doesn’t really care when a man’s wee-wee takes an inordinate interest in another man’s wee-wee?” Throughout my reading experience, I kept hearing the sound of Lynn Vincent biting her tongue. Oh, how desperately she must have wanted to make her mouthpiece report that Jesus detests universal health care, gun control, gay marriage, gay anything else, environmental regulations, the Democratic party, and the separation of church and state. Somehow she resisted this temptation, which I suppose speaks well of the woman, or at least of her professional acumen. Thank God for small favors.


LIES, HALF-LIES, AND REDEMPTION

To state my case succinctly, Heaven Is for Real is a hoax. Whether by accident or design, Burpo, Vincent, and young Colton have given us as ignoble and cynical a memoir as might be imagined, right up there with James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces and the oeuvre of Carlos Castaneda.

Having made that harsh accusation, I suppose I should now recuse myself from the conversation. After all, the book in question was manifestly not written for atheists like myself. It was concocted by devout believers for devout believers. The author of Towing Jehovah must be the last person Burpo and Vincent imagined picking up Heaven Is for Real and—in his own impertinent fashion—taking it seriously.

And yet I’m not quite ready to leave Todd, Lynn, and Colton to their folie à trois. I like to believe that Burpo-debunking blog-posts like mine will open up a space in which all of us—the trio in question, their many critics, their countless admirers—might find some sort of mutual and ecumenical redemption. Maybe I’m missing something obvious, but it seems to me that, for all my disgruntlement, I’m not the one building barriers here. That’s Burpo and Vincent’s game. I’m not the person erecting ramparts of hellfire and Manichaean dualism and apocalyptic fantasy. That’s all coming from master Colton, aided by his injudicious father and Sarah Palin’s ventriloquist. I didn’t write this violent, obscene, and mendacious book. They did.

Somehow, some way, I want to reach out to these souls. I want to take them by the lapels and insist, lovingly but firmly, that it’s a bad thing, an ungodly thing, for Christians to deceive other Christians, even in the name of a presumed greater good. I want to tell them that, if the observable counts for anything, then Homo sapiens is not really on a package tour to eternity—in fact, we’re already where we belong: fellow citizens of planet Earth, bound together by shared genetic ligaments, reveling in the gift of life and our common status as risen apes. And given this condition, our first order of business must be, if such a thing is possible, to cut the crap.

One of my favorite moments in movie history occurs when Claude Rains as the diplomat Dryden turns to Peter O’Toole as T.E. Lawrence and says, “If we’ve told lies, you’ve told half-lies. And a man who tells lies, like me, merely hides the truth. But a man who tells half-lies has forgotten where he put it.”

Like my hero Voltaire, I’m a meliorist, perhaps even an optimist. I like to think that, sooner or later, the creators of Heaven Is for Real will seize the moral high ground. “We deeply regret our actions,” Todd, Lynn, and Colton will tell the world. “We embellished, we exaggerated, we made stuff up, we left stuff out, we fibbed prolifically—indeed, we perpetrated an egregious and unconscionable swindle. In Jesus’ name, we pray that we might do better in the years that remain to us.”

Yes, quite so, such is my fractured faith in humanity, such is my confidence that Todd, Lynn, and Colton are far better people than their book, I can actually imagine them stepping forward one day with a promise to begin telling the truth.

But first they will have to remember where they put it.
About this Entry
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From:mouseworks
Date:May 24th, 2011 08:29 pm (UTC)

Good to see you again, sir

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Glad to see you're still finding this sort of thing as intellectually frustrating as ever.

Rebecca Ore
Now in Jinotega, Nicaragua
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From:kylecassidy
Date:May 25th, 2011 04:10 pm (UTC)
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wow. you really took the time to swat this one down well.
From:(Anonymous)
Date:June 2nd, 2011 04:12 pm (UTC)
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Sir, you are made of stouter stuff than I for having gone through the whole tome. I've long since decided I don't have the time for nonsense like that. Once I was given a copy of one of Budd Hoskin's "missing time" books about alien abduction (personally, I think he should have done time for psychic assault on the poor saps who came to him for "help" and received hypnotic reinforcement of their delusions). I read the whole thing and, thinking I was doing someone a solid, wrote a 20 page critique of the thing, pointing out the internal inconsistencies, the illogic, the numerous alternate explanations, etc. After the person in question read my paper, he called and said "Well, clearly you have questions. I'd be glad to help you out with anything you misunderstood."

I'm inclined to think that this sort of thing is a ritual. Like going to church, these testimonies are not intended as any kind of examination, either pro or con, but are in their own way the equivalent of a Cecil B. DeMille biblical epic, which serves only to comfort the already deluded by going through a familiar set of "stations of the cross" as it were. Meaning is not on the page but in the predictability of the path. Logically critiquing a ritual always fails, because the contents of the ritual are less important than the agreed-upon aesthetic value.

Which is why these folks always and quite sincerely accuse atheists of making a religion out of science---because they can't conceive of "meaning" outside of ritual and all ritual is fundamentally a mnemonic for the ephemeral. The protocols of science only make sense to them as ritual. They have no experience with causality (certainly no grasp fo casuistry) and simply fail to recognize claims that suggest there is meaning beyond a familiar, closely-circumscribed path.

Oh, well. Good for you taking this task on. Someone has to do it and it is good that someone of erudition and good sense should.

Mark Tiedemann
From:shinkendelfenix.wordpress.com
Date:June 17th, 2011 01:59 pm (UTC)

This book

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I often wonder what kind of books would be written if paganism had held its sway? Would it be "Elysium is For Real" or perhaps "From here to Valhalla". It seems an absurd accident of history that the Christian madness has such a hold on the easily befuddled mind...
From:(Anonymous)
Date:July 23rd, 2011 01:31 am (UTC)

webhosting

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From:(Anonymous)
Date:September 20th, 2011 09:13 pm (UTC)

Double standard... as usual

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You use their word choice as a reason they aren't telling the truth: "symptom" when describing Job's physical manifestations of what you call "God-induced traumas and afflictions." Actually "symptom" sounds to me like a fairly good, unpretentious way of saying the same thing. But I'm guessing from reading this post that "unpretentious" is a foreign concept, so on to the meat.

Your very first point attacking the veracity of their story is that according to the quoted doctor hyperplasia is not a precursor to breast cancer. Maybe his doctor told him it was - who know. But just a few paragraphs later you assert "The Roman method of crucifixion involved driving a nail between the small bones—the radius and ulna—of each wrist into the wood beyond." The radius and ulna are NOT small bones in the wrist - they are the two rather LARGE bones that make up the forearm. You check their facts and use it against them - yet you don't check your own.

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From:james_morrow
Date:September 30th, 2011 10:19 pm (UTC)

Re: Double standard... as usual

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Dear Anonymous: Thanks for pointing out a potentially confusing moment in my critique of "Heaven is for Real." The radius and ulna are indeed the bones of the forearm, but they extend into the wrists, and so they are sometimes called "the small bones of the wrist." However, that phrase should more properly be reserved for the carpals, and so I corrected the text of my review accordingly.

Of course, my point has nothing to do with the names of bones, and everything to do with the fact that Todd Burpo is apparently lying when he has his son adduce Jesus' perforated palms. Crucifixion nails were of necessity driven into the wrists, just as I said in the review.

While I try to hold myself to high standards in my novels and book reviews, please note that I am a mere flawed and fallible human being, and as such I am within my rights to hold divinely-appointed messengers to equally high standards. I appreciate your contribution to the conversation.

Best wishes, James Morrow

From:(Anonymous)
Date:October 31st, 2011 09:25 pm (UTC)

Heaven is for real?

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I, too, picked up the horrible NYT Best seller and cannot figure why it's even considered acceptable literature. It was one of the most poorly written pieces of crap I have ever read, based on nothing but suppositions and wild fantasies of the freakish kind. If that depiction is what "life after death" (if there be such a thing) looks like, I want nothing to do with it.
I commented to a friend that people who read such crap eat it up like it tastes great; while turning up their noses at anything that challenges their preconceived notions of the way life is/is not.
Thank you for your blog and for your sane words in an increasingly insane world.
Peace,
Tim
From:(Anonymous)
Date:December 22nd, 2011 05:15 am (UTC)

Afterlife

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Dear Sir, obviously, from the way you write about the Christian beliefs, you are an Atheist. I'd like to propose a little "What If" game. What if all the multi-millions of Christians in this world are wrong, and all the Atheists are right about the afterlife ? What hardships has the belief in Christ cost the Christians? They live by the laws set forth in the Bible; love your neighbor, not stealing, not murdering, etc. I know, I know, in some countries, you can be killed if you profess Christianity publicly, but even there, there are "closet Christians". Basically, being a Christian is a good life. If there is no heaven or hell, there is really not much loss to living a Christian life. On the other hand, in the game of "What If", what if the Christians are right and the Atheists are wrong? What if there is a Heaven and there is a Hell? Where will the Christians spend Eternity, and where will the Atheists spend Eternity? The Christian faith requires just that: Faith. Some Biblical facts have been proven by Science, but the basics of the belief are rooted in "Blind Faith", which has no scientific proof.
Thank you for this opportunity to voice a small thought, I'm just an "Old Geezer"
From:(Anonymous)
Date:February 3rd, 2012 03:16 am (UTC)

Re: Afterlife

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Isn't it something that this comment received no reply? Thank you for this. I sincerely hope that some day the eyes of non-believers will be opened.

(In response to the original post) After all, there is no proof that God doesn't exist, and if atheists are wrong, then what? According to scripture, they will burn in hell. But if Christians are wrong, we lose nothing. One could even take the "better be safe than sorry approach." And trust me, many will be sorry. I suppose Christians are just supposed to let humankind burn. You can at least appreciate our efforts. After all, it's something we sincerely believe in, and you would do the same for something you were passionate about. I would expect nothing more than a pity head-shake, but no! We're all crazy! So take your "facts" and keep them closely. One day you will be hit with a sudden "unexplainable" moment and your facts won't stand a chance.
Thank you for opening my eyes to the other side and revealing that there is so much more work left to do.
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From:james_morrow
Date:February 3rd, 2012 06:06 pm (UTC)

Re: Afterlife

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Dear Anonymous,

You have inspired me to reply to the reader who called himself Old Geezer. I shall do so soon. Meanwhile, please note that I never said Christians are crazy. I merely said that it's wrong for them to lie to each other, as occurred in the case of "Heaven Is for Real."

Let me suggest that the vindictive tone of your message is not likely to make my atheist readers see the light.

Best wishes,

James Morrow

Edited at 2012-02-05 02:45 pm (UTC)
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From:james_morrow
Date:February 4th, 2012 02:43 pm (UTC)

Re: Afterlife

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Dear Anonymous,

Yes, I’m an atheist. I say as much in the above book review.

I’m glad that you lead a fulfilling life, loving your neighbor and eschewing criminal activities. I hope you won’t be surprised to learn that such attributes also characterize all of the atheists I know. And my unbelieving friends behave in this ethical fashion without any theological coercion involving a supposed afterlife.

I appreciate your What If? game. Google “Pascal’s Wager,” and you’ll see that your little thought experiment has quite a venerable history.

From the atheist perspective, there are several problems with Pascal’s Wager. First, it assumes that God would not know when a person is acquiescing to the Christian hypothesis largely to gain Heaven or avoid damnation. (Being omniscient, God would surely perceive the craven cynicism of such a move.) Second, it posits a monstrous and vindictive God who plays Hide and Go Seek with humankind yet thinks nothing of eternally torturing those who won’t join the game. Any parent who behaved in that fashion would rightly be labeled demented. (If I were a Christian, my first concern would be that I was not worshipping the Devil by accident.) Finally, if the Supreme Being of the Bible actually exists, he might very well be inclined to reward unbelievers for their attempt at intellectual integrity, and perhaps even chastise the Pascal’s Wager players for their fearful and largely self-interested "faith.”

I’ve always liked this thought from the British philosopher Galen Strawson: God loves the atheists and agnostics best, because they’re the ones who take him the most seriously.

By the way, at no point does the Bible say that atheists will spend eternity in Hell. Jesus indeed condemns entire cities to the fiery furnace, but his complaint against them does not lie along the axis of atheist vs. evangelical.

Thanks for offering your thoughts. I believe I understand your argument, and I hope you will grapple a bit with mine.

Best wishes,

James Morrow


Edited at 2012-02-15 07:41 pm (UTC)
From:(Anonymous)
Date:February 7th, 2012 01:06 pm (UTC)

Re: Afterlife

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You ask "what harm?" with an innocence that would be refreshing if not for the obvious lack of any historical perspective. What harm does it do to simply believe in something as opposed to not? The question assumes that there is no public dimension to such belief, and unless you live on a mountain utterly isolated from the rest of the world you have to know this is not the case.

Very simply, such belief requires action, and much of that action in the past has been destructive. You may very well make the case that the bad consequences of an embrace of deistic belief cannot be laid at the feet of the deity in question, but that's begging the question since his followers are quite convinced they're doing what their god wants them to do---and evidently that god doesn't see the point in correcting them.

I could go down the long list of major historical atrocities committed by true believers in the name of a legion of gods, including the christian god, but instead I'll simply point out the quieter tragedy of parents who believe prayer will "cure" their sick child and watch the child die without seeking medical attention. You can claim such folks are an aberration, that "rational" believers wouldn't do that, but it would be a specious claim. Their quite sincere and committed belief brought about the death a child. Do they then react with anger against their delusion? No, they justify it by some formulation of "Well, god works in mysterious ways" which leaves the rest of us fairly sure that if given a chance they'd let another one die.

That's the harm.

Mark Tiedemann
From:(Anonymous)
Date:February 20th, 2012 08:33 pm (UTC)

Re: What if...

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What an interesting blog, and just as interesting the responses to it. Although I intend most of my comments towards Mr. Morrow's critique, I will first comment on Old Geezer's post.

I am a Christian believer and I have a hard time with your statement "They live by the laws set forth in the Bible; love your neighbor, not stealing, not murdering...etc" And I agree with one of the responders that there are plenty of non-Christians who live their lives as such, too. Unfortunately, there are many Christians (and non-Christians) who do not live their lives by such "laws." Please don't forget that when Christ came, the law took on a whole new depth... one that shows that we are all sinners - we miss the mark, the bulls eye, of perfection that only God can fulfill. We all miss the mark because of our bent on self-righteousness (the first transgression).

Mr. Morrow, I appreciate your concerns about the book you reviewed. As a Christian, I am concerned about lies perpetrated by other Christians. So please don't condemn all Christians because some (and perhaps many) have gotten "how to live a Christian life" wrong, after all, humanity - reeks of things done wrong and gone bad. Scripture warns about falsifying the truth, too, so we should be wary of what is said on Christian behalf. There is plenty of Scripture that holds true enough to generate belief in God and his purposes with Christ's life. How Christians live is far from the perfect life that God intended for His creation.

I hope you will remain open-minded to the possibility you have not tapped into all the "logic" of God's ways... I guess if you could be that open-minded you would be agnostic rather than atheist. Perhaps you should seek from the perspective of looking for truth as opposed to looking to criticize, you may come up with different answers.

I appreciate your admission of your cynicism. I confess my cynicism, too. Mine comes from the result of hypocrisy in some Christian "camps," and dogma. Atheists and Christians can agree on some things pertaining to faith, except I don't delight in cynicism as you seem to. Cynicism does have its place - towards liars. But in my faith, God is not a liar and shouldn't be judged or mocked.

I actually am cynical along with you about the Burpo account of Heaven, so your cynicism is not reserved for an atheistic view point. There is room for human fallibility in the story. As much as I'd love to use this book as "proof" of Heaven, it is not Scripture.

If you would, make a note that not all Christian scholars have found inconsistencies in Scripture, so really that is not as strong an argument as you would think. There are plenty of scholars who have a tight explication of Scripture.

Oh, just one more thing...
If you haven't already, might I suggest you look into the work of the apologist Ravi Zaccharias to consider more compelling critique of Christian thought.

I appreciate a good and honest discussion...
:D
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From:james_morrow
Date:February 22nd, 2012 08:10 pm (UTC)

Re: What if...

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Dear D, I applaud your temperate contribution to the discourse. For now, let me offer a clarification of the “agnostic” versus the “atheist” stance.

From my perspective, it is the agnostic, not the atheist, who more readily falls prey to intellectual rigidity. Consonant with the meaning of the term, the agnostic claims to have “no knowledge” concerning the possible existence of an omnipotent and omnibenevolent Supreme Being (tacitly congratulating himself or herself for not succumbing to any ideology). But that is not an epistemologically tenable position. As an atheist, I can aver that I most emphatically do have knowledge concerning the possible existence of an omnipotent and omnibenevolent Supreme Being. To be sure, nearly all of that knowledge—most especially the problem of evil—tells against the God hypothesis, but it is knowledge all the same.

If you’re interested, I wrote an entire novel, "Blameless in Abaddon," about what I regard as the manifest fact of unmerited pain. It attempts to give all the great theodicies their due, most especially the ontological defense and the free-will defense.

http://www.amazon.com/Blameless-Abaddon-James-Morrow/dp/0156005050/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1329940920&sr=1-1

So in my experience, it is the atheist who’s likely to be the open-minded critter (with grotesque exceptions, of course), while my agnostic brethren tend to be either sick of the whole subject (for which I can’t blame them) or have lost their nerve (for which I can).

A point of clarification. I never said I was cynical about Burpo's memoir. Rather, I said that it's a cynical book (that is, carefully calculated, telling people only what they want to hear). What I am is skeptical.


Edited at 2012-04-23 04:26 pm (UTC)
From:(Anonymous)
Date:March 10th, 2012 09:06 pm (UTC)

As a skeptic myself...

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I am a skeptic, and of the Christian ilk. I have seen half-truths and whole lies peddled in the name of Christ, and am cautious of ascribing any truth to the Burpo story until I see something independent that tends to confirm it. That is why, on finding your article through a web search, I read it carefully.

I must say, however, as one skeptic to another, that you may have permitted your assumptions to color your conclusion. You tried to dodge the Genetic Fallacy (that is, as commonly used: That the truth of an idea may be judged by the source of that idea; Except in reliable non-indicators, this is a false idea) by initially acknowledging the irrelevance of Lynn Vincent's role in this book. Later you plunge headlong into that same error, holding her, in part, responsible for what you call a "violent, obscene, and mendacious book."

You would have found it to confirm Colton's story (or so you imply), basing this on your assumptions, had Colton remarked " “Did you know, Dad, that Jesus doesn’t really upchuck when rich people have to pay proportionally higher taxes?” or “Did you know, Dad, that Jesus is simply crazy about Darwin’s theory of natural selection?” or “Did you know, Dad, that Jesus doesn’t really care when a man’s wee-wee takes an inordinate interest in another man’s wee-wee?” " all of which are extra-Biblical viewpoints. If the Bible is correct, then Colton would not have been told any of these things, as they are false (Well, I don't believe that the Bible remarks on proportionate taxation, but it does endorse a Creationist viewpoint and it certainly condemns homosexuality).

In short, you are condemning this story, not because it is internally or externally inconsistent, but because it disagrees with you, which you perceive as an external inconsistency. This is understandable -- each of us assumes himself to be correct, or else we would change our views -- but it is poor logic, if I may say so.

As an aside, I have not read the book, and do not yet know that I shall (I may find it to be violent, obscene, and mendacious), but I thought it worthwhile to call your lapse in reason to your attention. I apologize if this causes you any discomfort or aggravation.
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From:james_morrow
Date:March 30th, 2012 02:04 pm (UTC)

Re: As a skeptic myself...

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Dear Skeptic,

You say you read my article carefully, but it appears that, at several crucial junctures, you missed the subtext of my argument.

When I call the book in question “violent, obscene, and mendacious,” I’m not making a philosophical point. I’m merely critiquing Burpo's effort for what it almost certainly is: a work of fiction being passed off as a memoir—that is, a hoax. My flight of rhetoric was meant to invoke what earlier I called “the bloody Book of Revelation,” a work of which Burpo, like so many evangelicals, is evidently enamored. I’m sorry you missed the allusion.

As for the three questions I wish young Colton had asked his dad, surely you don’t really believe that the presence of this triad would “confirm Colton’s story” in my eyes. (A hoax, by definition, cannot be confirmed.) Is it not obvious that I’m being satiric here? Is it not clear that I’m chiding the authors for bringing so little imagination to their project? Do you not see that I’m expressing my exasperation with those who would be happy to see the U.S. become a Christian theocracy overnight? People who know God’s opinions on all matters political and personal frighten me—and I hope they frighten you, too.

If you had indeed found a “lapse in reason” in my book review, I like to think it would not have caused me “discomfort or aggravation.” I like to think I’d be grateful to you for educating me.

As far as I can tell, the three parts of my argument that do in fact depend on reason and logic—the authors’ apparent ignorance of the Roman crucifixion method, Burpo’s inadvertent endorsement of the Arian heresy, and the tacit rejection of Saint Paul’s eschatology—remain intact.

Thanks for checking in.

Peace,

James Morrow


Edited at 2012-03-30 02:07 pm (UTC)
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From:Robin Raianiemi
Date:July 4th, 2012 01:40 pm (UTC)

What if...?

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I'm wondering if there are equivalent books to "Heaven is for Real" written for the adherents of other religions. "Allah is a Right-On Dude", and "I Went to Valhalla!", and the like. It wouldn't surprise me one little bit.

But, fortunately for the Burpo clan, they were born in a Christian country, undoubtedly raised by Christian parents, and live in a primarily Christian community. How fortunate for them that they had the good fortune to have had their parents conceive them here, rather than say, Iran or the Congo or China or India, where the correct religion, evangelical Christianity is practiced. For it is self-evidently obvious that all the other people in the world are divinely fucked, doomed to everlasting hellfire.
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From:james_morrow
Date:July 5th, 2012 08:18 pm (UTC)

Re: What if...?

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You've framed a terrific thought-experiment, Robin. For my next book, maybe I'll give the world "I Went to Valhalla!" It would be almost as violent as "Heaven Is for Real." Thanks, Jim
From:(Anonymous)
Date:September 16th, 2012 01:52 pm (UTC)

Great Article + More Great Info

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Thank you so much for your diligence in this matter! After having read and heard several Near Death experiences and also, knowing what the scriptures actually say about things. I was totally thrown for a loop when I "learned" through Mr. Burpo that it is Gabriel, Not Michael the Archangel who is the angel closest to God. I was also thrown for a loop when he said that everyone there except Jesus has wings. Wow! Somebody needs to let God in on this secret since he tells us explicitly that Jesus is the express image of his Father. I have within the last 5 years been awakened through a friend, to the diabolical world of Monarch Mind Control. Colton Burpo's story so reeked of this sort of mind manipulation that I couldn't get it out of my mind and heart. So I did some digging myself and have found some things that will make your blood boil and your heart hurt beyond belief for this poor child Colton. I tried to post links to the sites herein of what I have found but your mail filter said it was marked as spam. Please contact me at heavenspirations@gmail.com and I will share those links with you.
From:(Anonymous)
Date:October 9th, 2012 10:18 pm (UTC)

shoddy journalism at best

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Dear sir,
I really believe that your sole purpose with this review is to solidify your atheist base. To have a complete argument model, facts are needed to back up claims, and when it comes to the Bible and doctrinal issues, perhaps there's a reason you left facts out. I'll just point out a couple facts to refute your silly claims.

1. The author of the book of Revelation is clearly the apostle John. I know there has been some skepticism, but in the KJV the title is "The Revelation Of Saint John The Divine".
"The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave unto him, to shew unto his servants things which must shortly come to pass; and he sent and signified it by his angel unto his servant John:" Rev. 1:1

2. “Jesus’ chair is right next to his Dad’s!”-- a claim that apparently sounded silly to an atheist. Let's see what the Bible says about that.

Jesus saith unto him, Thou hast said: nevertheless I say unto you, Hereafter shall ye see the Son of man sitting on the right hand of power, and coming in the clouds of heaven. Matt 26:64
So then after the Lord had spoken unto them, he was received up into heaven, and sat on the right hand of God. Mark 16:19
And said, Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God. Acts 7:56
Who is he that condemneth? It is Christ that died, yea rather, that is risen again, who is even at the right hand of God, who also maketh intercession for us. Romans 8:34
Which he wrought in Christ, when he raised him from the dead, and set him at his own right hand in the heavenly places, Ephesians 1:20
If ye then be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God. Colossians 3:1
Who being the brightness of his glory, and the express image of his person, and upholding all things by the word of his power, when he had by himself purged our sins, sat down on the right hand of the Majesty on high: Hebrews 1:3
...and the list goes on and on.

Although there are others to be made, this should be enough to clearly make my point. If anything, by your mocking nature, you prove the Bible true.--

How that they told you there should be mockers in the last time, who should walk after their own ungodly lusts. Jude 1:18
Knowing this first, that there shall come in the last days scoffers, walking after their own lusts, 2 Peter 3:3
This list goes on and on as well.-- Romans 1:21-22

I'm always baffled when atheists try to pretend they know something about God and/or the Bible and unwittingly make themselves look silly.
From:(Anonymous)
Date:October 30th, 2012 12:34 pm (UTC)

Re: shoddy journalism at best

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You know, basing any argument of the "facts" represented in a text that relies on itself as its own final proof is only possible in a religious context...or in fiction.

You have continued this fine tradition of arguing in circles when you say that it amuses you when atheists claim to know more about god/heaven than believers. In point of fact, we do not, because, by definition, in our view, there is nothing there to "know" as neither god or heaven actually exist, other than in the imagination. (Imagination, of course, you discount because you seemingly can't conceive of the idea that someone might "imagine" something and make it up and pass it off as "real", at least not when such imaginings are attached to the promise your own imagination has embraced of some sort of afterlife with a reward/punishment system.) We therefore make no claim to know more about something which we do not believe---and which you cannot prove---exists. We do seem often to know more about the cultural contexts of religious expression and perhaps even the psychologies of believers that most claimants to such privileged information do, because it seems that most of you won't even look at such things objectively.

I, for one, could care less if John of Patmos is the same as John the Divine, since in either case Revelations is either a metaphor for the much-desired and oft-predicted collapse of Rome or the product of someone eating magic mushrooms or both. Who wrote it is less important than the "fact" that it is clearly a work of imagination (fantasy) and possibly coded communication, but in either case an extended metaphor. (For Jesus to sit on the right hand of the Father begs the whole question of Handedness to a noncorporeal superbeing, but that may be a quibble.)

What I do know something about is charlatanry (I was raised in a Mormon household) and snake-oil, and as a writer I've learned a bit about the capacity of humans to buy any old damn thing that makes them feel good or gives them a sense of entitlement and sometimes turn around and try to sell it to others. Usually, it's just a junkie dealing in order to support his own habit.

Mark W. Tiedemann
atheist at large
science fiction writer
humanist
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From:james_morrow
Date:December 18th, 2012 05:18 pm (UTC)

Re: shoddy journalism at best

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Dear Anonymous,

I have read the Gospels, the Epistles, and the Book of Revelation cover-to-cover several times. I’ll wager that I am as familiar with those works as you are, and I can quote from them with a competence to match your own. The instant young Todd proclaimed, “Jesus’ chair is right next to his Dad’s,” I immediately thought of Mark 16:19 and Matthew 26:64.

I wish you had read my review more carefully. My point is not that key Christian doctrines lack biblical foundation, but that utterly contradictory doctrines can be scripturally grounded with equal facility.

For example, the versus you adduce all point to an understanding of Christ that is rather more consonant with the Arian heresy than with the official notion of the Trinity. The words “trinity,” “holy ghost,” and “holy spirit” appear nowhere in your quotations. And don’t forget Deuteronomy 6:4. “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one."

Peace,

Your Favorite Shoddy Journalist
From:(Anonymous)
Date:October 22nd, 2012 10:41 pm (UTC)

Todd & Coltn cynicism

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Mr. Morrow (may I call you, James?), you're writing is superb, though show-offy...very pompous and smart-ass. I attribute this to you atheistic over-self-assurance. That being the case, you obviously are a person who believes in yourself; you are quite your own god, it is self-evident.

All that aside, you make some good points, and I actually agree with you on some of them. I, too, am skeptical of this whole Burpo story. You are as ridiculous on many of your attempted Biblical/Christian assertions as you accuse the author(s), Todd and Colton. Prime example: Christians going to heaven (yes, only Christians do, as unfair as that may strike you)at a later date in the far-off, rather than upon immediate death and the here-and-now,is a clear indication of your Biblical understanding and/or unfamiliarity.Arrival in heaven upon death, or whatever, as the Burpos would have it, is one of the clearest points of Christianity. The deceased immediately enters heaven. Jesus said to the thief on the cross: "This day you will be with me in Paradise." THIS DAY, not science-fiction later, say, year 2550 or sometime! Or: "To be absent from the body is to be with the Lord." Just some examples of your ignorance concerning Christian scripture. There are other knowledge of Biblical/Christian facts-to-conclusions you screw-up on in your "weblog" (very pretentious: "weblog", by the way; don't we call these simply, "blogs"?).

Being a superb wordsmith and an intelligent individual doesn't make you an expert --- or even capable --- in other intellectual areas, let alone an understanding of things spiritual. Mind, body, and spirit; very separate components of the human makeup.
From:(Anonymous)
Date:December 18th, 2012 06:15 pm (UTC)

Re: Todd & Coltn cynicism

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Dear Anonymous,

For the record, I do not consider myself a god. I am just another human being, another bewildered pilgrim, fallible to a fare-thee-well—but someone who tries, in his own halting way, to put a premium on rational, honest, loving discourse.

As for the temporal location of Paradise: see my comment on to the Anonymous person who weighed in on October 9. I am well aware that certain passages of Scripture suggest the immediate translation of souls into Paradise. But there are other passages—you probably know them as well as I—that point to a future Judgment Day.

By the way, you’re on biblical shaky ground when you insist that only Christians are going to heaven. If the Gospels are anything to go by, Jesus never said anything remotely like that. How could he even begin to make such a claim? He’d never heard of a people called “Christians,” and he seemingly did not intend to start a religion called “Christianity.”

There is considerable biblical evidence for the notion that Jesus did not believe the world needed yet another church. But even the Devil—and James Morrow—can quote Scripture, so don’t get me started.

Shalom,

James Morrow
From:(Anonymous)
Date:November 15th, 2012 02:36 am (UTC)

Wings in Heaven is For Real

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I found it intriguing that Grandad, Jesus and the rest all had wings. What was their purpose? Did they need them to fly? Implying that oxygen is just as important in heaven as it is on Earth? And implying that flapping of a six-foot wing could lift a man in heaven, something it obviously couldn't do on Earth?
From:(Anonymous)
Date:December 2nd, 2012 08:48 pm (UTC)

Heaven is For Real Review

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Did I read your statement correctly? You're an atheist reading a book about a possible miracle from God? Really? Because you don't believe in God in the first place, your assessment should fall on deaf ears. If you did believe in God, you would understand that God did NOT make us smart enough to make sense out of everything He does or doesn't do. The time you spent nit-picking every angle of the book suggests that you somehow see a flaw in their writing and now you're convinced they've lied. You're kind of acting like God as if you are all knowing and know without a doubt this can't be real for this reason or that reason. If you read the Bible enough, you would realize there are a lot of things that don't make sense to the human mind, and Christians go by "faith" understanding that God doesn't want us to know or understand everything as there would be no such thing as "faith". You really wrote a book yourself when writing this review. This is not for you to judge, and I hope you'll face the fact that God didn't make you smart enough to make human sense of what He does or doesn't do. You remind me of the Sadducees and Pharisees who denied Jesus was the son of God because He did not come in the form of "their" worldly definition of a king. In closing, I'd like to acknowledge the freedom of speech, however, it's your soul I'm concerned about. It's your dice...roll them, but if your wrong about God, you can't go back and fix it. That's a bet I would never make, which could affect my eternal life.
From:(Anonymous)
Date:December 18th, 2012 07:01 pm (UTC)

Re: Heaven is For Real Review

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Dear Anonymous,

You assert the following: “God did not make us smart enough to make sense out of everything He does or doesn’t do.” You add this elaboration: “God doesn’t want us to know or understand everything...”

Alas, I find your reasoning rather circular. How can you, a mere mortal, possibly know that God decided His creatures deserved a certain degree of smartness but no more? How did you, a limited human being, attain this insight into God’s modus operandi? What empowers you to make pronouncements concerning the Creator’s mind? Are you yourself divine? Are you a deity, too?

In short, it seems to me that if anyone is “acting like God” in this discussion, that person is you. I don’t pretend to know how the universeworks, and I am frightened by those who believe that a ragged anthology of manifestly human design entitles them to pronounce upon the unknowable.

Shalom,

James Morrow
From:(Anonymous)
Date:January 25th, 2013 07:49 am (UTC)

Thank you

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I was raised Catholic, went to Catholic school etc...I love Jesus and what he represents; but I found this book to be unsettling and disturbing. I found your article to be so succinctly written, and though I had every single thought you did while reading this book, I would never have been able to express them the way you did. I cannot and will not accept the fact that the Jesus I love, would allow a Jewish child to burn in he'll for all of eternity, and that my Gay cousin, who loves Jesus and worships him in church every Sunday is a "sinner". My dad recently passed away, and I have been searching for him every day since; I guess I was hoping to find him in this disaster of a book, but thankfully, he wasn't there!
From:(Anonymous)
Date:July 17th, 2013 02:44 pm (UTC)

Great analysis of a useless book!

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My mum JUST got given this book from an elderly woman on the plane, and even the briefest of skims of the blurb and cover had me thinking 'hoax!' in big, neon letters. It struck me as entirely useless as a book marketed to anybody other than devout Christians because it doesn't seek to devote any time to writings or thoughts that are even remotely substantial; only the most mundane, cookie-cut dreams and images of Jesus, God & Heaven, no doubt drilled into this poor boy's mind since the day his eyes opened, that are neither particularly insightful or revealing.

In short - thanks for writing this. It was witty, well-supported by evidence (the nails in the wrist rather than the hands speak volumes about the 'truth' portrayed in every portrait of Jesus on the cross ever rather than historical truth) and had a clarity that was refreshing. I can only hope anybody who's ever thought this book was even remotely revealing or valuable reads your post, because they will surely feel rather foolish after.

Thanks again!