Heaven is for Real: Odometer of Credulity

It is not snobbish to notice the way in which people show their gullibility and their herd instinct, and their wish, or perhaps their need, to be credulous and to be fooled. This is an ancient problem. Credulity may be a form of innocence, and even innocuous in itself, but it provides a standing invitation for the wicked and the clever to exploit their brothers and sisters, and is thus one of humanity’s great vulnerabilities. No honest account of the growth and persistence of religion, or the reception of miracles and revelations, is possible without reference to this stubborn fact.

~ Christopher Hitchens. God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything

Heaven is for Real. Sigh. Over the weekend my older two kids and I went to a Barnes and Noble to chat over coffee while looking at books and magazines. While there, I thumbed through and read several sections of this abysmal little pamphlet, for calling it a book would grant it far too much dignity. Not since the Prayer of Jabez have I seen piffle more perfectly suited as a litmus test of human credulity.

Basic Criticisms

Criticisms for the book are easy to discern from directly reading it or perusing critiques on the internet.

  • First, and perhaps most glaringly, the little boy never really died, not even in the technical pulse-based clinical sense. As such, this is not even really a Near Death Experience (NDE) account at all.
  • His first recollections of a heavenly experience came in vague form 17 days afterward – not shortly after awakening.
  • Details – indeed, entire episodes – continued to be added to his account in the weeks and months following. It all reads like a case study of neuroplasticity in action, not to mention the organic story weaving of undeliberate and miracle-hungry group discussion.
  • The book was not written until a full 7 years after the events it relates.
  • His parents were ardent believers, and his father was a pastor, so it is not difficult for a thinking person to recognize the conduciveness of his environment for storyline amplification and mythical embellishment.
  • Christians have criticized the information about heaven as conflicting with scriptural portraits, stating that we ought to view it skeptically, owing to its conflict with doctrinal precommitments.

A Father’s Heart

I will mention the one credit to the book that I can (and must) voice. I too have hovered over the abyss and felt the soul-quenching darkness that Burpo describes. Our youngest daughter, at a mere twelve days old, slid to the edge of the brink. She very nearly lost her future. Our faith mandates that we repair the memories of such events in the sunrise that follows, and I have my own errors of embellishment with which to live.

Nevertheless, I think our attempts to give voice to inexpressible gratitude must stop short of incubating a growing legend (deliberate or not), at which juncture Burpo and I sadly parted ethical ways.

Three Points of Further Critique

Speaking for myself, I believe it is fair to add three simple criticisms.

First, we should unapologetically ask: in what field of human knowledge would the imaginative stories of a four-year old boy be taken as legitimate information about anything? Ah, but this line of questioning is stamped out a priori on the inside cover, where legitimacy is bolstered with a scriptural quotation regarding the faith of children. And so begins the implied mandate to give intrinsic credit and to listen uncritically. We are meant to forget the sculpting effect that a deeply religious household would undoubtedly exert on a child of four as the stories grew with the passing months. And we are to set aside what we actually know: that four-year-olds are not a demographic otherwise committed to scrupulous fidelity when they recount their dreams. This is all to say nothing of what dream-weaving effects might have resulted from animated adult conversations in the hospital room of an unwell, sleeping, traumatized child. Nevertheless, the bit of scriptural pixie dust in the prelude apparently does work to ward off clearer examination, if sales are any indication.

Second, this thin little paperback of abysmal grade-school prose retails for $17. The publishers seem aware of how minimally literate their audience is, and they know precisely how much they can extort for confidence-swelling “true” heaven stories. 8 million copies have sold, coming to something like $136M in sales. To this odometer of idiocy, we must add the revenue from the entire product line and present box-office movie sales, which IMDB presently reports as $66M. Positively nothing in this little book could justify such revenues. Nevertheless, I think we can be quite certain that the good Pastor Burpo has donated all proceeds to charity. They wouldn’t keep it. This isn’t about money. Surely.

Finally, it is prophetic enough to point out that the entire business of heaven books only proves critics like Hitchens correct. The religious community scores an “own goal” on themselves with such greedy gulping of saline refreshments. And it is an own-goal now registered 8 million times. And growing. The religious community marches forward, blowing the brass and shouting loudly that the skeptics are wrong, all while being arrayed in a formation spelling out, THE ATHEISTS ARE RIGHT.

Repentance Advisable

For those who may have put money in the Burpo coffers already, and who have added their names to the swelling registry of the credulous, take heart. Confession and repentance are good for the soul. Indeed, it is never too late to start thinking. Do consider this before doubling down on the bet and jumping to Burpo’s defense.

Human Nature and Wish-Thinking

Perhaps we should all be thankful that books like Heaven is for Real exist. They dissolve all the hard work of Christian scholarship and their leading apologists, who ever labor to make the Christian faith seem like a reasonable and well-founded thing. The Heaven is for Real phenomenon resets the register, reminding us all again just how much misplaced credit has always underwritten religious belief.

After all, the gospels were written by the likes of Burpo: unverifiable stories from dubious sources, penciled down many years later, after a long marinating period, in which the stories got better with every telling. And the message was snapped up greedily by the same sort of simple and wish-dominated people.

The “gospel truth” is disquieting…

It doesn’t have to be true.

It doesn’t even have to be credible.

We want to believe.

And frankly, we’ll take anything.

But the moment we honestly start thinking, which lies within the power of each of us, we can begin to do better.


Afterword… More Food for Clearer Thought:

Elizabeth Loftus TedTalk on the Fiction of Memory (should be calibrated appropriately for a four-year old):



Burpo, Todd; Vincent, Lynn. Heaven is for Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back. Thomas Nelson. 2010.







Photo Source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/b/b3/Heaven_Is_for_Real_%28Burpo_book%29_cover.jpg


  1. “And frankly, we’ll take anything.”

    I think that says it all.


  2. Hissss…John, Matt…I am your father….


  3. It’s really disconcerting that death anxiety is so marketable.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Matt, I’m on board with your criticism of this book and the movie. 🙂 Actually, if I remember correctly, I read an article on Christianity Today scathing it for many of the same reasons you have brought up. On a side note, I’ve found the majority of CT to be surprisingly legit from movie and book reviews to social commentaries from a Christian perspective. I didn’t have time to watch the Loftus TED talk, but I’ve read her work and can see how well it applies to this situation.


    • Yeah, anybody that knows their theology was against the book. The common man, not so much. I can’t believe they got Kinnear to play the role. He was priceless in Anchorman 2. Then again, if Kinnear was doing it for the money, then I guess he had something in common with the actual father. LOL. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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