I’m going to take a further stab here at explaining why I’m so troubled by the little book Heaven is for Real. Certainly, there is a time and a place for different kinds of conversation, especially concerning grief and loss. However, I can’t think of a better time to do more “detached” theological reflection than while talking about a book that describes someone else’s experience. It’s unlikely I would conduct the conversation this way if it were at a funeral luncheon. That would be tactless, not to mention pointless. But if parishioners come asking about a book they’ve read, providing faithful theological direction (rather than punting on the topic because it is sentimentally coined by a three year old) is the better part of valor. As Tom Long encourages in his book on funerals, we’re called to teach on these things at all the other moments in the life of the church, in preparation for death and dying and grief.
So here’s my concern. I’m not so much concerned about the content of Colton’s testimony vis-à-vis his out of body experience. I’m not surprised that he floats, that he meets Jesus and angels, that it’s a good experience. All of this makes sense, and aligns with many other out of body descriptions. Disclaimer: As you might guess, I don’t actually believe in out of body experiences. I think they’re psycho-somatic phenomena that occur as a result of abnormal brain activity during surgery, lack of oxygen, and the like.
What concerns me is that, because it is spoken by a child, it gains a kind of sentimental authority and clarity that is unwarranted. I mean seriously, whose the jerk who is going to argue with a three year old about Jesus and theology? But in this case, it’s the testimony of a three year old “handled” by his parents and a ghost-writer. So it’s not just or even primarily Colton’s testimony, but adult testimony purporting to be Colton’s testimony. Granted, we all love the cute stuff our small children say, and often there are profound truths uttered by the littlest in our midst. However, this does not a comprehensive doctrine of eschatology make.
So that’s my first concern. My second concern is that the whole thing seems similar to the distraction saints and prayer to the saints can sometimes cause in the life of the church. Although we are certainly invited to commemorate the saints, as soon as we start designating specific prayers to specific saints for certain causes, we have begun, without a doubt, to distract from the intercessory power of Christ himself, Christ as our one and true intercessor and high priest before the throne of God.
Similarly, a book like Heaven is for Real introduces testimony about Colton’s experience of heaven, rather than the sharing and handing on of the eyewitness testimony of the apostles to Christ’s resurrection. It stops being testimony about Christ in heaven, and becomes testimony about Colton’s visit to heaven. In the end, if it strengthens your faith and has meaning for you as a story, that strength and meaning all resides in Colton’s out of body near death experience, rather than the apostolic testimony to the risen Christ.
I simply can’t think of any period in the church’s life, or the testimony of the church, where the out of body experience of certain believers, became the primary resource for confidence in the resurrection to eternal life with God. It’s simply not the way either Scripture or the church thinks, eschatologically speaking.
Ancillary to this, but also not unimportant, is that the book inspires us by one person’s visit to heaven rather than Christ’s constant coming to us from heaven in the sacraments and the Word. In this sense, the book is, for lack of a better term, anti-sacramentarian. It is what Luther sometimes called Schwarmerei, unwholesome and excessive sentimentality. Like Thomas Kinkade paintings.
By attracting readers to the personal experience (and a highly implausible one at that—imagine, a three year old describes heaven and out of body experiences almost precisely and word for word the way many adults and popular literature have described them over the years), the book distracts the church and readers from the places where God in Christ has promised to show up—preaching, communion, baptism, confession, suffering, and so on.