The HyperTexts

Todd Burpo: Spinning Heaven for Profit?

What is Todd Burpo's net worth these days? Todd Burpo is the author of Heaven is for Real, a book he co-wrote with Lynn Vincent about his son Colton’s near death experience (NDE) and trip to heaven. The book, a New York Times bestseller for 39 weeks, was turned into a major movie starring Connor Corum, Greg Kinnear, Kelly Reilly, Margo Martindale and Thomas Haden-Church. (Lynn Vincent was the ghostwriter of Sarah Palin’s Going Rogue. Vincent is also a senior writer for the conservative Christian publication World Magazine, where her stories have focused on abortion, religion, and gay marriage.) 

According to his father's book, young Colton Burpo had an encouter with heaven in 2003, at the age of four, during emergency surgery for a ruptured appendix. The book is subtitled "A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back." I’ve heard similar accounts—some by people I know—and they can indeed be very hopeful and inspiring. But there’s a strong tendency for conservative Christians to "spin" such accounts to make it seem that only Christians visit heaven, even though agnostics, atheists and people of other faiths have very similar NDEs. Studies suggest that one in five Americans has had an NDE, or has seen departed loved ones, family members or friends after death. Such experiences can be life-transforming, in highly positive ways. My wife Beth was with her dying grandmother when she had a vision of heaven. That was a wonderful comfort to Beth, and to our family. But if anyone can rain on someone else's parade, it's Christians who condemn all the world to an "eternal hell" in the name of God, then make billions of dollars by offering the self-elected "chosen few" what they call "salvation." Here's what Todd Burpo says about "hell" on his church's website:
"We believe that the Scriptures clearly teach that there is a conscious personal existence after death. The final destiny of each person is determined by God's grace and that person's response, evidenced inevitably by a moral character which results from that individual's personal and volitional choices and not from any arbitrary decree of God. Heaven with its eternal glory and the blessedness of Christ's presence is the final abode of those who choose the salvation which God provides through Jesus Christ, but hell with its everlasting misery and separation from God is the final abode of those who neglect this great salvation."
However, I believe that even a cursory study of the Bible will demonstrate that an eternal "hell" is non-biblical, and is therefore a false teaching and blasphemy. And Burpo's statement that a "moral character" is a prerequisite for heaven refutes Saint Paul's gospel of salvation by grace, not of works, "lest any man should boast." Even Paul, the great Christian evangelist and author of fourteen New Testament epistles, did not claim to have the "moral character" necessary to enter a perfect heaven. Furthermore, Todd Burpo's website, like the websites of many Christian churches, contains "facts" that simply don't add up. First, he says that human beings are unable to muster the faith for salvation themselves, so that only the grace of God can lead to salvation. That is the Calvinistic dogma of salvation by election, also known as predestination. But if human beings are unable to save themselves through faith, and only God can provide the faith needed for salvation, then obviously if anyone went to hell, it would be God's fault. Like virtually all Christian pastors, Todd Burpo claims that God is just. But there is obviously nothing "just" about a God who chooses to remain hidden, and yet demands human belief. Ironically, it's Christian pastors like Todd Burpo who make God seem like the Devil, by claiming he will save only the Todd Burpos of the world, but not billions of people of other faiths and non-faiths.

If heaven is a realm of Divine love and forgiveness, why is the grace of God being bottled and sold like cheap perfume? If God can save people who blaspheme his name on a daily basis, by saying he's so petty and cruel that he sends people to hell for not believing in him, when he chose to remain hidden, why can't he save everyone? And indeed the prophet Ezekiel clearly said that all Israel would be saved, linking Israel's salvation to the salvation of gentile nations like Sodom, Samaria, Elam and Ammon. Samaria is the modern-day West Bank, so according to Ezekiel the Jews and Palestinians, despite their animosity toward each other, will be saved together. The apostle Paul also said that all Israel would be saved, and that Christ is the savior of all men, "especially believers," which I take to mean that Paul was indicating benefits to believers in this life. There are many verses in the Bible about all men being saved, and God being all in all. (Mystics of many religions, including Christian mystics, claim to be one with God in this life.) And yet many Christian pastors, priests and theologians ignore the best verses in the Bible. Why? Probably because it's much easier to make money and control other people's behavior with the terrifying and wildly unjust threat of an eternal "hell."

Todd Burpo is a Christian pastor who may be purposely “spinning” his son’s story, in order to make money. Or perhaps he's so infatuated with the idea that only the "chosen few" go to heaven that he missed something important. The book is wonderfully positive until young Colton Burpo becomes distraught over the thought that a man who died might not have been a Christian. What Todd Burpo failed to mention is that previously Colton had been relating things that Jesus Christ had said to him during his time in heaven. But in this case, Colton was not repeating what Jesus told him, but what he had undoubtedly heard his father preach. It seems likely to me that what caused Colton's distress was not anything Jesus said to him directly, but what he heard his father preach to his congregation.

Why did Todd Burpo fail to mention that Jesus had said nothing to Colton about non-Christians going to hell? Is it because pastors would lose converts and revenues if people knew that non-Christians also visit heaven, and are welcome there with no criticisms of their faith, or lack of faith? Perhaps Jesus knew what would happen, since he kept reminding Colton how much he loves children. Children grow up, a fact Christian theologians seem to have a hard time grasping. Good mothers and fathers don’t stop loving their children just because they reach a certain age. Why would a loving and forgiving, gracious God?

Todd Burpo is the pastor of his Methodist church (Crossroads Wesleyan Church in Imperial, Nebraska), a high school wrestling coach, an industrial garage door repairman, and a member of the local volunteer fire department. But is he someone we can trust to reveal the secrets of faith, salvation and heaven? I suspect not. In any case, I believe it is very easy to prove that there is no "eternal hell," according to the Bible itself. If it troubles you that billions of children around the world have been terrified by the dogma of an "eternal hell," please read this simple proof that there is no "hell" in the Bible.

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