When Colton Burpo was 3 years old, his appendix ruptured. Because the doctor did not correctly diagnose it, five days passed before another doctor operated. By then his body was filled with toxins. It was nip and tuck whether Colton would live. His father, the Rev. Todd Burpo, described that night at the hospital, sometimes raging, other times pleading with God to spare his son.
Colton lived. More importantly in the days and weeks that followed, Colton began describing to his parents what heaven was like — he went there, he told them, while he was in surgery.
A friend recently shared with me the book "Heaven is for Real" (Thomas Nelson publishers, 192 pages). In it, Todd Burpo does not describe his son’s experience as dying. Rather, Todd correlates it to similar experiences in the Bible where people experienced heaven without dying. For example, the apostle Paul described “a Christian he knew personally who was taken to heaven, ‘Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know — God knows. And I know that this man … was caught up to paradise. He heard inexplicable things, things that man is not permitted to tell.'”
Todd Burpo and his wife, Sonja, went some weeks knowing nothing of Colton’s experience. However, over time, Colton began to speak of it. At first they were surprised by some of his remarks, thinking them out of place or weird. Then they became intrigued, then astounded, and soon the father was keeping a record. Colton's parents rarely pressed him about his experiences. Instead, more often than not, something triggered a simple yet profound remark from their innocent little son. They also never asked leading questions when he volunteered information.
Some of the things Colton shared were particularly fascinating to me coming from an LDS background. As members of the LDS Church, one of the things that we take too much for granted is the enormous detail, the depth and breadth that is part of our theology. Not only are we blessed to have access to the Old and New Testaments, as does the rest of the Christian world, but we have other sources of information on life after death. We have additional scripture, the Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and Pearl of Great Price. We also have living prophets, seers and revelators who instruct us as they receive revelation for our benefit.
Much of what Colton told his father was quite revelatory from the Rev. Burpo’s point of view. As with many other experiences, I found that it reinforced and bolstered my faith.
In the year following his hospital stay, on Good Friday, Colton was in his dad’s truck with his sister Cassie. Cassie was easily able to answer that Good Friday was the “day Jesus died on the cross.” But when her father asked, “Do you know why Jesus died on the cross?” she had to stop and think. Colton, however, had a ready answer: “Jesus told me he died on the cross so we could go see his Dad.” Todd aptly described Colton’s explanation as “the sweetest declaration of the gospel I had ever heard.” It pointed up the “difference between grown-up and childlike faith.”
Also of great importance to Colton was how much Jesus loved children. “He talked constantly about how much Jesus loved the children.” In Colton’s words, “Jesus said he really, really loves the children!” Todd explained that Colton’s fixation on Jesus’ concern for the welfare of children led both he and his wife to “transform the way we approached children’s ministry in our church.” Children became central to their Christian outreach.
Colton's is pure, sweet, childlike descriptions resonated with much of what I have been taught throughout my life. There is a God in heaven, Jesus is the Christ and Savior of the world, Christ loves little children, and we will be reunited with our loved ones in the next life.