London - Four months after Colton Burpo miraculously survived a life-threatening burst appendix, his parents began to suspect that something rather extraordinary had happened to him.
There were signs of change in their son not long after the operation, but it took a while for them to understand the “truth”.
The first unusual occurrence was when Todd and Sonja returned from the hospital to their home in Nebraska in March 2003 to find a pile of bills. They baulked at the £14 000 (about R140 000) bill from the hospital that had saved the life of their then four-year-old son. But Colton told them they had to pay the surgeon — as Jesus had, “used him to help fix me”.
When they later told him off for not sharing his toys with other children, he apologised immediately. Not because of their intervention, but because, “Jesus told me I had to be nice,” he explained.
Weeks later, when Todd — a Methodist minister — was about to officiate at a funeral, Colton pointed at the coffin and shouted: “He can’t get into Heaven if he didn’t have Jesus in his heart!”
His parents were both committed Christians and wanted their children to believe, too. But how, they wondered, did Colton know so much about God and what He wanted?
Then their son told them what he experienced on the operating table.
While the surgeons had battled to save him and his parents prayed fervently, Colton had gone to Heaven and met Jesus.
Colton’s extraordinary claims — and the response of his family and those in their local town — have been made into a blockbuster Hollywood film which is now to be shown in British cinemas.
Starring Greg Kinnear and British actress Kelly Reilly as Mr and Mrs Burpo, Heaven Is For Real has already stormed the US box office, taking £31-million in two weeks.
The film and the best-selling book it’s based on have captivated the US, inspiring churchgoers and non-believers alike with a simple but comforting tale of a little boy who discovers there is an afterlife and that Heaven really is the eternal paradise of Christian belief.
The book — written by Todd Burpo — has been phenomenally successful since it was published in 2010. It has sold 10 million copies and been translated into 39 languages. It spent more than 60 weeks as the No 1 non-fiction paperback on the New York Times bestseller list.
The success of the book and the film are in large part due to Colton’s claims that he didn’t just snatch a glimpse of Heaven through the clouds, but experienced paradise in glorious detail.
He recalled how he had sat on Jesus’s lap, patted his multi-coloured striped horse and was serenaded by winged angels.
The Son of God even gave Colton some homework to do. Christ, he recalled distinctly, wore a beard and crown and had “pretty” eyes, which “were just sort of a sea-blue and they seemed to sparkle”. Christ did indeed sit on the right hand of God, who was too vast to describe, and near the Holy Spirit, who was a “kind of blue” colour. Colton also saw John the Baptist, Jesus’s mother Mary and even Satan — though he was always too upset to describe the Devil.
Everyone flew around on wings, except Jesus who “went up and down like an elevator”. There were trees, animals and a multitude of people, all in their prime of life.
After these revelations, Jesus returned Colton to Earth in answer to Todd’s prayers. When they heard this story, Colton’s parents were dumbfounded. Colton couldn’t read at the time and they were certain they hadn’t told him any of the details he mentioned. Nor could they believe that a boy who wasn’t yet four could have made it up.
Colton even said Jesus had red “markers” on his hands and feet — from nails used in the crucifixion.
“Here was my kid, in his matter-of-fact, pre-schooler voice, telling me things that were not only astonishing on their face, but that also matched Scripture in every detail, right down to the rainbow colours in the book of Revelation, which is hardly pre-school material,” wrote Todd. “How could my little boy know this stuff?”
Sceptics — and there have been many — have put it down to hallucinations as a result of the anaesthetics Colton was given, combined with the vivid imagination of a child raised on Bible stories. And, they point out, Colton didn’t actually die during the operation.
Todd told me he was initially suspicious, too. But then came a series of astonishing revelations from Colton.
The boy knew, for instance, that his parents were in separate rooms while he was in surgery. He had seen them from Heaven, he said.
Colton also said he had been hugged by his great-grandfather in Heaven — a man who had died 30 years before he was born. Colton identified him from a photo, taken when the great-grandfather was 29.
And the boy — who has an older sister and younger brother — started talking about the “other” sister he met in Heaven. Sure enough, his mother once miscarried — a girl.
His parents insist Colton knew nothing about this before his operation. So-called To-Heaven-and-Back books about near-death experiences occupy their own lucrative niche in US publishing. Even in Britain, polls show that just over half the population believes in an afterlife and Heaven.
Colton’s account has resonated so strongly, his father told me, because it comes from an innocent rather than an adult.
“People realise he was too young for his brain to play tricks with him. And children don’t have an agenda,” he said. But, some sceptics have asked, is it entirely Colton’s account? For a pastor keen to spread the Good Word, Colton’s trip has been quite a godsend for his dad.
Without wanting to cast doubt on the Burpos’ integrity and honesty, read the book or see the film and it’s hard not to conclude that Colton could have got most of what he saw from leafing through Bible story picture books and listening to his father in church.
Residents of their small town — even members of Todd’s congregation — turned on the family over Colton’s claims. Some church members objected to Colton’s slushy “God is love” message.
As the book’s popularity grew, conservative Christians attacked it for adopting a scripturally inaccurate view of Heaven. The Bible, they say, makes no mention of people in Heaven having wings.
The Burpos have even received death threats and have a police escort when they speak publicly.
Only in America, wrote one atheist sceptic, could this book be classified as non-fiction. Todd urges British viewers to keep an open mind.
“They’ll see a child, in a very innocent way, tell the truth. People need to ask themselves: if their own child went round saying these things, how would they react?”
But most people, if their four-year-old started describing heavenly visions, wouldn’t write a book about it. The Burpos have wringed out three, including a sequel, Heaven Changes Everything, and a children’s picture book version. They have been accused of making millions from the story.
Mr Burpo won’t reveal how much they have earned but says they have given much of it away to feed starving children around the world. He employs 13 staff in his church and travels the world on speaking tours.
But the family still live in the same four-bedroom family house he bought for £60 000. His wife still works for a local estate agent and he’s a volunteer part-time fireman.
“We’re content with our existing lifestyle but I’m discovering just how negatively some people react to success,” he says. “The success of the book and film shows God is honouring our honesty and the fact we haven’t embellished the story.”
Colton, no longer a pint-sized prophet, is just a normal 14-year-old boy, who loves wrestling, squabbling with his sister and “has the same growing-up issues other teenagers have”, according to his father.
He still sticks to what he says he saw nearly a decade ago. “Heaven is such an amazing place — I didn’t want to come back,” he says.
And what about the question to which we’d all like an answer: does everyone go to Heaven?
“No,” says Colton, who saw angels with swords guarding the gates. “God really does love you but many of us are too attached to things on this Earth — and they aren’t allowed in Heaven.”
Four-year-old boys, with media-savvy pastor fathers, on the other hand, are more than welcome. - Daily Mail