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Scene from "Heaven Is for Real"

The kid says he sat in Jesus’ lap. In heaven.

And that angels sang Sunday School songs. He asked them to sing “We Will, We Will Rock You,” but they declined.

Colton Burpo, age 3, had a near-death experience, or NDE, during a 2003 emergency appendectomy. He claims he rose above his body and saw the doctor working on him, his parents each praying in separate rooms and his mother speaking on the phone.

Four months after surgery, Colton told this to his astounded parents, Todd and Sonja.

Todd affirms “there was no way he could have known” some of it. “We had not told him what we were doing while he was in surgery, under anesthesia, apparently unconscious.”

The Burpos’ gripping story became a bestselling book, “Heaven Is for Real,” and now a film opening in the U.S. April 16. Randall Wallace (“Braveheart,” “Secretariat”) co-wrote and directed the TriStar production.

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About seven months post-surgery, Colton said, “Mommy … you had a baby die in your tummy, didn’t you?”

Todd and Sonja had never told him about the miscarriage preceding his conception. Colton said his unborn sister – whom he met in heaven – was eager to meet her parents there. Colton said in heaven he also met his great grandfather “Pop,” who died in 1976. Though he didn’t seem to recognize Pop from an age-61 photo, he later identified age-29 Pop in another photo.

“Nobody’s old in heaven,” Colton explains.

Legitimate experience?

I have longtime personal and professional interest in NDEs. My late mother had one. I’ve written, lectured extensively and broadcast about them. Was Colton’s experience legitimate?

Physiological NDE explanations consider factors like head trauma and oxygen deficiency. Pharmacological theories posit drugs or anesthetics. Psychological explanations propose defense mechanisms, wish fulfillment, misinterpretation. Spiritual explanations see NDEs as afterlife previews, either genuine or distorted. Applications of these theories can be complex.

Certainly Colton had anesthesia. And his church upbringing – Todd’s a pastor – could have planted mental images that influenced his interpretations.

But Todd feels Colton had no previous exposure for some of his reported visions. Todd and Sonja carefully asked Colton mostly open-ended questions – not leading ones – to minimize bias.

Todd told me that, not anticipating writing a book, he and Sonja didn’t write down Colton’s 2003 NDE accounts back then. The book released in 2010. Memories, of course, can shift over time.

It’s difficult to dismiss Colton’s accurate account of his parents’ whereabouts during his operation. Alas, we don’t have a mind/spirit-reading machine to validate NDE accounts. And anyway, these events usually aren’t controlled clinical situations; they’re medical emergencies.

Is there life after death?

Can we know if there’s life after death? As somewhat of a skeptic, I concluded there is, not based on NDEs but on evidence for Jesus’ resurrection. He predicted his own death and return to life, and then it happened. This gives me confidence to believe his claim, “I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in me will live, even after dying.”

“Heaven Is for Real” is an entertaining book and film that engages heart, mind and spirit. Both portray this ordinary family coping with life’s daily challenges, plus – they feel – a supernatural encounter. You may not agree with every detail; I still have questions. But I predict their story will get you thinking. And if you’ve ever been confused about life or angry with God, you’ll find passionate – and compassionate – kindred spirits.

Colton Burpo remains a regular kid, now a teenager. He attends school, plays sports and has normal sibling relationships. During family brainstorming for the book’s title, his sister Cassie suggested “He’s Back, but He’s No Angel.”

Is heaven for real? Absolutely. Did Colton Burpo see heaven? Perhaps; maybe even likely. But can we really be sure heaven exists? For ultimate confidence, my money’s on the one who predicted his own resurrection, then pulled it off.

“Heaven Is for Real” is rated PG for “thematic material including some medical situations.”

Rusty Wright is an author and lecturer who has spoken on six continents. He holds Bachelor of Science (psychology) and Master of Theology degrees from Duke and Oxford universities, respectively. His writing can be found at www.RustyWright.com.

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