I just read Heaven is for Real by Todd Burpo. A few of my family members recommended it very strongly. The main attraction is that Mr. Burpo’s son nearly died of acute, misdiagnosed appendicitis and survived to report that he had been to Heaven. Young Colton Burpo did not simply recover and start telling everyone about his trip. Rather, he said some things in conversation that piqued the interest of his parents. They eventually began asking him questions and were astonished by what their 4 year old had to say.
The part of the book that was really gripping for me was the account Todd Burpo gives of the year leading up to Colton’s near death experience and his terror at nearly losing a child. My daughter was very ill during her first two years and I felt some of those fears, but not at the level of crisis which faced the Burpos. What Colton has to say about Heaven is interesting, but does not give me the sense of powerful revelation. He saw relatives in their young and healthy forms. He saw Jesus. People were wearing bright white robes with sashes. Jesus had a dazzling rainbow colored horse. There was a war between heavenly and satanic forces. The strongest evidence of Colton’s visit is that he was able to identify his great grandfather as a young man in a photo without ever having met him or really having knowledge of him. He knew who the man was and what he was called. Overall, though, the description of heaven did not strike me as ultra-surprising for a son of a pastor, even a very young one. Still, it is interesting. I read the book quickly and was eager to find out more as I went.
The problem, I think, is that there is something fundamentally wrong with human attempts to describe heaven and/or the things of God. I’m not saying it can’t be done at all, but it seems to me that other than through full-on revelation (as in the book of that name), the sublimeness of heavenly things can only be approached from the side or seen from the corner of the eye. A direct confrontation seems doomed to fall short. I felt that way to some extent about Heaven is for Real (a non-fiction account) and more so about the picture presented of the divine appearing by Jerry Jenkins at the conclusion of the Left Behind novels. When Jesus arrives in the story, he appears to everyone in exactly the same way with exactly the same message. It feels like the description of a heavenly voicemail attached to a hologram.
Second Corinthians 12:4 mentions the man who was caught up to paradise and heard inexpressible things he is not even allowed to mention. The most powerful sense of eternity I have ever experienced in reading outside of the Bible was in Walker Percy’s Lancelot (a dark book). A man has had a confrontation with evil which has left him a little insane and obsessed with harsh justice. He completes his book-long conversation with a priest-psychologist friend from his youth. During the course of the story, we observe (only in flashes) that the priest-psychologist is returning to his faith and his vocation. He will take a small parish in Alabama. His one-word replies (always the same word) to Lancelot in the final chapter make the hair stand up on the back of my neck. He doesn’t describe anything. But the reader can feel the gigantic, looming reality which will explode forth just as the story ends. Out of the corner of the eye. Possibly inexpressible. The mystery remains a mystery until, all of a sudden, the image clears and we will see and understand and will know as we have been known. But not yet.