Camel's Hair and Locusts

Heaven is for Real
(When Private Revelation Goes Public) 

My own first encounter with Christ took place in the dark. I guess this is so in all senses. It was in the dark of the late evening of May 17, 1977. Certainly, my life was engulfed in a spiritual darkness at the time. And I remember my conscious mind -- my soul -- falling, falling, falling into a dark and very deep abyss. In the physical darkness of the evening, in a place that seemed to be up above from this perspective, I was aware of my body screaming at the behest of an acquired evil entity; one that was in the process of being ushered out of my physical domain by what I can best describe as the power of the Holy Spirit. And there was no doubt in my mind, and there remains none to this day, that this power was wielded with great authority by none other than He Who had just become my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. The events leading up to this incident have already been recounted in an earlier column entitled "Is Anybody There?" and it doesn't serve my purpose here to rehash any of that further in this present piece.

To say the least, this was a life transforming experience. In the days and even weeks and months that followed, I remembered little of the time spent falling into the dark and deep abyss, though it occurred to me that the "fall of man," based upon my own experience, was really quite literally that. However, as time went on, I began to experience something very odd. In times of quiet meditation, which became numerous after this event, I would begin to hear a chime like a clock tower (like the famous Big Ben in London, if I was to put a more specific identity to it), and, along with this, I would see in my mind's eye lightning flashing with each chime in a towering cloud that resembled a thunderhead; a thunderhead viewed as if off in the distance on a stormy summer's night. This went on for quite some time until one night I had a dream in which I was back on that night of May 17, falling into the abyss as my body screamed up above, and as I fell, I saw this cloud that looked like a thunderhead, illumined by the moon, approach me in the dark. Out of this cloud, a robed right hand was extended. At that point where the wrist and the hand meet was the scar of a nail. I extended my hand to Him and He took it, and it was at this moment that I began ascending back into the scene in the dark physical world above and ultimately into the light. The nail print was positioned exactly as it is on the hand of the man depicted on the Holy Shroud of Turin, so even in my many subsequent years of wandering as a disillusioned and disassociated Protestant, this is one Catholic relic I have always trusted and treasured as genuine.

While this story recounts my first supernatural experience with Jesus, it certainly wasn't to be my last. My wife and I together had a series of very deep and profound supernatural experiences during our conversion to the Catholic faith, and upon our entry into the Catholic Church, and we have, together and separately, experienced the presence the Lord, His Blessed Mother and ours, or some other angelic, saintly, or heavenly presence on numerous occasions. The last time this occurred for me was at Mass. Every time I receive Jesus validly consecrated in the Holy Eucharist, His Body, in the transubstantiated form of the unleavened bread, levitates in my mouth. Just a little miracle to remind me of the many much bigger ones. In my hour of greatest disillusionment with the Catholic Church, I actually got so fed up with the human error that often serves as the bushel under which the divine light is hidden that I left. And I returned when it was Jesus Himself Who revealed to me, in no uncertain terms, His Real Presence in the Church He originally founded and formed in the Apostles. What He actually revealed was the truth that He stays here no matter what, and I simply want to be wherever He is. The reason I am Catholic is really no more complicated than that.

Now I fully understand that these are private revelations and I in no way present them here for anyone's approval or spiritual instruction. To be sure, those whom the Church approves and recommends for our spiritual enlightenment have encountered Christ and our divine family in heaven in miracles and revelations that far surpass my humble experiences. As a mystic I am unworthy to untie the sandal straps of a St. Faustina Kowalska, or a St. Padre Pio, or a St. Bernadette or the Fatima children; obviously, I could go on and on. And I make no claims to special favor because of what I have experienced in my life, but rather identify with my ancient and doubting brother Thomas, to whom the Lord said, "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe." And while these words bite at my soul in the same way in which I'm sure they bit at his, my response to seeing the nail pierced hand of my Lord is also the same: "My Lord and my God!"

I also know many other Catholic brothers and sisters who experience this same sort of revealed Divine Presence in their lives, and who also know that these kinds of mystical experiences are provided for each individual's spiritual edification and not that of the larger community of believers. This larger community is instructed by the author of Hebrews that " is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." And those who experience and see the faith at this deeper and more profound level "...are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and keep their souls" (see Hebrews 10:29 -11:1). Knowing this, they want very much now and always to have this faith and keep their souls, and, as one of them, I venture to speak for all when I say they truly want this for everyone. Such is the love of God.

It is sad that so many who are educated in the Catholic faith are not so enlightened in it so as to see that it is the deeper and more mystical aspects of it that have guided the Church from the Cross to the present, and will continue to do so until our Lord returns in glory. And it is sadder still that so many of this unenlightened perspective take it upon themselves to deride, debunk and ridicule those more gentle and spiritual souls among us as crazy and somehow lesser Catholics and Christians. And sadder still is the truth that it is not just among the laity that this attitude is found but also among the more worldly of our clergy and religious. I once heard a nun teaching a masters level course in Christology tell our class that, "Those who pray the Rosary and watch 'that Mother Angelica station' are too focused on heaven to care about the needs of those on earth." It would have been fun to hear Mother in her prime respond to this. That considered, I won't even try.

While it is truly important that we respect the magisterium of the Church in regards to the mystical and supernatural, I see no reason why we cannot consider and appreciate the experiences of our brother and sister Catholics, those of our separated brethren Protestants, and even those who make no claims to the faith of Christ but share our hopes for peace on earth and goodwill among men. It seems to me that God has given us discerning minds for the purpose of using them as such, and given the fact that one would have to follow the way of the hermits and desert fathers in order to avoid the influence of the mass media in our day, such discernment is perhaps not only permissible but necessary. And there is the added truth that God reveals Himself to whom He will and in ways that are, and will remain, beyond our limited understanding. Therefore, a little of the awe and wonder of the early desert Christians may also serve us well.

As I write this, the movie Son of God is playing the theaters, the epic Noah is premiering, and Heaven is for Real is in the throes of the usual media hype prior to its release just in time for Easter on April 16. All have raised controversy, which is to be expected in a world that has come to turn on controversy, criticism and debate, and collectively all have proven that the curious truth made evident by Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ in 2004 still holds true a decade later: Christian and Biblical themed films draw crowds and make money just as do those of the darker genres.

Of these three current productions it is not surprising that the most controversial and heavily criticized, Heaven is for Real, is also the one that is based upon the private revelation of heaven to a child; a young boy of not quite four years of age named Colton Burpo. And while I am cynical enough to believe that this anticipated controversy would actually be a calculated part of the sales pitch for the film, I also want to be sensitive enough to see in it the aura of sadness, and even despair, that transcends the true story the film represents. While there is a hope contained in this story that our lost world desperately needs, Heaven is for Real actually may make the best, and currently most visible argument, for why the Church is wise in insisting that private revelation should remain just that: private. Or at the least, why it should not be exploited for profit and subjected to public ridicule.

My own experience in "sharing my witness" concerning the incident of May 17, 1977 has resulted in accusations of drug abuse or just outright fabrication, and emotional breakdown, outright insanity, or the need for attention have been offered to me as the more "scientific" or "psychological" explanations as to what "really" happened that night. Those who want to "explain what really happened" far outnumber those who are willing to simply accept it at face value, and those who do accept my story as I tell it are usually those who have been touched in some deeper spiritual way themselves. Giving what to my mind is a powerful testimony to the saving grace of God, and the power of Christ to transform wasted lives, ends up, in the best case scenario, to be merely preaching to the choir. As I have indicated here, this was only the first of many such incidents of divine revelation that I have encountered throughout a life that now sits on the cusp of old age, and, among the many things I have learned, one of the most important has been that of keeping such things to myself, or at least within a very small circle of those who have had similar experiences. And one of the more subtle joys of being Catholic for me is in knowing, much to my relief, that this is also the wise counsel of Christ's Church and stands in stark contrast to the "shout it from rooftops" attitude of many Protestants.

The film Heaven is for Real is based upon the best selling book of the same title which was authored by young Colton's dad, the Reverend Todd Burpo, who was and is the pastor at Crossroads Wesleyan Church in Imperial, Nebraska. The controversy that now rages around the movie is largely a rehash of the same criticism that the book created when it was published in 2010 and quickly became a New York Times best-seller. My point here is not to do a book or movie review, but merely to illustrate the silly lengths some have gone to for the purpose of doing the public the service of debunking and decrying this story as a hoax, a lie, and a dangerous theological challenge to the "true" Christian faith.

Falling into the category of "you can't make this stuff up" is a book review written by Dr. Jeff Gibbs of Concordia (Lutheran) Seminary in St. Louis. The following is an excerpt from this review in Concordia Theology:

“Many people will simply dismiss this book.  That would be a mistake; we should only dismiss things that make no substantial claims, or that pose no real threats.  Because of the claims made in this book, we should take it very seriously, and read it with our best Christian understanding and faith.  For that reason, I have concluded that this book is seriously flawed, and offers little if any positive or lasting contribution to Christian understanding.  In fact, there are aspects of the book which, if people accept and believe them, will distract readers from crucially important Biblical ways of thinking and living.  I can offer three brief criticisms of this book.”

While failing to explain how a vision of heaven would fail to add to Christian understanding, the first criticism Dr. Gibbs offers is that the book makes no effort to verify the claims it makes. How one would actually verify young Colton's trip to heaven and back is beyond me, but Dr. Gibbs' thought is to illustrate the idea by using the Catholic method of verification for sainthood:

“Consider that less than a week before I read Heaven is For Real, the world was hearing the story of John Paul II’s beatification by the Church of Rome.  Part of this process (at which Lutherans look askance, of course) is required verification that a miracle was performed through the saintly mediation of John Paul II after his death.”

Dr. Gibbs fails to mention specifically if such a method of verification should be devised that is more acceptable to the sensitivities of Lutherans concerning young Colton's experience, but one would think that implied.

Next, Dr. Gibbs criticizes the book for undermining the authority of the Bible:

“In this well-meaning narrative, Holy Scripture’s authority comes to be less important than the testimony of Colton Burpo.  His father tells how he (and others) came to believe in God’s promises more strongly than ever before.  But apparently, the testimony of the prophets and apostles and Christ himself in Scripture was not enough.  The convictions that God hears the prayers of His Christians (p.84), that God helps his pastors with power when they preach (p.126), and that Christianity itself is true (p.130) are all established as certain through Colton’s testimony about heaven—how shaky a foundation for the saints of the Lord!”

I know Dr. Gibbs actually means "the faithful" when he uses the expression "saints of the Lord" as the Protestants do, and I suspect the saints in the Catholic sense are less offended by Colton's story than by learning that Lutherans look askance at the method of their selection to the sainthood. For that matter, I doubt that they are offended by any of this, as becoming a saint obviously means that one's foundation is not too easily shaken by either a three year old who visits them in heaven, or by a Lutheran theologian scandalized by it. That's only my opinion, however. It's not Biblical, and Dr. Gibbs doesn't cite chapter and verse for where he got this information. So much for Sola Scriptura.

Dr. Gibbs saves his most astonishing criticism for last when he writes:

“In the third place, and most foundationally, this book wrongly assumes throughout that God’s purpose in sending His Son into the world to serve, suffer, die, and rise from the dead was so that when we die, we can ‘go to heaven.’” 

This raises some concern since Jesus Himself tells us in John 14:2-3:

“In my Father's house are many rooms; if it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And when I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.”

Didn't anybody tell Dr. Gibbs? Well actually, he is decrying Colton's lack of theological sophistication, which should be obvious considering that at not quite four years of age, Colton had yet to experience one of Dr. Gibbs' classes in Exegetical Theology at good ol' Concordia. If he had, he'd know the following:

“Christ did not rise from the dead so that when we die, our souls could go to be in heaven.  No.  Christ died and rose, ascended and will come again, in order to renew the creation, and ‘on the Last Day He will raise up me and all the dead, and give unto me and all believers in Christ eternal life.  This is most certainly true.’  There is not one crumb, not one word in Heaven is For Real that God’s full plan of salvation in Christ means eternal life now, and on the last day, full bodily holiness and immortality for all believers and for the whole cosmos.  There is no appreciation for the importance of our bodies, and of God’s promise in Christ to redeem them and raise us to everlasting life.”

There you have it. Colton's story is invalid and his experience must be wrong or contrived because it doesn't square with Lutheran theology concerning the "full plan of salvation." And the danger here is found in accepting this vision of a near four year old at face value because all Colton can tell us is that heaven is for real and God loves us. Why didn't Jesus explain the full plan of salvation to Colton so that he could verify this for Dr. Gibbs?

A clue to the answer is found in the previous paragraph of his review when Dr. Gibbs relates the following story from the book:

“Several weeks later, when Rev. Burpo is trying to teach his son not to run out into traffic, he tells him, ‘You could die!’  Colton smiled and replies, ‘Oh, good!  That means I get to go back to heaven!’  The father has no real answer, except to say that he wants to die first.  In the reality created by this way of thinking, death is your best friend.”

What is really troubling Dr. Gibbs is that Colton came back from heaven with a very disturbing Catholic perspective and attitude about life, death and eternity. He wants to go back to heaven and be with Jesus! I do too! As Catholics, don't we all?

Father Jose Guadalupe Trevino writes in Rules for the Spiritual Life:

“The desire to possess God was a martyrdom for the Blessed Virgin, the cause of her death. It moved St. Paul to exclaim that he longed ‘to depart and to be with Christ’ (Phil. 1:23), and St. Teresa to affirm that she died because she did not die.

“How a priest is consoled to find himself among souls of great desires, noble ambitions, insatiable longings! These individuals are the timber of which saints and apostles are made, to set fire to the world. On the other hand, how distressing it is to see an individual in whom all desire is extinct, all noble ambition snuffed out, all holy aspiration dead! Disillusioned, spiteful individuals trying to convince themselves that holiness is an illusion! Deadened souls in who all spiritual resiliency has been extinguished!”1

Currently at 14 years of age, Colton Burpo now participates in something akin to a "cult of personality" that has grown up around him and his experience. The best example of the media hoopla that has come to surround his life, and this occurrence of a trip to heaven which has come to define it, is when The Blaze contrived a "debate" on the existence of the afterlife between Colton and atheist physicist Dr. Stephen Hawking.

As the new movie premieres, I can't believe that any of this is really conducive to the short term spiritual
health of Colton Burpo, and we should pray for him that the reality of his encounter with Christ will prove to be, in the long term, the inspiration in which he will one day be consoled to find himself among souls of great desires, noble ambitions, and insatiable longings. We should pray for him that he will find the solace that he will one day almost certainly seek in the haven of the Catholic faith; a faith instilled in him in heaven by Christ Himself; the True Faith which will come to both define and explain the meaning for him of what he has experienced. And he will find Jesus here as well, and short of making his final journey to heaven.

We should pray too for those who exploit him, and for all of those who fail to understand him, his experience, and the hope this brings to the dying world that lies beyond the media circus. We should pray for all of those individuals in whom all desire is extinct, all noble ambition snuffed out, all holy aspiration dead; for those disillusioned, spiteful individuals trying to convince themselves that holiness is an illusion; for their deadened souls that they might find the spiritual resiliency that has been extinguished.

Colton has been to heaven. Oh, that he may one day return and we may join him!  

Phil Ropp

Phil is the owner of the news portal Radio New Jerusalem.

1    Rules for the Spiritual Life, Trevino, Jose Guadalupe, Translated by Rev. Ben Hunt, The Bruce Publishing Company, Milwaukee, 1956, pp. 122-123.
      All Biblical quotations from:       
The Catholic Edition of the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright 1965, 1966 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.