Is heaven real? For Todd Burpo, a pastor in the tiny town of Imperial, Neb., the answer was a very clear “yes.” But when his 3-year-old son said he experienced it first hand, Todd found himself wondering if it was true.
Todd is the author of Heaven is for Real, a short book about his son’s experience with heaven. The book was made into a movie that hits the big screen today. Yet, even with the anticipated movie and all the attention the New York Times best-selling book has received since its debut in 2010, this husband and father of three still tries to live a normal life, though he admits he will never be the same.
Filmmaker Randall Wallace directed Heaven is for Real. Read his take on heaven here.
Although he has known all along that heaven is real, Todd said, the past 10 years have reinforced those beliefs. He doesn’t just preach that it’s real; he knows it.
About a decade ago, Todd was living a quiet life as a pastor and garage door business owner. Then he had a string of mishaps: a broken leg, kidney stones and a cancer scare. That was bad, but the worst was still to come.
Todd’s oldest son, Colton, now 14, was 3 at the time and got very ill with a ruptured appendix and multiple abscesses in his abdomen. He ended up in the hospital and required surgery that his parents didn’t know if he would live through.
“You can’t go to sleep when you don’t know if your child’s going to be alive the next day or not,” Todd said.
But after Colton came through surgery and Todd looked back at everything that happened, he learned something about God’s timing and character.
“I’ve never found anyone who grows during the blessed times,” he said.
Todd was leading an entire church. He was supposed to be unshakable. But God doesn’t intend for people to go through hard times alone. Todd’s community pitched in to help the family through prayers, meals and whatever they needed.
“I was used to being the pastor. I was used to being the one helping other people, and it was so hard for me to accept help from anybody else,” he said.
And it wasn’t just accepting help that he had to contend with. His son started talking about heaven, as if he had been there.
Colton’s story is bound to offend some people, given different opinions and interpretations about what heaven is like, Todd said, and he was skeptical at first, too. But after Colton recounted so many details about heaven and about his own family’s life—like the fact that his parents lost a child before he was born, something they never told him—Todd was certain that his son really experienced it.
Still, he points out, that doesn’t mean—even as a pastor—that he has everything figured out.
“People come up to you and say, ‘What’s heaven like?’ and even if you know a bit or a piece,” he said, “there’s no person down here that can completely describe heaven to someone else. No one down here completely understands it.”
DeVon Franklin, a pastor and senior vice president of Columbia Tristar Pictures, worked on the movie Heaven is for Real. “I believe that what we will see and experience in heaven is mind blowing,” he said. “What we tried to do in this movie will pale in comparison.”
Todd agrees. Last fall, he watched Billy Graham’s latest message to America, a short film called “The Cross.” In it, Mr. Graham says he doesn’t have to understand everything about the cross to believe in it, and Todd says it’s the same with heaven. He might not understand it all, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t real.
Even today, 10 years after his near-death experience, Colton said he sometimes feels God’s presence the same as he felt it in heaven. Colton is now a freshman in high school who enjoys band, show choir and telling people about Jesus.
On the Heaven is for Real movie set back in August, Colton said seeing Jesus in heaven was “like seeing a friend that you haven’t seen for a very long time. … You can just feel how much He loves you.”
Once Todd came to terms with his son’s experience, he said, the reality of heaven was clearer than ever.
“There was a peace in my soul that changed everything. … Peace causes you to love more, it causes you to be bolder, it causes your faith to be stronger.”
Because of his son’s story, Todd has met many people who have dealt with the death of a child. He encourages many with the promise of heaven for those who trust in Christ, and reminds them that the hurts of this life will cease to exist there.
In the last chapter of Heaven is for Real, Todd quotes his mother: “I accepted the idea of heaven before, but now I visualize it. Before, I’d heard, but now I know that someday I’m going to see.”
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