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Near Death Experience of Colton Burpo

October 03, 2011     Time: 00:26:11
Near Death Experience of Colton Burpo


A young boy claims to have died in surgery and gone to heaven. Dr. Craig evaluates the popular story biblically and offers some fascinating theories on what may be taking place during Near Death Experiences.

Transcript Near Death Experience of Colton Burpo


What's your idea of heaven? Well, a little boy from Nebraska thinks he has a pretty good idea because he says he's been there.

He was just shy of four years old when he went in for emergency surgery, he slipped out of consciousness and that's when he says he entered into heaven.

Heaven Is For Real. A little boy's astounding story of his trip to heaven and back.

This morning we meet a young boy who says heaven is real, and he goes further than that. He says he's actually been there.

Kevin Harris: Thanks for being here. This is the Reasonable Faith podcast with Dr. William Lane Craig. I'm Kevin Harris. And, Bill, today we're talking about a near death experience that has made the headlines, on all the talk shows, New York Times has covered it. The book is at this time number three on the best sellers list, and moving up on other lists. And so it's a widely read book that I understand that you and Jan have read as well—about a little boy who died and went to heaven and came back and has recounted what he saw. Some of the main things I want to talk about in this podcast, just from the beginning, is, well, first, how we should evaluate things like this—how we should handle them when they come into popular culture like this. I mean, this little boy is everywhere. And also, just, kind of, what did you think about the whole thing?

Dr. Craig: Jan and I found the book to be fascinating and, I think, inspirational reading. It's very touching. The pastor Todd Burpo has done a really great job of recording what they went through with their son Colton and his appendicitis and then this near death experience that he began to relate to them piecemeal during the weeks and days that followed. I think my concern, Kevin, is this: that Christians, in their enthusiasm for this glimpse of heaven that is offered in the book, may begin to base their view of the afterlife and of heaven on these sorts of experiences, rather than on what the Bible teaches. And I think that would be dangerous for two reasons. First, these experiences are inconsistent. They're contradictory with each other. There are all sorts of experiences people have in these near death encounters and they can't all be true. We know that some of these are not authentic or veridical because they contradict each other. And yet, how do you know whose experience is authentic and whose is not genuine? Anyone's experiences seems to be on a par with someone else's experiences. So how do you judge them? The second thing is that God has inspired the Bible to be our authoritative resource on matters of doctrine, including the theology of the afterlife—what happens when we die. And so it is ultimately the Scripture that we need to turn for our doctrine of the afterlife and what happens to us when we die, and not these sorts of experiences.

Kevin Harris: In other words, if a little four year old boy said something about heaven that contradicts what the Bible says, just because the little boy had an alleged NDE – a near death experience – doesn’t mean we're going to take his word over the Bible.

Dr. Craig: Well, I don't think we should. Me fear is that some Christians may do so, especially those who are ignorant of what the Bible teaches about the afterlife, and may simply go gullibly with whatever they read in these sorts of books rather than subjecting them to some sort of critical scrutiny.

Kevin Harris: Bill, would you think that some of the gullibility when reading a book like this is because of the highly emotional content of it?

Dr. Craig: Oh, I'm sure. You want to believe this because it is so touching, and so moving, and so heart-warming, when you read these stories of him meeting his grandfather or of meeting Jesus himself. These stories claim that Colton in this case actually conversed with family members or friends who have gone on before, departed loved ones, and even conversed with Jesus, and saw him and talked with him before reluctantly coming back to earth. So these are astounding, extraordinary stories, and I think arouse in us a desire to believe them because they are so heart-warming.

Kevin Harris: One of the things that makes this so compelling is that apparently there are impossible to know details that this little boy was able to relate. [1] His father being in prayer in a particular room in the hospital when the little boy died on the operating table, and his mother talking on the cell phone in another room; and he was able to tell exactly where they were and what was going on there.

Dr. Craig: These elements provide some grounds for thinking that he's having a veridical experience. But I have to say, Kevin, that the bulk of the book soon departs from that and gets into his experiences in seeing these heavenly realities for which there's very little empirical verification. And therefore begins to become quite untestable.

Kevin Harris: The fact that the little boy allegedly saw a sister that was miscarried before he was born is another thing that gripped the heart of many people.

Dr. Craig: Yes. And the parents especially because apparently they did not know the sex of the baby that they lost, and so the little boy is informing them 'I have a sister' and he claims that he saw her in heaven, and he conversed with her, talked to her. And this really moved the parents very deeply.

Kevin Harris: I'm telling you now, though, Bill, if you critique this book around some people they will be very angry with you [laughter] because it is too moving.

Dr. Craig: Well, yeah, I guess I don't think of myself as criticizing the book.

Kevin Harris: Or me or anyone else because I've more heavily criticized it than others, thinking that some of it was kind of hokey and didn't jive at all with what I think a biblical understanding is, but that if it did happen then it could be told through this little boy's mind and apprehension and therefore some of the things that came up in the book were real but interpreted by him in such a way that made them sound either simplistic or unbelievable. But it was the same way with the book The Shack. People were so moved by the book, emotionally – Christians in particular – that any criticism of some of the theology in it was just a no, no.

Dr. Craig: Not welcome.

Kevin Harris: Yeah, not welcome at all. But you are evaluating it nonetheless and bringing it – what? – to the bar of Scripture?

Dr. Craig: Right, I think we need to look at what the Scripture has to teach about what happens when we die in evaluating these sorts of claims.

Kevin Harris: Is there anything that we can learn from near death experiences? What do you think we ought to take from them?

Dr. Craig: Well, one thing, I think, that we can all learn from them, apparently, whether they're veridical or not, is that dying is apparently a very pleasing experience, almost a rapturous experience, and therefore it's not something we need to fear. It seems on the whole to be very widely reported that the experience of dying is just wonderful, you feel almost in rapture and these folks are reluctant and sad to come back to the earthly life.

Kevin Harris: If you get into a conversation with a person outside the Christian faith – a skeptic and so on – and they bring up this book and they say, “Look, this is just a bunch of hokey stuff, he describes people with wings and things like that. How can you believe such things?” What is our response?

Dr. Craig: Well, I think that we simply say that we don't necessarily believe such things. We've got no brief to carry for the veridicality of these experiences. What we want to defend is what the Scripture teaches about the afterlife. I don't use them as an apologetic at all in my work.

Kevin Harris: Bill, have you ever had a near death experience? [laughter]

Dr. Craig: No, I've never had.

Kevin Harris: Okay, well in that case what does the Scripture teach about when we die and the state that we're in and so on?

Dr. Craig: Well, as I understand the teaching of Scripture our hope for immortality is not the immortality of the soul alone. Our soul doesn't fly off to heaven and escape the prison house of the body—that's a Greek view. The Hebrew view incorporated into Christianity is belief in physical bodily resurrection. Our hope is that as Jesus was raised from the dead as the first fruits of the general resurrection of the dead – and a first fruits is a representative sample of the harvest – as Jesus was raised from the dead as the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep, Paul says, so we also shall be physically bodily raised from the dead. So the Christian hope in immortality is for the physical bodily resurrection. Now, when will that occur? Is it something that occurs immediately upon death? No. According to Scripture the physical resurrection will occur when Christ returns. [2] In 1 Corinthians 15 and then especially in 1 Thessalonians chapter 4 Paul talks about when Christ returns then the dead will be raised to new life and receive their resurrection bodies.

So if that's correct, if the resurrection will not occur until the return of Christ and the Judgment Day, what does happen to us when we die? Do we just go extinct and then God re-creates us anew at the return of Christ? Or do we still continue to exist until then but maybe in an unconscious state? Well, no; I think neither of those is the teaching of Scripture. What Scripture teaches, Kevin, is that human death is the separation of the soul from the body. It is not extinction. It is simply the separation of the soul from the physical body. And while the physical body lies in the grave and decays away the soul goes to be with God, or for Christians in the New Covenant, we go to be with Christ. Paul says to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord in 2 Corinthians 5. And in Philippians chapter 1 verse 21 and following he says, “for me to live, but to die is gain;” he says, “I would rather depart and go and be with Christ, for that is far better.” But he says, “to remain in the flesh is more necessary on account of you Philippians to whom I'm ministering.”

So what this means is that on the scriptural view when a Christian dies his soul is separated from his body and he enters into a disembodied intermediate state in which he awaits his final resurrection at the return of Christ. So we have to pass through this intermediate state of existing as a disembodied soul until the time of Christ's return. And then when Christ returns Paul says in 1 Thessalonians 4 he will bring with him those who have fallen asleep – those souls who are with him in glory – and then the dead in Christ will be raised. They will be reunited with their resurrection bodies and then taken into heaven. So that, I take it, is the biblical view of what happens when we die. Now this has really profound implications, I think, for experiences like Colton claims to have had.

Kevin Harris: What are some of those implications?

Dr. Craig: What it means, Kevin, is that he wasn't literally seeing these people that he claimed to see, like his sister or his grandfather. Why? Because those persons haven't received their resurrection bodies yet. They don't exist yet in an embodied state, in glory.

Kevin Harris: And so therefore they wouldn’t have curly hair, like he described.

Dr. Craig: Right. Or an age; he wouldn't see his grandfather as a young robust man, or his sister as a little girl because they don't have a body. They exist in a disembodied state until the day of the resurrection, and then they will be raised from the dead and ushered into heaven. So what this means is that he cannot have been seeing or literally speaking with these people in heaven.

Now does that mean, therefore, that these experiences are just illusory? That his brain was hallucinating or he was in a dream-like state? We might dream that we went to heaven and saw one's grandfather or one's sister. Is that all this is? Well, maybe. But I want to suggest a possible, more sympathetic, spin on these experiences, and it's this: perhaps what he was having was visions of the departed dead, or of Jesus. And by a vision I mean a mental projection of the brain or of the mind that is caused by God. In the Bible you have lots of visions of God. Now, God cannot be seen literally and physically, he's not a physical object. Photons don't bounce off of God and enter your retina and stimulate the optic nerve. But God in the Scripture will often cause people to project visions of God. And visions shouldn’t be thought of as hallucinations like a mirage where you're not really seeing anything. For example, I could suddenly be caused to have a vision of Jan at home in the living room, and this might be a very accurate picture of what she is actually doing right now. But it wouldn't be a physical seeing of her – there aren’t photons entering my eyes, seeing her – but it would be a visionary projection of my mind caused by God, and it would be seeing where she is. So what it would be would be a sort of veridical vision—is what these are called. [3] Veridical visions. They are visionary seeings but they contain an accurate portrayal of what one is seeing.

Now, suppose then that what Colton was seeing were visions of these people, that is to say, projections of his own mind. Suppose, Kevin, in fact that God has so constituted souls in the intermediate state that they project bodily images of themselves and one another for the purpose of mutual recognition and interaction with each other.

Kevin Harris: Wow.

Dr. Craig: In that case souls would inhabit a kind of virtual reality. Sort of like the Matrix world where people would enter the Matrix. It's not real—it's a virtual reality that looks real as a projection of your mind. Maybe God has so constituted souls in the intermediate state to project bodily images of themselves and each other for the purposes of recognition and interaction. And that would explain some of the rather uncomfortable and strange features of Colton's experience. For example, why does he see his little sister as a two-year old girl?

Kevin Harris: Yeah.

Dr. Craig: It wasn't as though she is growing up in heaven and her body is now two years old, and since the publication of his book now she's aged a little bit more, so if someone saw her now she'd be four or five. It's not as though she's got a real body that has a real age. This is just a virtual reality and he projects her as a little girl, but she's not literally two years old. Also, in his vision of heaven he sees people in heaven as having wings, like angels. Well, now that is so completely out of sync with the biblical view which says that our resurrection bodies will be patterned on Christ's, and Jesus obviously didn't have any wings. This seems to be a typical cultural image of the blessed in heaven who are given their wings and becomes like angels, and not really the way things are. And so perhaps little Colton projected these mental images of people having wings. So this would enable us to give a sympathetic interpretation to his experiences, but at the same time to preserve, I think, the biblical view that he wasn't really seeing people in heaven in their resurrected bodies because they don't exist in such a state yet.

Kevin Harris: Bill, do you read that passage from Paul that he seems not exactly looking forward to this intermediate state—doesn't want to be naked?

Dr. Craig: Yes, he refers to it a state of nakedness because the body is stripped away, and this is not a fully human condition—to be a disembodied soul. This is not what full humanity is like.

Kevin Harris: We weren't made to exist like that.

Dr. Craig: No, that's right. And in that sense this Hebrew view of human being is very different from the Greek/Platonic view which sees the body as an encumbrance to the soul, a prison house which we would be glad to be rid of—that's not the Hebrew view. So what Paul says in 2 Corinthians is very interesting. He said, it's not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed. And the verb here has the idea of pulling on top-clothing, like a sweater over your clothing, so that you don't need to undress, first. So what Paul is saying in effect is, “I would rather live until the return of Christ so that I can receive my resurrection body without having to pass through the state of nakedness, which is a less than fully human existence.” He says when Christ returns the dead in Christ will rise first, and then those who are alive who are left will also be transformed into their resurrection bodies. But – you see – they don't have to go through the state of nakedness. They, as it were, pull on the resurrection body like top-clothing without having to undress. So what Paul would really like to do is live until the second coming of Christ. But, nevertheless, he does sound a note of cheer, he says, to be absent from the body – though less than fully desirable in itself – is to be present with the Lord, and that's even better than this existence. It's not as good as the resurrection existence, but it's better then this one because you're closer to Christ.

Kevin Harris: Yeah, and it wouldn't be necessarily an uncomfortable position. I mean, wouldn't it be perhaps paradise?

Dr. Craig: Well, that's what Jesus calls it to the thief on the cross. [4] He says today you will be with me in paradise. So it will be a blessed, wonderful existence, but a temporary one. And if what I'm suggesting about disembodied souls living in a kind of virtual reality, it would make even more sense of this comfortableness of this sort of state and being able to get along and live in it and be fine.

It's very interesting, Kevin, when you read Jesus' parable of Lazarus and the rich man, where the rich man goes to Hades – which is the holding place for the departed unrighteous dead, the damned, until they get their resurrection body and are judged – the rich man goes to Hades, the poor Lazarus goes to Abraham's bosom, or paradise, where he will await his final resurrection. It's very interesting that in that parable they perceive each other as having bodily form. The rich man sees Lazarus and he says, “father Abraham, tell Lazarus to dip his finger in the water and cool my tongue—I am tormented here in this flame.” He's in physical torment. And Abraham says, “no, he can't do that; there's a great gulf fixed between us.” But it's interesting: Jesus portrays this intermediate state in bodily terms even though Jesus himself believed in and taught the physical resurrection of the dead at the end of the world. So my suggestion would make sense of that if these souls do inhabit this sort of virtual world.

Kevin Harris: It really would. And also the fact that the torments of the place are affecting him, but no so much that he can't carry on a conversation. I mean, he carries on an intelligent conversation.

Dr. Craig: Yeah, right. Now, I want to add, Kevin, and you know this, you can't derive theology from parables. Parables are meant to teach a central point, and it's wrong to press them too hard. So I'm not suggesting that we derive this from a parable. I'm just saying when you read the parable in light of this theory it's interesting because it makes good sense.

What I'm trying to say, I guess, Kevin, is that while I think that Colton was not literally seeing these people in heaven the way pastor Todd seems to imply – even getting into saying that we're going to fight with monsters with swords and things of that sort . . .

Kevin Harris: Sounds like something a four-year old would say. [laughter]

Dr. Craig: Exactly. I think that these are mental projections at best, if not illusory or dream-like. They are at best mental projections of the mind of a four-year old believer of persons and things in this disembodied state. And therefore we've got to be very careful about deriving from them details about the state of the dead in the afterlife.

Kevin Harris: A couple of side issues, Bill. One would be: if a person loses his life – fire or so on – and there's just nothing left of him, would we assume, then, that God would just pull what molecules he wants for that resurrection body?

Dr. Craig: I think so.

Kevin Harris: Because we make a big deal about embalming the body in respect of the bodily resurrection—at least it's a symbol.

Dr. Craig: Well, let me answer both parts of that. First, I think that there's no doubt that people whose bodies have been vaporized like the victims of 9/11 in New York City, we needn't fear that God is unable to reconstitute a new resurrection body for them. However, the normal pattern in which Jewish believers handled the dead is that the bones were preserved. It was the bones that were the principle object of the resurrection. The flesh wasn't important. The flesh would decay away in a sarcophagus or in a grave for about a year, and then after that they would exhume the bones and collect them into boxes, limestone boxes called ossuaries, and then the bones would be carefully preserved in the tombs until the resurrection at the end of history. And so I take it that the pattern for Christian funerary practices ought to be, as well, to preserve the remains of the dead, particularly the bones, rather than destroy them because we do believe in the resurrection of the remains of the dead person.

Kevin Harris: Jesus has received his resurrection body, so he's not in a disembodied state.

Dr. Craig: That's right, and that was one of the things that troubled me about this intermediate state. Paul says, I want to go and be with Christ. He says to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord. And I must say before reading this book by Todd Burpo I wondered how can a disembodied soul be present with Christ, [5] who has an embodied sort of existence? And then it occurred to me, wow, if they do inhabit a sort of virtual reality then it would make sense that they could project images of one another as bodily persons and have social relations and interactions with the risen Christ and with one another. So that would completely dissolve that problem.

Kevin Harris: Bill, very interesting. I think you've given us some principles for evaluating things like this. And the fact that this book is so popular across the board – Christian and non-Christian – gives an opportunity for discussion, but also perhaps some opportunity for some clarification.

Dr. Craig: I think that's right. I want to call us back to those points I made right at the very beginning. These near death experiences are not consistent, and therefore we can't base our doctrine on them. Our doctrine is to be based upon the authoritative teaching of Scripture—which is God's inspired word. [6]