Psychologist explains why the out of body experience in "Heaven Is for Real"… was not real

Copied fromPsychology Today

In line with the Christian movie trend of 2014, Heaven Is for Real opened this Easter weekend. Based on the bestseller Heaven Is for Real by pastor Todd Burpo, it tells the story of his son Colton and his supposed visit to heaven. I went and saw the movie on opening day. Surprisingly, it wasn’t terrible—in fact, it may be one of the rare cases where the movie is actually better than the book. It also provides us with the perfect opportunity to discuss some basic critical thinking lessons, so I thought it would be fun to turn our logical eye to Heaven Is for Real.

(At first I was hesitant to do so—I don’t want to be seen as picking on a small child for credulity. But, really, the argument belongs to his father Todd—and many adults take it very seriously. So it’s definitely fair game.)

Just like The Amityville Horror, Heaven Is for Real is said to be based on a true story. Unlike the Amityville horror however, this “true story” is not actually a complete fabrication. (The Amityville Horror story was exposed as a hoax (link is external) long ago.) That’s not to say that I think Colton actually visited heaven—I don’t, and we will discuss why momentarily. But I don’t think that Colton, or his family, are making anything up. It’s not a hoax—at least, not an intentional one. Colton really did have an experience his parents had trouble explaining. That’s also not to say that there isn’t some exaggerating going on either. But I believe that Colton’s parents genuinely believe that Colton visited heaven. Their sin is not a moral one—they are not lying. Their sin is an epistemic one: credulity (i.e., a lack of basic critical thinking).

A Brief Recap

For those who don’t know, here is what happens.

Three-year-old Colton’s appendix bursts. The doctors operate but say he could likely die. A bunch of people pray. He lives. Time passes (in the book Colton is a year older), and Colton indicates that he remembers angels singing to him during the operation. (They don’t sing Queen’s “We Will Rock You” on request, however.) As his father (and reporters) continue to press him for details, over time Colton reveals that he floated away from his body and saw his mom on the phone and his dad yelling at God, that Jesus rides a rainbow horse and let Colton sit on his lap and that he met “Pop” (his father’s grandfather) and his other sister who “died in your tummy, momma.” (His parents say they never told Colton about the miscarriage.) At the end of the film we are told of another girl from across the world who paints her visions of heaven, and upon seeing her painting of Jesus—he looks pretty much like you would expect: a brown haired, white skinned, blue eyed European—Colton says “That’s him” and then runs off to play. Roll credits.

The book actually goes into many details that the movie does not. If you put together all of the things that Colton has said about his visit to heaven over the years, the story is enormously elaborate and seems to have transpired over days or weeks. Colton sees everything from God’s throne room to the battle of Armageddon (link is external). But for some reason (brevity?), the movie leaves these parts out.

The movie’s title, Heaven Is for Real, along with its “based on a true story” claim, indicates that it is intended to persuade the viewer that heaven is a literally real place that one goes to when one dies. As proof of the reality of heaven, however, the story falls drastically short. In fact, it doesn’t even provide a modicum of good evidence. It’s not convincing mainly for three reasons: (1) The story is inconsistent, (2) Todd unduly trusts Colton’s reliability, memory, and his own intelligence, and (3) Todd simply does not conduct his investigation into Colton’s experience carefully. Let’s talk about each in turn.

The Story Is Inconsistent

By “inconsistent,” I don’t mean that Todd’s story contradicts itself in the way that indicates that it’s all made up. Again, it’s reasonable to conclude that Colton did have an experience. But the story itself is not consistent with that experience being caused by a trip to heaven. First of all, Colton never died; according to the movie, his heart never stopped beating and his brain never stopped functioning. Since according to the modern Christian understanding, one’s soul doesn’t leave one’s body until one dies, the idea that Colton’s soul went to a Christian heaven is inconsistent with a modern Christian understanding of persons and death—a view it seems the Burpos endorse.

(This also means that Colton did not have a near death experience (NDE). Such experiences, which occur when one is actually dying but then brought back, are common and well documented. And not only did Colton not die, but his experience is unlike those described by those who have NDEs. Unfortunately, NDEs do not provide evidence of heaven either; they have been more than adequately explained by what happens in one’s brain (link is external) as it shuts down.)

In the book, Todd deals with the “Colton didn’t die” problem by suggesting that Colton must’ve been taken into heaven without dying like some figures were in the Biblesuch as Elijah in the Old Testament and a young man the Apostle Paul talks about the New Testament (II Corinthians). But this doesn’t make sense either. At the time, such physical relocation was thought to be required to enter heaven. Those authors did not have the dualist understanding of persons that modern Christians like the Burpos endorse; those authors did not conceive of a person as a body and a soul, and they certainly didn’t think that your soul separates from your body upon death to enter heaven. For example, the Old Testament authors had a monistic view of a person—a person is made of a single substance—and thought people (bad or good) went to Sheol when they die—a place beneath the ground where the dead simply sleep. (One does not experience Sheol.) For a special person like Elijah to not suffer such a fate and instead enter heaven, one’s body must be physically taken there. The apostle Paul, as a Jew, would have been working with a similar understanding and in fact endorses such an understanding in his writings (link is external). Since Colton’s body was physically in the operating room the entire time, saying that Colton was taken up like Elijah or the young man mentioned by Paul in Corinthians cannot be used to make sense of the idea that Colton visited heaven while his body was still in the operating room.

In addition, what Colton saw in heaven does not jive with what heaven would most probably be like. Most Christian theologians consider angels to be a superstitious invention—and they certainly don’t have wings and halos, as Colton insists. God, as a nonphysical entity, can’t really sit on the throne. Credible Biblical scholars (link is external) consider belief in a final battle of Armageddon to be grounded in a misinterpretation of “prophetic” biblical books like Revelation. In addition, it is very unlikely that the historical Jesus had a face like the one in the picture that Colton says depicts Jesus. Jesus looked like a first century Palestinian Jew (link is external), not a blue-eyed European. (link is external) And it’s even more unlikely that Jesus actually rides a rainbow horse. Colton clearly sees a heaven that is more consistent with the child’s imagination—a Child who spends a lot of time at church—than with what heaven would actually look like.

Of course, all of this can be “explained away.” Maybe God froze time, took Colton’s body to heaven, put it back, and then unfroze time so that no one could tell. (At one point in the movie, Todd says something about Einstein and a “time beyond time.”) Maybe heaven just looks like whatever someone expects it to look like; after all, how would we really know what heaven looks like anyway? Maybe Jesus really does ride a rainbow horse. And maybe Jesus doesn’t look like what he historically looked like but simply presents himself to people based on their expectations. After all, if he wants white people to believe that he’s Jesus, he better look like what they think he looks like: white.

But notice what these excuses have in common: they’re ad hoc. An ad hoc excuse (link is external) is an untestable excuse one makes to save one’s theory from being falsified by evidence. Notice that there’s no way to test or determine whether God did freeze time or whether heaven and Jesus really do just conform to one’s expectations. But ad hoc excuses are classic mistakes of critical thinking and are indicative of irrationality. Ad hoc excuses can be constructed in an attempt to save any theory from counter evidence, but doing so doesn’t actually rescue the hypothesis. It prevents it from being 100 percent disproven, sure; but it also reveals that the theory is merely hanging on by a thread. If you have to make excuses that are immune to evidence to save your theory from the evidence, that’s likely because your theory is false. When making a claim about what has occurred in the world, the first thing a rational hypothesis needs to be is testable. But ad hoc excuses make hypotheses un-testable.

Todd’s Too Trusting

Ironically, late in the movie Todd says in a sermon: “I see it, so I believe it. And what we believe affects what we see.” The second statement is true and actually gives us good reason to not follow the advice of the first. Although many people trust their senses uncritically, thus believing whatever they see, it is well-established that our senses are unreliable. We often should not believe what we see. Not only can our senses be fooled by our expectations (e.g., what we believe affects what we see), but our senses can be easily fooled by environmental conditions (e.g., it’s too dark or too bright), our bodily conditions (e.g., we’re sleepy, sick or drugged), vague stimuli (e.g., unclear visual images) and much more. This is why the scientific method was developed; it is specifically designed to guard against the limits and powers of our perceptions.

Todd is convinced that his son didn’t hallucinate because he’s an honest and smart kid and “it doesn’t sound like he is making things up.” But Colton doesn’t have to be lying or dumb in order for him to hallucinate or see something that is not there—he just has to be human. We all hallucinate all the time; in fact that is what dreaming isthe brain producing its own experiences in the absence of external stimuli. We’ve all had the experience of thinking a dream is real and also not being able to remember whether we dreamt something or whether it really happened. We also know that drugs can induce hallucinations, including drugs exactly like those used during Colton’s surgery (link is external). Todd doesn’t seem to realize that the powers and limits of our senses make it possible for Colton to be a perfectly smart kid who is 100 percent truthfully and accurately describing his experience, and yet also be a kid who is completely fooled and mistaken about what actually took place.

Memory is also notoriously unreliable. Even our experience of things that we see while fully awake in broad daylight is not that accurate. It certainly is not recorded and stored away like a video on a computer. If we even remember the experience at all, we simply tuck away a few specifics. When we recall the event, we pull out those specifics and fill in the details with our expectations. If we recall it again, we don’t actually recall the first time we experienced the event; instead we recall the last time we remembered it. And when we do, we can easily mistake one of those confabulated details with something that actually happened. And like a story that changes the more it is told, the more we remember something, the more that memory is apt to change. (For more on this, see Carter (link is external).)

(The more we learn about memory, the less reliable even eyewitness testimony is considered (link is external). In fact, it is playing less and less of a role in the courtroom (link is external) because it has proven to be so unreliable.)

And again, that holds true for things that we see in broad daylight while wide-awake. But think about how difficult it is to remember a dream. Think about how accurate your descriptions of your dreams are. Colton didn’t first speak of his experience in the hospital—an experience he had while unconscious and under the influence of drugs—until about a full year after it occurred. And he was three when it happened. Regardless of how smart and honest Colton is, how reasonable is it to assume that what Colton says he remembers is an accurate description of his experience? How much less likely is it that the experience was of something that literally happened, instead of a dream?

Something else noteworthy about memory is that it is highly malleable. Hypnosis can create memories from whole cloth (children have been tricked into remembering sexual abuse that never happened) and badgering police questioning can convince someone that they remember performing (link is external) a crime they didn’t commit. But such extreme efforts are usually not required. Experiments have shown that our expectations highly influence how we remember past events and that you can form someone’s memory of events with simple suggestions, leading questions and rewards. We can we even change and create faulty memories on our own.  For example, if Colton later overheard his parents talking about what they were doing while he was in the operating room—or simply expected them to be doing that—he could easily confabulate a memory of seeing them there.

Colton’s recollection of his experience was derived, developed and expanded over years after countless hours of being questioned by his parents, reporters and newscasters. But how much of it is it reasonable to conclude is accurate? After all, he didn’t speak of the experience for months and most of the interesting details of the experience weren’t added until years later. Was he just now remembering those details—or was his brain just now making them up? How could you tell the difference between what was confabulated and what was actually experienced? It seems you can’t. So how could any of it be concrete evidence of anything? After all, the first thing Colton said when he awoke after his operation was that he wanted to go pet a spider that he was too afraid to pet just a few days before. If Colton did have an experience during the operation, it doesn’t seem that it was very memorable at the time. So it seems much more likely that the details of his memory were confabulated after the fact.

Lastly, Pastor Todd overestimates his own intelligence. Todd says that Colton saw things during his experience that he (Todd) can’t explain. These things include Colton seeing his parents in the hospital, recognizing “Pop” and knowing about his miscarried sister. Whether or not these things really are inexplicable is another issue—one that I will address in a moment. But Todd uses the fact that he can’t explain them as a reason to conclude that Colton actually visited heaven. This is a classic example of a fallacy that I have mentioned in previous posts: the “mystery therefore magic (link is external)” fallacy. This is the fallacy in which someone takes their inability to explain something naturally as good reason to explain it supernaturally. It is not. Simply put, what’s more likely: that there is no natural explanation or that you simply can’t think of one? What’s more likely: that Colton Burpo actually floated away to heaven and saw Jesus riding a rainbow horse, or that Todd Burpo doesn’t know everything—that Todd didn’t really fully consider every possibility?

In the movie, during a meeting with a psychiatrist, Todd essentially admits to committing the fallacy when he says (something like) “What if you have an experience that is so far beyond your experience that it is irrational – what then?” In that scene, other explanations for the things that Todd can’t explain are offered, but they are equally ridiculous: telepathy and clairvoyance. Todd rightly points out that it seems odd to give them credence but to dismiss his heaven hypothesis out of hand. But the possibility that Todd simply can’t figure it out is ignored. But the answer to this question is simple: you keep looking.

Todd’s Failed Investigation

Worst of all, the evidence that the movie (and book) presents as convincing is actually not at all. And the reason it’s not is all Todd’s fault. As anyone familiar with such situations knows, investigations into these kinds of occurrences have to be very carefully managed and controlled. Without such controls the evidence is highly suspect and is very easily explained away. But Todd is not careful in his investigation of Colton’s experience at all; as a result there are very obvious explanations for the things Todd considers inexplicable. And to understand why, you only need to know the story of Clever Hans.

Clever Hans (link is external) was a horse that supposedly could do math and answer questions by clomping out numbers and letters. Investigation revealed, however, that it was a farce. It was not an intentional hoax—Clever Hans’s owner did not set out to deceive anyone. Clever Hans had simply learned to stop clomping when his owner, or other experimenters, unwittingly gave slight physical clues that revealed their expectation or hope that Hans was about to stop clomping. As Hans approached the right answer, they would tense up or lean forward, and Hans would simply stop and expect his reward. When an experimenter who didn’t know the answers asked Hans questions, Hans had no idea what to do and never got the right answer.

The phenomenon of unconscious signaling (and other ways to silently transfer information, whether knowingly or not) is well known among experimenters. In fact, experiments have actually shown that it exists. In one experiment, the same collection of head shots were given to different experimenters whose job it was to simply show the photographs to subjects who would rate them according to attractiveness. Some experimenters were promised more money if their subjects rated certain photographs higher (different experimenters were told to favor different photographs)– and lo and behold, that’s the result that they got. (See Schick (link is external), Chapter 4)

It’s so easy for experimenters to get the results they want without intentional communication that experiments have to be designed very carefully to guard against this. Most often, if an experimenter is asking a subject a question, the experimenter cannot know the answer to the question or the answer that is expected. In addition, the question or inquiry cannot be framed in a leading way. For example, if you want to know where “X” happened, you can’t just ask “did X happen?”  You have to simply ask what happened, and see whether they mention X without prompting. If you want to see if someone recognizes a face, you can’t merely show them that one face and ask “Is that him?” You have to have someone who doesn’t know what face is expected and then have them show the subject a series of faces. This is the basic approach of a police lineup—and many argue that even they are not careful enough (link is external).

In the book Todd says he was careful not to intentionally feed Colton information. But just a cursory reading shows that Todd took absolutely none of the necessary precautions to guard against unconscious signaling. For example, when Todd learns that Colton saw people with swords in heaven…

“‘Hey Colton, I bet you asked if you could have a sword, didn’t you?’ I said.  At that, Colton’s smile melted into a dejected frown, and his shoulders slumped toward the floor.  ‘Yeah, I did.  But Jesus wouldn’t let me have one.  He said I’d be too dangerous.’  (Page 133)

That’s what’s known in the bizz as a leading question.

In the movie, when Todd wants to know whether Colton saw Jesus, he doesn’t show him a line up. He just shows him a picture of Jesus from a kid’s Bible. When Todd wonders whether his memory of Jesus’ face matches the young girl’s painting, he just shows him her painting. When Todd wonders whether or not Colton really saw Pop, he shows him a picture of Pop. When Colton says “everyone in heaven is young,” Todd simply shows Colton a picture of Pop when he was young. “Yeah, that’s Pop” he says before he runs out to play—which is what he wanted to be doing in the first place.  You almost can’t be less careful than Todd is being. This makes all the evidence these instances present completely worthless.

But what about Colton seeing his miscarried sister in heaven? How could he have known about that – his parents didn’t tell him, right? For one thing, the evidence is not as remarkable as it seems. The Burpos didn’t even know the sex of the miscarried child; so we don’t actually know that Colton correctly identified the miscarried fetus’s gender. As for Colton’s knowledge of the miscarriage itself, there are a number of very reasonable possibilities. For one thing, we have no good evidence that his parents didn’t tell him. They say they didn’t, but even if they are not intentionally lying, they may have told him and simply don’t remember—as we’ve learned, memory is far from perfect. Or they could have simply mentioned it when they didn’t know that Colton was listening. In addition, we don’t know that they didn’t tell anyone else—like any number of the parishioners at Todd’s church that could have been gossiping about the miscarriage within ear shot of Colton. And lastly, in the book, Todd actually admits that they did tell Colton’s older sister Cassie about the miscarriage. (Page 95.)

Plfthhhhhh—you just let go of the evidence balloon, and that’s the sound of it deflating as it flies around the room.

All in all, what’s more likely?

(a)    God froze time and stole Colton away from the operating table for days and days, showed him Pop, his miscarried sister, Jesus, and the apocalypse in a naively childlike heaven—but Colton forgot to mention anything about it until months later and instead wanted to go pet a spider right after he woke up.


 (b)   Colton had a dream while under anesthesia that he initially forgot (as we often do with dreams) but then eventually remembered—a dream that was highly revised and confabulated due to hundreds of hours of leading questions posed by his parents, reporters and journalists.

I’ve mentioned the criteria of adequacy in previous posts—the rules by which one determines the best explanation. I’ll let you look them up and decide for yourself.

Why Didn’t I Hate This Movie?
I’m not entirely sure. By all measures, I probably should have hated it. Not only does it make all the basic logical mistakes I describe above, and considers clearly faulty evidence reasonable, but it encourages credulity in other ways as well. You’re encouraged to think that the mere fact that Colton’s recovery was preceded by prayer entails that Colton’s recovery was caused by prayer. This is the causal fallacy—correlation does not entail causation. At one point it observes that God calls Christians to believe like children. Although it was refreshing to see, just for a second, the movie admit that to believe Colton’s story is to literally think like a child (and not like a rational adult), I was discouraged at the implied message that imitating the irrational habits of children should be embraced. At one point it was implied that those who don’t believe Colton’s story are merely afraid that there might be a heaven; the simple desire to believe the truth and not be credulous and duped was not even considered.

But what I think I liked about this movie was the fact that it did not beat you over the head with a “anybody who doesn’t believe Colton’s story is a pagan infidel who is going to burn in hell” message. Many of Todd’s parishioners doubt Colton’s story for decent reasons. The wife doubts for most of the story (until the “he knows about the miscarriage” revelation), and Todd is genuinely seeking the truth and doubts for most of the movie himself. (This is one reason I think the movie is better than the book; in real life, it seems that Colton’s parents believed every bit of his story from day one.) One parishioner even disparages Todd for seeming to be the kind of Christian that just “takes the brains out of their heads and just showcases how hard they can believe.” Amen, sister! If the message of the movie had been “that kind of thinking has infected Christianity, like a disease, and will eventually lead to its downfall,” I’d be buying people tickets to go see this thing!

In addition, the film doesn’t seem to be a bastion of religiously conservative ideals. For example, in a conversation with a parishioner (Nancy) about whether her Marine son went to heaven, the Todd of the movie seems to suggest that the necessary condition for one going to heaven is merely that “God loves you.” Since God loves Colton and sent him to heaven, and God doesn’t love Nancy’s son any less, then he must have gone to heaven too. There are no worries about whether he was “saved,” or said the sinners prayer, or been a good person. Does god love him? Then he’s in. And unless the Todd of the movie rejects the notion that God loves everyone, that makes him a universalist. He thinks everyone is going to heaven—not exactly a conservative talking point.

Further, in the first sermon of the movie, the Todd of the movie tells the story of a lion being protected by a unicorn and a bear in a cave. The bear and unicorn say that of all the deaths they could’ve died, they would prefer to die protecting the lion. Todd draws an analogy with Jesus willingly dying on the cross. He admits that some people don’t believe the Jesus story any more than they believe the lion story, but then he says that he believes them both – he thinks they are both true.
Wait, what!? He obviously doesn’t believe the story with the unicorn in it is literally true. So unless he thinks his single use of the word “true” means two totally different things at exactly the same time (which is not a charitable interpretation), it seems that what Todd means is that he believes that both stories are (what Bart Ehrman (link is external) would call) “mythically true.” The stories are not literally true, but contain meaningful ethical truths that resonate with us. (Lord of the Rings, for example, is not literally true but contains truths about the value of friendship and fighting evil.)

This is actually a fairly liberal view that some people embrace. They don’t think the stories about Jesus are a literal historical fact – they don’t believe that he performed miracles and literally rose from the dead – but they believe the stories told about him contain meaningful ethical truths that resonate with us. Again, not a conservative talking point. And although it doesn’t seem that the real world Todd Burpo believes that, or in universalism, that seems the most charitable way to interpret the movie.

And in the end, it’s not even clear whether the Todd of the movie really believes that Colton literally saw heaven. In the final sermon of the movie he says that he thinks Colton saw heaven, but immediately follows that statement by observing (something like) “Why not? We all see heaven every day, in a baby, in a parent’s love.” Clearly such people are not literally seeing heaven, but seeing it metaphorically – at best they are seeing what heaven is like. Obviously, if he thinks that Colton’s vision is analogous, then Todd doesn’t believe that Colton literally saw heaven. At best, he thinks Colton had a dream that depicted what heaven was like. This is yet another reason that, as evidence that “heaven is for real,” the film falls dramatically short. But now, unlike the book—and despite its title and “based on a true story” claim—it looks like the movie may not really have been an attempt to persuade the viewer, with faulty evidence, that heaven is literally real after all. In my view, that made the movie not terrible.

But I still don’t recommend it. Go see Transcendence instead.

Copyright 2014

David Kyle Johnson


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