Their son Colton, just two months shy of his 4th birthday, suffered a misdiagnosed ruptured appendix and was rushed into emergency surgery. The situation was grim. They weren't sure if he'd survive. Two weeks later, after another operation, Colton was stable and recovering. Time passed before he nonchalantly mentioned that he had visited heaven during the first emergency operation and met angels, Jesus , a great-grandfather and sister of his that he never knew existed.
Todd Burpo recounts his family's journey and Colton's revelations in "Heaven Is for Real: A Little Boy's Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back." The paperback, written by the Burpos with Lynn Vincent, who co-authored "Going Rogue: An American Life," and "Unsinkable: A Young Woman's Courageous Battle on the High Seas" (about Abby Sunderland's ordeal), has remained on the Los Angeles Times bestseller list for eight weeks and the New York Times bestseller list for 20 weeks. With 3 million copies in print, "Heaven Is for Real" has become a bit of a publishing sensation as the family has made the rounds of media appearances including "The Today Show," "Fox and Friends" and "CNN."
Liesl Bradner had a chance to speak with Todd Burpo from his home in Nebraska during a break in his hectic schedule about his family's harrowing, ultimately miraculous experience that included small bits of good news such as, according to Colton: "No one is old in heaven and no one wears glasses."
Jacket Copy: When Colton began talking about his visit to heaven, you initially wrote it off as his having really good Sunday school teachers. What was it that made you finally believe it was more than just his imagination?
Todd Burpo: He first talked about having seen singing angels to me in the hospital after his surgery. But it was when he said he was sitting on Jesus' lap and could see me in a room praying and his mom on the phone in another room-- which was where we were and what we were doing during his surgery -- that really grabbed my attention.
JC: How do you address detractors who say that because you're a pastor, Colton was exposed to these religious images and that they were there all along as part of his subconscious?
TB: At first I thought the same things. Colton would say, "Jesus told me I had to be nice." So I figured he got that from Sunday school. But how he knew my location in the hospital and what I was doing while he was in surgery, no Sunday school teacher could have known that. I don't hold [criticism and doubts] against people because that's where I started too. One of the biggest complaints we've heard from people who have seen him speak on TV is that "no 4-year-old talks like that." They don't realize that he's 11 now and that he has a whole different vocabulary.
JC: At first, Colton's stories were all positive -- about rainbows, angels and love -- but at one point he brings up a war and dragons.
TB: All the things he shared with us were spontaneous discussions. He'd just start volunteering information. The conversation about Satan came up because his mom was talking about swords. She said, "I bet there aren't any swords in heaven," and he stopped what he was doing and said, "There are too swords in heaven. The angels have them to keep the devil out of heaven." Events would happen that would jog his memory. He shared what he wanted to share.
JC: What do you hope readers will take away from this book?
TB: When Colton shared his experiences with us, it was unexpected and over several months. He would reveal things on his time table. When he talked about his other sister, he just came up to my wife one day and said "I have two sisters - you had a baby die in your tummy." This was an incredible moment of healing. We had never told him about the miscarriage. It was a very personal and private hurt. We never knew it was a girl and when he told us that she was waiting for us in heaven -- what a moment that was. For people to read this story, to capture that same peace, that's a wonderful thing. For me, I can see heaven more clearly because of his stories and hopefully other people can too.
-- Liesl Bradner
Images: At top, Colton and his dad, Todd, taken one week after his release from the hospital. Credit: The Imperial Republican/Jan Schultz. At right: cover art. Courtesy Thomas Nelson