Heaven Is for Real: A Little Boy's Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back
by Todd Burpo
On Wednesday, we broke the news to the Imperial hospital staff that we were taking Colton to the Great Plains Regional Medical Center in North Platte. We considered Norma’s suggestion of Children’s in Denver, but felt it would be better to stay closer to our base of support. It took a while to get Colton checked out, as it does anytime you leave a hospital, but to us it seemed an eternity. Finally, a nurse came in with the discharge papers, a copy of Colton’s test results, and a large, flat brown envelope containing his Xrays. Sonja called ahead to the office of pediatrician Dr. Dell Shepherd to let his staff know we were coming.
At 10:30 a.m., I picked Colton up out of the hospital bed and was shocked at the limpness of his body. He felt like a rag in my arms. It would’ve been a great time to panic, but I tried to keep my cool. At least we were doing something now. We were taking action.
Colton’s car seat was strapped into the backseat of our SUV. Gently, I laid him in, wondering as I buckled him in how fast I could make the ninety-minute trip to North Platte. Sonja climbed into the backseat with Colton, armed with a pink plastic hospital dish for catching vomit.
The day was sunny but cold. As I steered the SUV onto Highway 61, I twisted the rearview mirror so that I could see Colton. Several miles passed in silence; then I heard him retching into the bowl. When he was finished, I pulled over so that Sonja could empty it onto the side of the road. Back on the highway, I glanced in the mirror and saw Sonja slip the Xray film from the brown envelope and hold it up in the streaming sunlight. Slowly, she began shaking her head, and tears filled her eyes.
“We screwed up,” she said, her voice breaking over the images she would later tell me were burned in her mind forever.
I turned my head back enough to see the three small explosions she was staring at. The misshapen blotches seemed huge in the ghostly image of Colton’s tiny torso. Why did they seem so much bigger now?
“You’re right. We should’ve known,” I said.
“But the doctor . . .”
“I know. We shouldn’t have listened.”
There wasn’t any finger-pointing, no blaming each other. But we were both really upset with ourselves. We had tried to do the right thing at each step. The doctor said Xrays; we did Xrays. The doctor said IVs; we did IVs. The doctor said blood tests; we did blood tests. He was the doctor, right? He knew what he was doing . . . right? At each turning point, we had tried to make the right call, but we had made the wrong ones, and now Colton was paying for it. A helpless child was suffering the consequences of our mistakes.
Behind me, Colton slumped lifelessly in his car seat, and his silence was louder than any sound I had ever heard. There is a story in the Bible about King David of Israel. David had committed adultery with Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah, one of David’s trusted soldiers. Then, in an effort to cover up his sin, David sent Uriah to the front lines, where David knew he would be killed. Later, the prophet Nathan came to David and said, basically, “Look, God knows what you did, and here are the consequences of your sin: the child that you and Bathsheba have conceived will not live.”1 David tore his clothes and cried and prayed and pleaded with God. He was so grief-stricken that when the baby died, his servants were afraid to come and tell him. But David figured it out, and when he did, he got up, washed himself, ate, and calmly took care of the funeral. His behavior confused his servants, who said, “Hey, wait a minute: weren’t you just freaking out a few minutes ago? Weren’t you just pleading and crying before God? Now you’re so calm . . . what’s the deal?”
David explained, “I was hoping God would change his mind. But he didn’t.”
In his mind, David had been doing what he could while there was still something he could do.
When I think back on that drive to North Platte, that’s how I felt. Yes, the X-rays looked bad, and my son’s face was covered in death.
But he wasn’t dead yet.
Now was not the time to quit and mourn. Now was the time for prayer and action. God, let us get there. Let us help our son.
As a father, I felt I had blown it. But maybe there was still something I could do to redeem myself. That hope was probably the only thing that kept me from falling apart. We crossed the North Platte line at about noon and made a beeline for the pediatrician’s office. I hustled out of the SUV and bundled Colton in a blanket, carrying him in my arms like a fireman. Sonja gathered up our gear and followed me in, still carrying the hospital bowl.
At the reception desk, a pleasant woman greeted us.
“We’re the Burpos,” I said. “We called ahead from Imperial about our son.”
“The doctor has gone to lunch.” Gone to lunch?!
“But we called ahead,” I said. “He knew we were coming.”
“Please have a seat,” the receptionist said. “The doctor will be back in ten or fifteen minutes.”
Her routine manner told me she did not feel our urgency, and inside me, a rocket of anger went off. On the outside, though, I kept my cool. I could’ve screamed and hollered, but it wouldn’t have done any good. Also, I’m a pastor. We don’t have the luxury of publicly losing it.
Sonja and I found a seat in the waiting area, and fifteen minutes later, the doctor arrived. He had the soothing appearance of maturity—silver hair, glasses, a trim moustache. The nursing staff ushered us back to an exam room, and Sonja handed him the packet of tests we’d brought, along with the Xrays. He examined Colton so briefly that it occurred to me he might be making up for lost time.
“I’m going to order a CT scan,” he said. “You’ll need to head across the street to the hospital.”
He meant the Great Plains Regional Medical Center. Ten minutes later, we found ourselves in the imaging clinic in perhaps the most important argument of our lives.
S EV E N
"I THINK THIS IS IT"
“But Colton, you have to drink it!”
“Noooo! It’s yuh-keeeee!”
Colton’s screams of protest echoed through the clinic. He was so exhausted, so frail, so tired of throwing up his guts, and now we were trying to make him drink a thick, gritty, cherry-red solution that a sane adult wouldn’t drink voluntarily in a million years. Finally, Colton took a little sip, but then immediately heaved it up again. Sonja swooped in to catch it in the bowl.
“He’s throwing up all the time,” I told the imaging technician. “How’s he going to drink it?”
“I’m sorry, sir . . . he has to drink it so we can get the best images.”
“Ple-e-ease! Please don’t make me drink it, Daddy!” We tried everything. We played good cop/bad cop, Sonja coaxing while I threatened. But the firmer I got, the more Colton clamped his teeth together and refused the sticky liquid.
I tried reasoning: “Colton, if you can just get this down, the doctors can do this test and we can get you feeling better. Don’t you want to feel better?”
“Well, here then, take a drink.”
“Noooooo! Don’t make meeee!”
We were desperate. If he didn’t drink the fluid, they couldn’t do the CT scan. Without the CT scan, they couldn’t diagnose. Without a diagnosis, they couldn’t treat our son. The battle raged for nearly an hour until, finally, a technician came out and had mercy on us. “Let’s go ahead and take him in. We’ll just do the best we can.”
Inside the imaging room, Sonja stood with the tech behind the radiation shield while I stood beside a listless Colton as the moving table slid him into a big, scary tube. Showing tenderness and compassion, the tech stopped the table before it slid Colton fully into the machine, allowing him to keep his head out so that he could see me. The machine whirred to life, and Colton stared at me through eyes pinched with pain.
Just like that, the test was over. The technician scanned the pictures, then escorted us out of the lab. He did not take us back to the main waiting room, but to an isolated hallway where a few chairs lined the wall.
The technician looked at me somberly. “You need to wait here,” he said. At the time, I didn’t even notice that he had not asked Colton to get dressed.
The three of us sat in the cold, narrow hallway, Sonja cradling Colton, his head against her shoulder. She was crying pretty steadily now. Looking in her eyes, I could see that her hope had drained away. This wasn’t the normal place where you would wait. The tech had separated us out. He had seen the picture and knew it was something bad. Sonja looked down at Colton, lying in her arms, and I could see the wheels turning in her head. She and Colton did everything together. This was her little boy, her pal. More than that, this little blond-haired, blue-eyed fireball was a heavenly blessing, a healing gift after the baby we had lost.
Five years earlier, Sonja had been pregnant with our second child. We were over the moon about it, seeing this new life as the rounding out of our family. When it was just the two of us, we were a couple. When Cassie was born, we became a family. With a second child on the way, we could begin to see the outlines of the future—family portraits, a house filled with the joyful noise of childhood, two kids checking their stockings on Christmas morning. Then two months into the pregnancy, Sonja lost the baby, and our misty-edged dreams popped like soap bubbles. Grief consumed Sonja. The reality of a child lost, one we would never know. An empty space where there wasn’t one before.
We were eager to try again, but we worried about whether we would be able to have another child, multiplying our misery. A few months later, Sonja became pregnant again. Her early prenatal checkups revealed a healthy, growing baby. Still, we hung on a bit loosely, a little afraid to fall in love with this new child as we had the one we had lost. But forty weeks later, on May 19, 1999, Colton Todd Burpo arrived and we fell head over heels. For Sonja, this little boy was an even more special gift directly from the hand of a loving, heavenly Father. Now, as I watched her face above Colton’s pale form, I could see terrible questions forming in her mind: What are you doing, God? Are you going to take this child too? Colton’s face appeared pinched and pale, his face a tiny moon in the stark hallway. The shadows around his eyes had deepened into dark, purple hollows. He wasn’t screaming anymore, or even crying. He was just . . . still.
Again it reminded me of those dying patients I had seen hovering on the threshold between earth and eternity. Tears filled my eyes, blurring the image of my son like rain on a windowpane. Sonja looked up at me, her own tears streaming. “I think this is it,” she said.
T W E LV E
EYEWITNESS TO HEAVEN
It wasn’t until four months after Colton’s surgery, during our Fourth of July trip to meet our new nephew, that Sonja and I finally got a clue that something extraordinary had happened to our son. Sure, there had been a string of quirky things Colton had said and done since the hospital. Colton’s insisting we pay Dr. O’Holleran because Jesus used the doctor to help “fix” him. His statement that Jesus “told” him he had to be good. And his strenuous, almost vehement funeral performance. But rushing by as brief scenes in the busyness of family life, those things just seemed . . . well, kind of cute. Except for the funeral thing, which was just plain weird.
But not supernatural weird. It wasn’t until we were driving through North Platte on the way to South Dakota that the lights came on. You’ll remember I was teasing Colton a little as we drove through town.
“Hey, Colton, if we turn here, we can go back to the hospital,” I said. “Do you wanna go back to the hospital?”
It was that conversation in which Colton said that he “went up out of ” his body, that he had spoken with angels, and had sat in Jesus’ lap. And the way we knew he wasn’t making it up was that he was able to tell us what we were doing in another part of the hospital: “You were in a little room by yourself praying, and Mommy was in a different room and she was praying and talking on the phone.”
Not even Sonja had seen me in that little room, having my meltdown with God.
Suddenly, there in the Expedition on our holiday trip, the incidents of the past few months clicked into place like the last few quick twists in a Rubik’s Cube solution: Sonja and I realized that this was not the first time Colton had let us know something amazing had happened to him; it was only the most clear-cut.
By the time we got to Sioux Falls, we were so busy getting to know our cute baby nephew, catching up on family news, and visiting the waterfall that we didn’t have a lot of time to discuss Colton’s strange revelations. But during the quiet moments before sleep, a flood of images tumbled through my mind—especially those horrible moments I’d spent in that tiny room at the hospital, raging against God. I thought I had been alone, pouring out my anger and grief in private. Staying strong for Sonja. But my son said he had seen me . . .
Our mini-vacation passed without any new disasters, and we returned to Imperial in time for me to preach on Sunday. The following week, Sonja and her friend Sherri Schoenholz headed to Colorado Springs for the Pike’s Peak Worship Festival, a conference on church music ministry. That left just me and the kids at home.
Like any prudent tornado-belt family, we have a basement below our one-story home. Ours is semifinished, with a small office and a bathroom that lead off a large, multipurpose, rumpus room area. Colton and I were down there one evening, as I worked on a sermon against the comforting background of my preschooler’s action-figure war.
Colton was three years and ten months old at the time of his surgery, but in May we had celebrated his birthday, so he was now officially four. A big boy. The little party we had thrown was all the more special since we’d nearly lost him. I don’t remember exactly what day of the week it was when Colton and I were hanging out in the basement. But I do remember that it was evening and that Cassie wasn’t there, so she must’ve been spending the night with a friend.
As Colton played nearby, my attention drifted to our Arby’s conversation about Jesus and the angels. I wanted to probe deeper, get him talking again. At that age, little boys don’t exactly come up and offer you long, detailed histories. But they will answer direct questions, usually with direct answers. If Colton really had a supernatural encounter, I certainly didn’t want to ask him leading questions. We had taught Colton about our faith all his life. But if he had really seen Jesus and the angels, I wanted to become the student, not the teacher!
Sitting at my makeshift desk, I looked over at my son as he brought Spider-Man pouncing down on some nasty-looking creature from Star Wars. “Hey, Colton,” I said. “Remember when we were in the car and you talked about sitting on Jesus’ lap?”
Still on his knees, he looked up at me. “Yeah.”
“Well, did anything else happen?”
He nodded, eyes bright. “Did you know that Jesus has a cousin? Jesus told me his cousin baptized him.”
“Yes, you’re right,” I said. “The Bible says Jesus’ cousin’s name is John.”
Mentally, I scolded myself: Don’t offer information. Just let him talk . . .
“I don’t remember his name,” Colton said happily, “but he was really nice.”
John the Baptist is “nice”?!
Just as I was processing the implications of my son’s statement—that he had met John the Baptist—Colton spied a plastic horse among his toys and held it up for me to look at. “Hey, Dad, did you know Jesus has a horse?”
“Yeah, a rainbow horse. I got to pet him. There’s lots of colors.”
Lots of colors? What was he talking about?
“Where are there lots of colors, Colton?”
“In heaven, Dad. That’s where all the rainbow colors are.” That set my head spinning. Suddenly I realized that up until that point, I’d been toying with the idea that maybe Colton had had some sort of divine visitation. Maybe Jesus and the angels had appeared to him in the hospital. I’d heard of similar phenomena many times when people were as near death as Colton had been. Now it was dawning on me that not only was my son saying he had left his body; he was saying he had left the hospital!
“You were in heaven?” I managed to ask.
“Well, yeah, Dad,” he said, as if that fact should have been perfectly obvious.
I had to take a break. I stood and bounded up the stairs, picked up the phone, and dialed Sonja’s cell. She picked up and I could hear music and singing in the background. “Do you know what your son just said to me?!”
“What?” she shouted over the noise.
“He told me he met John the Baptist!”
I summarized the rest for her and could hear the amazement in her voice on the other end of the line.
She tried to press me for details, but the worship conference hall was too loud. Finally we had to give up. “Call me tonight after dinner, okay?” Sonja said. “I want to know everything!”
I hung up and leaned against the kitchen counter, processing. Slowly, I began to wrap my mind around the possibility that this was real. Had our son died and come back? The medical staff never gave any indication of that. But clearly, something had happened to Colton. He had authenticated that by telling us things he couldn’t have known. It dawned on me that maybe we’d been given a gift and that our job now was to unwrap it, slowly, carefully, and see what was inside.
Back downstairs, Colton was still on his knees, bombing aliens. I sat down beside him.
“Hey, Colton, can I ask you something else about Jesus?” He nodded but didn’t look up from his devastating attack on a little pile of X-Men.
“What did Jesus look like?” I said.
Abruptly, Colton put down his toys and looked up at me. “Jesus has markers.”
“Markers, Daddy . . . Jesus has markers. And he has brown hair and he has hair on his face,” he said, running his tiny palm around on his chin. I guessed that he didn’t yet know the word beard. “And his eyes . . . oh, Dad, his eyes are so pretty!”
As he said this, Colton’s face grew dreamy and far away, as if enjoying a particularly sweet memory.
“What about his clothes?”
Colton snapped back into the room and smiled at me. “He had purple on.” As he said this, Colton put his hand on his left shoulder, moved it across his body down to his right hip then repeated the motion. “His clothes were white, but it was purple from here to here.”
Another word he didn’t know: sash.
“Jesus was the only one in heaven who had purple on, Dad. Did you know that?”
In Scripture, purple is the color of kings. A verse from the gospel of Mark flashed through my mind: “His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them.”
“And he had this gold thing on his head . . .” Colton chirped on enthusiastically. He put both hands on top of his head in the shape of a circle.
“Like a crown?”
“Yeah, a crown, and it had this . . . this diamond thing in the middle of it and it was kind of pink. And he has markers, Dad.”
My mind reeled. Here I’d thought I was leading my child gently down this conversational path but instead, he’d grabbed the reins and galloped away. Images from Scripture tumbled through my mind. The Christophany, or manifestation of Christ, in the book of Daniel, the appearance of the King of kings in Revelation. I was amazed that my son was describing Jesus in pretty much human terms—then amazed that I was amazed, since our whole faith revolves around the idea that man is made in God’s image and Jesus both came to earth and returned to heaven as a man.
I knew by heart all the Bible stories we’d read him over the years, many from the Arch series, Bible storybooks I’d had as a child. And I knew our church’s Sunday school lessons and how simplified they are in the preschool years: Jesus loves you. Be kind to others. God is good. If you could get a preschooler to take away just one three- or four-word concept on Sunday mornings, that was a huge accomplishment. Now here was my kid, in his matter-of-fact, preschooler voice, telling me things that were not only astonishing on their face, but that also matched Scripture in every detail, right down to the rainbow colors described in the book of Revelation,2 which is hardly preschool material. And as he babbled, Colton asked me, his pastor-dad, every so often, “Did you know that?”
And I’m thinking, Yeah, but how do you know it? I sat in silence for a few moments as Colton resumed his bombing campaign. As would become a pattern for the next couple of years, I sat there and tried to figure out what to ask him next. I thought through what he had said so far . . . John the Baptist, Jesus and his clothes, rainbows, horses. I got all that. But what about the markers? What did Colton mean when he said Jesus has markers?
What are markers to a little kid?
Suddenly, I had it. “Colton, you said Jesus had markers. You mean like markers that you color with?”
Colton nodded. “Yeah, like colors. He had colors on him.”
“Like when you color a page?”
“Well, what color are Jesus’ markers?”
“Red, Daddy. Jesus has red markers on him.”
At that moment, my throat nearly closed with tears as I suddenly understood what Colton was trying to say. Quietly, carefully, I said, “Colton, where are Jesus’ markers?” Without hesitation, he stood to his feet. He held out his right hand, palm up and pointed to the center of it with his left. Then he held out his left palm and pointed with his right hand. Finally, Colton bent over and pointed to the tops of both his feet.
“That’s where Jesus’ markers are, Daddy,” he said.
I drew in a sharp breath. He saw this. He had to have. We know where the nails were driven when Jesus was crucified, but you don’t spend a lot of time going over those gruesome facts with toddlers and preschoolers. In fact, I didn’t know if my son had ever seen a crucifix. Catholic kids grow up with that image, but Protestant kids, especially young ones, just grow up with a general concept: “Jesus died on the cross.” I was also struck by how quickly Colton answered my questions. He spoke with the simple conviction of an eyewitness, not the carefulness of someone remembering the “right” answers learned in Sunday school or from a book. “Colton, I’m going up to get some water,” I said, really only wanting to exit the conversation. Whether or not he was done, I was done. I had enough information to chew on.
“Okay, Daddy,” Colton said and bent to his toys.
Upstairs, in the kitchen, I leaned against the counter and sipped from a water bottle. How could my little boy know this stuff ?
I knew he wasn’t making it up. I was pretty sure neither Sonja nor I had ever talked to Colton about what Jesus wore at all, much less what he might be wearing in heaven. Could he have picked up such a detail from the Bible stories we read to the kids? More of Colton’s knowledge about our faith came from that than from a month of Sundays. But again, the stories in the Bible storybooks we read to him were very narrative-oriented, and just a couple of hundred words each. Not at all heavy on details, like Jesus wearing white (yet Scripture says he did). And no details on what heaven might be like.
I took another sip of water and racked my brain about the cousin thing and the “markers.” He didn’t get that stuff from us. But even on the details I didn’t understand at first, like the “markers,” Colton was insistent. And there was another thing about the markers that nagged at me. When I asked Colton what Jesus looked like, that was the first detail he popped out with. Not the purple sash, the crown, or even Jesus’ eyes, with which Colton was clearly enchanted. He’d said, right off the bat, “Jesus has markers.”
I’d once heard a spiritual “riddle” that went like this: “What’s the only thing in heaven that’s the same as it was on earth?”
The answer: the wounds in Jesus’ hands and feet.
Maybe it was true.