All Research

Heaven is for Real: History vs. Hollywood

Starring Greg Kinnear, Connor Corum, Thomas Haden Church, Kelly Reilly
based on the book 'Heaven is for Real' by Todd Burpo

Connor Corum
Colton Burpo
Born: May 19, 1999
Birthplace: Imperial, Nebraska, USA
Greg Kinnear
Born: June 17, 1963
Logansport, Indiana, USA
Todd Burpo
Born: August 5, 1968
Birthplace: Oklahoma, USA
Kelly Reilly
Born: July 18, 1977
Surrey, England, UK
Sonja Burpo
Born: September 29, 1969
Birthplace: Bartlesville, Oklahoma, USA
Lane Styles
Cassie Burpo
Born: August 16, 1996
When my dad asked how long I was up in Heaven, for some weird reason I said 3 minutes, when I got to see the past when my dad played with Pop, the present where I got to see my dad preach, and my dad in his separate room giving his little prayer to God, and then the future, which is when the Armageddon is to happen. -Colton Burpo, January 2012 (100 Huntley Street Interview)

Questioning the Story:

What year did the events actually take place?

According to the Heaven is for Real true story, on Thursday, February 27, 2003, Colton Burpo, then three years and ten months old, complained to his mother Sonja that his stomach hurt. Unbeknownst to his parents at the time, this was the first sign of appendicitis. Sonja took him to the doctor, who told her it was the stomach flu. By the next morning he was feeling better. Colton, his mother, and his older sister Cassie left that day to meet Colton's father, Pastor Todd Burpo, who had already traveled to Greeley, Colorado, where he was scheduled to have a district board meeting for the Wesleyan church (the trip had a duel purpose and wasn't just a vacation like in the movie). They did visit the Butterfly Pavilion (pictured below). It was later that day, while still in Greeley, that Todd's 3-year-old son's condition took a drastic turn for the worse, eventually landing the boy in the operating room fighting for his life.

Burpo Family at the Butterfly Pavillion
As seen in the movie (left), Colton Burpo and his family visited the Butterfly Pavilion in Westminster, Colorado on March 1, 2003 (right), the day that Colton's condition took a turn for the worse.

Did Colton really hold the spider?

Yes, Colton did hold Rosie the tarantula, but he held her during the family's initial trip to the Butterfly Pavilion, prior to his surgery. Colton's father did not make a special trip back to the "invertebrate zoo" after the surgery. Like in the movie, Colton was initially too afraid to hold the spider, but his desire for a sticker convinced him to hold Rosie just prior to leaving. -Heaven is for Real book

Were Todd Burpo and his family financially stable?

Not exactly. In the Heaven is for Real book, the real Todd Burpo mentions that the year prior to Colton's emergency surgery was a rocky one, with injury and illness that included a shattered leg, two surgeries, kidney stones, and a cancer scare. He says that the family's bank account had been drained to such a degree that he could almost hear "sucking sounds" when the statements came in the mail. Just when Todd's shattered leg was finally almost behind him and it seemed like things had begun to turn a corner, they quickly found themselves back in the hospital for a near two week long stay following Colton's burst appendix. After Colton was discharged, they were faced with a stack of accumulated bills that totaled around $23,000, and there were more on the way. Family, friends, friends of friends, and acquaintances began sending them money, which helped them significantly.

The Burpo Family and the Crossroads Wesleyan Church
The Burpo family shortly before the movie's release. Clockwise: Todd, Colton, Cassie, Sonja and Colby (born October 4, 2004). Bottom: Todd's church, Crossroads Wesleyan.
Was Todd Burpo a full-time pastor?

No. As he states in the book, his pastor's salary was small. The family's main source of income was an overhead garage door business that Todd operated. He also served as a volunteer fireman and high school wrestling coach.

What Christian denomination are the Burpos?

The Burpos are Protestants. One of the major differences between Protestants and Catholics, for example, is that Protestants deny the universal authority of the Pope, and they see the Bible as the only source of revealed truth.

Is a ruptured appendix really what landed Colton in the ER?

Yes. Initially, the local doctor at the hospital in the Burpo's hometown of Imperial, Nebraska ruled out appendicitis. After waiting for Colton's condition to improve, his father, Pastor Todd Burpo, recognized the shadow of death on Colton's face. He had seen that look before when visiting the sick in hospitals, nursing homes and hospices. With Colton's condition deteriorating and the doctors still puzzled, Todd and his wife Sonja made the decision to take Colton to the Great Plains Regional Medical Center, which was ninety minutes away in North Platte, Nebraska. A CT scan quickly revealed the problem, a burst appendix. It also meant that poisonous discharge had been filling Colton's belly for five days.

Did the hospital staff really not expect Colton to live?

Actor Rob Moran and Real Dr. Timothy O'Holleran
Actor Rob Moran (left), who portrays the surgeon in the movie, and the real Dr. Timothy O'Holleran (right) who operated on Colton Burpo.
After assessing the situation, the hospital staff knew Colton's condition was bad. In the book, Colton's father writes that Dr. Timothy O'Holleran (pictured) said, "He's not in good shape. ... We've got to go in and clean him out. We'll know more when we open him up."

Following two surgeries to clean the poison out of his son's abdomen, Todd Burpo says that the doctors and nurses at Great Plains Regional Medical Center seemed amazed that shortly after they felt that they could do no more and recommended that Todd and Sonja take Colton to a children's hospital, either in Omaha or Denver, Colton's bowels suddenly started to work again and his worsening condition improved dramatically.

The true story behind the Heaven is for Real movie reveals that it was around this point in time that a nurse offered a few words in private, explaining to Todd that the doctors and nurses had expected Colton Burpo to die. The nurse told Todd that the doctors had told them not to offer his family any encouragement, because they didn't think his son was going to make it. She stressed that when the doctors say someone isn't going to make it, they don't. After witnessing Colton's sudden turnaround, the nurse said that she believed it had to be a miracle.

Did the real Colton Burpo ever technically flatline?

No. Like in the movie, Colton's heart never actually stopped beating. The real Todd Burpo stated this during an interview with Megyn Kelly on The Kelly File. "Well, he never flatlined or coded, but talking to the surgeon, he said children that young, they have no warning, vital signs don't fade, they're just there or they're gone. But he never did technically just flatline."

In order to explain how his son visited Heaven without dying, Todd remembered that the Bible discusses several people who had visited Heaven without dying, including John the apostle and a personal acquaintance of the apostle Paul. -Heaven is for Real book

Did the father, Todd Burpo, really lash out at God in private at the hospital?

Todd Burpo and son Colton
Todd Burpo with his son Colton on his shoulders in November 2003, 8 months after Colton's emergency surgery. Inset: The photo used for the book's cover.
Yes, but it wasn't in the hospital chapel like in the movie. "I went back to the pre-op room where we had left some stuff, and I was finally alone, shut the door, and I just broke down," says Todd Burpo. "I was mad at God. I just, [was] frustrated, fed up. I remember telling him, 'God, after all I've done for ya, and now you're going to take my kid. This is how you treat your pastors?'"

For how long was the real Colton Burpo in the hospital?

The real Colton Burpo was in the hospital for much longer than the movie implies. Colton began his hospital stays on Monday, March 3, 2003 (first in Imperial, then at the Great Plains Regional Medical Center). Following two surgeries at Great Plains (to clean the poison and infection out of his abdomen) and a bowel complication, he was finally discharged on Wednesday, March 19, 2003 after approximately sixteen days. -Heaven is for Real book

At what point did Colton's parents begin to believe that their son visited Heaven?

The realization came four months after the surgery. "What really caught our attention first," says Todd Burpo, "was when he could tell us where we were and what we were doing while he was in surgery, because how can anyone make that up. I tried to reason away what he was saying, but the scene where he said he saw me yelling at God and his mom in another room, he nailed all that first. That was the first thing to us."

It was at that point that Colton Burpo's father became aware of what his son was trying to tell them all along. "I remember my son in that room then, looking up at me and he goes, 'Dad, do you know I almost died?' And my first thought was, maybe you overheard the nurse say that, or maybe they thought he was under anesthesia, you know, and he wasn't..."

Did Colton really claim to have met Pop (his great-grandfather) in Heaven?

Yes, the Heaven is for Real true story reveals that, like in the movie, the real Colton Burpo told his dad that he had met and stayed with Pop (his great-grandfather on Todd's mother's side) while he was in Heaven. Pop (pictured below), whose real name was Lawrence Barber, died in July 1976 from a car accident when Todd was around six-years-old. Todd had been close to his grandfather since he had often stayed with his grandparents when his mother attempted to shield him from his own father's bipolar disorder, which sometimes required hospital stays. Pop was only sixty-one years old when he passed away. The photos of Pop that Todd (Greg Kinnear) shows Colton (Connor Corum) in the movie are the real-life photos of Pop (pictured below, right). -Heaven is for Real book

Lawrence Barber aka Pop
Pop with Colton's dad Todd as a boy in the movie (left). Right: A photo of the real Pop shortly before his death, and the photo of Pop at age 29, the one that Colton recognized him in.

Did Colton recognize Pop in a picture?

Yes, and like in the movie, he recognized Pop only after Todd showed him a photo from when Pop was younger (pictured above), because as Colton told his father, nobody's old in Heaven and nobody wears glasses. -Heaven is for Real book

Did Colton really claim to see his miscarried sister in Heaven?

Yes. "I was entering through the gates of Heaven," says the real Colton Burpo, "and this little girl came running out at me, and she gave me a hug. Now, when I was younger I wasn't really the hugging type, so I was just sitting here, 'Okay, who are you? Why are you touching me?' And finally she told me who she was, and it was just amazing because she was finally glad someone from her family was up in Heaven."

In a separate interview with CBN, Colton described his miscarried sister in a bit more detail, "She looked like Cassie, but she had brown hair." Cassie is Colton's older sister.

Colton's parents, Todd and Sonja, claim that they never told their son about his miscarried sister, who they lost before Colton was born. Sonja Burpo had miscarried on June 20, 1998 when she was pregnant with her second child. "How do you tell a child that a baby has died inside your tummy?"

Did Colton's parents know the gender of their miscarried baby prior to Colton telling them?

No. Like in the movie, Colton's mother, Sonja Burpo, only discovered that the miscarried baby was a girl after Colton told her that he saw his sister in Heaven. At the time of the miscarriage, Sonja was two months along. Colton described his sister in Heaven as looking like his older sister Cassie but with dark hair and a bit smaller. -Heaven is for Real book

Did Colton's older sister Cassie know about her mother's miscarriage?

Yes. In researching the Heaven is for Real true story, we discovered that Cassie, Colton's older sister, did know about her mother's miscarried baby prior to Colton's ruptured appendix. "We had explained it to Cassie; she was older," Todd Burpo states in the book. "But we hadn't told Colton, judging the topic a bit beyond a four-year-old's capacity to understand." Cassie was approximately six-and-a-half at the time of Colton's near death experience.

Is Thomas Haden Church's character, Jay Wilkins, based on a real person?

Thomas Haden Church and Phil Harris
Though Thomas Haden Church's character, Jay Wilkins, is largely fictional, he most closely resembles Todd's good friend Phil Harris in the book (a loose connection at best).
For the most part, no. Jay Wilkins (Thomas Haden Church), who is Todd Burpo's close friend and a fellow volunteer firefighter in the movie, is not based on any one individual. There is no one named Jay Wilkins in the book. The character is at best a loose composite of various friends and acquaintances in the real Todd Burpo's life. This includes fellow volunteer firefighters and pastoral acquaintances like the Burpos close friend Phil Harris, who along with his wife Betty Lou, are the district superintendents of the Wesleyan Church (the movie depicts Thomas Haden's character as being a local bank president and a board member at the church). The Burpos stayed with Phil and Betty Lou for a night at their home in Greeley, Colorado, shortly after Colton's condition took a turn for the worse and prior to heading back to Imperial, Nebraska. -Heaven is for Real book

Did Colton share the hope of Jesus with a dying boy in a hospital?

No. As evidenced by the book, Colton did not visit the bedside of a dying boy in order to give him comfort. He did accompany his father Todd to a nursing home to visit a dying man named Harold Greer and his family. However, in the movie, this visit takes place before the surgery, not after it like in the book. During the actual visit, Colton approached the man's bedside, much like he does the boy's in the movie, and told the man that everything was going to be okay and that the first person he'll see in Heaven is Jesus. Todd states that it was at that point that he realized that his son had become a messenger.

Did Colton give hope to a woman whose son was killed in the war?

No. Actress Margo Martindale's character, Nancy Rawling, is fictitious and does not appear in the book. In the movie, the character finds hope through a Colton-inspired vision of her son in Heaven. Pastor Todd Burpo (Greg Kinnear) provides her comfort by explaining to her that if his son was welcomed into Heaven, then her son had to be in Heaven as well since God loves him just as much. In the book, Todd instead offers this explanation to a woman whose daughter had been stillborn.

How did Colton Burpo describe Jesus's appearance?

Todd Burpo says that they spent three years showing Colton pictures of Jesus, and it wasn't until Colton saw Akiane Kramarik's painting of Jesus, titled Prince of Peace: The Resurrection (pictured below), that Colton said, "This one's right." Akiane Kramarik is an astounding child prodigy who is a self-taught painter. Her work sells for thousands of dollars. She says that her inspiration comes from God and her visits to Heaven. To learn more about Akiane, watch the Akiane Kramarik CNN segment that is highlighted in the movie.

Akiane Kramarik Jesus Painting
Inspired by God and her visits to Heaven, Akiane Kramarik (right) painted this portrait of Jesus (left) when she was only 8-years-old. Colton Burpo recognized it as the Jesus he too saw in Heaven.

If Heaven was wonderful, why did Colton want to come back?

Colton's father, Todd Burpo, says that he asked his son this very question. In an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network, Colton responded in his own words. "I knew that I was leaving Heaven because Jesus came to me and said, 'Colton, you need to go back.' Even though I didn't want to go back, he said that he was answering my dad's prayer." Todd says it was the prayer that he made in private at the hospital when he lashed out at God.

For how long was Colton Burpo in Heaven?

The real Colton Burpo supposedly told his father that he was in Heaven for three minutes. After hearing about everything his son had done in Heaven, Todd Burpo knew that such a short amount of time didn't make sense. As in the movie, he turned to the Bible for an answer and recalled that the Bible says that with the Lord, "a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day." -Heaven is for Real book

Had the family experienced any other miracles?

Yes. According to the real Todd Burpo, one such miracle unfolded in the months prior to Colton's trip to Heaven. Todd noticed a lump under the surface of his left nipple. The doctor performed a biopsy and the results came back as hyperplasia, the precursor to breast cancer. A lumpectomy was performed. However, when the removed tissue was tested, it was discovered to be benign, no longer exhibiting hyperplasia. Todd's doctor had no explanation for the sudden reversal.

Could Colton's father being a pastor have influenced his story?

Many who have read the book have wondered if Colton's story would have been the same if his father was not a pastor and if his family were, for instance, atheists. Those who believe Colton Burpo is telling the truth counter by arguing that it was Colton's strong faith at such a young age that allowed God to let him visit Heaven.

Some critics, including Pastor David Platt, have also pointed out that not only does Colton's story contradict certain elements of scripture, it is another addition to a flourishing genre of books that attempt to purport biographical tales of Heaven and the Afterlife, with the main problem being that many of these descriptions of Heaven often do not correlate with one another. This leads one to ask the question, with numerous biographical stories of Heaven on bookstore shelves, how do we know which ones, if any, are based in truth? These same critics usually conclude by pointing out the high dollar amounts being made from such books by Christian publishers.

Heaven is for Real Book
Read the Book
. As of the movie's release, Todd Burpo's book had sold over 8 million copies.
Where did the book and movie's title come from?

Delving into the book as part of our examination into the true story behind the Heaven is for Real movie confirmed that the origin of the book's title dates back to 2009. It was then that the Burpos traveled to Dallas, Texas to meet with the book's editor at a Starbucks. The editor asked Colton what he wanted people to know from his story. Colton's response was, "I want them to know that Heaven is for real."

Did Colton's father, Todd Burpo, write the book himself?

No. The book Heaven is for Real was co-written by Lynn Vincent, who also worked with Sarah Palin on her best seller Going Rogue.

What prompted Colton's father to write the book?

Colton's father, Pastor Todd Burpo, began preaching about his son's incredible story. Word of the miracle spread and a pastor friend, Phil McCallum, offered to introduce Todd to certain individuals in the publishing world. The Nashville publishing house of Thomas Nelson, which specializes in Christian books and Bibles, eventually bought the rights.

As of April 2014, the book had sold eight million copies and had spent three years on the New York Times Best Sellers List. With the release of the movie, that sales figure is projected to rise significantly.

Did Colton see a coming Armageddon while he was in Heaven?

During a January 2012 interview with Natalie Tizzel on the Canadian television show 100 Huntley Street, the real Colton Burpo attempted to describe the Armageddon that he claims he got to see a preview of while he was in Heaven. "Well, the battle was with Jesus, the angels, and the good people goin' against Satan, the monsters, and the bad people. They were fighting, and in the end, Jesus does win and the Armageddon would be over, but it has a long time to do. I got to see it happening, and I got to see my dad in the battle. I understood what was going on because, well, I was up there for a while so, you figure out what's goin' on after a while."

Has Colton Burpo's experience changed his feelings on life and death?

"I'm not really scared of death now," says Colton in 2014, "because, first of all, I know what to expect, so I have that going for me. But another thing is, before I die, I wanna be able to share as much as I can, so I can bring as many people with me."

Does Colton at age 14 still remember his experience from 10 years ago?

"Well, of my hospital stay and all the events leading up to it, that's a little foggy," says the real Colton Burpo, "but my experience in Heaven is very vivid. I remember just all of the people up in Heaven. There were people, angels, animals, and they had so many things up there that you could do."

Colton Burpo 2014
A 14-year-old Colton Burpo (right) and his parents, Todd (left) and Sonja (middle), are interviewed by Megyn Kelly in April 2014, just prior to the movie's release.

Is Colton's family happy with the movie?

Yes. "We can talk about how well Greg Kinnear played me, but how they captured my family, they were spot on," says the real Todd Burpo. "The very first discussions we had were [about me saying] 'you have to protect this story' because at the end of the day my son is 'going to see what you put on a movie screen' and one day he is going to hold me accountable for it. I'm not going to risk that and they said, 'We understand.'"

Burpo continued, "This child actor, Connor, God brought him to this movie. A kid that age can't act, so God had to find a kid that was just like Colton and He did."

Colton Burpo Interviews & Related Video

After exploring the Heaven is for Real true story above, view the related interviews below. Watch interviews with Colton Burpo and his father Todd Burpo and mother Sonja. Listen to Colton describe Heaven and meet the child prodigy, Akiane Kramarik, who painted the only depiction of Jesus that Colton recognized.

 Colton Burpo Describes Heaven and Who He Met There

A 14-year-old Colton Burpo describes Heaven to interviewer Megyn Kelly. He also talks about meeting his miscarried sister, something his parents claim they had never told him about. Kelly asks the parents how they respond to those who don't believe in an afterlife, who have accused them of putting ideas in their son's head.

 Colton Burpo Home Video and Family Interview

This segment aired on the Christian Broadcasting Network and features Colton Burpo home movie footage and photos shot before his appendix burst and he found himself on a hospital operating table close to death. Colton's parents, Todd and Sonja Burpo, discuss the ways Colton revealed to them that he had visited Heaven and spoke to Jesus.

 Colton Burpo Armageddon Interview

Colton Burpo is interviewed by Natalie Tizzel in January 2012 for the Canadian television program 100 Huntley Street. During the interview, Colton describes seeing the coming Armageddon while he was in Heaven. He says that he saw his dad fighting in the battle as one of the "good people" who were going against the "bad people."

 Heaven is for Real vs. the Bible

David Platt, senior pastor of The Church at Brook Hills in Birmingham, Alabama, discusses Heaven is for Real vs. the Bible. He also offers a list of other bestselling books about supposed trips to Heaven, reminding the audience of the enormous sums of money being made by the publishers. He wonders why so many people have turned to these books instead of the Bible for their own interpretations of Heaven.

 Colton Burpo Sings Amazing Grace in 2012 (age 13)

The band Read You and Me partners with Colton Burpo for his music video debut in this version of 'Amazing Grace (My Chains Are Gone)'. The video was shot in 2012 when Colton was thirteen.

 Akiane Kramarik CNN Interview - Child Prodigy who Painted Jesus Colton Burpo Recognized

Glenn Beck narrates this CNN segment on Akiane Kramarik, the self-taught child prodigy whose portrait of Jesus, titled Prince of Peace: The Resurrection, caught Colton Burpo's eye when his father showed it to him. After three years of being shown Jesus pictures, Colton said, "That one's right," upon seeing Akiane's portrait. Akiane says her inspiration comes from God and her visits to Heaven.

 Heaven is for Real Trailer

Watch the Heaven is for Real movie trailer for the film starring Greg Kinnear as Pastor Todd Burpo. Adapted from the real Burpo's bestselling 2010 book, Heaven is for Real: A Little Boy's Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back, the movie retells the story of his then three-year-old son, Colton, who after a near-death experience began sharing details of his visit to Heaven.

Link-to-Learn More: