After a burst appendix nearly cost 4-year-old Colton Burpo his life in 2003, his parents were thankful just to have him alive and well. But when he opened up about his brush with death a few months later, they were shocked when he described a very vivid trip to heaven, and spoke of matters about which he had no apparent way of knowing.
During an automobile trip, when Sonja Burpo asked him about his memories of being in the hospital, little Colton replied: “Yes, Mommy, I remember — that’s where the angels sang to me.” A sweet answer, to be sure — but then Colton made his parents’ jaws drop when he told them about sitting in Jesus’ lap, watching his parents while he lay seemingly near death, and meeting his great-grandfather.
But most poignantly, Colton described meeting a sibling in heaven — even though he had no way of knowing that his mother had miscarried two years before he was born, since his parents had never told him.
More TODAY News
Jesus and John the Baptist
Todd Burpo began telling of his son’s heaven-sent visions from the pulpit of the Crossroads Wesleyan Church in Imperial, Neb., where he serves as pastor. Word of mouth spread, and the family landed a book deal. The book — “Heaven Is for Real,” written by Todd with co-writer Lynn Vincent — has become a best-seller, with some 1.5 million copies in print since its release in November.
Read an excerpt from ‘Heaven Is for Real’
Appearing live on TODAY Monday with Sonja and Colton, who’s now 11, Todd told Matt Lauer he understands that naysayers may believe Colton’s story is a little too heavenly to be true — initially, so did he and Sonja. “At first we were surprised; we never anticipated to talk to our son about these things,” Todd told Matt Lauer.
“We didn’t share at first, and then once we started sharing, people were amazed,” Sonja Burpo added. “They were encouraged by what we were sharing with them.”
Colton was stricken with appendicitis shortly before his fourth birthday. Family guilt was heavy — for five days he lay getting sicker and sicker with what the family believed was stomach flu, which had previously hit Colton’s older sister Cassie.
Little Colton nearly didn’t make it: He lay in a hospital bed for 17 days. When he finally rallied, the family rejoiced — but they were floored when, months later, the boy began matter-of-factly describing what he had experienced when he was in between life and death: seeing Jesus dressed in royal purple, meeting John the Baptist, having angels sing to him to ease his anxiety.Video: ‘Pops’ had ‘huge wings’ in heaven, boy says (on this page)
The Burpos believed these were things Colton could have gleaned from his Bible studies. But he also told his mother he saw her talking on the phone in another room while he was having surgery, and saw his father praying in a small room, all while he was seated in Jesus’ lap.
“What caught my attention was he could tell me where I was while he was in surgery,” Todd told Lauer. “The surgeon couldn’t tell me that, the nurses couldn’t, my wife couldn’t tell me where I was praying. But he could tell me.”
- Heidi Pratt's Father Arrested on Child Sex Abuse Charges
- Harry Potter Star Robbie Coltrane Hospitalized in Florida
- Kim Kardashian Poses with President Obama and Kanye West on Instagram
- Val Kilmer Rushed to the Hospital for Throat Tumor: Report
- Bruce Jenner Is 'Transitioning into a Woman,' Source Confirms to PEOPLE
Colton also spoke of meeting a long-departed relative in heaven, telling NBC News: “I was just sitting by the Holy Spirit and then this guy comes up to me and says, ‘Are you Todd’s son?’ I say yes, and he says, ‘Well, I’m his grandfather.’ ”
Colton said that everyone in heaven has wings. On Monday, he described his great-grandfather “Pops” as being “very big, huge wings, curly hair, a big smile, and he was very nice.”
But the real shocker came when Colton told his mother, “Mommy, I have two sisters.” Sonja told her son that he had to be referring to his oldest sister, Cassie, and his cousin Traci, but he responded: “No — I have two sisters. You had a baby die in your tummy, didn’t you?”
Sonja told Lauer the family had never uttered a word about the miscarriage to Colton — and what’s more, they never even learned the sex of their miscarried child. “It was a private hurt that we didn’t even share with our friends,” Sonja said, adding Colton’s revelation was at first “shocking, but then a relief that she’s OK, which we didn’t know she was a she.”
In a subsequent TODAY segment Monday, Sonja filled in Colton’s description of his meeting with his sister: “He told us what she looked like, and she wouldn’t stop hugging him. And she doesn’t have a name.”
“When he told us about his sister in heaven, that we hadn’t told him about, [it was] another one of those ‘holy cow’ moments — OK, he can’t make this stuff up, he can’t invent this; no memory was planted,” Todd told Lauer. “But the peace that came over us, and the healing, like, ‘Wow, I have a daughter in heaven waiting for me’ — I think a lot of people need that type of hope and healing, too. And I think that’s what a lot of people are finding when they hear Colton’s testimony, to know what they have to look forward to.”
When Lauer asked Colton what heaven looked like, the 11-year-old replied, “Well, there’s a lot of color. There are a lot of people and a lot of angels.”
In his second segment later on Monday, Colton gave Kathie Lee Gifford and Hoda Kotb some additional details — such as the fact that there are no old people in heaven. “Nobody wears glasses, [and] you’re in like your 20s, 30s.”
Video: Don’t believe boy saw heaven? Parents talk proof (on this page)
Todd Burpo told The New York Times that the family is donating much of the money they make from the book sales. As for Colton, he’s mostly happy his story is helping people.
“People are getting blessed, and they’re going to have healing from their hurts,” the boy told the New York Times. “I’m happy for that.”
© 2013 NBCNews.com Reprints