‘Heaven Is for Real’… or is Heaven ‘The Real’? | A Psychoanalytical view of Paradise and Hell

Thanks to KV for putting me on to a book that has been quietly notching up huge sales in the US. ‘Heaven is for Real‘ is the true story of a 4 year old boy, who ‘died’ and went to heaven, and then came back:

Just two months shy of his fourth birthday, Colton Burpo, the son of an evangelical pastor in Imperial, Neb., was rushed into emergency surgery with a burst appendix. He woke up with an astonishing story: He had died and gone to heaven, where he met his great-grandfather; the biblical figure Samson; John the Baptist; and Jesus, who had eyes that “were just sort of a sea-blue and they seemed to sparkle,” Colton, now 11 years old, recalled.

After sharing the story with his congregation, and then locally, they had it written up as a book, which has stayed on best-seller lists.

Can I be clear: I don’t want to knock the family or paint them in a bad light. I think they really believe in what’s happened, and I don’t think they’re trying to ‘milk’ it, or their son. But I think the title of the book is interesting.

The concept of ‘The Real’ is important in psychotherapy, and the bits of Lacan that I’ve studied (though I’ll not claim any expertise) do highlight this idea of ‘The Real’ in a way that throws interesting light on this story:

[‘The Real’] is state of nature from which we have been forever severed by our entrance into language. Only as neo-natal children were we close to this state of nature, a state in which there is nothing but need. A baby needs and seeks to satisfy those needs with no sense for any separation between itself and the external world or the world of others. For this reason, Lacan sometimes represents this state of nature as a time of fullness or completeness that is subsequently lost through the entrance into language. The primordial animal need for copulation (for example, when animals are in heat) similarly corresponds to this state of nature. There is a need followed by a search for satisfaction. As far as humans are concerned, however, “the real is impossible,” as Lacan was fond of saying. It is impossible in so far as we cannot express it in language because the very entrance into language marks our irrevocable separation from the real. Still, the real continues to exert its influence throughout our adult lives since it is the rock against which all our fantasies and linguistic structures ultimately fail.

I wonder then if this experience that this boy has had (which I don’t doubt was very real for him) was in fact a powerful breakthrough of the unconscious in a moment of extreme trauma. Brought up by an evangelical pastor, it’s probable that he would have had powerful images of heaven present throughout his childhood, and these images would have formed part of his ‘Real.’

What does this mean more generally? Well, I’m not sure yet, and I’m not sure I’m qualified to say with much authority. But I’d really like to explore ‘heaven’ from a psychoanalytical perspective. I think it would be interesting to look at the Old and New Testament dreams of heaven from a therapeutic point of view, and read the gospels in this light too. Anyone done that already? Would love to know.

In parallel, with the debate about hell raging, it would also be good to look at our projections of hell from this perspective too – as Matybigfro seems to be beginning to explore in the comments on a previous post here.



3 responses to “‘Heaven Is for Real’… or is Heaven ‘The Real’? | A Psychoanalytical view of Paradise and Hell”

  1. I think it’s quite interesting that there is almost a small industry of these kind of books coming out in recent years. As well as this one there is ‘Heaven is so real’, ’90 minutes in heaven’ ‘Flight into heaven’ and others – and from the other side(!) ’23 minutes in hell’, all good sellers in the evangelical market. These books tend to be all the same, lining up with the evangelical view of heaven/hell while because of their genre, not having to sit quite so tightly to doctrinal filters.

    I think these books function in two ways: firstly they offer a sort of crude stimulus to the imagination so it can line up with evangelical truth, in case the mind gets tired of trying to hold it all together and the imagination cuts loose, and secondly they offer a purported reassurance that it’s all true, after all!

    Perhaps it is interesting that these books are emerging in days when the traditional doctrines of heaven/hell are coming under some searching scrutiny. Perhaps we can expect more of the same in the wake of Rob Bell’s book?

    I think a psychoanalytic exploration would be really interesting. Certainly in this context Freud’s idea of dreams (& visions?) as wish-fulfilment springs to mind, although maybe a bit simplistic.

  2. Allan Pool

    Let’s hope heaven is not for real. We’re simply not made to exist in an environment without contrast. There has to be bad things happening to make the experience of good things possible. This video illustrates the point: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gLEwr49YTDs

  3. John D

    I have just discovered a new addition to this genre ‘The Boy who came back from Heaven’ (Tyndale House, ISBN 9781414339764.) The author’s name is Kevin Malarkey. On checking the dictionary definition, malarkey is described as ‘exaggerated or foolish talk, usually intended to deceive.’ Make of that what you will!