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.
Colton’s father, Todd, has turned the boy’s experience into a 163-page book, “Heaven Is for Real,” which has become a sleeper paperback hit of the winter, dominating best-seller lists and selling hundreds of thousands of copies.
Thomas Nelson, the book’s publisher, said it had broken company sales records. The publisher, based in Nashville, began with an initial print run of 40,000 copies. Since the book came out in November, it has gone back to press 22 times, with more than 1.5 million copies in print. On the New York Times best-seller list for paperback nonfiction last Sunday, “Heaven Is for Real” was No. 1. The book remains in the top spot this coming Sunday.
The book has sold just as strongly in national chain bookstores like Barnes & Noble as it has in Christian specialty shops, said Matt Baugher, the vice president and publisher of Thomas Nelson. Mass merchants like Wal-Mart have pushed the book heavily in their stores, and large orders from churches and ministry groups are growing steadily.
“We all are perhaps desperate to know what is on the other side of the veil after we die,” Mr. Baugher said, adding that his initial skepticism about the Burpo family’s story was short-lived. “This was a very down-to-earth, conservative, quote-unquote normal Midwestern family. We became fully convinced that this story was valid. And also that it was a great story that would just take off.”
The book was an instant hit in Barnes & Noble outlets and was near the top of the best-seller list on its bn.com. The chain’s religion buyer was an early advocate for the book, ordering copies for every store, said Patricia Bostelman, the vice president for marketing at Barnes & Noble.
“When you buy the religion subject, you are presented with many stories about heaven, personal experiences about near-death and the afterlife,” Ms. Bostelman said.
Mr. Burpo, the pastor of Crossroads Wesleyan Church in Imperial, a farming community in southwest Nebraska, said in an interview that he had shouldered some criticism over it.
“People say we just did this to make money, and it’s not the truth,” Mr. Burpo said, referring to anonymous online comments about the book.
At first, he and his wife, Sonja, were not sure if they could believe their son’s story, which came out slowly, months and years after his sudden illness and operation in 2003. The details persuaded them, Mr. Burpo said. Colton told his parents that he had met his younger sister in heaven, describing her as a dark-haired girl who resembled his older sister, Cassie. When the Burpos questioned him, he asked his mother, “You had a baby die in your tummy, didn’t you?” While his wife had suffered a miscarriage years before, Mr. Burpo said, they had not told Colton about it. “There’s just no way he could have known,” Mr. Burpo said.