How did I end up going to see “Heaven Is For Real” last Saturday afternoon? I’m teaching a Bible Study on the afterlife, and the movie (and book) about four-year old Colton Burpo’s visit to “heaven” is inevitably a topic of conversation.
(Before we go on, an advisory: Like many of my posts, this one is somewhat lengthy and meandering. I hope you’ll stick with it. But if you’re looking for a more succinct but similarly theologically sound reaction to the film, my friend and colleague Pastor Earl Janssen has written just such a post.)
As a film, “Heaven Is For Real” surprised me by being a higher-quality production than the usual Christian polemic like “Facing the Giants” or “Fireproof.” Sure, clichés abound – a sudden wind sweeps through the house as Colton is making one of his big reveals about heaven, and I about threw my popcorn box at the screen when the little circle of sooty firemen took their helmets off and bowed their heads to pray (isn’t that scene in every Christian movie of the past 25 years?).
There are also continuity issues, such as one sequence of scenes where the world brightens as it gets later into the evening – Greg Kinnear puts his kids to bed in the evening gloom, then shares a moment with his wife on the porch as the sun is just setting, then he gets a fire call and by the time he’s on the fire truck racing down the road it’s a bright, sunny day.
Maybe it was a MIRACLE, like when God made the sun stand still for Joshua or when God made a rainbow on a clear day in answer to Colton’s prayer (in the book not in the movie).
Sorry, was that snarky? My point is that continuity errors do not enhance a film’s credibility.
The thing that did give “Heaven Is for Real” what credibility and heft it had was Greg Kinnear’s performance. He plays Pastor Todd Burpo (“Call me Todd”), the father of the boy who allegedly visited heaven. The movie is framed as Todd’s story. And Kinnear captures the struggle of a man who doubts not just his son’s trip to heaven, but his call to ministry and even God’s goodness in the face of the Job-like trials he endures.
This movie works – and there are times when it is quite good – when Kinnear wrestles with belief and doubt. He’s the modern embodiment of the man who asks Jesus to heal his son, to whom Jesus replies that anything is possible for someone who believes. The man answers, “I believe. Help me get over my unbelief.”
According to the movie, and to the book upon which it is based, the way God helps Todd get over his unbelief is by sending his son to heaven.
Now, I’m not denying that Colton must have experienced SOMETHING while he was under anesthesia. But he didn’t die, so it wasn’t death. According to the doctors, he didn’t even come close to dying so it wasn’t a Near Death Experience (NDE). It was just an E – an experience.
Credibility has been given to the experience because Colton supposedly came back knowing things he didn’t know before – especially that his mother had a miscarriage.
As Ann Hornaday points out in her review of “Heaven Is for Real,” there is a subversive strand in the movie that isn’t in the book that provides an alternative explanation for Colton’s knowledge. In several scenes Colton is shown overhearing adult conversations where they don’t notice him there. Could this have been how he knew he had a miscarried sister?
When I was about Colton’s age, I can remember overhearing my mom talking – and crying – about a neighbor’s miscarriage. We never talked about it, but I’m pretty sure she’d be surprised to find I knew about that.
Depending on the testimony of a four-year old for eternal knowledge is pretty tenuous, anyway. I remember watching football with my dad when I was four (maybe a bit younger) and seeing a player go off the field and get replaced by someone else after a play. I asked my dad what had happened, “Oh, he got hurt.” The next play was a change of possession and everybody ran off and was replaced. This sport is too dangerous for me, I thought.
Four-year olds have an innocence, sure, but they process things at a pre-school level.
But for Christians, “How could Colton have known those things” or “How credible is a four-year old” are not our ultimate measuring sticks for something like “Heaven Is For Real.”
When someone makes a claim about God or the things of God (like heaven), our tool for determining its truth is God’s Word.
What concerns me about “Heaven Is For Real,” both book and movie, is that it suggests that God’s Word is not enough.
There is a scene late in the movie where Todd is sitting in a cemetery with a woman (the always excellent Margo Martindale) whose son died years before. Pastor Todd says to her, “I let you down, I had nothing to give you.”
What?! How about Jesus? How about the resurrection? How about hope? You had nothing to give her until Colton took his jaunt in heaven? It’s good that happened because there is nothing sufficient in God’s Word – in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ – to comfort the bereaved?!
How did we ever conduct all those Christian funerals before Colton?
Our ultimate hope isn’t “heaven” anyway. The Bible doesn’t teach that we are going to spend an eternity as spirits in heaven, but rather in perfect new bodies (mine’s going to have hair!) on a perfect new earth. Stories like “Heaven Is For Real” distort, and distract us from, the real hope we have of, as the Apostle’s Creed states, “The resurrection of the body.”
There are a plethora of books purporting to describe journeys to heaven. Although they are similar in some ways, they vary in detail. For example, according to Colton people in heaven have wings. Don Piper, author of “90 Minutes in Heaven,” says they don’t. A small detail to be sure, but both can’t be right.
So how do we choose? As Christians, our authority is God’s Word.
“But Pastor Dave,” folks reply, “These stories give people comfort. Why do you want to take that away?”
Because I pray that folks will be comforted based on the firm foundation of God’s Word, not on the equivocal experience of a four-year old. Once we start accepting things as true because they make us feel good, then we have left Christianity and entered “Feelgoodism.”
Feelgoodism is rampant among Christians these days. It is embodied in the biggest church in America, Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church. “God wants you to be rich, successful, beautiful,” and so on makes people feel good but it’s not Biblical. “If you just ask and believe you’ll get it, God will give you what you want” sounds good until you consider the millions of Christians who live in the third world. Or Christians who are imprisoned and even killed for their beliefs – according to Osteen and other purveyors of Feelgoodism, their faith must really suck.
“Heaven Is For Real” is finally problematic because its popularity is a product of wanton Feelgoodism. Feelgoodism disregards the tough passages of Scripture and focuses on “what’s in it for me.” Feelgoodism makes Christianity all about ME, and not about loving God and loving neighbor.
Feelgoodism embraces “Heaven Is For Real.”
But for followers of Jesus Christ, the Bible is Enough.
Jesus is enough.