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.
As always, I definitely agree with pretty much everything you say here (including the part that I criticize later in this post), but something you said definitely caught my eye:
“As Christians, our authority is God’s Word.”
I mentioned to you (I can’t remember whether it was privately or publicly in the comments about where you and my pastor disagreed on the film Noah after I shoed him your review. His main concern was that people will not be going to the cinema to see the Biblical story of Noah and that we, as Christians, should not see the movie because it is not based on God’s Word. Unless I’m wrong, you seem to recommend Noah, but have major problems with HifR, even though both are quite far removed from God’s Word.
Again, don’t take this as my not agreeing with you, I am very much in line with your thoughts on both (well, I haven’t seen either movie (mainly because I don’t like movies) but your general thoughts in the blog posts in general, including the theology), but I find a bit of incongruousness there.
David, thanks for the thoughtful question and for the opportunity to make clear what may perplex others as well.
“Noah” did not purport to be Biblical or Christian. Darren Aronofsky was up front about that before the film came out. It is Aronofsky’s riff on the Noah story, and it doesn’t ask us to put any faith in it as truth or even true. As I wrote in my review, there are certainly themes worthy of contemplating in the film.
“Heaven Is For Real,” on the other hand, is a Christian enterprise. The book was co-written by a pastor and published by a Christian publisher. It does ask us to put faith in the truth of the story. As such, it is fair to hold it up to the Bible’s Truth in order to examine its claims.
I reviewed “Noah” as a film. I wrote about “Heaven is for Real” as an expression of Christian faith (and as a film, but only secondarily).
Let me give you another example. I read “The Da vinci Code” and thought it was a well-written thriller. But when Dan Brown in interviews started making claims he had “evidence” to back up what the book said about the identity of The Holy Grail and about Jesus’ relationship to that Grail (trying not to spoil for the 3 people who don’t know), then my reaction to the book was negative because those claims contradicted Scripture.
If something claims to be Biblical, then it is fair game to compare it to Scripture. “Heaven Is For Real” made that claim, “Noah” did not.
My favorite Aunt Retha did have an after death experience while in surgery and described the incredibly bright and comforting light and she was drawn to it. She heard her Dads voice telling her it wasn’t her time, but it was so beautiful and she was happy to talk with her Dad. She kept moving toward the light and then she saw what she described as the Lords hand stop her. Next thing she heard was her little grandson’s voice crying for her. Weeks later, after waking from a coma, she learned her grandson had been brought into the same hospital ER, he swallowed a piece of plastic. She had no fear and looked forward to the day she’d get to be in the light. I’ll always treasure her sharing that with me.
Thanks for sharing that, Pam. The difference between Aunt Retha’s account and “Heaven Is For Real” is that she doesn’t claim any revelation beyond what is in God’s Word – i.e. what Jesus looks like, what God looks like (in the book God is described as big with blonde hair), or the timing of Jesus’ return (again in the book it’s claimed that Jesus will return before Todd Colton dies). Experiences like your aunts are certainly inspiring to many folks – and who is to say God does not use such experiences to comfort us. But God does not contradict God’s own Word, which is the problem I have with “Heaven Is For Real.”
Thanks for the plug! Yours is a nice review.
Pastor Dave…thank-you for your insight… I can’t agree more…since “Every word of God is flawless; he is a shield to those who take refuge in him.”
On a side note…the part about the resurrection…do you consider that to be what Paul was describing in 1 Thes 4:17 (caught up) and 1 Cor 15:51 (changed… me and you both will get hair)?
Thanks, Tim. Yes, my understanding of both I Thes 4:17 and I Cor 15:51 is that they refer to the final resurrection when we receive the imperishable bodies Paul describes (as best he can) in I Cor 15.
As usual enjoyed reading your blog and liked the links. I read the book a few years back, and I have not seen the movie. I love to read, and I thought this book was a good read. Thanks for your insight.
Very true and dead on perspective….no pun intended. I remember sharing my cancer with others and replying when asked how Lind and I deal with it, that it’s not about us. Our life had never been and will never be about us. It’s all about God and his plan. Whether I live or die, it’s all good. God promises that…Jeremiah 29: 11-25 says as much. I don’t always have to like God’s plan for my life, I just have to do it His way. After all, he is God, and I , well, just His child whom He loves. He has a plan and a purpose for every life…He always has. That’s why we’re here now. It’s not over until He says it is. As painful as this life gets sometimes, it is nothing compared to the glory that awaits us. Jesus is Risen, and we too shall rise. God is faithful to His promises. Thanks for telling it like it is…straight and based on biblical evidence. Be blessed Pastor Dave!
Thank you Donna, for your kind words and for your inspirational words of experience. You are truly an example of 2 Corinthians 1:4 – you comfort others with the comfort you have first received from God. Blessings to you and Lind!
Thanks forr writing