Heaven Is for Real…A movie Review
Seems like most of my recent posts have been movie reviews. Having worked in the faith-based film arena for over 5 years I’ve seen the “feast or famine” nature of theatrically released films. The first four months of 2014 have been a feast for those who support and promote faith based films. I’ve screened three of them to Arkansas based audiences over the last couple of months (God is Not Dead, Heaven is For Real and Mom’s Night Out). A fourth movie, (which is NOT faith based – at least BIBLICALLY faith based but which certainly has gotten a lot of attention) Noah, has also been recently released. (By the way, you need to read a wonderfully written, unique and shockingly candid review of the subversive intentions of Noah’s producer, Darren Aronofsky, and how the church leaders were asleep at the switch, by Dr. Brian Mattson. His recent post “Sympathy for the Devil” – is one of the best I’ve read and the virality of it caught him off guard).
I’ve written reviews of God is Not Dead and Mom’s Night Out but hadn’t yet reviewed Heaven is For Real. In light of a friend of mine’s question about the film, I thought it was time to take a moment to record some thoughts.
Heaven is For Real is the movie depiction of the incredibly popular book of the same name written by Todd Burpo, the father of the young boy (Colton) who says he experienced Heaven as chronicled in the book and movie. There is one thing we know, the topic of heaven will create discussion. Whether you believe in it, don’t believe it exists, believe certain people will be able to enter and that some will not or if you think everyone will get their “ticket” to heaven through some means of God’s favor and man’s work—heaven is a very interesting and conversational topic.
C.S. Lewis said, “No, I don’t wish I knew Heaven was like the picture in my Great Divorce, because, if we knew that, we should know it was no better. The good things even of this world are far too good ever to be reached by imagination. Even the common orange, you know: no one could have imagined it before he tasted it. How much less Heaven” (Collected Letters, vol. 3, 7 August 1956).
The universal truth of heaven is that not one of us that is currently breathing can know what heaven is like. The Bible gives us images and promises regarding Heaven, i.e., the who, what, how and why but beyond that it really is a mystery to be experienced by those who are not here to tell us. So, whether you are skeptical of Colton’s story and experience, of near death experiences altogether or accepting of C.S. Lewis’ premise that heaven is something that everyone will be surprised by it, this book made into a movie is a fascinating journey into the experience of one 4 year old ordinary farm boy simply sharing what he went through while he was being operated on in a Nebraska hospital. Colton’s story was shared through what he told his dad and others about his experiences during that operation. Colton saw vivid imagery, received visits from former family, angelic beings and Jesus and he was able to identify of things he couldn’t possibly have known at the age of 4.
I was provided a link to John Piper’s general response to a question posed to him about his view of the validity of these kind of heaven experiences. John Piper’s basic conviction is that he doesn’t read books like this because he has the scriptures to tell him what heaven is like. It’s hard to disagree with that position. However, my only word with regard to Dr. Piper’s analysis is that while we may be able to wonder and be skeptical if what Colton Burpo actually experienced was Heaven or not, it’s very difficult for me to question the experience itself. Only God truly knows what Colton experienced. And, whereas Dr. Piper provides biblical support for not listening to witchcraft or necromancy, I’m not sure I concur that Heaven is for Real falls into either of those categories. First, the movie is clear that Colton did not die. And, there is no indication that anyone in the story is using this situation to try and reach the dead (as in a seance or other demonic activity) or test the spirits. Here is where I’ll leave this part of the discussion–if you are skeptical of all heaven stories and, after listening to Dr. Piper agree with him, then this movie may not be for you.
For the rest of you who have read the book and may hold different convictions about stories like this, here are a few things to consider about the movie itself. My disclaimer is that I did screen this movie a couple of times and, therefore, did get paid for those screening efforts. However, my review is not related in any manner to my relationship with the film marketing efforts. The review contains my personal thoughts about the film.
I have to confess that I haven’t read the book. To be honest I probably fall closer to Dr. Piper’s camp when it comes to hearing stories about near-death experiences. But, as I’ve seen this film and gotten closer to the sources of the story, I’ve come to a place where I think we can both enjoy the story and still be in wonder as to what God really did in this situation. Only God ultimately knows. I do believe that Colton experienced what is depicted in the film (with some creative license to the story). Whether it was Heaven or not is what is up for debate.
I thought the movie was well acted by lead actor, Greg Kinnear who plays the father, Todd Burpo. Connor Corum who plays little Colton is such a cute kid, it’s hard not to love his performance. The rest of the cast does a nice job and carries the true story well throughout the film.
During the screening’s I held, I heard a few issues about some of the themes of the story. The challenge in reviewing a movie based on a true story depicted in a book is differentiating between the retelling of the story and reviewing the actual story. In other words, we may question why certain people act in certain ways. But, if this is how the person really responded and the filmmakers appropriately depict that behavior in the film, then the issue isn’t with the film but rather with the actual story.
Given the popularity of the book, many people who saw the screenings responded that the film was a good representation of the book. There were probably a few differences but those slight changes didn’t alter the story. As I indicated, the story is about a young boy (Colton) who, after falling seriously ill, comes out of the hospital sharing a unique and wondrous experience, first with his father and then with others. The challenge that his father has is that he is a part-time pastor of a small church. The stories his son tells him about his experience (that he describes as going to Heaven) creates a dilemma for Todd. How does he share his son’s experience to a doubting church and community? His son is only 4 yrs old at the time of this incident. What would his son have to gain from making the story up? What did Colton really see? There was no evidence that Colton died (unlike many similar experiences where someone flatlined, stopped breathing or was clinically dead) during his ordeal. So, what did happen? That’s what the book and the movie explore.
From an entertainment standpoint I found Heaven is for Real to be enjoyable. From a spiritual aspect I have to say that I honestly can’t tell you what Colton saw. I can feel the angst that his father must have felt. None of us truly knows how we’ll respond to a situation until we are actually faced with it. As a follower of Christ I can tell you that I am excited to know that I will be in Heaven when this life is done. Nothing that Colton experienced had any impact at all on my view of Heaven or the anticipation of it. I do believe that Heaven is a subject that everyone thinks about in one way or another. Even Atheists have thought about Heaven-they just don’t think there is one. We are mystified by the world we don’t know. I wouldn’t recommend the film based on its theological content or as a biblical depiction of Heaven. I recommend it because I think it was an interesting story that no one, not even someone as well respected as John Piper, can know for certain what really happened except One.
The film is a great launching pad for a discussion about a subject that doesn’t get discussed much…what happens when this life is over? Whether Colton experienced Heaven or not, I didn’t find anything in the film that I deemed anti-biblical, improperly communicating with the demonic or trying to push an agenda about everyone going to Heaven (like Rob Bell). Though there are a few scenes that could be taken as a lenient take on some questions about Heaven and how one gets there, I think the film fell short of advocating for anything in particular. I also didn’t feel that it should have taken a stronger stand on what the Bible says about who goes to Heaven. It seemed to leave that question open for discussion, but not in a negative way. It just didn’t address it. But, if that is how the story actually played out in reality, it makes it difficult for me to be critical about the way it handled this issue. Would I rather have them insert something into the film that didn’t happen just to make a point? I don’t like it when films do that on issues I don’t agree with so I don’t feel I can be critical when it doesn’t add something that I favor. If they were accurate in telling the story as it happened, then I am left to deal with the unanswered questions in a way that I should be OK with anyway, at least when it comes to theological issues—what does the Bible say? This film did nothing to change that, in my estimation. Unlike the recent movie, Noah, which had a certain anti-biblical bent to it, Heaven is for Real, simply left some issues open for discussion.
In summary, I give the film out of 5 ties (my DadPad rating icon ;). I also believe that it is a great tool to discuss an issue with those who are interested in tackling the fact that maybe this earthly life isn’t all there is. As Christians we have one thing in common. We are sure that this isn’t the end!