Opening April 16 – Review of Heaven is for Real-The Movie

Opening April 16 – Review of Heaven is for Real-The Movie

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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 Challenges

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  3ties  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!

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  1. Charley says

    I agree wholeheartedly with John Piper and with David Platt (in the attached video). I don’t find any of this credible and fully believe that none of it is profitable for building the Kingdom. It leads people astray rather than to repentance before a Holy God. Platt’s best point is that all of the Biblical stories of glimpses of heaven talk about grandeur and glory of God as the centerpiece whereas NONE of these sorts of stories do. That alone gives the wrong impression to any non-believer.

  2. Mary Ann Miller says

    8 years ago I read the book “90 Minutes in Heaven” by Don Piper. I later saw him at Haughton Baptist Church out of Bossier City, LA. Have you read his book and what are your thoughts. I thought it was intriguing. He claims to have actually died for 90 minutes. He was pronounced dead by the EMT’s.

    • says

      I have not, Mary Ann. As I indicated in the review, I tend to be fairly skeptical of claims of seeing Heaven. I actually like David Platt’s video that was posted by my friend Charley in the comments section. I really struggled with this film review. I think that we should follow Scripture but I also believe in this case that there is some redeeming value in the film. I do believe that those who claim to have seen things, likely saw something. I just very rarely believe it’s Heaven, for the very reasons that David Platt and John Piper (and others) have stated—it’s very seldom supported by Scripture and doesn’t follow the way that the Bible depicts Heaven…as an all out Glory fest to the King of Kings…not about themselves. Not sure if that helps but that’s my thought.

  3. Charley says

    I just read an article where the family was interviewed. Obviously the child isn’t so little any more. What saddened me most of all is that no one, from the Pastor dad down to the kid who supposedly went to heaven, said anything at all about Jesus, about the whole Gospel. It was just platitudes about God and heaven and assurances to terminally ill children that they will go there and it will be wonderful.

    I haven’t read the book…better things to do…nor will I see the movie. So…Jeff…is there a decent presentation of the Gospel in the movie? Is there a call to repentance? Is there a call to accept Jesus and submit to His Lordship? Or is it the same platitudes those poor terminally ill children got?

    • says

      Charley, you know I respect you. And, if you read my post you’ll see where I indicate that if you fall into the camp of John Piper (and David Platt) on this issue of feeling that stories of Heaven are anti-biblical than this probably isn’t the right film for you. That being said, I don’t really think you believe every movie needs to have a gospel presentation, mentioning of Jesus or an overt reference to biblical truth in order to be seen? Well, maybe you do. Sometimes we just go to watch the film and think about the issues it presents. It does not have an explicit or overt Gospel message (ala Courageous). But, neither did October Baby and it was a great film to discuss the value of a human being. Everyone will need to make their own decision on this film and whether they will attend or not. I don’t believe that it contains anti-biblical teaching. There are some things that may be considered vague but there is no overt “everyone goes to heaven” message nor is there a “only through the blood of Jesus Christ”. As I indicated in the write up, it’s the story about a story. I don’t know Todd Burpo, can’t tell you anything about his theology or where he’s at on the spectrum of Rob Bell to John MacArthur in his Salvation doctrine. I know where I am on that spectrum. Some may believe this to be harmful. To me, a movie is never to be the gospel wielding message…people are. You and me. If I were to bring someone to this film, I’d make sure that I took the time to discuss the major elements of salvation according to the Scriptures. There is NO other way than through the Son. The movie leaves much open for discussion as far as I’m concerned. I think we have a lot more issues to be concerned about in the church than a non-believer being influenced by this film. Just my personal thoughts.

      P.S. I haven’t seen anything else from Todd Burpo. So, I don’t know the reference to the platitudes he gave those children. I guess I’d be careful to make rash judgements about someone from clips. You may be absolutely right on with your character assessment of him. I just haven’t seen it and will let God take care of those issues. If he is spewing lies and untruth, than we have the responsibility to point those out. If that’s what he did in the clip that you reference you are right to be concerned. However, I have not seen that so I can’t speak to it.

  4. Charley says

    Jeff…your response makes me believe you think I was attacking you in my previous comment. Please know that wasn’t the case. I directed the question to you specifically because you actually have seen the movie and it was a legitimate question.

    That said and in response to some of your concerns: no…not every movie needs to have a specific gospel presentation. But one on heaven? I would think so…especially because it could so easily lead the viewer to believe that all “good” people will go there. And yes…people are to be the “Gospel-wielders”. My bigger concern is with people who go to this film without a Gospel-wielder with them.

    Could the movie be used by an “intentional” Christian to talk spiritual things with an unbelieving friend? Of course. Will that be the primary use? I doubt it. Believers who have a limited doctrinal foundation who see it could easily be led astray. Nonbelievers who see it would be given a false sense of security. In this way, I believe these sorts of movies are actually dangerous because for the most part, they contribute to the eternal damnation of people. Yes, I know that’s a strong statement…but I believe it to be true simply because this particular topic DEMANDS that the full Gospel be given with it. If heaven is real, then how does one get there? There is no more basic question, and if the movie insinuates that it just happens to “good” people, then it is dangerous.

    And you state that we have a lot more to worry about in the church than the effect of a film on a nonbeliever. For the most part, I agree. And that agreement would lead me to wish we in the church wouldn’t enthusiastically jump up and down and promote this sort of book and film (not in any way saying you are doing that!). The evangelical world tends to go through fads: Prayer of Jabez, The Shack, this book/movie. I learned long ago after participating in some of them that most of these fads are not worth the time given to them and that we would all be better off spending that time in the true Word.

    And the article I referenced earlier was just that, an article about an interview, not the interview itself. The medium was one where they aren’t afraid to talk about Jesus…but He was wholly omitted, which leads me to believe He wasn’t mentioned as the primary message of the Burpos (my assumption). If I hear otherwise, I’ll say so on this thread.

    • says

      Charley, you were right to some degree. I apologize if my response was a little curt. I concur with everything you said and am also concerned about how the church devours all kinds of information that is disguised as “good” in replacing the Gospel. And, there are some out there taking advantage of that and marketing films and other things knowing that many leaders in the Christian sphere will support it, no questions asked. So, I appreciate your comments and concern. I am not sure if I feel as strongly as you do that if a movie tells a story about a real life situation, even if we may not know what actually happened, and the subject is “heaven” that it DEMANDS a full Gospel presentation. However, even in saying that I think of pariah’s like Rob Bell who will pray upon situations like this to further his heretical views of salvation. So, you may have a point. Good things to ponder!

      Again, as I stated initially, I always have and will respect you as a friend and co-laborer in Christ. Thanks for making me think and, again, forgive me if I was a little abrupt. Wasn’t upset at all.

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