Movie Review: “Heaven Is for Real”

Heaven is for real movieAt age four, Colton Burpo visits heaven during an emergency operation. This isn’t a near-death experience, since he never died on the operating table. Nevertheless, he freaks out his parents as he tells them what he saw in heaven.

The movie opens with father Todd Burpo. He installs garage doors, and we see him installing a door at a carpet warehouse, taking carpet in trade (though he has bills to pay), and giving the carpet to the church. He’s the wrestling coach, he puts flowers at a grave, he’s a volunteer fireman, and he’s a pastor. Quite a guy.

In addition to his bills, God burdens him with some medical difficulties of his own, and then he has the close call with his son.

A pastor whose own son personally visited heaven? Sounds heavenly, but it causes division in the church. Sure, they’re good Christians who believe in heaven, but as a place that you could visit? You mean, like actually believe in heaven? They don’t want people laughing at their church.

It’s like the story of Peter getting out of prison in Acts 12. An angel frees him, and he returns to a house where supporters had been praying for his release. The servant runs to tell the supporters, but they think she’s crazy. They won’t believe that Peter was freed though that was precisely what they’d been praying for.

So do modern Christians actually believe what they’re supposed to believe?

(Spoiler, of sorts.) The story culminates with a packed church. The press is there, curious to hear more about this nutty story. There are the church elders, who have given Todd an ultimatum—get the church back on a sensible track or else. His wife and two kids are there, and this experience has been challenging for all of them. There’s even the psychology professor who Todd had visited to get more information about claims of heavenly visits. As an atheist, she stands in for the skeptics in the audience.

Todd’s job and reputation are on the line.

He begins by suggesting to the congregation that if they actually did believe in heaven, they’d all lead different lives. But what is heaven? It’s simply the best of life on earth—“on earth as it is in heaven,” as the Lord’s Prayer says.

This is the “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus” approach to heaven. Do you believe in sunsets, puppy dogs, and children? Well, there you go. Bypassing the supernatural makes this easy to accept, but I don’t think everyone will be satisfied.

Pastor Todd brings the church community together, keeps his job, and soon discovers that his wife is pregnant again. After a few years, his money problems are taken care of, too. The book, written with the help of Sarah Palin’s ghost writer, was a bestseller in 2010, and the movie has pushed it back to the top of the bestseller lists.

The journey of this story parallels that of the gospel story. We’re seeing a movie, which came from a book, which was the result of an editorial process on a draft written by an outside author, which came after years of oral history within a Christian household.

As a sweet Christian story, this movie works fine. But, as usual, the claim of serious evidence to support the towering claim that the universe has a supernatural creator falls flat. Colton’s verifiable claims of things he learned are that (1) he saw his parents in separate rooms in the hospital as he had his out-of-body experience, (2) he could identify his father’s grandfather by a photo, and (3) he knew that his mother had had a miscarriage. That’s it. Like the stories of appearances of Mary, limbs growing back, and dead being resurrected, I await serious evidence. (I’ve written about fallible memory here and tales growing over time here.)

The story is bookended by Akiane Kramarik (a real person, now 19) who paints about her impressions of heaven after God spoke to her when she was three. Colton confirms that, yes, her painting is a correct rendering of Jesus. Apparently we’re to connect the dots. God isn’t so hidden after all. He’s planting visions of heaven in the minds of children.

A tip for God: a camera crew would be more reliable.

At age 4, the inability to distinguish
between fantasy and reality is charming.
Among American adults, widespread identification
with the mind of a preschooler is scary.

Only in America could a book like this
be classified as non-fiction.
— Susan Jacoby, commenting on the book

Photo credit: Deadline

Christianity Is a Hospital, and Sinners Are Ill (Or Not)
God’s Kryptonite
Insight Into the Evangelical Persecution Complex
Rationalizing Away the “Canaanite Problem”
About Bob Seidensticker
  • The Thinking Commenter

    The story is bookended by Akiane Kramarik (a real person, now 19) who paints about her impressions of heaven after God spoke to her when she was three.

    Jesus looks like Bradley Cooper apparently.

    • StyrrErnstson

      Oh course. You wouldn’t expect a first century Jew to look like anything other than a white guy, would you?

      • RichardSRussell

        Did you see Son of God? Mr. Smiley Guy looked exactly like all the pious paintings of white Euro Jesus you’ve ever seen. Plus which he was taller than everyone around him.

        OTOH, the poor guy playing Pontius Pilate was evidently told that nobody would believe his frown if it was only as subtle as Ciaran Hinds, so he had to really oversell it just to dramatize that he was, you know, the bad guy — in case the spate of crucifixions and floggings he was freely dispensing were inadequate to make the point.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          You mean Diogo Morgado, a 6′ 3″ Portuguese model? Yes, he’s pretty gorgeous.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      He has “light eyes,” according to the movie

  • RichardSRussell

    So if this 4-year-old child had seen, say, his imaginary friend, the talking dog Wooffo, but nobody else had, would the entire village have applauded his marvelous insights into the Unseen World, or would they have chalked it up to an overactive imagination of a little kid in a stressful situation?

    • Bob Seidensticker

      Ah, but you’re missing the crucial fact: his claims could be cross-checked against the predominant views of the supernatural within his culture.

      And they checked out! What’re the chances?!

      • Burner

        Yeah… those predominant views are what gave rise to the experience. Really insightful there Bob.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          (I suspect that we’re on the same side of this issue.)

  • avalon

    “This isn’t a near-death experience, since he never died on the operating table.”

    What a shame! Heaven used to be a very exclusive club. Everyone knew there was a hefty price to pay to get past the velvet rope and bouncer (you had to die). Now, all of a sudden, they’re letting the living, breathing riff-raff in?

    • Pofarmer

      Preachers kid had a dream under anasthesia. Stop the presses.

      • Castilliano

        Best summation ever.

  • Pofarmer

    I have been talking with my kids some about the Eric Hoffer book “True Beleivers”. One of the things that he talks about is how any mass movement must concentrate on how bad the present is, how the past was better, and the future can be glorious if you just follow the movement. This is as true for the march on wallstreet crowd as it is for the teaparty types. So middle son comes home yesterday and says “the really do talk down the present in church, don’t they.”. I said “well, what did they say?”. “Well, they were talking about mass media, and how everybody is on youtube and twitter, and facebook, and there is skype and facetime and you can be connected all the time.”. I didn’t get the exact argument, he just turned 13, after all, but I’m sure the gist of it was that all this mass media is bad, and the simpler times before it were good. I had mentioned this phoenomenon before to my wife. How I was tired of the Church always telling us how horrible things are. I’m sure other churches do it, but the Catholic Church is horrible about it, IMHO, and they can use it to drive the guilt complex. But anyway, before I started rambling, my point was that even kids can start looking for things once they know what to look for.

    • MNb

      “they can use it to drive the guilt complex.”
      This is one of the things I dislike most in religion – any religion. It’s hard enough for me to cope with the many flaws in my character; I don’t need any religion to provide me with more.

    • wtfwjtd

      Rest assured, Catholics don’t have a monopoly on the bad times -n- guilt stuff. Protestants also go overboard in their zeal to keep their flocks stirred up, dissatisfied with themselves(and their circumstances, whatever they may be), and needy too. And wouldn’t ya know, their local church just happens to have the magical remedy to all those ills? Give us your money, we’ll allow you access to Jesus, and wala! Your problems are (temporarily) suspended.

      • Pofarmer

        It doesn’t even have to be a religious group. If you can get a hold of the Hoffer book, it really is an enlightening read.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      Ask someone who makes this argument if they’d rather be living now as a middle class person in the West or a king 500 years ago. Sure, kings got more chicks, but they also got killed in battle, and they were as susceptible to plague as anyone. Castles are fun for a tourist, but they’re cold and smoky if you’ve actually got to live there. Food in the winter is limited, and there was no internet. Superstition ruled.

      I think I’ll go with the present.

      • Pofarmer

        Most people I’ve encountere don’t have the historical literacy to understand what life was like at the turn of the century, let alone 500 years ago. Try to make someone understand how bad infant mortality was before the advent of pennicillin.

        • Greg G.

          Most people I’ve encountere don’t have the historical literacy to understand what life was like at the turn of the century,

          The turn of which century? I think you might be showing your age. I almost used that phrase with some college students. It loses something when you have to specify the century you mean.

        • Pofarmer

          Aw, shit.

        • Greg G.

          I remember my grandparents calling the refrigerator an “icebox”. At least we know why we say we are “dialing” a phone number.

  • jonch

    There’s also the minor fact that this story is refuted in John 3:13: “No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven–the Son of Man.”

    Christians are as ignorant of their own bible as they are of reality.

  • Pofarmer

    Stay Classy Catholics. Apparently, today in religion class, one of the kids says that since his brother was Baptist he was going to become Baptist as well. The Priest told him that “He better enjoy this life, because he wasn’t going to enjoy the next.” God, I hate the Catholic Church.

  • wtfwjtd

    So, if an adult in this church had come up with this heaven story, would it be believable? Or, does the fact that it came from a 4-year-old preacher’s kid make it even more believable to these people?

  • SparklingMoon

    The hereafter is a reflection of this world, and the condition of a person after death is nothing new. It is a clear representation of his life in this world. The condition of a person’s beliefs and actions, righteous or unrighteous, is hidden inside him in this world and its poison or antidote influences him in a secret way. In the life after death all these will become manifest. One experiences a sample of it in dreams. In a dream, one observes the conditions which prevail at the time in one’s body. When one is heading towards high fever, one beholds fire and flames of fire in one’s dream and when one is about to suffer from influenza, one finds oneself in water in a dream. Whatever disorder one’s body is ready for is personified in one’s dreams. The same is the case in the life after death. As a dream produces a change inside us and demonstrates our spiritual condition in a physical form, the same will happen in the life after death and our deeds and their consequences will be physically demonstrated and whatever we carry with us from this world in a hidden manner will all appear openly on our countenances on that day. As a person views diverse forms of images in a dream and never considers that they are images, but believes them to be real, the same will happen in the life after death.

  • RichardSRussell

    So I saw the movie, because — as part of my self-imposed obligation to see every science-fiction and fantasy movie that hits town so I can review them for my listserv and at SF cons — it looked like it might have some fantasy elements. I ended up classifying it as “borderline” which is where I put movies that are not clearly SF or fantasy but might be if viewed from a certain angle.

    The Burpos are presented as being among the nicest people you could ever hope to meet, and not in any “holier than thou” sense but as solid, down-to-Earth working folk, a kind, loving, and happy family. Rev. Burpo declines the title, saying “Call me Todd” even to members of his own congregation, and he wears a work shirt and sits in the pews with the other congregants while the church service is doing other things, like Bible readings or singing.

    The skeptical attitude is clearly articulated by several different people in the film, including Todd Burpo himself, who’s clearly having trouble wrestling with what his son has been saying and how he should react to it. And the conclusion is not some grand revelation or depiction of the “real” heaven but rather an informal sermon in which Todd (well played by Greg Kinnear) tells his fellow congregants that “on Earth as it is in heaven” means that we should each appreciate the little bit of heaven we share when we appreciate the people who love us.

    Frankly, an avowed humanist couldn’t have put it much better.

    Still, there’s the obvious fact that little Colton has been drenched in religion for almost his entire waking life, and that total immersion surely accounts for everything he claims to have seen. Nor does the film stint from pointing out that perfectly naturalistic explanation.

    In short, if you were expecting a piece of pious propaganda, this isn’t it. It’s more like a nice, non-saccharine family drama with unusual subject matter, kind of along the lines of We Bought a Zoo.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      Thanks for the input.

    • Norm Donnan

      Darn it Bob,a balanced review,oh no.
      This may be a naturalistic explanation to you except people dont tell their 4yo’s most of the details this child brought up.
      In fact after being in church all my life Ive never heard a sermon on heaven.
      ocassionly a passing referance maybe but no details.

      • Bob Seidensticker

        Would you be convinced that this was an actual visitation if it was to some other religion’s heaven?

        • Norm Donnan

          I would be convinced this person had a real experience,having said that while I find peoples experiences encouraging and interesting I dont base my theology on them,only on what the bible has to say and on the known nature of God.

  • Trish Pickard

    The book, HEAVEN IS
    FOR REAL was a fascinating read for me.
    For many it has given them hope for eternal life. To me, this is a far too important a subject
    to put my hope in a little boy’s experience.
    I wanted to see what God had to say so I went to the Bible. I have written a Bible study about
    heaven. I would be delighted to send you
    a free copy. Email me at and I will
    email you a copy. I was disappointed in
    the movie, they added some things they did not happen and left out other great information. I suggest that if you have only seen the
    movie, you read the book. Trish Pickard

  • Asmondius

    A tip for Bob – it’s a movie.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      Show me how no Christians saw this movie as an argument in favor of Christianity and your dismissive comment will make sense. Until that time, your “rebuttal” is meaningless.