Movie Review: “Heaven Is for Real”

At 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. This 2014 movie came from a book that claims to be a retelling of true events.

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 just been praying for.

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—that’s heaven. 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 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. It’s not my cup of tea, but then I’m not the intended audience. But, as usual, the claim of serious evidence to support the towering claim that the universe has a supernatural creator falls flat. The boy’s testable claims of things he could only have learned in heaven 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 modern-day 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: next time, give a camera crew a visit to heaven. The evidence would be more believable.

Not only is there financial motivation for the family to push this story, accurate or not, but the publisher and every other company in the distribution chain is so motivated. Where’s the vetting? Where’s the skepticism? These may be silly questions when there’s money to be made, but someone has to at least ask.

There has been some pushback. The boy behind another visitation book, The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven (the ironically named Alex Malarkey), admitted that the story was invented, and the publisher, Tyndale House, has since stopped selling the book. Shortly afterwards, LifeWay, one of the largest Christian bookstores, announced that it would drop the entire genre of “heaven visitation resources.”

I wonder how hard it was to do the right thing.

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

(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 4/16/14.)

Photo credit: Deadline

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Kevin K

    Jesus is blond and blue-eyed in heaven, apparently. Genetic anomalies for the rest of us; normal heavenly appearance.

    • adam
      • Kevin K

        Who looks suspiciously like Cesare Borgia.

      • Michael Neville

        With a Hispanic first name.

      • Chuck Johnson

        Not so miraculous.
        My mother and her sister Evelyn used to look a bit like Hana Rustom Archbold:
        http://www.shweir.com/

        My grandmother and grandfather left Shweir 117 years ago. They were Sarah and Said Hawie.
        Lebanese people are ethnically similar to Greeks and Italians, including a tendency to get Thalassemia.

        Checking the geography, I was surprised to discover that I am an Asian.

        • Michael Neville

          If you go back far enough you’ll discover you’re an African.

        • Greg G.

          If you go back far enough, you will probably find that we all came from the same brother and sister.

        • Chuck Johnson

          Check out PBS Nova’s “Becoming Human”, parts 1,2 and 3.
          Yes, one Badass African.

      • Rudy R

        Miracles aside, if Jesus did exist, he would have had similar facial characteristics of those in the East Mediterranean. In Trump world, the Muslim ban would have prevented him from entering the US.
        https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/8d34d90c596afd1edc067e0b0f8ff0f1e12f861d6732bb06fe827001df6ed631.png

        • JP415

          I sear, that guy asked me for spare change at the subway station.

  • Bob Jase

    HA! Satan cooks up a fake Heaven, tricks a kid into believing he’s been taken there and then convinces millions of ignorant believers that it was true.

  • Michael Neville

    Do you believe in sunsets, puppy dogs, and children? Well, there you go—that’s heaven.

    Puppy dogs are a figment of a diseased imagination. Ergo there’s no heaven.

  • watcher_b

    I’ve never looked into it, but my understanding is that the book in question had all kinds of theological problems and contradictions with the Bible in it as well.

  • http://musingsfromacorneroftheuniverse.blogspot.com/ Michael

    I’m not sure a near-death experience means you have to die (temporarily). Or is there even any set criteria?

    • Michael Neville

      The only “near death” experience that ever made sense to me was described in Terry Pratchett’s Thud. Sam Vimes is close to dying and sees Death. Death says: “You are having a near-death experience. Which consequently means that I have to have a near-Vimes experience.”

      Here’s Death and his granddaughter Susan. I’ve always pictured our Susan as looking like this:

      https://vignette.wikia.nocookie.net/sirenspull/images/4/4b/Family.jpg/revision/latest?cb=20100819161500

      • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

        Oh, come on. She doesn’t look anything like him! I’m supposed to think that they’re related?

        • Michael Neville

          You’re not looking at the entire Susan. As Rudyard Kipling noted in “The Ladies”:

          For the Colonel’s Lady an’ Judy O’Grady are sisters under their skins.

        • TheNuszAbides

          “Come on, he doesn’t look the slightest bit like me!”
          https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JNz4iHtGAvs

      • Michael Murray

        Apparently she looks just like Lady Mary Crawley from Downton Abbey.

        http://www.imdb.com/character/ch0035435/

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

      I do think that’s a requirement, though I could be wrong.

      We have a bin for NDEs, but a kid that visits heaven while under anesthesia where nothing bad happened medically?

      (Guy visits heaven during a real NDE, well, who’s going to argue against that? No one would quibble about that story. It’s the lack of an NDE that’s weird, almost like the kid made it up.)

  • Halbe

    Of course the anaesthesia-induced “memories” of a 4yr old can be trusted! And a pastor’s son, so he would never ever make things up. Besides, there is a book about it, so it must be true. You atheists just don’t want to see the truth, because you just want to sin, sin sin. /S

  • epicurus

    Medieval Christianity is full of this kind of stuff – visions and healings and ecstatic experiences of Jesus etc. Many protestants I’ve known are/were pretty sceptical of those Catholic claims. I guess the desire to believe this story is because the boy or his family is protestant. Kind of like Lee Strobel thinks his resurrection evidence is great but when the same type of resoning is used to prove a Mary sighting then, well, protestants aren’t interested, as if they suddenly get an anti supernatural bias.

    • Pofarmer

      Catholics are still peddling new ones, two.

      • epicurus

        That’s true, although today there is less from monks and nuns alone in a room or cell starving and abusing themselves so they can increase their chance of hallucinating and having an ecstatic experience.

  • Ctharrot

    Hindus who have religious near-death experiences don’t describe encountering an angel or spirit who explains that eternal damnation awaits because they aren’t Christian. Rather, they describe deities and motifs that reflect their beliefs.

    Of course, those visions are Satan’s work, or the traumatized human brain crafting vivid fantasies from personal expectations, or plain old fraud. Not like Christian near-death experiences.

  • Jack Baynes

    Colton confirms that, yes, her painting is a correct rendering of Jesus.

    Of course Kramarik’s paintings of Jesus look just like all the images of Jesus you would see in your average American Christian church (which both Kramarik and Colton would have been exposed to), and nothing like you would expect a 1st century Jew to have looked like.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

      Jesus was white! He was, he was, he was, he was, he was!

      • Lark62

        And he spoke English like a good ‘Mercan.

        • Greg G.

          Well, he spoke 15th century English like a good ‘Mercan prays in.

  • Kev Green

    The saddest part of this is that little Colton forgot to ask which version of God he was supposed to worship here on Earth in order to go back to Heaven when he actually died.

  • Herald Newman

    Personally, I always thought this was one of the best movies about what heaven is like:
    Tyler Benson describes heaven

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

      Jesus was lifting really heavy weights? And grunting when he did so? His arm muscles are so big that it looks like they are eating his head?

      That’s a cool Jesus. I kinda wish it wasn’t a joke.

    • Kodie
  • TheNuszAbides

    LifeWay, one of the largest Christian bookstores, announced that it would drop the entire genre of “heaven visitation resources.”

    wait, this isn’t The Onion? wow.

  • RichardSRussell

    Sitting on Jesus’s lap, eh? Well, that might explain why a lot of Catholic priests view themselves as Jesus’s successors on Earth.

    • Matt Cavanaugh

      Bet they’re glad now they didn’t cast Kevin Spacey as Jesus.

  • Michael Chima Ekenyerengozi

    Ratiocination is enough to make rational deductions from the story.

    It is irrational to ask for scientific proof of miracles.
    That is why they are called miracles.

    Akiane Kramarik’s testimony cannot sync with Colton Burpo when they never met before and had their separate divine encounters at 4 at different locations and times. Moreover, for a young girl to draw or paint with accuracy the picture of a man she saw in a vision consistently for over a decade, it has passed the test of time.

    See Akiane Kramarik : The Girl Who Saw JESUS on http://totnaija.blogspot.com.ng/2017/11/akiane-kramarik-girl-who-saw-jesus.html and get a copy of Stories of Pastor E. A. Adeboye: The Power of Testimony
    https://www.amazon.com/Stories-Pastor-Adeboye-Power-Testimony/dp/1544697953

    Your unbelief is your own problem and not the problem of the believers.