Is Heaven Is for Real a “Christian movie”?
The question may seem like a no-brainer, since the film is based on a best-selling Christian book and there has been a lot of talk in the media about the Christian faith of writer-director Randall Wallace and some of the film’s producers, including megachurch leader T.D. Jakes and studio executive DeVon Franklin.
But the film is still a product of corporate Hollywood, and as such, it alters the story in ways that are designed to appeal to a mass audience. The film thus lacks the authenticity of independent Christian films like, say, God’s Not Dead.
As it happens, I really didn’t like God’s Not Dead, but I at least appreciated the fact that the characters in that film spoke in believably evangelical ways, dropping names like C.S. Lewis, Lee Strobel and the Newsboys in casual conversation.
There is none of that in Heaven Is for Real. The first time we see Todd Burpo (Greg Kinnear) preach a sermon, he talks about some children’s story involving a lion, a bear and a unicorn. It sounds like the sort of thing that Lewis might have written in one of his Narnia books, and it certainly seems possible that writer-director Wallace could have snuck a reference into the film since he’s an avowed Lewis fan, but Todd never mentions Lewis by name — and a friend of mine who knows the Narnia sequels much better than I do tells me the story told by Todd is definitely not in there. So what we seem to have here is a mish-mash of quasi-Narnian story elements — which kind of prefigures how the rest of the film will be a mish-mash of other things, too.
Now, just to be clear, I don’t mind that the film changes the story. All films do, to one extent or another. And I can understand why Wallace and his colleagues felt they needed to add “conflict” to the story that wasn’t there in the book.
They do this, most notably, by creating church-board members who threaten to fire Burpo from his pastorate if he continues to go public with the fact that his four-year-old son Colton (Connor Corum) claims to have gone to Heaven while he was on the operating table. They also do this by having the Burpos’ neighbours taunt them over Colton’s claims, and by making Todd and his wife, Sonja (Kelly Reilly), more reluctant to believe Colton’s claims than they were in the book.
In the book, Todd is constantly saying how Colton’s claims reminded him of one Bible passage or another. In the film, however, there are very few Bible references — I can remember only one, when Todd quotes the bit about a thousand years being like a day for God — and Todd repeatedly seeks validation from more secular sources.
He visits a doubting psychology professor who offers naturalistic explanations for Colton’s visions. He cites Einstein to explain why Colton could have spent a long time in Heaven while only a few minutes passed on Earth. And he even offers naturalistic explanations of his own for some of Colton’s claims: when Colton says that Jesus had green or blue eyes — rather than the darker colours one might expect of a Middle Easterner — Todd remarks that those are the colours of Colton’s parents’ eyes.
I actually don’t have a problem with most of this. While I do wish the film had kept more of the book’s distinctly Christian flavour, I can appreciate the fact that the filmmakers wanted to acknowledge and address the sorts of questions and concerns that some of the non-Christians in the audience might have.
Where things get sticky, though, is when the film changes the actual content of Colton’s visions themselves, and the lessons that both Colton and his father draw from those visions.
First, on a somewhat trivial level, the film modifies the visions so that they won’t seem too kitschy to the average viewer. Colton mentions the rainbow-coloured horse that Jesus rides in Heaven, but we never see it. And the people who have died and gone to Heaven don’t have wings, as Colton claimed they did in the book.
The film also eliminates a number of the specifically Christian details of Colton’s vision. We never see him sitting next to the third person of the Trinity, i.e. the Holy Spirit. We never see him meet John the Baptist or the Virgin Mary. And the film never shows God the Father sitting on his throne, as far as I can recall.
Instead, the only biblical figure Colton meets is Jesus, who is such a familiar figure within our culture that his presence in this film doesn’t have the potential to turn away non-religious viewers the way some of the other characters might.
More tellingly, in the film, Colton never sees Satan, nor does he see a vision of the future in which his father joins the angels and the other dead Christians in doing battle with the monsters described in the Book of Revelation. (In Colton’s visions, it is only the men, not the women and children, who take up arms against Hell.)
In the film, nobody talks about Hell, except to dismiss the idea. If memory serves, the subject comes up in only one scene, when the church board meets with Todd to give him their ultimatum (i.e., stop talking about the visions or they find a new pastor):
Nancy Rawling: Heaven and Hell have always been concepts that have been used to control and frighten people.
Todd Burpo: That’s one way to look at it, but all Colton has ever talked about is Heaven and how it’s a beautiful place.
As you can see, the Nancy character is afraid of all this “Heaven” talk because she thinks it will lead to “Hell” talk (as it does, indeed, in the book). But the movie version of Todd reassures her that Colton has said nothing about Hell — and indeed, for the duration of the film, Colton never does say anything about Hell.
So, both the protagonist and the antagonist are agreed that Hell has no place in the message of this film. And yet, it’s a significant part of the book. Consider what Colton tells his dad on page 136:
“There’s going to be a war, and it’s going to destroy this world. Jesus and the angels and the good people are going to fight against Satan and the monsters and the bad people. I saw it. . . . In heaven, the women and the children got to stand back and watch. So I stood back and watched. . . . But the men, they had to fight. And Dad, I watched you. You have to fight too.”
What Colton tells his dad here fits perfectly within an evangelical worldview, but the film cuts it out, no doubt because it might seem too divisive.
So, without any concept of Hell or spiritual warfare, the film lapses into another form of Hollywood spirituality that is at odds with the book and its evangelical roots: namely, the film leaves the viewer with the impression that it doesn’t matter much to a person’s eternal fate whether that person believes in Jesus before he or she dies.
There are at least three significant ways in which the film steers the story in a different direction than the book does, in this regard.
First, there is Colton’s insistence — in the book, but not in the film — that people need to have a conversion experience in order to get into Heaven.
In the book, Colton comes out of his near-death experience adamant that people need to believe in Jesus before they die, otherwise they won’t get into Heaven. From page 57, after Todd tells Colton about a man’s upcoming funeral:
Instantly, Colton’s demeanor changed. His face fell into serious lines, and he stared fiercely into my eyes. “Did the man have Jesus in his heart?”
My son was asking me whether the man who had died was a Christian who had accepted Christ as his Savior. But his intensity caught me off guard. “I’m not sure, Colton,” I said. “I didn’t know him very well.”
Colton’s face bunched up in a terrible twist of worry. “He had to have Jesus in his heart! He had to know Jesus or he can’t get into heaven!”
Later, on pages 58 and 59, the Burpo family goes to the funeral and, standing outside the sanctuary, Todd explains who’s in the casket:
Suddenly, Colton’s face gathered into that same knot of intense concern. He slammed his fists on his thighs, then pointed one finger at the casket and said in a near shout, “Did that man have Jesus?”
Sonja’s eyes popped wide, and we both glanced at the sanctuary doorway, terrified the family inside could hear our son.
“He had to! He had to!” Colton went on. “He can’t get into heaven if he didn’t have Jesus in his heart!”
Sonja grabbed Colton by the shoulders and tried to shush him. But he was not shushable. Now nearly in tears, Colton twisted in her arms and yelled at me, “He had to know Jesus, Dad!”
Second, there is the fate of Todd’s grandfather, “Pop.”
In the film, Todd says no one ever knew what his grandfather believed, and one of the reasons he became a minister was essentially to see if he could intercede with God on his grandfather’s behalf — to see if he could get Pop “a break”, as he puts it. When Colton tells Todd that he met Pop in heaven, that seems to settle the question.
In the book, however, Todd is careful to let his readers know that Pop “gave his life to Christ” at a special church service only two days before his death — and that Todd didn’t learn about this until a few years after Colton’s near-death experience.
So where the movie Todd seeks validation from psychology professors and theoretical physicists, the book Todd is more concerned with making sure that Colton’s visions line up with evangelical beliefs about the steps that one needs to take in order to “qualify” for heaven. That’s the kind of validation he seeks.
Finally, there is a key bit of dialogue that has been recontextualized so that it now hints at a greater inclusiveness on God’s part than the book did.
In both the book and the film, Colton talks about meeting a girl in Heaven who turned out to be an older sister that his mother had miscarried before he was born. Later on, in the book (on page 146), someone asks Todd if Colton saw her stillborn daughter in heaven, and since Todd doesn’t know, this is the exchange they have:
“Ma’am, do you believe God loves me?” I said.
She blinked away her tears. “Well … yes.”
“Do you believe he loves you as much as he loves me?”
“Yes. Yes, I do.”
Then I nodded at her young son beside her. “Do you believe God loves your son here as much as he loves Colton?”
She paused to process that question, then answered, “Yes, of course.”
“Well, if you believe God loves you as much as loves me, and you believe he loves your living son as much as loves my living son, don’t you believe he loves your unborn child as much as he loves mine?”
Suddenly, the woman stopped trembling and smiled. “I never thought about it that way.”
The exchange here poses no challenge to the popular evangelical belief that people need to convert in this lifetime, because there is a widely-accepted loophole for children who have not yet reached something called “the age of accountability”. You can see this idea at work in, say, the Left Behind franchise, where God does not merely rapture all the Christians off the face of the earth, but all the children, too.
And, given the rise of pro-life sentiments in the evangelical subculture since the 1970s, this exemption from the need to convert is especially true for children who haven’t even been born yet; the book version of Left Behind even makes a point of describing how a pregnant woman’s belly deflates when the Rapture happens.
But this bit of dialogue is significantly recontextualized in the film, so that it now takes place between Todd and his former nemesis Nancy — and it now concerns a grown son of hers who died as a soldier overseas. (While the book takes place mostly in 2003, the tombstone over the grave for Nancy’s son says he died in 2009.)
Todd Burpo: Do you love your son, still?
Nancy Rawling: Of course.
Todd Burpo: Do you think I love mine?
Nancy Rawling: I know you do.
Todd Burpo: Do you think I love my son more than you love yours?
Nancy Rawling: No.
Todd Burpo: Do you think God loves my son more than he loves yours?
The question of whether Nancy’s adult son believed in Jesus — which would have been so, so important to the Burpos of the book — is simply never brought up here. And lest there be any lingering doubt about the fate of Nancy’s son, the climax to the film gives Nancy a vision of her own when her son appears to her during a church service.
Just to be clear, I don’t have strong feelings about this film one way or the other. Artistically, it’s pretty middle-of-the-road, and theologically, I tend to be more inclusive than the book is myself. (Eastern Orthodox sensibilities on this point are a bit different from the evangelical sensibilities with which I was raised.)
But given how strongly this film has been promoted to the evangelical audience, I do think it needs to at least be noted that the film has made some significant changes to the book, in ways that steer the story away from its evangelical roots.
With regard to the real-life Colton’s visions themselves, I have no particular opinion, except to note that they express precisely the sort of Christianity that one would expect a child raised in that environment to express, and that I’m a little cautious around the book’s assumption that children of a certain age can always be believed when they describe encounters that they claim to have had with the supernatural.
(I am reminded of the movie FairyTale: A True Story, and how it played on the notion that neither children nor cameras ever lie. But even if Colton didn’t make it all up, there is still the question of whether he knew how to distinguish between actual experience and memories of something else. We might also ask how accurately his father remembered all this when he wrote a book about it seven years later.)
In both the book and the film, to confirm Colton’s visions, Todd ends up turning to the visions of another child who was raised in an atheist home, and whose visions seem to match those of Colton’s. If two kids raised with different beliefs on opposite sides of the planet saw the same thing, then that must mean something, right?
In the book, Todd describes watching a CNN report about a girl named Akiane Kramarik, who started having “visions” when she was three or four years old, and who began painting when she was six. At the age of eight, she painted the picture of Jesus that you see here. Todd, who had been showing Colton pictures of Jesus for years to see if any of them matched what Colton saw in Heaven (and up to this point, none of them had), paused the CNN report to show this image to Colton (pages 144-145):
“Take a look at this,” I said, nodding toward the computer monitor. “What’s wrong with this one?”
He turned to the screen and for a long moment said nothing.
But he just stood there, studying. I couldn’t read his expression.
“What’s wrong with this one, Colton?” I said again.
I nudged him in the arm. “Colton?”
My seven-year-old turned to look at me and said, “Dad, that one’s right.”
Knowing how many pictures Colton had rejected, Sonja and I finally felt that in Akiane’s portrait, we’d seen the face of Jesus. Or at least a startling likeness.
That’s pretty much how the scene plays in the film. Todd is watching a CNN report on his laptop — though the footage seems identical to the movie’s prologue, which showed Akiane beginning the portrait — and Colton, who has not almost doubled in age here the way he had in real life, walks over and looks at the screen.
Todd Burpo: At the age of four, she began to describe her visits to Heaven, see?
Colton Burpo: (gasps)
Todd Burpo: Colton? Are you okay?
Colton Burpo: That’s him.
Todd Burpo: That’s… him?
Colton Burpo: (walks away)
Todd Burpo: But, Colton. That’s him? That’s who you saw? Colton, come here!
Interestingly, this portrait is not based on a vision, at least not directly, but on a model who resembled what Akiane said she had seen in her dreams. From a profile of the artist in the July/August 2004 issue of Today’s Christian:
“I always think about Jesus and talk about Him,” she says. “I was looking for a [Jesus] model for a long, long time, and when I couldn’t find anyone, one day I suggested to my family to pray all day for this model so God would send the right one.” The day that they prayed, a very tall carpenter—yes, a carpenter—came to their door looking for work. When he showed up, Akiane nearly fainted. “I told my mother that that was him. I want him to be my model,” she recalls.
The carpenter agreed to it at first, but he called a week later to back out.
“He said that he wasn’t worthy to represent his Master,” Akiane says. “He’s a Christian, and he’s a humble person. But I prayed that God would change his mind and that he would call back.” And the mysterious carpenter, who wished to remain anonymous, did call Akiane back, saying that God wanted him to pose for the painting, although he felt it was unusual.
Akiane took pictures, studied his face, made sketches, used her imagination and photo references, and the result was the “Prince of Peace.”
Make of that what you will.
But I think it’s also worth noting that the film makes some odd changes to Akiane’s back-story. The film begins with a subtitle that tells us the prologue is set in “Lithuania – Present Day”, and it ends with Todd watching the CNN report and calling her “a girl on the other side of the world.” But Akiane, whose mother is indeed Lithuanian, was born in Illinois and raised in Idaho, and is thus just as American as Colton. And she completed this painting sometime after her eighth birthday in 2002, before even the real-life Colton had had his near-death experience.
Changes like these don’t really mean much in the grand scheme of things. But it’s precisely the fact that these details don’t really matter that makes me wonder why the filmmakers changed them in the first place. Did they feel that they needed to put even more distance between Colton and Akiane to make the similarities between their visions seem like a much bigger sort of coincidence, perhaps?
Finally, on a theological note, I have to note that it is kind of odd that a movie on this subject was released just in time for Easter, because the whole point of Easter is the bodily resurrection of Christ, which points forward to the bodily resurrection of us all.
In casual speech, people often talk about “going to Heaven” or “going to Hell” when we die, but Christianity has always been a bit more complicated than that, and has always emphasized the physicality of our new bodies and the new Earth in which we will live. What exactly is meant by all that is a bit mysterious, but the fact that it has already happened — to Jesus — gives us some idea of what to look forward to.
So, yes, Heaven is for real. But it is not our final destination.