A Theologian’s Reflections on the Movie “Heaven Is for Real”
Either serendipitously or providentially, this coming week my Christian Theology class is studying personal, individual life after death—”heaven” and “hell.” After that they/we will study corporate, cosmic eschatology—the future of creation. So, seeing that this week, before class, the movie version of the best-selling book Heaven Is for Real was being released, I asked my students to see it if possible and told them we will devote some class time to discussion of the movie.
I read the book soon after it was published—about four years ago. I don’t remember enough details to compare everything in the movie with the book. I just remember that it’s the purportedly true story of a four year old boy, son of a Wesleyan pastor in Nebraska, who visited heaven while undergoing surgery. According to the boy, he saw Jesus, heard and saw angels, and met his great-grandfather (who died before he was born) and his sister who he didn’t even know ever existed (because she died in the womb two months before she was to be born and his parents never mentioned her to him).
Naturally, as an evangelical Christian, I’m inclined to believe in some “near death” experiences (which are sometimes actual death experiences but in Colton Burpo’s [the boy's] case he did not actually die). Others I’m not so sure about. I probably was and am inclined to take this one more seriously just because the boy seems not to have been coached (unless his parents are simply lying) and his parents are Wesleyan Church pastors. I like the Wesleyan Church. (If I wasn’t a Baptist and lived near a Wesleyan Church I’d probably attend it. Or if there wasn’t a “good” Baptist church I’d probably attend the Wesleyan Church. I digress.)
First let me say I went to the movie with a healthy mood of combined openness and skepticism. I rarely see evangelical Christianity portrayed in movies fairly. Usually, everything is going along okay until, suddenly, the movie makers put a huge crucifix on the church wall behind the pulpit—or some other gross anomaly. Or they have the allegedly evangelical Protestant congregation singing “Ave Maria” or something. It’s a pet peeve of mine. But I tend also to be skeptical, not unwilling to believe, of personal experiences of God and Jesus. So many I’ve encountered are grossly unbiblical, silly, ridiculous—by any standard.
Second, I will say the movie was not at all bad. I was pleasantly surprised. For the most part, evangelical Christianity was treated sympathetically or at least realistically. (I actually convinced myself that the Hollywood movie makers would not allow the church to be “Wesleyan” but would make it generically Protestant. I was pleasantly surprised to see the sign outside the church say “Wesleyan.” Maybe some people will actually go home and look that up and read about it!) I found the pastor’s (Todd Burpo played by Greg Kinnear) skepticism about his son’s experience a little surprising; I would think your typical Wesleyan pastor would be more open than that. Same with the church leaders. And the culminating sermon left something to be desired; it was a little vague and could be interpreted as saying it doesn’t matter whether heaven is a literal place or not.
I was glad the movie didn’t try to depict God the Father or heaven in too much vivid detail or for very long. Even Jesus was depicted with a soft focus lens. At the end of the movie, of course, a girl’s painting of Jesus is declared to be just what Jesus looks like. That’s a bit startling as he has green-blue eyes! Jesus was and is Jewish and not many Jews of Palestine in the first century would have green-blue eyes.
My wife says I’m overly nit-picky. I realize that. But that’s the side effect of being a theologian and really caring about theology.
So here comes my main critique of the book and movie. I believe in the “intermediate state”—the technical theological term for conscious life after death before resurrection. But I fear the book and movie will reinforce the popular idea that the intermediate state is actually the fullness of heaven (and therefore not an intermediate state!). It isn’t. In fact, we are told very little about it in Scripture. Jesus called it (for the saved) “Paradise.” Paul referred to it as the “third heaven.” But Jesus told his disciples he would go away and prepare a place for them, then return and take them there—to his “Father’s house” with many rooms. So the fullness of heaven is after Christ returns. The “blessed hope” of believers in Christ has always been not the intermediate state, a bodiless existence of being with Christ, but the resurrection and the new heaven and new earth—liberated from bondage to decay (Romans 8).
The book and movie force us to think about this issue. Do we have to choose between the Bible’s revelation of personal eschatology (intermediate state then resurrection and heaven) and personal experiences of life after death?
As fascinating, inspiring and emotionally titillating as Colton Burpo’s experience was, we must not allow it or any other such testimony to become the basis of Christian belief. Our belief is based on Christ and his resurrection and on the Scriptural witness to him and to God’s plan for us. As Reinhold Niebuhr said, “We should not want to know too much about the furniture of heaven or the temperature of hell.” The key is “too much.” We can only “know” (believe) what Scripture says about life after death before the resurrection and that’s not much.