“Heaven Is for Real” certainly isn’t worth going out of your way to see – it’s a solidly mediocre and benignly forgettable film. But questions about heaven, hell and the fate of every person who ever lived are always worth pondering, and in that regard “Heaven Is for Real” offers a few theological diamonds in its dross.
“Heaven and hell have always been concepts that have been used to control and frighten people.”
So says church board member Nancy Rawling (Margo Martindale) when she’s confronted by the possibility that heaven may be more than a fairy-tale. Pastor Todd Burpo (Greg Kinnear—and yes, it’s “Burpo”) is dismissive of such concerns. But isn’t Nancy correct? Haven’t the promise of reward and the fear of punishment been used as a means of manipulation and control throughout the history of religion? Shouldn’t we, at least, take such concerns seriously?
Later, Nancy queries Todd about the fate of her deceased son:
Nancy: Do you think my son went to heaven?
Todd: Do you love your son, still?
Nancy: Of course.
Todd: Do you think I love mine?
Nancy: I know you do.
Todd: Do you think I love my son more than you love yours?
Todd: Do you think God loves my son more than he loves yours?
Beautiful! And it strikes to the very issue: Who goes to heaven? Does love win?
Finally, in his closing sermon, Todd Burpo frames heaven in terms of our world:
I can’t think of a better perspective on heaven and hell. If we’re not focused on bringing heaven to earth and working against the hell around us, does the afterlife even matter? (For a wonderful treatment of this exact question, see John Shore’s post “Is hell real?” What are we, six-year-olds?, from which Rob Bell heavily quoted in one of his last sermons as pastor of his mega-church Mars Hill.)
“Haven’t we already seen heaven in the first cry of a baby? The courage of a friend? The hands of a nurse or a doctor? The love of a mother, father. Haven’t we already had a glimpse of heaven? And so often chosen the hell of hate and fear. … Ten thousand times I’ve been here and I’ve talked about ‘on earth as it is in heaven’ and I don’t know that I ever listened to that.”
Though failing as a meaningfully cohesive work of cinema, “Heaven Is For Real” offers fertile ground for further reflection upon important life questions. To what extent are our beliefs about the afterlife informed by the self-serving interests of others (and the institutions in which they are invested)? How seriously do we take God’s love?
Are we choosing to properly appreciate and advance heaven in the world we find around us?