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Heaven is For Real: Heart-warming film without a heavenly road-map

April 28, 2014 One Comment

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by Ted Giese

Pulling into the number two spot at the box office on Easter weekend was the Christian-themed film Heaven is For Real, based on the popular book by the same name.

The film, like the book, tells the story of young Colton Burpo and his family following the boy’s revelation that he’d been to heaven while having an emergency appendectomy surgery. The family was already going through a tough time both financially and physically. Colton’s father, Rev. Todd Burpo, had suffered from kidney stones, a badly broken leg, and had undergone a mastectomy. Feeling a bit like Job, the prospect of losing his son pressed the pastor to the edge of doubt—a rough place to be for a father and pastor. The film details the struggles that came along with Colton’s testimony concerning heaven.

Readers who enjoyed the book will likely enjoy the movie. It stays close to what is found in the book, with one exception. Both the book and the film are presented as non-fiction—a challenge for the filmmakers because some Christians and non-Christian viewers will be sceptical of the story. What are the filmmakers to do? Do they make a movie that tries to convince the sceptical mind, or do they make a film that “preaches to the choir?”

In the end, they seem to attempt both and this is a weakness of the film. Even with Oscar-nominated actors like Greg Kinnear and Thomas Haden Church, and directed by Oscar-nominated Randall Wallace, there isn’t enough polish and credibility to cross this story into the mainstream—and mainstream crossover appeal is necessary for generating water cooler discussions of the question at hand: “Is heaven for real or not?” The film would have been stronger if it had narrowed its sights on a more targeted audience and then stayed true to that audience.

The movie has touching moments as it depicts the Christian family in a congenial way, even throwing some matrimonial romance into the mix. Dealing with financial issues, medical bills, and serious illnesses is compelling; many viewers will have faced the same real-life circumstances. Also compelling is the Burpo family’s need find “solid ground” in their times of trouble. In the end, the Burpo family finds their grounding in their Christian faith, as focused through the lens of young Colton’s experience.

And that’s the hard sell: Colton’s experience. It’s extraordinarily unusual, and for most people extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Remember last year’s film The Conjuring about a young family’s experience with ghosts? It too was presented as a true story based on a book and claimed to provide knowledge of life after death.

In Burpo’s book there is a moment when father and son are together driving along a road surrounded by Nebraska cornfields. Rev. Burpo notices St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, built in 1918, and asks himself “what the people of this longstanding local fixture would think of the things our little boy had been telling us?” The scene isn’t in the film, but the question’s fingerprints are all over the movie. And it’s a good question because Lutherans, along with other Christians, will ask “Is this story a true story?” Or at least, how much of this story is true?

Many Lutherans will evaluate the truth claims of the film using the yard stick of Holy Scripture. Where the film and book are in-line with Scripture, then the claims will be deemed acceptable; where they step away from Scripture, Lutherans and many other Christians will be suitably suspicious. For Christians, the final authority on heaven ultimately is the revealed Word of God which supersedes all other claims. The heart of this Word of God—the Gospel, the good news of the Bible—is Jesus, and if the film gets Jesus wrong then it will struggle to get the rest right.

For Christians, the final authority on heaven ultimately is the revealed Word of God which supersedes all other claims. The heart of this Word of God—the Gospel, the good news of the Bible—is Jesus, and if the film gets Jesus wrong then it will struggle to get the rest right.

St. Paul has strong words for those who misrepresent the gospel. In Galatians, he says, “Even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed” (Galatians 1:8). This is theological dynamite and it draws a fine point on the seriousness of the claims. Viewers of Heaven is For Real will have to consider whether Colton’s story is true and ultimately whether heaven is true.

Where the book is more compelling than the film is in its frequent insistence that a person needs to have Jesus in order to get to heaven. Is Jesus in Heaven is For Real? Yes. But there are missed opportunities in the film to make it as clear as it is in the book that Jesus is necessary for entry through those “pearly gates.” Why is this important? Well, if a viewer watches the film and walks out of the theatre saying, “I believe heaven is for real! That kid’s story convinced me of it; he just had to be telling the truth; how on earth could he have known those things if he wasn’t!” they may also be left with a new problem: “Heaven is for real, but now what? How do I get there?”

The film doesn’t definitively answer this. When thinking about this film, therefore, there’s an important axiom by Robert Preus to remember: “The Gospel assumed is the Gospel denied!” In the Gospel of John, Jesus Christ says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me” (John 14:6). The film isn’t as clear as Jesus.

If viewers hope to see a visual representation of heaven they may be underwhelmed by the film’s portrayal of Jesus, angels, and heaven. If viewers are looking for a strong, clear proclamation of the Gospel, they too may be underwhelmed by the film’s presentation of Rev. Burpo’s faith and preaching. If viewers are looking to be convinced heaven is for real by hard evidence or wise philosophy, they won’t find them here. Those seeking to know if heaven is for real would be better served by going to a place where Christ crucified is preached, where the Jesus of Scripture is clearly proclaimed.

If on the other hand a viewer is seeking a heartwarming, G-rated film with above-average acting, solid production values, and a happy ending then Heaven is For Real will be satisfying. But after watching this film, the Christian needs to ask, “Where does my assurance come from? What do I believe is the standard for truth? What makes a true story true?”

Apart from such theological questions, the film-goer may simply ask, “Is this a good movie?” The answer to that question is, it’s an ok movie—maybe a bit above average. It’s better than a made-for-TV Hallmark Hall of Fame film but it’s not going to receive any Oscar buzz come awards season.

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Rev. Ted Giese is associate pastor at Mount Olive Lutheran Church in Regina. He reviews movies for both The Canadian Lutheran and Issues, Etc.

  • reddog44

    Pastor
    Giese, thank you for your critique of the film, and it does need to be put into
    perspective that yes it is only a film and as such has many shortcomings.

    However, I think in your criticism you were somewhat unfair, (“plank vs.
    speck”) by stating: “Those seeking to know if heaven is for real
    would be better served by going to a place where Christ crucified is preached,
    where the Jesus of Scripture is clearly proclaimed.” I think, you raised
    the expectation of a movie and expected the film to be evangelistic or to be
    placed in a church setting. Yes, it did fail in that regard, but how many more
    people went to see the film that would never darken a church door, and may now
    consider the Christian faith?

    We Lutherans tend to be overtly critical, but are we also
    failing to the see the hand of God in others, such as this movie? Yes, we need
    to be careful, but can we come across as less harsh?

    I saw the film and would highly recommend it.

    Cliff