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Skip the Sanitized “Heaven Is For Real” Movie

Why the Heaven Is For Real Movie Left Me Frustrated Sony Pictures

Sony Pictures

Brantly Millegan - published on 04/16/14

I think it might actually kill Hollywood if they ever make a faithful Christian movie.

Before I was invited to an early screening of Heaven Is For Real, I honestly had almost no interest in the movie or the best-selling book on which it’s based. It purports to be a private revelation of heaven and (1) my default approach to alleged private revelations is skepticism, and (2) even if the story is true, it can’t add to the complete revelation of Christ anyway. I have other books to read, so what’s the point?

Now that I’ve both read the book and seen the movie, I can say the book is actually quite interesting and mostly innocuous, but that the film is a waste of time and probably harmful.

For those unfamiliar with the incredible cultural phenomenon that is Heaven Is For Real, the book was published in 2010 and tells the story of a 4 year old boy, Colton Burpo, who visited heaven during a life-saving emergency surgery. He says he saw Jesus, God the Father, God the Holy Spirit, John the Baptist, Mary, various angels, and even Satan.

What makes the story compelling, though, is that Colton also shares information from his experience that his parents conclude he couldn’t have otherwise known about, such as what his parents were doing during his surgery, the fact his mother had miscarried a child before he was born, what his father’s grandfather looked like, and various biblical and theological concepts. The final coup de grâce in convincing his parents of his experience is that he points to a painting by another young child who claims to have seen Jesus as most accurately depicting what Jesus looked like.

There are some quirky things about Colton’s story – he says everybody in heaven has wings, and seems to say people won’t be resurrected unless they go to heaven – but it’s well written and easy to read, which explains why the book has sold millions of copies and was on the New York Times best-seller list for weeks. In the last few years, the family has also released a children’s picture book version, founded Heaven Is For Real Ministries with Heaven Is For Real: LIVE events, and published a follow-up book answering various spiritual questions raised by the first book.

Its huge commercial success explains why the normally God-allergic Hollywood might be interested in making a movie about this story – though not, as it unfortunately turned out, without sanitizing it of anything that could possibly make an agnostic uncomfortable.

You see, in the book, Colton’s supernatural experience leaves him with a powerful zeal that people need to know Jesus before they die. When his father Todd, a part-time pastor in their small town, takes Colton to a funeral, Colton demands to know whether the man knew Jesus, saying the man has to have known Jesus or else he couldn’t go to heaven.

There was none of this in the film. Director Randall Wallace and screenwriter Chris Parker explained in an interview that the script actually included a similar scene, and that it was even filmed, but that it wasn’t kept in the final cut. Why?

“I felt the movie was saying that God’s love leaps over all of the fences,” Wallace explained, “and I wanted to draw people to the love of God, rather than to the exclusions from heaven, and that’s the way I saw it.”

This theme of God’s love meaning that people can’t be excluded from heaven is explicitly communicated in one particular scene in the film. Todd is sitting in a cemetery with a woman who lost her adult son in the military, and she asks him if he thinks her son went to heaven. Todd responds along these lines, “Do you love your son? [Yes.] Do I love my son? [Yes.] Do you think God loves my son who went to heaven as much as he loves your son?” The implication ends up being that since Colton went to heaven (albeit briefly), and since God loves both Colton and the woman’s son, the woman’s son must also have gone to heaven.

Similar dialogue occurs in the book, but in a different context that gives it a very different meaning. A key part of Colton’s story is that he meets a girl in heaven who says she’s his sister and that she’s there because she died in his mother’s womb. After sharing Colton’s story at a church, a woman who had given birth to a stillborn asks Todd if Colton would know if her child was in heaven. He answers that God loves her unborn child just as much as his unborn child, implying that if his unborn child is in heaven, there’s no reason to think her unborn child isn’t in heaven, too.

In other words, in the book, Todd reasons that God’s love simply means that people in similar situations will be treated the same. But notice he doesn’t reason that God’s love means everyone goes to heaven, or even that unborn children go to heaven – he gets the latter idea from his son’s vision. It’s also worth noting that the eternal fate of children who die in their mother’s womb, and thus with no opportunity for faith in Jesus or even baptism, has been a subject of great debate throughout Church history, one to which even the Catholic Church today refrains from giving a definitive answer. So saying unborn children are in heaven is not necessarily controversial.

But in the movie, Todd reasons that God’s love means that all adults will go to heaven, and without any reference to whether they died in Christ or not.

When asked about this clear discrepancy in an interview, producer Joe Roth explained that the woman is shown to be on the church board and that the audience should assume that her adult son was a Christian. Further, the town is small and so Todd would probably know if her son was a Christian. Thus, it should be implied, Roth argued, in Todd’s dialogue with her that her son is in heaven because he was a Christian.

Aside from the fact that no audience member anywhere will draw out these conclusions from the movie, Roth’s explanation simply does not square with what Todd’s character says. Todd doesn’t say, “Don’t worry, we both know your son loved Christ.” He says, in effect, “Don’
t worry, God loves him, therefore he’s in heaven.”

Since Roth also made it clear that he himself was not a believer, I don’t think it’s too much to conclude that this weak explanation was only intended to placate concerned Christians (and apparently many who have seen the film have had concerns similar to mine).

What was more surprising, though, was that the real Todd Burpo gave the same explanation. In my ten minutes or so with him and his family, I got the impression that they were down-to-earth people, the kind I’d love to have as neighbors, and that they were sincere Christians who were just wanting to share their story. They confirmed they weren’t universalists but also disagreed the film had that message. Whether they just wished the film didn’t have a universalistic message, or really believe it doesn’t, I don’t know.

Nonetheless, with the significant omission of Colton’s zeal for people to know Jesus, Todd’s character’s conversation with the woman in the cemetery, and the general tenor of the ending, the movie has a fairly clear universalistic theme, reversing the message of the book.

It’s disappointing because there were lots of things I liked about the film. Greg Kinnear (playing Todd), Kelly Reilly (Sonja Burpo, Todd’s wife), Connor Corum (Colton), and the supporting cast were all fantastic; the Burpo family was portrayed in a very relatable, likable way; and the scenery of the film was beautiful. The film wasn’t perfect: the story was choppy at times, there were a few tired caricatures of religion written into the story (e.g. rational science vs. irrational faith), and the filmmakers couldn’t quite pull off a believable depiction of Colton’s vision of heaven. But the movie would have been good enough that I could have recommended the film if it had been faithful to the message of the original story.

But it wasn’t.

In a last attempt to defend the Christian credentials of the film, the director Wallace, who argued that including a single scene in which Colton acknowledged the need for Christ for salvation would have obscured a greater message of God’s love, pointed out: “We end the movie with a picture of Jesus that [Colton] saw – it’s not Buddha. The last image of this movie is a picture of Jesus he saw… so I never felt we were leaving Jesus out of the movie.”

Ah yes, they had no problem including Jesus – but only as long as he was thoroughly neutered.

Brantly Millegan is an Assistant Editor for Aleteia. He is also Co-Editor of Second Nature and Co-Director of the International Institute for the Study of Technology and Christianity. He is finishing up a M.A. in Theology at the St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity and will begin working on a Ph.D. in theology at the Catholic University of America this fall. He lives with his wife and children in South St. Paul, MN. His personal website is brantlymillegan.com.

Tags:
HeavenJesus ChristMovies
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