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Greg Kinnear (right) and Connor Corum
Sony Pictures
Greg Kinnear (right) and Connor Corum

Afterlife on screen

Movies | Heaven Is for Real emphasizes a wondrous hereafter at the risk of underplaying a terrible hell

Issue: "Coat of many dollars," May 3, 2014

Bible-believing Christians don’t need Hollywood to tell them heaven exists. But as they watch Heaven Is for Real, a drama film based on a nonfiction book, many will be asking, “Is Heaven Is for Real for real?” After all, a toddler’s account of heaven—asking angels to sing “We Will, We Will Rock You” and petting Jesus’ rainbow horse—does sound like a far stretch from the Bible.

Based on the 2010 best-selling memoir by evangelical pastor Todd Burpo of Imperial, Neb., Heaven Is for Real follows the doubts and hopes of a father (Greg Kinnear) whose son Colton (Connor Corum) apparently visits heaven during a near-death experience on the operating table. Months later, Colton starts sharing what he saw, stunning his parents with details on what he couldn’t possibly know as a 4-year-old boy. 

The film stays faithful to the book’s core, but minor details are altered, and you don’t get Todd’s long, detailed thought process of trying to align Colton’s report with the Scriptures. Instead, in an effort not to preach but show, the movie allows Todd, his family, and his church to voice the typical disbeliefs people might have. After Todd publicizes his son’s story from the pulpit, the church board calls Todd in for a meeting about their concerns. “It disturbs me,” one church member (Margo Martindale) says, calling Colton’s account a “fairy tale” that provides “some simple, easy explanation in life.” 

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Opposition storms at home as well. As Todd spends nights researching the afterlife, his wife counts pennies to pay a $23,000 hospital bill. One night, she shatters the dishes in frustration and rages, “What about the life we’re living in right now?” But after Colton’s unexplainable, supernatural encounter, Todd cannot simply move on with life without making some radical changes.

What he’s really obsessing over is not just whether he believes Colton, but whether he believes the things he’s been preaching all along. As he tells a friend, “We ask our kids to believe this stuff, and I don’t even know if I believe it.” If Todd truly believes in a wonderful, beautiful kingdom of eternal joy and fellowship, how then should he live his life now on earth? 

Given the nature of the film, Heaven Is for Real doesn’t contain any of Hollywood’s holy trinity: violence, sex, and profanity. It’s more thoughtful than suspenseful, and is rather understated for a movie about heaven. Some years ago, a drama so clean and Christian would have been elbowed to the ranks of independent, tiny-budget, niche DVDs starring unknown actors. But this year, Heaven Is for Real rides the tide of other solid box office waves also pandering to the faith-based demographic, such as Son of God and Noah—leading the movie industry to anoint 2014 as “the year of the biblical movie.” It certainly helps that the original book, which sold 8 million copies, has done most of its marketing work.

So is Heaven Is for Real actually biblical? Christians scarred by Noah may be relieved to know director Randall Wallace not only grew up a conservative Southern Baptist, but also attended a year’s seminary at Duke Divinity School (and the book was co-written by former WORLD features editor Lynn Vincent). That doesn’t mean the film is only tailored toward the Christian audience, but it does mean when re-creating Colton’s visit to heaven, Wallace takes a prudently conservative approach. Scenes of heaven are brief and few, and though the real Colton described Jesus and the angels in some detail, the film shrouds them in brilliant, blinding light.

What’s heavenly, however, is the cinematography: the endless pearly cloud sky, stretching down to kiss the velvety-green, gold-cobbled plains—an intentional move, Wallace said, to capture the metaphorical meeting of heaven and earth.

Wallace said he originally wanted to depict the angels as Colton described in the book, but eventually decided to leave their features open to interpretation, so that the angels become real and personal to the audience. “I believe with C.S. Lewis that everyone who gets to heaven will be surprised and amazed,” he said.

One issue with the over-emphasis on a wondrous heaven is the risk of negating the reality of a terrible hell—and the one and only way to heaven. Without clarity in the gospel and the assurance of salvation, the film cannot provide true comfort and peace. But for those who have already received answers in the gospel, Heaven Is for Real is a challenging reminder to anticipate and enjoy heaven—not just in death, but in our daily, earthly life as well.

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