Either serendipitously or providentially, my Christian theology class is studying personal, individual life after death – “heaven” and “hell.” After that, we will study corporate, cosmic eschatology – the future of creation.
Because the movie version of the best-selling book “Heaven Is for Real” was being released last weekend, 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. It’s the purportedly true story of a 4-year-old boy, Colton Burpo, 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; she died in the womb, 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; in Colton’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, who are Wesleyan church pastors, are simply lying.
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 OK until, suddenly, the moviemakers put a huge crucifix – or some other gross anomaly – on the church wall behind the pulpit. 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 and 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 moviemakers 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.”
I found pastor Todd Burpo’s skepticism about his son’s experience surprising. I would think your typical Wesleyan pastor would be more open than that.
And the culminating sermon left something to be desired; it was 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 main critique of the book and movie is based on the fact that I believe in the “intermediate state” – the theological term for conscious life after death before resurrection.
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” (Luke 23:43). Paul referred to it as the “third heaven” (2 Corinthians 12:2).
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 (John 14:2-3). 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 – an 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.
Roger Olson is the Foy Valentine professor of Christian theology and ethics at George W. Truett Theological Seminary in Waco, Texas. He is the author of numerous books, including “Against Calvinism” and “The Story of Christian Theology.” A longer version of this review first appeared on his blog and is used with permission.
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for thematic material including some medical situations.
Director: Randall Wallace
Writers: Todd Burpo and Lynn Vincent (book); Chris Parker and Randall Wallace (screenplay)
Cast: Greg Kinnear: Todd Burpo; Kelly Reilly: Sonja Burpo; Thomas Hayden Church: Jay Wilkins; and Connor Corum: Colton Burpo.
The movie’s website is here.
Roger Olson is the Foy Valentine professor of Christian theology and ethics at George W. Truett Theological Seminary in Waco, Texas. He is the author of numerous books, including “Counterfeit Christianity” and “The Story of Christian Theology.”