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"Heaven is for Real" is easy and simple, affirming the faith of believers but not posing much of a challenge to its critics

MPAA Rating: PG
USCCB Rating: A-I
Reel Rating:  (3 Reels out of 5)

April 27th is St. Thomas Sunday (or Divine Mercy Sunday for all you Latins out there), marking the occasion when Jesus told his doubting disciple, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe” (Jn 20:29). Since then, Jesus has appeared from time to time to remind those who need to see him.

Heaven is for Real describes such a true story, of when a young boy who almost died, saw heaven, and told the world. It is a mostly pleasant film that raises several interesting questions but rarely follows through with them. It is easy and simple, and it will affirm the faith of believers but will not challenge its critics, although a small push is all one needs sometimes.

Todd Burpo (Greg Kinnear) is a hardworking pastor/firefighter and father of young Colton (Connor Corum in a surprisingly good performance by a child actor). Colton’s appendix bursts and he barely survives. Several days later, Colton tells his father that during surgery he visited heaven. This experience causes trouble for Burpo, who isn’t sure he believes his son, and also for his church, as more and more people hear about the story. Kinnear does a wonderful job showing the determination and love of a father but as a pastor seems confused and woefully inadequate approaching tangible evidence of the divine, which is all the more problematic for someone tasked with attending the dying moments of his parishioners (which includes repentance but not last rites). Colton handles these events infinitely better with “the faith of a child,” simply asserting the truth and then returning to his Spiderman toys.

Near death experiences (NDE) are well-known and have been documented throughout the world, providing both inspiration and skepticism. There is a physiological phenomenon that can explain many visions—hallucinations?—that some people experience near death, before being revived. As the brain is deprived of oxygen, it panics, shooting out signals that are interpreted as images. As demonstrated in the excellent documentary, Moment of Death, this can be replicated in test pilots who undergo high G-forces. The origin of Colton’s visions seems to have an easy explanation; his father is a Christian minister after all. However, there are NDEs that demonstrate supernatural qualities, such as the knowledge of hidden things. Colton, for example, is able to identify a younger version of his great-grandfather from a photo. And, in a very moving scene, he tells his mother that his miscarried sister was in Heaven, yet his mother never told him about the miscarriage, nor did she know the sex of the lost baby.

The public revelation that Jesus gives on heaven is grand in scale but rather limited in detail. St. Paul said it best in writing, "What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him" (1 Cor. 2:9). This basically amounts to saying, “I have no idea, but it’s gonna be awesome.” While Colton’s vision contains no glaring theological errors, it does strike a fantastical note. He mentions that Jesus has a horse that is “all the colors of the rainbow.” Uh-huh. But, lest Catholics be too quick to judge, Colton originally saw Mary kneeling before God’s throne—a scene conveniently left out of the film. Did Colton visit Heaven? A better phrasing would be that Colton experienced heaven. He really met Jesus, and if Jesus brought his horse along, well, that would make sense to a four-year-old boy.

The problem with the film isn’t that is asserts that Colton went to heaven. The letdown is that, for a supposedly seasoned pastor, Burpo is quite vague as to what he means by heaven, and the film’s final sermon doesn’t help much. In that sermon, Burpo states that heaven is something like the summation of love, but not really a place. He even includes that possibility that all religions can experience this same vision. While it’s true that a non-Christian can go to heaven, they do not go because they were a non-Christian.

It’s a little annoying: for nearly 90 minutes, good Christians who seem faithful and wise in other areas cannot wrap their heads around this incredibly simple concept. All they had to do is look up the Nicene Creed: “I believe the resurrection of the body and life everlasting.” Duh. I mean, Amen.

 
About the Author
Nick Olszyk
Nick Olszyk is Chair of the Department of Religion at Cornelia Connelly School in Anaheim, CA. He has directed several short films and is the new father of the aptly named Nick Jr. He was raised on bad science movies, jelly beans, and TV shows that make fun of bad science fiction movies. Visit him online at his website, Catholic Cinema Crusade.
 
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