When a young Todd Burpo asks his father if heaven is real, Mr. Burpo responds, “By the time I know, it will be too late to tell you.” But when Todd, by this point a pastor at Crossroads Wesleyan Church in Imperial, Nebraska, hears his 4-year-old son describe his supposed journey to heaven, which he experienced while undergoing an emergency operation for a burst appendix, he is forced to ask: Can a young boy, who is near death, really experience heaven, walk with Jesus, and return to earth to talk about it?
In the film adaptation of the New York Times bestselling book Heaven Is for Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back, Rev. Todd Burpo (Greg Kinnear) is skeptical of his son’s claims that, while he was on the operating table, he temporarily left his body and visited heaven.
“I want to believe [Colton]”, Todd says, “but everything he talks about is impossible.”
For most of the film, Todd is oscillating between doubt and belief, experiencing frustration, and becoming so enthralled by Colton’s story that he begins to focus on the afterlife at the expense of the present. As a result, his wife chides him for ignoring the family’s financial troubles and risking his own job over his obsession with what it was exactly that Colton witnessed.
Todd’s inability to account for Colton’s description of heaven leads him to the reluctant conclusion that his son was shown heaven — or, at least, a version of it that is intelligible to the mind of a young child. How else could Colton see himself, while the doctors were swiftly completing the surgery? How else could he see his mother, while she was calling friends and asking them to pray for her son? How else could he see his father, while he was sitting in the chapel and crying out to God? How else could Colton describe his conversation with “Pop,” his great-grandfather, and his unnamed sister who “died in Mommy’s tummy,” when he hardly knew the former and was not even aware of the latter?
Despite Todd’s doubts and his persistent efforts to find a rational explanation for his son’s story, he becomes convinced that Colton, an innocent young child, is telling the truth. Still, the film leaves open several other possibilities. In numerous scenes, children overhear their parents’ conversations, making it possible that Colton is aware of certain facts not because they were supernaturally revealed, but because they were discussed in his presence. Also, Colton describes the “markers” on Jesus’ hands and feet, even though, when the film depicts Colton’s visions, Jesus has no such wounds where the nails would have pierced his flesh during the crucifixion, meaning that Colton is either giving an inaccurate report or embellishing.
While reminiscing about his time spent walking with Jesus and sitting on his lap, Colton makes mention of Jesus’ rainbow-colored horse as well as Jesus’ blue-green eyes (a combination of his parents’ respective eye colors which would have been rare for a first-century Jewish male). In heaven, Colton discovers that everybody is young, nobody wears glasses, and everybody (including angels) laughs at his jokes. Throughout the film, Colton’s parents — and audience members — are forced to consider whether Colton’s vision is simply an amalgamation of childhood stories about heaven, the result of a vivid imagination, or an authentic, divinely-inspired event.
One of the most prominent proponents of the film, Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, has hailed the film as an “experience” that will “change lives.” In a video in which he advises Christians to watch Heaven Is For Real, Rodriguez says, “[The story] speaks to the power of purity, how purity and innocence really carry the potential to see what others do not see. That’s what I call … holy, integrity, righteousness.”
Pastor John MacArthur, who, in addition to John Piper, has publicly lambasted Colton’s story, disagrees, saying, “There’s nothing transcendent or even particularly enlightening about Colton’s heaven. It is completely devoid of the breathtaking glory featured in every biblical description of the heavenly realm. … For anyone who truly believes the biblical record, it is impossible to resist the conclusion that these modern testimonies — with their relentless self-focus and the relatively scant attention they pay to the glory of God — are simply untrue.”
As a story about a father’s attempt to make sense of his son’s incredible near-death experience, Heaven Is For Real is gripping, emotionally wrenching, and heartwarming. T.D. Jakes, one of the film’s producers, highlights this aspect when he says, “The story of Todd Burpo [and Colton Burpo] proves to us that faith, fear, and doubt can cohabitate in the same human being, that those who preach don’t always have the answers.”
But — regarding Colton’s actual claims — the film neither serves as proof of heaven nor a reliable description of the afterlife. Unfortunately, many readers of the book — and presumably, many viewers of the film — are taking Colton’s vision as scripture. One reviewer on the Thomas Nelson website wrote, “I learned so much about heaven by reading this book.” Even the book’s official summary reads, “Heaven Is For Real will forever change the way you think of eternity, offering the chance to see, and believe, like a child.” But if our view of heaven has already been shaped by Scripture, do we really need to change the way we think of eternity?
If unbelievers, who previously assumed that life after death was a mere fantasy, are influenced by the film so that they begin to consider the possibility of heaven and hell, then perhaps the film will have a positive impact. The existence of heaven, hell, and a final judgment are critical Christian beliefs that give life meaning. A final judgment makes ultimate justice possible, while the reality of an afterlife means we are responsible for our actions, which have eternal consequences. Furthermore, God’s offer of salvation attests to his merciful character, his everlasting love and faithfulness.
While Heaven Is For Real may entice unbelievers to search Scripture for God’s definitive revelation about the afterlife, the film, which grossed $21.5 million in its opening weekend, is being marketed primarily to Christians and not to atheists or agnostics. If Scripture assures us of the existence of both heaven and hell, then why are Christians so compelled to rely on the testimony of a 4-year-old boy, who experienced a strange vision of Jesus on a rainbow-colored horse?
Gary Smith, history professor at Grove City College in Pennsylvania, explains the success of Colton’s story — both the film and the book on which it is based — by referring to the need for proof, for signs that verify our beliefs. “Near-death journeys,” Smith writes, “perhaps more so than many other transformative personal religious experiences, are the closest thing to proof of God’s existence [for many].”
But near-death experiences should not be the closest thing we have to proof of God’s existence. The dreams and visions of a little boy during his appendicitis operation should not be a replacement for our search for God that occurs through Scripture reading, prayer, and church involvement. Scripture tells us all we need to know about heaven.
Jesus’ resurrection from the dead is the only proof of heaven we need (Matthew 12:38-40).
One day, some teachers of religious law and Pharisees came to Jesus and said, “Teacher, we want you to show us a miraculous sign to prove that you are from God.” But Jesus replied, “Only an evil, faithless generation would ask for a miraculous sign; but the only sign I will give them is the sign of the prophet Jonah.” (Matthew 12:38-40)
Despite healing the sick, the blind, and the lame, miraculously feeding a crowd of 5,000 people, and raising people from the dead, the scribes and Pharisees wanted more signs to confirm that Jesus was divine and that his teachings were authoritative. In response, Jesus said there would only be one sign — his own resurrection from the dead, which would testify to the truth of his words and serve as evidence of his divinity.
His subsequent resurrection from the dead is a sign to us, as well. Although we did not personally witness Jesus’ resurrection, we believe the eye-witnesses who have relayed the message to us. The apostles endured tremendous persecution for insisting that Jesus, who rose from the dead, is Lord. Paul writes, “[T]he fact is that Christ has been raised from the dead. He has become the first of a great harvest of those who will be raised to life again. … [T]here is an order to this resurrection: Christ was raised first; then when Christ comes back, all his people will be raised” (1 Corinthians 15:20, 23).
Although we cannot see and touch the resurrected body of Christ — as the Apostle Thomas was able to do — we believe that, just as Jesus rose from the dead, we who believe in him will also be resurrected in order to dwell in the new heaven and the new earth (1 Corinthians 6:14; Revelation 21:1). And we who live in the 21st century will be doubly blessed for believing without seeing.
We must trust in Scripture — in the prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel, who, along with John the Apostle, relay their respective visions of heaven in Isaiah 6:1-4, Ezekiel 1 and 10, and Revelation 4-6. We must trust in Christ, who repeatedly describes the heavenly and hellish destinations of the just and the unjust. In Matthew 25, Jesus says, “[The King] will place the sheep at his right hand and the goats at his left. Then the King will say to those on the right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.’ … Then the King will turn to those on the left and say, ‘Away with you, you cursed ones, into the eternal fire prepared for the Devil and his demons!’” (v. 33, 34, 41).
It is understandable that Colton’s story has remained immensely popular, since people are desperate to know what happens to the soul after death. As the teacher in the book of Ecclesiastes says, “God has planted eternity in the human heart” (Ecc. 3:11). Furthermore, the human demand for the accomplishment of perfect justice can only be fulfilled in the afterlife, when an all-knowing, all-powerful, morally perfect, and impartial judge renders a decisive verdict at the end of time, giving to each what is due according to his deeds.
In Scripture, we read that God will answer the universal and inescapable human longing for immortality and justice. The Apostle Paul writes that God, who will grant eternal life to those who believe in the testimony of the Messiah, will also administer justice, “For there is going to come a day of judgment when God, the just judge of all the world, will judge all people according to what they have done. He will give eternal life to those who persist in doing what is good, seeking after the glory and honor and immortality that God offers. But he will pour out his anger and wrath on those who live for themselves, who refuse to obey the truth and practice evil deeds” (Romans 2:5-7).
Scripture assures us of the existence of both heaven and hell. So, what do we gain from trusting in the vision of a 4-year old boy?
At the end of the film, Todd Burpo says in his sermon, “If heaven is for real, we would all lead different lives, wouldn’t we?” For the secularist, life is meaningless, since there is no objective standard of good and evil and no afterlife in which one is judged for one’s actions. His actions now have no eternal consequences. But for the Christian, life is full of meaning and unceasing hope in the everlasting God who has imbued humankind with dignity and extended an offer of grace through His Son Jesus Christ. Christians believe both in an intermediate state of bodiless existence after death and in the resurrection of the body at the inauguration of the new heaven and the new earth.
In Philippians, Paul writes that living is good, but dying would be even better, for in death he would be able to live with Christ and ultimately be resurrected in a heavenly body. But he presses on for the sake of his flock, so that he can contribute to their growth and their spiritual well-being. Paul pressed on confidently and unashamedly, preaching the gospel and living for Christ, because of his hope in the resurrection of the body. The basis for this hope is the reality of Christ’s resurrection, not the vision of a 4-year-old boy with appendicitis.