“If heaven is for real, we’d all lead different lives.”–Todd Burpo
Heaven is For Real explores the experience of Pastor Todd Burpo (Greg Kinnear) and his family, as his son Colton (Connor Corum) has a vision while he’s undergoing an emergency appendectomy. His four-year-old son comes back with stories about a miscarried sister, his deceased grandfather he never met, and more details about God in heaven. The reactions to the little boy run the spectrum, from full belief to absolute skepticism. The most important question is this: what will you believe?
In the opening voiceover, Burpo asks, “Is heaven a hope? Or as real as the earth and sky?” Honestly, what you believe about heaven will probably impact how you view and receive the film. Colton’s heaven seems pretty magical, like Narnia when Aslan has returned to make all things right, but it’s also far away, not the kind of ‘heaven coming to Earth’ or the renewal of this world. (Your view of the film may also be impacted by your view of four-year-olds!) But Colton’s message, his dissemination of truth, impacts his dad and those around in him in ways that have to be considered miraculous.
Directed by Randall Wallace (Braveheart) and aided by a top-notch cast, the film has more gravitas than you’d expect given the pretty direct, straight-on Christian bent of the flick. (For the record, Wallace is a Duke Divinity grad!) You’re not getting a fuzzy film aimed at taking down straw men (here’s looking at you God’s Not Dead) or a controversial, change-the-notes look at Scripture (the epic Noah!) But this is indeed a film that will raise questions for some folks.
Honestly, I’m not at all interested in wrestling with whether or not this is ‘real’ or not. I know some folks will want to jump all over that, and maybe I’ll look at that down the road. For right now, I’d rather pull out the pieces of the film that spoke to me. And there were quite a few.
The Best that Church can be. When Colton seems to be struggling in surgery, the church and those around the Burpos in the community rally in prayer, believing that God will respond. When Colton experiences heaven, he does so by way of his image of heaven: the church. He’s a kid who enjoys church, but shows that church can speak to children, and fill them with a power of love that crosses many divides.
The Pastor isn’t perfect, but he’s not a creep. Watching the softball game, I thought about all the times that church league softball looks like any group of overweight, testosterone-driven men playing sports: mean, overly competitive, aggressive. (Quite frankly, I thought of myself, and the way softball brings out the worst in me.) At the same time, the pastor played by Kinnear seems willing to show (heck, he wrote the book the movie is based on) that the pastor tries to be who he he’s supposed to be but he often fails, because he’s human. He cries out to God in anger when Colton struggles; he seeks the guidance of a psychiatrist when Colton’s visions seem too radical to be true.
Heaven is attractive on paper, but it isn’t always liberating. Heaven represents some of the characters’ hopes, dreams, and deepest pains. Who will they see in heaven? What if heaven isn’t real? What if when you die, that’s it? Those are all doubts characterized in people in the Burpos’ story, primarily in Margo Martindale’s character. Too often, we don’t acknowledge that things like heaven, hell, Christmas(!), Mother’s Day, etc. can actually be un-joyous occasions for some. Seriously, isn’t one of the main questions in HiFR about why Colton gets healed and comes back with a vision, and some people… just die? Maybe we need to recognize that it’s not heaven that’s liberating, but it’s the relationship that does.
Faith is not one-size-fits-all. Colton has a ‘beatific vision’ that shakes things up, especially in his father’s life. The ability to ask questions, to be real with each other becomes a crucial part of the film. It blends the knowledge about the medical team who cared for Colton with the Scriptural things that we discuss in church. Not everyone can wrap their minds around Colton’s story; not everyone wants to. Burpo’s wife says that half the church wants to “stop feeling and start thinking, and the other half wants the opposite.” It’s the way we grow, isn’t it? To wrestle with the space in between. In the film, she’s the character who represents faithfulness with disbelief toward Colton’s vision, highlighting that in community, not everyone hears the message from God the same way (didn’t we see this in Noah?)
Stories of fathers and sons (and mothers and daughters) matter. Todd and Colton have a terrific relationship, one where even the father can learn from his son. Colton tells his dad, “as long as I’m with you, I’m not afraid.” (Burpo’s wife tells him that she read that people’s concept of God comes from their understanding of their fathers, and that if everyone grew up with him as a father, the world would be better.) The strength of their relationship lets them work through the ups and downs of the story’s translation, acceptance, rejection, and transitions. It’s beautiful, really.
Whether you’ve read the book or not, the film stands on its own as a story about one man’s faith and one little boy’s story. Like The Last Battle, C.S. Lewis’ book referenced early on in a sermon here, Burpo comes to a place where he ‘refuses to give up the lion,’ and claims his faith even if he doesn’t completely understand everything. He and his family rally to accept that life is different, that the truth of heaven may be different for them now, and what happens moving forward makes for a hilarious, heartbreaking, touching, and memorable story that will leave you wrestling with what you believe.
Heaven is for real. What that looks like? I don’t know. But if heaven became a reality that we lived into, it would change us, our world, and the people around us.