Movie review: ‘Heaven is for Real’

(Rated PG; directed by Randall Wallace; stars Greg Kinnear, Kelly Reilly, Thomas Haden Church, Connor Corum; run time: 99 minutes.)

Heartwarming film without a heavenly roadmap

By Ted Giese

Hot on the heels of “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” — the number-one movie for the third week in a row, pulling into the number-two spot at the box office this Easter weekend was the Christian-themed film “Heaven is for Real,” based on the popular book by the same name.

heaven-INThe film, like the book, tells the story of young Colton Burpo (Connor Corum) and his family following the boy’s revelation that he’d been to heaven while having an emergency appendectomy. The family was already going through a tough time both financially and physically. Colton’s father, Pastor Todd Burpo (Greg Kinnear), had suffered from kidney stones, a badly broken leg and had undergone a mastectomy. Feeling a bit like Job, the prospect of losing his son pressed the pastor to the edge of doubt — a rough place to be for a father and pastor. The film details the struggles that came along with Colton’s testimony concerning heaven.

Readers who enjoyed the book will likely enjoy the movie. It stays fairly close to what is found in the pages of the book and keeps to its general premise with one exception. Both the book and the film are presented as non-fiction and this is challenging for the filmmakers because there will be Christians and non-Christians who will be skeptical of the story itself. What are the filmmakers to do? Do they make a movie that tries to convince the skeptical mind or do they make a film that “preaches to the choir”?

In the end, they seem to attempt both. This is a weakness of the film, because even with Oscar-nominated actors like Greg Kinnear and Thomas Haden Church and Oscar-nominated director Randall Wallace, there likely isn’t enough polish and credibility to cross this story into the mainstream. Mainstream crossover appeal is necessary for generating water-cooler discussions of the question at hand: “Is heaven for real or not?” The film would have been stronger if it had narrowed its sights on a more targeted audience and then stayed true to that audience.

Overall, the movie has touching moments as it depicts the Christian family in a congenial way, even throwing some matrimonial romance into the mix. Dealing with financial issues, medical bills and serious illnesses is compelling, as many people have to deal with those real-life circumstances. Also compelling on its own is the Burpo family’s need to be “grounded” in their times of trouble, just like other families. In the end, the Burpo family find their grounding in their Christian faith through the lens of young Colton’s experience.

The hard sell is Colton’s experience. It’s extraordinarily unusual and, for most people, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Remember last year’s film “The Conjuring,” about a young family’s experience with ghosts? It, too, was presented as a true story based on a book and claimed to provide knowledge of life after death — a topic interesting to many people which can be approached in many ways.

In Burpo’s book there is a moment when father and son are together driving along a road surrounded by Nebraska cornfields. Pastor Burpo notices St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, built in 1918, and asks himself, “I wonder what the people of this longstanding local fixture would think of the things our little boy had been telling us?” The scene isn’t in the film, but the question’s fingerprints are all over the movie. And it’s a good question because Lutherans, along with other Christians, will ask, “Is this story a true story?” Or at least, how much of this story is true?

Many Lutherans will evaluate the truth claims of the film using the yardstick of Holy Scripture. Where the film and/or book are in line with Scripture, then the claims will be deemed acceptable. Where they take a step away from Scripture, Lutherans and many other Christians will be suitably suspicious. For Christians, the final authority on heaven ultimately is the revealed Word of God, which supersedes all other claims. The heart of this Word of God, the Gospel — the Good News of the Bible — is Jesus, and if the film gets Jesus wrong, then it will struggle to get the rest right.

St. Paul has strong words for those who would misrepresent the Gospel. In Galatians 1:8 he says, “even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed.” This is theological dynamite and it draws a fine point on the seriousness of the claims. Not long ago there was a film by comedian Ricky Gervais, “The Invention of Lying” (2009), that had at its heart an assertion that heaven is not for real but is in fact a big lie — maybe the biggest ever. Viewers of “Heaven is for Real” will have to consider whether Colton’s story is true and ultimately whether heaven is true.

Where the book is more compelling than the film is in its frequent insistence that a person needs to have Jesus in order to get to heaven. Is Jesus in “Heaven is for Real”? Yes. But there are missed opportunities in the film, to make it as clear as it is in the book that Jesus is necessary for entry through those “pearly gates.” Why is this important? Well, if a viewer watches the film and walks out of the theater saying, “I believe heaven is for real! That kid’s story convinced me of it, he just had to be telling the truth, how on earth could he have known those things if he wasn’t?” they may also be left with a new problem: “Heaven is for real, but now what? How do I get there?” The film doesn’t definitively answer this, especially at a couple of key moments.

There is an important axiom to consider when thinking about this film and it goes like this, to quote the late Rev. Dr. Robert Preus: “The Gospel assumed is the Gospel denied!” In John 14:6 Jesus Christ says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.” The film isn’t as clear as Jesus.

If viewers hope to see a visual representation of heaven, they may be underwhelmed by the way the film portrays Jesus, the angels and heaven. If viewers are looking for a strong, clear proclamation of the Gospel, they, too, may be underwhelmed by the film’s presentation of Pastor Burpo’s faith and preaching. If viewers are looking to be convinced heaven is for real, they may need to ask if they are the kind of person who demands hard evidence or wise philosophy. If they need those things, this film doesn’t really provide them. If signs and human wisdom aren’t the be-all and end-all, such a person who seeks to know if heaven is for real would be better served by going to a place where Christ crucified is preached, where the Jesus of Scripture is clearly proclaimed.

If, on the other hand, a viewer is seeking a heartwarming, G-rated film with above-average acting, solid production values and a happy ending, then “Heaven is for Real” will be satisfying.

After watching a movie like “Heaven is for Real,” the Christian needs to ask, “Where does my assurance come from? What do I believe is the standard for truth? What makes a true story true?” Apart from those questions, the non-Christian will simply ask, “Is this a good movie?” The answer to the last question is, it’s an OK movie, maybe a bit above average; better than a made-for-TV Hallmark Hall of Fame film, but it’s not going to receive any Oscar buzz come awards season.

The Rev. Ted Giese is associate pastor of Mount Olive Lutheran Church, Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada; a contributor to The Canadian Lutheran; and the movie reviewer for the “Issues, Etc.” radio program. His review of this movie also is on the Mount Olive website and the Issues, Etc. website.

Editor’s note: To read another Lutheran view of the film — an opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal titled “To Heaven and Back Is An Old Story,” by Mollie Ziegler Hemingway — click here. Hemingway is a senior editor at TheFederalist.com and a member of Immanuel Lutheran Church in Alexandria, Va.

Posted April 25, 2014 / Updated April 28, 2014; May 8, 2014

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16 Responses to Movie review: ‘Heaven is for Real’

  1. Nora Maloy April 25, 2014 at 2:45 pm #

    I have yet to see the movie, so can not give my opinion of it. Based on your report, I probably will see it. Concerning someone who sees the movie and thinks heaven is real because of the child, great! It’s a start. I can not fully explain “everything” so an invitation to church is a start also. I’m happy to hear of a film like this and hope it does pique someone’s curiosity.

  2. Rev. Dr. Daniel Schroeder April 25, 2014 at 3:00 pm #

    I have referenced this book in two sermons; once on May 22, 2011, and once on March 31, 2013 (Easter). These are easy-to-find on our congregation’s website (www.mightyfortress.us), and they are listed by date. I have not seen the movie yet, but I plan to see it soon. My comments are based upon the book.

    The March 31st Easter sermon was the last sermon my mother heard before she went home to heaven. We had quite a discussion about it a couple of days before she died, and I know without a doubt that she was ready to meet her Saviour. She wanted to read the book, but she never had the chance. She is experiencing heaven first-hand now.

    The point I make with this book, is that anything is possible with God. However, as incredible and believable the book is, my hope of heaven is not based upon young Colton’s experience, but is the result of my God-given faith in what Jesus has promised me in Scripture. The book never attempts to pull someone away from the Bible; rather, it directs people to the Bible and what God says about salvation, heaven, and everlasting life. I would hope that the movie accomplishes the same purpose.

    The thing I find amazing is the number of website hits these sermons have received, especially the May 22, 2011 one. People have questions; and I hope that they continue to search the Scriptures for the answers. If people come to know their Saviour as a result of young Colton’s experience, then praise God! As Jesus says in Mark 9:39-40: “Do not stop him, for no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. For the one who is not against us is for us.”

    I’d be happy to hear whatever comments anybody has regarding the sermons I referenced. My Email address is on the website.

    Be blest!

    • Timothy Hershey April 29, 2014 at 7:26 am #

      Dr. I do have one question concerning the use of the word “heaven”. Isn’t the word itself synonymous with the “kingdom of God”? And if so while His kingdom is the ‘cosmos’(the entirety of creation), the heaven that we speak of ultimately is a reconciled earth where everything has been completely restored, including us, sin removed and everything being as God intended for it to be, and this our final inheritance, or “heaven”?

  3. Diane Lovell April 25, 2014 at 5:18 pm #

    I read the book when it first came out, and I thought that it was amazing.I lost my husband of 37 years in November, and read it again, And found it to be very comforting. I am very anxious to see the movie, and I am sure that I will love it! There is no chance of it changing my views; I was born and raised in the Missouri Synod Lutheran Church, I already knew that Heaven is for real.

  4. Russ Mains April 25, 2014 at 10:38 pm #

    I am so very thankful for the comments to this review. As a lifelong LCMS Lutheran, I was confused by the review, and thought that I would be in the minority; since I thoroughly enjoyed the movie. I did not attend the theater to “hear a sermon”, and since I am a Christian and already believe heaven is real; I viewed this film as an account of a PERSONAL, SPIRITUAL EXPERIENCE. This review appears to make a “spiritual mountain out of a mole hill”, by arrogantly assuming that true believers do not have the spiritual insight or discernment to know that we are “Saved by Grace through Faith, not of ourselves; it is the GIFT of the Holy Spirit.” This review actually discourages people from attending the film. I believe that EVERYONE should see it; particularly unbelievers. I have already had an opportunity to witness about my Christian faith and Lutheran doctrine, because of this movie to skeptics, agnostics, and atheists who had questions. Is the reviewer prepared to say that he, or the late Dr. Prues have exclusive knowledge of how the Holy Spirit works, or what method the Spirit may use to bring people to the Risen Christ; OUR ONLY HOPE FOR SALVATION? Jesus kept His messsge simple and said we must come to Him as with the faith of a child. The only inividuals who seemed to question the supernatural powers of Jesus, were the Pharisees! Thomas had to be SHOWN proof that Jesus is alive, but Jesus said, “Blessed are they who have not seen, but believe.” I have not seen the risen Christ or heaven, but they are more real to me than anything that I will experience on earth. I have heard many stores from pastors (particularly in hospice ministry) who have witnessed spiritual, supernatural events; thus, I don’t believe that I am in a position to judge them as truth or not. Yet, my faith is not dependent on those events; but on Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. As the previous comment exclaimed, if one is curious, questions, or believes, and the Holy Spirit gives them the gift of TRUE FAITH; then praise God. We constantly berate Hollywood for the insidious prevalence of sex and violence, but when a film is produced about religion or spitituality, we criticize it; instead of recognizing an opportunity to witness. This movie was not advertised as something that would bring everyone to Christ; but if the Holy Spirit uses it as an opportunity to open doors; HERE I STAND. I AM READY TO WITNESS TO THE TRUTH FOUND IN ONE SCRIPTURE, ONE GRACE, ONE FAITH!

    • Timothy Hershey April 29, 2014 at 7:44 am #

      While I can appreciate your view and agree with it somewhat, I didn’t think the review arrogant at all. I have been fortunate enough to travel alot and attend many LCMS churches nd work beside many LCMS Christians and many from other faiths as well as many non Christians for the past 8 years.
      You would be surprised to learn how many of own members do not know and have never been taught the faith we have been privileged to receive.In my experience many LCMS and others get their information from pop culture and are very mis informed as to wht it is we believe.
      I hope we redouble our efforts to lovingly teach the faith,assume that not everyone knows because they certainly do not( especially to those people who are strangers or visiting in our congregations) even to those who are life long members. Many of the congregations i have visited have not been friendly at all, are usually suspicious and stand off ish as well as stuffy, do not use the Book of Concord but turn to opinion and speculation rather than letting the text be the text etc etc.
      Im thankful that the review points us back to where, ultimately we turn. Reminding us all in this culture that whether a book or movie is good or bad, it does not influence what the LCMS teaches preaches and believes.

    • Diane May 4, 2014 at 4:10 pm #

      Hi Russ,
      Dr. Gibbs from Concordia Seminary, St. Louis wrote a review of the book several years ago and it probably would help you see the Lutheran point of view more clearly. It’s at http://www.concordiatheology.org/2011/05/heaven-is-for-real/#respond. He emphasizes three main points. !. Colton’s story isn’t verifiable. 2.’ Holy Scripture’s authority comes to be less important than the testimony of Colton Burpo’. This quote is taken directly from Prof. Gibbs’ review. 3. ‘This book wrongly assumes throughout that God’s purpose in sending His Son into the world to serve, suffer, die and rise from the dead was so that when we die, we can “go to heaven.” To be sure, there is sufficient testimony in Scripture to say that when a believer dies, his soul goes to rest with Christ. But as every writing in the New Testament shows, Scripture reveals very little of what “heaven” is like, and (more importantly), “heaven” is not the great hope and promise of the Christian message at all! Rather, the return of Christ in glory is the time when God’s good work, begun in us, will come to completion (Phil 1:6), and the creation itself will be set free from decay into the glorious freedom bestowed on God’s children (Romans8).’-Dr. Gibb’s review.

      Also Issues,etc. had Rev. Tom Baker on this past Friday reviewing the book. Excellent stuff.

      In Christ,
      Diane

  5. Dan Keram April 26, 2014 at 4:48 am #

    Typical LCMS response: every i must be dotted and every t must be crossed exactly as the LCMS teaches, preaches, and confesses. Yeah, yeah, we all know that, but the question is, IS ‘Heaven is for Real’ an enjoyable movie to watch?

    • Bruce Lucas April 27, 2014 at 6:26 pm #

      This review is written for the “Reporter,” a periodical (in this case the online version) sent to the rostered church workers of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. One would expect anything written in the “Reporter” to reflect the theological viewpoint of the LC-MS. This review is not meant to be a “popular” review. The author knows it will be read by church workers who are interested in the theological perspective of the movie. Therefore, I don’t understand your criticism. If you were to read a review of the movie written by a Russian Orthodox priest evaluating the movie from the perspective of Orthodoxy, would you be equally disappointed if he did not tell you if it is enjoyable to watch? As a matter of fact, the Ted Giese explicitly states, “If, on the other hand, a viewer is seeking a heartwarming, G-rated film with above-average acting, solid production values and a happy ending, then ‘Heaven is for Real’ will be satisfying.”

  6. Paula April 27, 2014 at 2:49 pm #

    “I viewed this film as an account of a PERSONAL, SPIRITUAL EXPERIENCE. ”

    In which case it is mostly useless as a guide into the truth. Yet, people will view it as such and somehow derive comfort from the personal, subjective experiences of others rather than Scripture.

    I read this review and what I took from it was that Pr Geise was damning the movie with faint praise (and frankly it should be damned because it portends to give spiritual truth without giving Jesus, as he said).

    However, this subtle approach toward discernment, while it allows a speaker or author to avoid a lot of flack, does not serve less discerning hearers very well, as evidenced by many of the comments thus far on the thread. The very reason it serves to allow the author to avoid such flak is because it does not offend the people who have already swallowed the lie.

  7. Trish Pickard April 29, 2014 at 2:57 pm #

    The book, HEAVEN IS FOR REAL was a fascinating read for me. For many it has given them hope for eternal life. To me, this is a far too important a subject to put my hope in a little boy’s experience. I wanted to see what God had to say so I went to the Bible. I have written a Bible study about heaven. I would be delighted to send you a free copy. Email me at heaven.study@yahoo.com and I will email you a copy. I was disappointed in the movie, they added some things they did not happen and left out other great information. I suggest that if you have only seen the movie, you read the book. Trish Pickard

  8. erick April 30, 2014 at 2:46 pm #

    Cute movie.

  9. Rev. Robb Roloff May 1, 2014 at 7:57 am #

    I truly believe that the best answer to this film is in the current issue of “Answers” magazine put out by the Creation Museum. The article is entitled “Are Visits to Heaven for Real?” and it correctly points out the danger of such films as this one. The article can be read on-line at http://www.answersmagazine.com/go/9-2-exclusives

  10. Brad Jarvis Willis May 2, 2014 at 11:47 am #

    2 Corinthians 12:1-10

  11. Ray Reeder May 14, 2014 at 8:12 am #

    We first read the book which was better than the movie, in the book it was expressed that the only way to heaven is through Jesus, this seemed to be left out in the movie , apparently not to offend anyone. Some parts of the movie lacked emphasis.

  12. Andrew Schroer May 26, 2014 at 9:40 am #

    I recently wrote an article on my blog about this movie. If you have a chance, check it out. I would be curious to see what you think. Thanks! http://364daysofthanksgiving.com/book-club/heavens-real/

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