The Little Boy Who Cried Heaven

Andrew Sullivan —  Apr 27 2014 @ 1:01pm

Heaven is for Real, which opened last weekend, is the story of Colin Burpo, the four year-old son of a small town pastor who supposedly glimpsed heaven during an emergency appendectomy. The film is based on a book of the same title. When Jeb Lund compared the book and the movie, he found much more doubt and uncertainty in the big screen adaptation:

The film version of Heaven Is for Real seems to have been written in anticipation of the audience’s doubt. Screenwriter and director Randall Wallace—the guy behind Braveheart and the bridge-less Battle of Stirling Bridge—makes up a lot of dissonantly secular elements that don’t appear in the book and that spoil the tone of the movie.

A fictional church elder played by the reliably excellent Margo Martindale dislikes Colton’s story because she has seen pastors manipulate people with stories of heaven and threats of hell. The only reason for her character to exist is to inform the audience, “See? This story isn’t being manipulative.” Then, when Todd becomes too fixated on Colton’s story despite mounting medical bills and no income, his wife (played with a kind of impishly spirited good humor by Kelly Reilly) throws dishes in the sink and castigates him for thinking so much about the next life instead of this one. In addition to never appearing in the book, this scene thuds in the middle of the movie. This is Wallace screaming, “I KNOW WHAT YOU’RE THINKING, GODLESS AMERICAN MOVIEGOER.”

On the other hand, Kenneth Morefield argues that the presence of doubt in the film, including that of Colton’s father, Todd Burpo, actually makes it a better movie:

By distributing skepticism evenly across all the characters, even the Christians, Heaven is For Real avoids much of the smugness that marred God’s Not Dead. Like that film, Heaven is For Real has a token atheist/skeptic who is actually angry at God rather than dubious of his existence.

But unlike that film, Heaven is For Real doesn’t force a conversion on the skeptic as a means of declaring its own intellectual victory. This film looks inward, using Colton’s story to ask Christians to think through what they really believe, rather than focusing all their energy on how to get non-Christians to believe it too. Its dramatic highlight is a graveside conversation between Todd and Nancy (the always reliable Margo Martindale) that at least attempts to wrestle with the “why” questions. Why Colton? Why do so many prayers go unanswered? Why, if heaven is real, does death still sting so much, even for Christians?

Drew Dyck points out the gap between Colton’s vision of heaven and what we find in the Bible:

Some may be surprised that the Bible contains not one story of a person going to heaven and coming back. In fact Jesus’ own words seem to preclude the possibility: “No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven the Son of Man” (John 3:13).

Scripture does contain several visions of heaven or encounters with celestial beings, but they’re a far cry from the feel-good fare of the to-heaven-and-back genre.

In Scripture, when mortals catch a premature glimpse of God’s glory, they react in remarkably similar ways. They tremble. They cower. They go mute. The ones who can manage speech express despair (or “woe” to use the King James English) and become convinced they are about to die. Fainters abound.

But, in another review of the film, Kyle Rohane reminds us that “ecstatic experiences are valuable, not because of the precise, objective details they reveal, but because they are subjective and personal”:

In 1224, Francis of Assisi witnessed a figure descending from heaven. This figure appeared to be a man but also a six-winged Seraph. He was affixed to a cross with two wings extended over his head, two covering his body, and two stretched out in flight. As Francis observed the figure’s radiant face, the figure smiled down at the monk. Francis was both overjoyed by the figure’s beauty and grieved by his suffering on the cross.

Do you think Francis pondered over the type of wood the cross was made of? Do you think he analyzed the ethnicity of the glorious figure? No, Francis understood his ecstatic experience to mean he would be made like the crucified Christ in mind and heart. The vision left him with a renewed commitment to and love of Christ.