What Should We Make of the Movie, “Heaven is for Real”?

heavenisforrealWhen a four-year-old boy almost dies and later reports having visited heaven, it’s easy to brush it off as a child’s feverish imaginings. But when he knows things that no one ever told him and reports that he learned about it in heaven, it is hard to brush off.  In the movie, Heaven is for Real, from the 2010, #1 New York Times best selling book with the same name, Colton Burpo, age 4 almost died when his appendix burst.  After his recovery, he revealed to his parents that he had visited heaven while he was on the surgery table.

Colton shared experiences such as sitting on the lap of Jesus, meeting his grandfather who died before Colton was even born, and being hugged by a sister he was never told existed because she was miscarried before he was born.  There are many alternative explanations for his experiences, yet, his story is convincing.  For instance, Colton reported seeing that his parents were in different rooms during his emergency surgery and that his Dad was yelling at God.

Catholic View on Revelations

The Catholic Church approaches private revelations skeptically.  Even when an apparition or revelation is deemed worthy of belief, no one is required to believe it. The Catholic Catechism explains, “They [private revelation] do not belong, however, to the deposit of faith.  It is not their role to improve or complete Christ’s definitive Revelation, but to help live more fully by it in a certain period of history.” (CCC #67)

Some private revelations, after intense investigation, have been discerned to be an “authentic call of Christ or his saints to the Church.” Anything contrary or surpassing revelation as the deposit of Faith—teachings found either in Scripture or Apostolic Tradition–is rejected.   In other words, we’ve already been given the information we need for our salvation and don’t need more.

Yet, the Church acknowledges the possibility and has approved many private mystical experiences to be worthy of belief.  Fr. Robert J. Spitzer, S.J. PhD., has recommended the movie “This film opens the door to the reality of heaven and the love of God,” he writes. “Through the eyes of four-year Colton, whose acting was quite believable, we catch a glimpse of an affectionate and caring God who calls us to an eternal community of love and joy. The evidence for this is presented in a respectful way that allows viewers to make their own judgments. It will be encouraging to believers and potentially helpful for skeptics and people ‘sitting on the fence’.”

Interview with Todd

Colton’s father, Todd, is in his seventeenth year as pastor of a small Wesleyan church in Imperial, Nebraska,.  He lives with his wife, Sonya, two daughters—ages 17 and 9, and Colton, now age 15.  In spite of all the publicity, Todd continues as a pastor and volunteer fireman. He used to be a wrestling coach but now assists as time permits.  Below is my interview with him.

The boy in the movie that plays Colton is adorable, was the real Colton that cute?

Todd:  (laughs) Yes, he used to be that cute.

How close does the movie come to portraying the true story?

The movie had to compress the book into an hour and 40 minutes.  I wondered how they were going to do that but they did it brilliantly. Our whole family feels they really portrayed it well.  The conversations were the same and they took as many of them as they could.

What has it been like for your story to become so public?

The public curiosity has been real.  After the book was a success and became known there was some backlash. It is hard for some people to accept change. I was no longer just ministering to locals but my ministry began to reach beyond our small town.  Not everyone liked that.

Have some people told you they don’t believe Colton’s story?

Yes, there are some churches teach things that contradict what Colton saw, but there was nothing that he saw that contradicts Scripture. I’ve had all sorts of reactions. I point out that in Scripture, how many people were raised from the dead, or the fact that the apostle got to see heaven.  In 2 Cor. 12, Paul talks about seeing a third heaven.  If Paul can look at that in Scripture, then I know people have seen heaven and come back.

Where there parts of the movie that did not really happen?

I actually never took a leave of absence, although there were some board meetings that were pretty rough.  I also had cancer I was recovering from when Colton got sick, but that was too much to try and fit into the movie.

How do you think this story has affected people?

When you start talking about heaven and personal experiences, you challenge people to step up.  There’s a line in movie, “If you want to be a part of this church, you need to live like heaven is real, living like a true follower of Jesus.”

Colton’s experience gave us a peace. I would say it has helped me to be more patient with people.  I watched Colton work through things.  He asked once, “Dad, why don’t adults believe the Bible?”  After Colton’s experience, I learned to have the faith of a child.

How do you think this experience has affected Colton?

As a child, he did not question it; he grew up with it.  Sometimes he asked, “Why don’t t hey believe?”

I would tell him, “Son, they did not see what you saw. “  At 15 he has more of awareness, and the experience is heavier for him.  He gets letters every day, often from people who are dying. Last week, a boy named Julian who is dying, Skyped with him. Colton gave him encouragement.  Because he saw heaven, he has the unique ability to comfort people.    “I’ll see you in heaven some day,” he told Julian.

With technology, Colton is able to Skype with people around the world and pray with them. He has Skyped with kids in classrooms, as well as kids who are facing their last days. Not everyone is Christian either.  Since the book is on the Scholastic best seller’s list, kids hear about him. We also work with Hospice. Colton often gets calls from elderly who receive reassurance from him.

Is there a downside to any of this?

I think the pressure gets to Colton at times. But we go by the saying: ”Worry can’t make tomorrow better but you can make today a whole lot worse.” In our town of   2,000 people, it has been a lot at times.  We’ve had 10 or 11 TV crews come to town, and have done thousands of phone interviews. It has become a regular part of our lives. We can’t go back, so it’s the new normal for us.

Were you and your wife in agreement on going public with the story?

Sonja and I prayed about everything with our church leaders and each other. Everyone needs to seek counsel and seek time in prayer.  Lyn Vincent worked with me on the book and that has been a wonderful partnership.

What has been the best thing about this experience for you?

The best thing about the whole experience so far, is just seeing the peace that God has given to us; especially hearing about our child in heaven.  Many people have approached us who have also lost a baby.   Seeing the peace that has passed from us to others has been the most positive part of this whole story.

Heaven is for Real opens in theaters April 16.


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