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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    1. Christel, That movie is already out and there are quite a few reviews on it. It looks good on the previews but I’m not sure if I’ll be seeing it or not. Sometimes I have the opportunity to pre-screen movies as was not the case with that one. I’ve seen some good reviews on it.

  1. I want to thank you for this article and share some of my own thoughts about it. One thing that occurred to me is what a blessing it is that it happened to a Protestant; as we all know, when these kinds of things happen to Catholics they often are met with disbelief and criticism from so many Protestants. Thus, it is really a blessing that something like this happened to a Protestant which might open a few minds that might otherwise have remained closed. I just wanted to add some thoughts to what you said about private revelations in the Catholic Church as not adding new dogmas to Christianity. Our Holy Father Pope Benedict had written on this topic earlier regarding the messages of Fatima and introduced some really valuable clarifications. What he says is this: “To which theological category do they belong? The oldest letter of Saint Paul which has been preserved, perhaps the oldest of the New Testament texts, the First Letter to the Thessalonians, seems to me to point the way. The Apostle says: ‘Do not quench the Spirit, do not despise prophesying, but test everything, HOLDING FAST to what is good’ (5:19-21). In every age the Church has received the charism of PROPHECY, which must be scrutinized but NOT SCORNED. On this point, it should be kept in mind that prophecy in the biblical sense does not mean to predict the future but to explain the WILL OF GOD for the present, and therefore show the RIGHT path to take for the future …. To interpret the signs of the times in the light of faith means to recognize the presence of Christ in EVERY age. In the private revelations approved by the Church—and therefore also in Fatima—this is the point: they help us to understand the signs of the times and to RESPOND to them RIGHTLY in faith.”

  2. Hi Patty!
    Thank you for this review and the interview was fascinating as well! I went and saw the movie on opening day with my Mom and 2 oldest daughters (ages 13 and 9). The theater was full! We all enjoyed the movie very much. I read the book a little while ago so I don’t remember everything about how it compares to the movie. It definitely gave us girls a lot to discuss and ponder!

    One thing that struck me about the movie is how much Protestant faiths focus mainly on “good preaching” since there is a part in the movie where Colton’s dad, the preacher, was approached by his church’s board members to “step it up” on content for his sermons since church attendance was down as the Dad was wrestling with both physical and spiritual issues. It made me appreciate that the central focus of Mass is on Christ in the Eucharist vs. how well a man can preach (although hearing a good homily from a priest is always a good thing!)

    Then I was pondering how putting the central focus of a church service on how well a preacher can preach puts focus on our emotions, man, and ourselves vs. on God. Of course, I am not saying that God is not alive and well in Protestant services and sermons. It’s just that I grew to appreciate the Mass and it’s central focus, the Eucharist, even more after watching Heaven is For Real. This really struck me in the movie since the congregation seemed to be alive again once Colton’s Dad preached a sermon that tugged at his congregation’s heart strings. Not to say what he said wasn’t insightful and spirit-filled, it’s just the congregation was relieved to have their good preacher back.

    Also, I posted about the movie on the “Catholic Homeschool Moms” Facebook page and someone commented that in the book Colton saw Mary kneeling in prayer near Jesus, but the movie didn’t mention that. That’s too bad and I wish our Blessed Mother could have been mentioned somewhere in the movie. Overall, I am so glad I read the book and saw the movie with part of my family. I also agree with Fr. Robert J. Spitzer, S.J. PhD., “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’.”

    1. I agree with Bible Scholar Hank Hanegraaph the Bible answer man in Charlotte NC. The whole thing is unbiblical….This little boy said Jesus had sea green eyes and brown hair, and he had no wings. he said but GOD had wings and yellow hair. well if you know anything at all about the nature of GOD you know GOD has no hair or body, he is an aweeeeeesome spirit with creative prowess, and the Bible says all who worship him must worship him in truth and spirit, the Bible says no man at anytime has ever seen God. even Mosess, God appeared to him in the burning bush, but Mosess never saw him..not only that GODS greatest Prophets and Apostoles never saw him….Jesus has physical body and God does not….and the little boys dad who is a preacher behind all this knows GOD has no physical form, but they know this will go over most peoples heads..But i tell you what they do know, there are millions of dollars to be made here. it is simply a slap in the face of GOD for the all mighty dollar.

  3. My understanding is that Colton never “died” but rather claims to have had a vision of heaven. Well, great, but he was 4 years old and the person he reported this to was his dad. As a mom and a lawyer, I just do not find credible the testimony of a 4 year old given to his dad. The entire story is hearsay because it is Colton’s dad reporting what Colton said. Well, how do we know Colton’s dad didn’t use leading or suggestive questions? Did he use techniques approved by law enforcement for the interviewing of children? I’m going to guess not. It is quite easy to get kids to say what you want to hear and the circumstances of Colton’s revelations (without even considering the content) make them less than credible.

    As for the content, well, the Catholic Church has a system for investigating private revelations. If Colton’s dad is so sure it is true, then he should submit it to the Church for investigation. Until he does, I will pass, as should every Catholic. If Colton’s story isn’t consistent with Church teaching, then it is not consistent with scripture. The two do not contradict.

  4. Haven’t seen the movie, and some of the things the boy says seem to coincide with catholic teaching which makes sense and even more impressive coming from a protestant perspective. Unfortunately i can not come to believe this whole story of his because some elements don’t make sense when compared to the experiences of some of the most beloved visionaries and saints all approved by the church. I would think that you can’ mismatch what the saints have already said about heaven, and all of their accounts match about heaven being beautiful, and the people wearing white robes with varying degrees of inward light expressed from the soul. But i heard that this boy says everyone except Jesus has wings, that is just not biblical and certainly goes against what saints and visionaries have been saying for centuries. Some elements of what he says are true, but i think there is a misinterpretation on some of the things he saw, or else some of it is exaggerated.

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