By David Roach
NASHVILLE (BP) — Southern Baptists have mixed reviews of “Heaven Is For Real,” a Sony Pictures movie released today (April 16) about a 4-year-old boy who claimed he was transported to heaven as he underwent emergency surgery.
Commentators said the movie presents opportunities for evangelism and considering the Bible’s teaching on heaven. But they also warned that the film is theologically inaccurate and reveals Christians’ propensity to trust “fanciful” accounts rather than rely on Scripture’s teaching about heaven.
Taylor Worley, assistant professor of Christian thought and tradition at Union University in Jackson, Tenn., told Baptist Press the film may prompt valuable discussion among Christians and non-Christians. He has not seen the movie and said all teaching on heaven should align with Scripture. Yet he is hopeful that Heaven Is For Real will help audiences ponder heavenly realities, despite any doctrinal errors it may contain.
“No film will ever replace the foundation for belief that we have in God’s Word, and any attempt at fully representing the afterlife will certainly fall short,” Worley, who has written and lectured on movies, said in written comments to BP. “But that doesn’t mean films shouldn’t try to picture it for us. We need to have our imaginations stretched and expanded for the very reason that the Bible calls us to ponder heavenly realities (Philippians 4:8). We need to get a sense of wonder back about the eschatological kingdom of Christ. A film like Heaven Is For Real could go a long way in helping us to get that wonder back.”
The movie is based on a 2010 book with the same title that rose to the top of the New York Times bestseller list and sold 10 million copies. Written by Nebraska Wesleyan pastor Todd Burpo, the book tells how Burpo’s son Colton had an emergency appendectomy and awoke from the operating table claiming he had been to heaven. Initially his parents were skeptical but eventually believed his story.
In heaven, Colton claimed he sat on Jesus’ lap, learned about a coming battle with Satan, saw Jesus sitting at the Father’s right hand and realized God is a Trinity. Among the book’s assertions that some have called unscriptural: Colton said he received a halo and wings in heaven and met the Holy Spirit, who is “kind of blue.”
The movie is an adaptation of the book directed by Randall Wallace of “Braveheart” and “Secreteriat” and starring Academy Award nominee Greg Kinnear as Todd Burpo.
Worley said the film could “be immensely helpful when it comes to sharing the Gospel.”
“Paul tells us in Romans chapter 1 that people avoid the hunch they have that God is real and even suppress the most important questions in life — questions like what happens to us after we die,” he said. “If a film can cause a person to pause and more fully explore that question for at least an hour and a half, then we have a clear and viable entry point for sharing our hope in Christ.”
Some Southern Baptists are skeptical about Heaven Is For Real. Alabama pastor David Platt listed eight recent books in which people claim to have visited heaven or hell and said evangelicals’ receptivity to such stories is troubling.
“Make no mistake: there is money to be made in peddling fiction about the afterlife as nonfiction in the world of Christian publishing today,” Platt, pastor of the Church at Brook Hills in Birmingham, said in a 2013 video that has become popular on social media in advance of the movie’s release.
It is “so disturbing” that “these books are published and then devoured by people who would describe themselves as born-again, Bible-believing Christians,” he said. “And all of that shows our level of discernment in the church today on this topic is extremely low, because the whole premise behind every single one of these books is contrary to everything God’s Word says about heaven.”
Only four biblical authors had visions of heaven and wrote about what they saw — Isaiah, Ezekiel, Paul and John, Platt said. None of the visions was the result of a near-death experience, and no one raised from the dead in the Bible told what he saw in heaven. All the biblical descriptions of heaven are focused on God’s glory — a far cry from the popular books, he said.
“Why are we buying this stuff when we have the Word of God?” Platt said. “Let’s minimize the thoughts of man” and “let’s bank our lives and our understanding of the future on the truth of God.”
Paul Mathenia, a lifelong Baptist pastor who now leads an Arkansas-based ministry, wrote in a Baptist Press column that “the cuteness, innocence and honesty of 4-year-olds” must “bow before the divine revelation of God’s Word.”
“On the one hand I am happy the movie is coming out. What a great opportunity to get people talking about heaven! Those who view the movie will be open to discussing its views of heaven compared to biblical teachings. A clear and accurate presentation of the Gospel can easily flow from this,” Mathenia said.
“On the other hand I am saddened. Many people will succumb to the real temptation to base their view of heaven on the word of a 4-year-old boy instead of the Word of God. This type of reaction has already followed the book,” he said.
Greg Thornbury, president of The King’s College in New York City, wrote in a blog post about the Heaven Is For Real book that he does not want to criticize Colton Burpo or his experience. But Thornbury said he is troubled that many evangelicals regard the account as “‘powerful evidence’ for biblical Christianity.”
I am “bothered by the high regard and sheer enthusiasm many well-intentioned lay evangelicals are affording to Todd Burpo’s book,” Thronbury, a Southern Baptist, said in a 2011 blog post. “Nor am I embarrassed by the discussion of evidence for the afterlife…. What bothers me about the reception of Heaven Is For Real is what it says about the relatively low view of the sufficiency of Scripture among evangelicals today.
“In other words, it’s not good enough for us to hear about heaven from the holy apostles, Church Fathers, and trusted commentaries on Scripture,” he said. “No, we need a little boy sitting on Jesus’ lap to tell us that instead. Then we will believe it. And that phenomenon ultimately bodes ill for everyone who really does love the Bible: pastors, teachers, parents, and yes, even children.”
David Roach is Baptist Press’ chief national correspondent. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).