This past weekend my wife and I went to see the new movie Heaven is for Real. If I'm being honest, I went to see it more for this purpose - to evaluate it, critique it, and share with those I lead and pastor how I believe they should interpret this story (and others like it) or if they should even give time and attention to them at all. So with that said, let me share with you my thoughts on multiple levels about Heaven is for Real.
First of all, this is a really good movie. Let me reiterate and repeat that. This is a really good MOVIE. It was compelling, entertaining, had a great cast (including one of my favorite actors, Greg Kinnear), and was very well produced. It's being marketed like a well-oiled Hollywood machine. People want to talk about and know about heaven. Authors, screenwriters, and filmmakers know this. Hollywood knows this. And this wasn't a "Christian" film (like Facing the Giants or Courageous), this was a Tri-Star/Sony film, written for the screen by Randall Wallace. That dude wrote Braveheart! How awesome is that!? So I felt I needed to begin by expressing my feelings that this is a really good movie. My wife subbed at least 2-3 napkins as Kleenex. (You can sub Kleenex for Stars. Ex: "That was a 3 Kleenex performance!")
Another positive element about this movie (and the book from which it was inspired) is that it is drawing attention to and creating renewed conversations about the fact that - just as the title expresses - heaven is most certainly for real. And while it's great that something might be sparking conversations about spiritual things, that doesn't always mean it's for the greater good. Allow me to now move into the things about this movie and "story" that concern me, alarm me, and cause me to feel the compulsion to warn others to be incredibly mindful and careful of.
Heaven is for Real is nothing new. In fact, it has to get at the back of a LONG line of books and stories just like it. There's 90 Minutes in Heaven, Waking Up in Heaven, My Time in Heaven, and To Heaven and Back. I haven't even gotten started. The list goes on and on and on. There are numerous accounts of what people claim are "trips" or "visits" to heaven - to the afterlife - to the place where scripture tells us God resides. One problem with this is that it goes against scripture - specific scriptures and orthodox theology. In Proverbs 30:4, Solomon asks the question, "Who has ascended to heaven and come down?" The answer to that question is an emphatic "Nobody!" God is the only one who moves between heaven and earth. Jesus restated this to Nicodemus in John 3:13 in reference to himself. And while several biblical writers had visions of heaven (Isaiah, Ezekiel, Paul, and John), they had only that: visions. They did not physically or tangibly "hang out" in heaven for awhile and then God said, "Well, you better head on back." Heaven is for Real treats what very well may have been visions as an actual visit to heaven. This is a distinction that cannot be taken lightly.
Another incredibly troubling element of the story shared by Colton Burpo is that his "trip" to heaven seems to be all about him. He sees family, sits on Jesus' lap, apparently even entertains some angels (who seem to laugh at his innocent question) because - I can only speculate - they're looking for a few good laughs, and catches a glimpse of the Holy Spirit, who we are informed is some shade of blue. While I can't even begin to speculate about any of this, I can tell you one thing that is very visibly absent from Colton's visit into the presence of the author of holiness: the Glory of God. If there is one resounding and recurring characteristic we are given in any biblical account of heaven, it's that everything finds its purpose and origin fixated on the glory of God. If we have even a fraction of a notion of what selflessness looks like here in this life, we still don't begin to understand how absent self-centeredness will be in heaven. Our concept of God-centered doesn't even start to inch down the path. So while this emotionally-compelling and heart-warming story gives credence to the afterlife, it is void of the most powerful element we are given in scripture of what heaven will be: all about God!
Something else to consider in our quest for wanting to know more about heaven is that, while most of the encounters shared in our day come from people having "near death experiences" (which is actually not what Connor Burpo claims), those who were actually raised from the dead in scripture gave NO account of what they saw. When Elisha raised the Shunammite boy from the dead (2 Kings 4)? Nothing. When Jesus raised Jairus' daughter (Luke 8)? Zero. And Lazarus? He was dead for 4 days! When Jesus called him out of the tomb (John 11), all we know is that they immediately got him out of those stinky grave clothes. We hear nothing of any accounts of his 4 Days in Heaven. (Much less 90). I don't say this to be cold or crass, but to reemphasize that what maybe God has allowed someone to see in a "vision" cannot be automatically assumed to be a "visit". Big difference. My father, when he was in a coma for 5 weeks, later told us that he kept walking along this beautiful, immensly tall iron fence. The grass was the greenest he'd ever seen. And at least 3 times he remembers someone coming to the fence from the other side and saying, "Jerry, we're not ready for you yet." (Let me just be honest and confess that the first time he shared this with us, without hesitation or thought, I just blurted out, "Holy crap!") Do I think my dad was lying or making this up? Absolutely not. But do I think this means he visited heaven and they told him, "Sorry Jerry, you're number hasn't been called yet." No.
And the last thing I would encourage you to prayerfully consider in light of this issue is this: What does the story of a 4-year old boy validate about heaven that scripture hasn't told us? Furthermore, is there anything about the story of a 4-year old boy that conflicts with what the scriptures have already told us? If the Word of God - if the testimonies of Old Testament prophets, one of the 12 disciples, and the writer of half the New Testament - are not enough for us, but the testimony of a toddler finally bring the missing piece we need to have the faith to believe, what does this say about our view of the scriptures? I'm not going to tell you, "By no means should you read these books or believe anything about these peoples stories." I believe some of them genuinely saw what they saw they saw. But I don't need anyone to see anything of any sort that will give me greater cause to believe in heaven outside of what has already been made known to us in the scriptures. As I preached this last week on Easter, we know that heaven is for real because resurrection is for real. We know that because Jesus rose from the dead, when our lives are "hidden in him", we have victory over sin and death as well.
(Romans 6:1-14, 1 Corinthians 15, Revelation 1:17-18).
Yes, heaven is for real. Jesus defeated death when he walked out of the grave.
But death was just the symptom or result.
SIN gave birth to death. And Jesus defeated sin when he died on the Cross.
The Shepherd became one of the sheep and gave his life for them, that they might have true life. Right here. Right now.
"Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades." Revelation 1:17-18
"I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet he will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?" John 11:25-26