Heaven Is for Real, but What about the Book, er . . . Movie?
This week theaters across the country release Sony Pictures’ Heaven Is for Real, starring Greg Kinnear. The movie is based on the #1 New York Times Bestseller by the same title, written by Todd Burpo with Lynn Vincent. It’s described as the true story of Burpo’s four-year-old son, Colton, who nearly died during an appendix operation, and later told his parents stories of having left his body and visited heaven during that procedure, meeting Jesus and deceased family members, and learning things he would have otherwise never known.
The book has been an incredible success, especially among Christians. It has sold over 8 million copies to date, and has spawned an entire franchise of related titles (Heaven Is for Real for Kids, for Little Ones, a DVD study, a devotional called Heaven Changes Everything), and even a ministry.
The story itself is quite moving, especially the gravity of nearly losing Colton, and the way their church came around them during the trial. It struck a personal cord with me, having lost two children to miscarriage, and having watched several close friends lose or nearly lose their children. Indeed countless readers, especially Christians, have found encouragement in its pages. The reports of heaven touch on several of the questions people are asking—the eternal state of deceased loved ones, the hope of being reunited with them, even the physical likeness of Jesus.
And yet, with anything we read, but especially with books claiming extraordinary encounters with God, we have to ask that awkward question: is it true?
I’m not trying to be a party-pooper or a hater; I’m trying to be a pastor. And weighing the truthfulness of things like this matters, especially when we’re dealing with questions of eternity. Just because somebody says they experienced something doesn’t mean it happened. And we have to keep in mind that there is a boatload of money to be made in trips-to-heaven literature right now (e.g. 90 Minutes in Heaven, Proof of Heaven, To Heaven and Back, My Journey to Heaven, The Boy who Came Back from Heaven, Flight to Heaven, and even 23 Minutes in Hell).
So is the book accurate, and how can we even tell?
Study the Scriptures
Weighing the accuracy of a book like Heaven is for Real is difficult, because you’re not dealing with theological argumentation but personal testimony. Personal testimony without any eyewitnesses. And so the question of coherence is where we must go—does what Colton reports cohere or line up with our ultimate standard, the Scriptures?
One of the positive qualities of the book is that Burpo is interested in the same question. Throughout the book, as he reports on what Colton told him, his first line of verification is the Scriptures, which to him seem to corroborate Colton’s testimony at each turn.
And yet, on closer look, much of the coherence is superficial at best, and on a few points it’s just plain wrong.
Superficial Connections. For example, when Colton describes the appearance of Jesus (65), his clothing sounds similar to the portrait of Jesus in the transfiguration (Mk. 9:3) or even John’s vision in Revelation 1:12-20. But if we go beyond surface descriptions of clothing, and look for other similarities, especially among the reactions to what each saw, the coherence stops there. When Peter, James, and John saw the transfigured Christ, they were terrified (Mk. 9:6). Similarly when John sees the resurrected and ascended Jesus dressed like this, his reaction was to fall over as one dead (Rev. 1:17; cf. Isa. 6:2; Ezek. 1:28). Colton’s response was to saddle up on Jesus’ lap and pet his rainbow pony.
In fact, of the few people in the Bible who describe encounters with heaven (Isaiah, Ezekiel, Paul, and John), none of them died and took a journey there and back; they all received visions. Among those who actually died and were raised to life (e.g. Lazarus, Jairus’s daughter), none of them gave a report of what they saw. Where we do have descriptions, Phil Johnson notes, “The biblical authors are all fixated on God’s glory, which defines heaven and illuminates everything there. They are overwhelmed, chagrined, petrified, and put to silence by the sheer majesty of God’s holiness. Notably missing from all the biblical accounts are the frivolous features and juvenile attractions that seem to dominate every account of heaven currently on the bestseller lists.”
Inaccurate Descriptions. And then there are aspects of Colton’s testimony that are just plain wrong when compared to what the Bible teaches. I have specifically in mind his description of deceased humans having wings and halos like angels (70-76), and his confusion between the details of heaven and the new heavens and new earth (99-109).
Colton reports that “Everybody’s got wings.” Even he did while he was there, though he felt his were too small (72). And “All the people have a light above their head” (73). There are two problems with these descriptions.
First, the idea that humans take on angel-like form once in heaven owes itself to pop culture, not the Bible. When Jesus says in Matthew 22:30 that in the resurrection, people will be like angels in heaven, he’s talking about marital status, not appearance. When Stephen’s face is compared to that of an angel in Acts 6:15, contrary to the NLT translation cited by Burpo, the Greek text says nothing about brightness or light.
Second, even the assumption that angels themselves have wings and halos is problematic. Certainly some heavenly beings, like cherubim (Exod. 25:20; Ps. 80:1; Ezek. 10:5), seraphim (Isaiah 6:2), and the living creatures in Revelation 4 do. But when we think of the angels who interact with humans, we’re not usually referring to these creatures. We’re talking about messengers sent from heaven to speak on behalf of God. And in none of those angelic visits or visions are those messengers ever described as having wings or wearing halos (e.g. Gen. 19:1; Josh. 5:14-15; Ezek. 40:3; Dan. 8:16; 9:21-23; 10:13; Matt. 1:20; 28:2-3; Lk. 1:11ff, 26ff). Not even the passages Burpo cites as evidence of angelic halos (Dan. 10:4-6; Rev. 10:1), when you look at the fuller description, cohere with Colton’s account.
The second example of biblical inaccuracy is the fusion of heaven with the new heavens and new earth in Colton’s descriptions. It’s a common confusion, but there is a difference between being in heaven as it is now (souls in God’s presence, while our dead bodies remain in the ground, cf. Lk. 23:43; Phil. 1:23; Rev. 6:9) and heaven as it will be in the end when Christ returns—what the Bible describes as a “new heavens and a new earth” (Isa. 65:17, 66:22; 2 Pet. 3:13; Rev. 21:1ff). The latter is not a disembodied spiritual existence, but very tangible and physical—as tangible as the current earth. In fact, both Romans 8 and 2 Peter 3 suggest that the new earth will be this same sphere, having been purged and remade. Creation restored.
So when Burpo appeals to Revelation 21 to corroborate his son’s testimony of heaven (104, 107), the problem is that Revelation 21 does not describe heaven as it is now, but the consummation of God’s new creation in the end. And when Colton suggests that we get new bodies in heaven (136), the problem is that the final resurrection of the dead, when believers will be glorified and receive their resurrection bodies, doesn’t come until the end when Christ returns (Jn. 5:25-29; 11:17-26; 1 Cor. 15:12-58; Phil. 3:20-21; 1 Jn. 3:2; Rev. 20). Until that day, those who are with the Lord wait for their resurrection bodies and their inheritance in his new creation (cf. Rom. 8:23-24). As Hebrews 11:39-40 says of the saints in heaven, “And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.”
And to return to the above point about humans and wings, if the point of resurrection is to restore what was corrupted by sin and the fall, then our resurrection bodies will be perfected forms of our current bodies—not an angel/human mash-up. And the pattern of our resurrection bodies is Jesus himself (Phil. 3:20-21)—if he has no wings in heaven (as Colton affirms, 72), then neither should any humans.
Consider the Source
Another curious feature, both within the book itself (e.g. 119, 130, 145-150), and among its readers, is the common reaction that because of Colton’s testimony, people’s doubts about God and heaven are being alleviated. It’s curious and also a bit troubling, in that many are finding comfort and security in the testimony of a four-year-old that they do not find in God’s Word itself.
There’s a reason that throughout Scripture, a testimony was never accepted apart from two or three witnesses (e.g. Deut. 19:15; Matt. 18:16). Without more than one witness, a story cannot be corroborated. Which doesn’t mean the story isn’t true, but it does mean that it is foolish to hang any weight on it, since there is no reliable way to verify its truthfulness.
Again, Colton’s testimony lacks credible witness. No one else saw it.
Moreover, Jesus himself is adamant that the Bible trumps extraordinary encounters with God as a means of security and hope. Consider his parable of the rich man and Lazarus, from Luke 16. In that parable, Jesus tells the story of two men who die—a rich man, who goes into torment in Hades, and a poor man who sat neglected at the rich man’s gate in life, who is carried to Abraham’s bosom. When it becomes clear that there is no relief for the rich man in his torment, he pleads with Abraham to send Lazarus back to earth to warn his five brothers, lest they join him. Abraham’s response is telling: “‘They have Moses and the Prophets [i.e. the Scriptures]; let them hear them.’ And he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead’” (Lk. 16:29-30).
The point here is pretty clear: if you’re unwilling to trust what the Bible says about the afterlife, you won’t be convinced even if someone were to die and return from the dead to tell you about it. Which is to say, that if we as Christians think that we or our non-believing friends will be more convinced of God from the uncorroborated testimony of a four-year-old than from the divine witness of holy Scripture, then we are fooling ourselves, and likely to look like fools in their eyes (and not the good kind, as in 1 Cor. 1:22-25).
It’s hard to say what Hollywood will do with a book like this. I have no plans to see the film, but based on the trailer it seems to follow the book, with an added flair that strikes me as a Christianized version of The Sixth Sense (“I see dead people”).
My point in all of this is not to advocate against reading the book or seeing the movie, but simply to urge us to use wisdom in weighing the truthfulness and usefulness of stories like these.
Heaven is for real—there really is an unseen realm where God dwells in glory, where Christ is seated bodily at the right hand of his Father, from where his Spirit makes all blessings flow. Those who belong to Christ really do enter his presence in heaven upon death, where they rest and rejoice in his glory while they wait with the rest of the saints for the final judgment, the resurrection of the dead, and the consummation of God’s new creation. It really does matter whether we trust in Jesus for the forgiveness of sins if we want go to heaven when we die. But let us take our cues and build our theology from what God says about heaven in his Word. And may that be the vision of heaven we share with people—a vision that is utterly consumed with Jesus and his glory, just like heaven.