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Heaven Is for Real
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Genre
Directed By
Randall Wallace
Run Time
1 hour 39 minutes
Cast
Greg Kinnear, Kelly Reilly, Thomas Haden Church, Connor Corum
Theatre Release
April 16, 2014 by For thematic material including some medical situations.

I believe heaven is for real. Allow me to get that out of the way up front. About the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting, I am as confident as I can be regarding any doctrine that is ultimately an article of faith.

But about Heaven is for Real, Todd Burpo's book chronicling his son Colton's emergency appendectomy and subsequent claim that he had visited heaven, I am a skeptic. It's awkward but necessary that I tell you that before I explain the ways in which I thought Randall Wallace's adaptation of Burpo's book improves upon its source material, and where, perhaps, the film may frustrate readers expecting less ambiguity and more vindication.

Connor Corum in "Heaven Is For Real"Image: Sony Pictures Entertainment

Connor Corum in "Heaven Is For Real"

The film depicts many events from Burpo's book, though it obscures the timeline between Colton's operation and the first time he mentions to his father that he visited heaven. Gradually, under increasingly leading interrogations from his father, Colton reports having sat on Jesus's lap, seeing many animals, having angels sing to him, meeting Todd's grandfather, and, finally, meeting his own unborn sister, of whom he purportedly had no previous knowledge.

This compression is important because regardless of the content of Colton's memory, his level of recall seems contrary to the way most research demonstrates human memory actually operates. (For a good summary of social-science research on memory, see chapter three of Chabris's and Simon's The Invisible Gorilla).

Once Colton begins sharing his experience, the film deviates from the book more in tone than in substance. In his book, any doubts Todd has about the authenticity of Colton's experience are minimized. "By the time we rolled across the South Dakota state line," he says of the family trip where Colton first reports hearing angels sing to him, Todd was already asking "Could this be real?"

The film portrays Todd's doubts as extending beyond Colton's experience; he appears to question the existence of heaven itself. In a basement argument with Sonja, Todd comments that they ask kids to believe "this stuff" but that he doesn't know if "I believe it myself." Sonja argues that everything Colton has reported is an echo of every story he has been told his whole life. In another scene, conflating a fantasy book's depiction of heaven with the Biblical account, Todd cries out, wondering why heaven "[has] to be a myth." Late in the film, Todd says that when he had to face a parishioner dealing with the death of a family member, he "had nothing" to offer in the way of comfort prior to Colton's experience.

Burpo responded to questions sent through the film's publicist by praising the film but also denying he had doubts about heaven: "My internal conflict wasn't about Heaven, it was more about I didn't know what to believe about near death experiences in general, much less coming from my four year old son." Certainly by the time he wrote the book, that internal conflict had been resolved. So maybe it isn't surprising that the film would depict Todd as questioning to a greater degree than he himself does when reporting the experiences after the fact.

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Heaven Is for Real