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.
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.
But, surprisingly, the film itself appears to have some doubts of its own, hanging back from fully endorsing the authenticity of Colton's experience. In one of the film's major visual and thematic motifs, adults interact without realizing that children are hearing or observing them. The first shot of Colton shows him playing in a separate room while mom's choir practices. In a scene faithful to the book, Todd and Sonja discuss bills and are surprised by Colton's sudden appearance insisting that they pay the doctors, indicating he overheard much of their conversation. Colton and his sister share a bedroom, and while Todd speaks to Colton, the camera pans from across the room, past the reclining figure of Cassie on another bed. Is she asleep? Does she overhear the conversation? We don't know for sure, but the camera draws our attention to what Todd is not even seeing.
And that certainly struck me as purposeful. Those who want to make Colton's experience some sort of apologetic hang a lot of weight on the idea that Colton knew things he presumably had no way of knowing. Continually reminding viewers that Colton and Cassie see without being seen may be the filmmakers' way of leaving the door open for a naturalistic answer to this question, instead of a miraculous one.
Less subtle and more problematic is the fact that when the film depicts Colton's encounter with Jesus, it is not as Colton subsequently describes it. Jesus does not have stigmata marks on the hand we see, but Colton subsequently tells the adults that Jesus has "markers." My colleague Claudia Mundy also pointed out that Jesus's attire is different from what Colton describes in the book.
Are these simply continuity errors, rather than attempts to question Colton's reliability? Possibly. Parts of the heavenly encounters are clearly changed from Colton's description in the book to make them more filmable: Colton doesn't sit on Jesus' lap or see Jesus' horse (or other animals). The heavenly encounters are filmed in earthly places that would already be a part of his memory. Of course, artistic license is a given in book-to-film adaptations. But Colton mentions the stigmata in the film, and it is hard to believe that in a film that asks viewers to accept Colton's testimony as gospel, the depictions of his heavenly stay would not be carefully scrutinized at all stages of the production.
Whether or not these changes are intentional, though, they make the film better as a film. By distributing skepticism evenly across all the characters, even the Christians, Heaven is For Real avoids much of the smugness that marred God's Not Dead. Like that film, Heaven is For Real has a token atheist/skeptic who is actually angry at God rather than dubious of his existence.
But unlike that film, Heaven is For Real doesn't force a conversion on the skeptic as a means of declaring its own intellectual victory. This film looks inward, using Colton's story to ask Christians to think through what they really believe, rather than focusing all their energy on how to get non-Christians to believe it too. Its dramatic highlight is a graveside conversation between Todd and Nancy (the always reliable Margo Martindale) that at least attempts to wrestle with the "why" questions. Why Colton? Why do so many prayers go unanswered? Why, if heaven is real, does death still sting so much, even for Christians?
Greg Kinnear gives a thoughtful, layered performance that is crucial in presenting Todd as an earnest truth seeker rather than someone trying to capitalize on his circumstances. (The film honestly depicts the Burpos' money struggles but never hints at much less buys into the cynical criticism that Colton's experience was being marketed for financial gain.) I did hear one (young) attendee at a test screening complain that Kelly Reilly's portrayal of Sonja made her seem too frisky, but I appreciated the depiction of a physically affectionate Christian marriage.
I include the overheard viewer's comment as an example of just how disparate Christian reactions to the film might be. If you are reading this column, chances are you don't need me to tell you that Christian audiences have rarely been more divided at the movies than they are these days. (I can't imagine any non-Christians being remotely interested, despite T. D. Jakes's insistence that the urge to protect one's family is a universal human impulse that would attract secular viewers.) Like the wrong movie and you should be burned at the stake. Fail to like the right one and you are a traitor to the tribe.
In such a polarized culture, perhaps the biggest miracle surrounding Heaven is For Real is that it genuinely tries to be as inclusive as possible to the widest spectrum of Christian viewers. I'd be disappointed for the film if it was rejected for this reason by those who want Colton's story to be a trump card in a social debate, rather than an invitation to contemplate the mystery of God's ways.
Heaven is for Real is rated PG. Any depiction of a child in a life-threatening situation could disturb sensitive viewers. A close-up shot of one character's broken bone protruding through skin is somewhat gruesome. A young girl punches two boys in the face in a playground fight. The Burpos are shown kissing.
Kenneth R. Morefield is an Associate Professor of English at Campbell University. He is the editor of Faith and Spirituality in Masters of World Cinema, Volumes I & II, and the founder of1More Film Blog.