“Heaven Is For Real,” And The Movie Is Pretty Good Too
by Kyle Durbin
This past weekend, I did what thousands of youth pastors probably did a month earlier, during Holy Week or Easter weekend; I took my youth group to see “Heaven Is For Real.” Admittedly, I did so more out of a presumed obligation to expose my youth to a Christian film making national headlines more than any true, personal desire to witness the film. After all, this was the same movie based on the book of the same name that I once snidely referenced in a sermon about Christian misconceptions of heaven. Let’s face it, a struggling preacher facing opposition from his congregation and experiencing serious financial problems suddenly strike it rich to the tune of millions of dollars over his son’s not-surprisingly very westernized visions of a Christian heaven…and we’re NOT supposed to think this isn’t more than just a coincidence?
And so, that was the attitude that I approached the film with (unbeknownst to anyone else, as I had already planned an unbiased bible study to follow up our viewing). The film I saw, however, was nothing like my expectations. Was there a clear evangelical purpose? Certainly, but nowhere near the offensive and divisive levels of “God’s Not Dead.” Did one of the characters have some real, dramatic internal struggles that ultimately lead to a “come to Jesus,” moment? Of course, but no where near as dark and plot-usurping as in “Noah.” Instead, what “Heaven Is For Real” delivered was a light, family drama that posed more questions than answers, and offered simple glimpses of what heaven looks like through the eyes of a naive four-year old.
Todd Burpo, the pastor of Crossroads Wesleyan Church, delivers a sermon at the end of the film that pretty much summarizes the main theme of the movie. Actually, his sermon notes summarize it even better. “Only faith can open our eyes. God is love. On earth as it is in heaven.” Aside from the fact that no pastor’s sermon notes are only three sentences short, Pastor Burpo was almost spot on here. I would add that grace and the Holy Spirit play a pretty big role in the whole “eye-opening” experience, but the other two? They’re huge parts of what I believe as a Christian, and definitely not what I expected to hear coming into this film.
1 John 4:8 tells us that “The person that doesn’t love does not know God, because God is love,” (CEB). In the film, Pastor Burpo takes this concept and applies it to traditional concepts of heaven. Does God love any one person more than another? Can heaven really be heaven if our loved ones are not there? These are only a couple of the questions raised in the context of the movie, from a parishioner mourning over the loss of her military son, to when Colton tells his father that he spoke with his possibly atheist grandfather in heaven. If God is love, regardless of how we may differ in our responses, these are questions that can not be ignored, and “Heaven Is For Real,” offers a gentle exploration of each.
The Lord’s prayer is prayed frequently throughout the film, and knowing the amazing feeling our son Harrison brings to us when he prays those words with my wife and I every night, I can tell why. One of those lines, found in the Gospel of Matthew, reads “Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” (Matthew 6:10, NRSV). Now, I’ve always felt the punctuation was a little off in our english translation here, and that it should read, “Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven,” but that’s besides the point. Todd Burpo was clearly looking at this (or a similar translation) when he wrote his sermon (or his three notes) because he had just, “on earth as it is in heaven,” with that word, “earth,” specifically underlined. Well, that’s kind of the point I was making with my punctuation alteration anyways, so I’m down with this little emphatic line segment. As Christians, we are not called to sit back, proud and content that we have been promised a heavenly afterlife. As God is, we too should be concerned with making the world we live in a little bit more like heaven, so that more and more people can experience the hope that is in Christ Jesus. This is why theologians talk so much about how the Kingdom of God is both a present reality and a future hope. This is why Jesus Christ, himself, talked about both abundant and eternal life. In the final sermon from the film, Pastor Burpo sums this up nicely saying, “Haven’t we already seen heaven? In the first cry of a baby? The courage of a friend, the hands of a nurse or a doctor, the love of a mother or a father?…Is heaven for real?…for me the answer is yes.” Amen Pastor Todd.
Ultimately, “Heaven Is For Real,” will not please everybody, partly because it offers a message that is pleasing to anybody. It will not be evangelical enough for some conservatives. It will not be universal enough for some liberals. It will not answer enough questions for some fundamentalists and it will not pose enough questions for some radicals. And I still can’t say my opinion about the premise of the book has entirely changed. What “Heaven Is For Real,” the film, does, however, is speak of a God who love is bigger than any of our fears, and a Christ that offers a hope for all people. For some people, that hope, or at least part of it, is heaven, and for us, that heaven is very real.