Return of the Prodigal Son by Pompeo Batoni - 1773

Evolution for the Catholic Student

Order 'Evolution for the Catholic Student' - Click on the image above

Thursday, May 1, 2014

'Heaven is for Real' Movie Review

Heaven is for Real Movie Review

When he was four years old, Colton Burpo nearly died from a ruptured appendix.  During his operation, he claimed to have had a vision of Heaven, where he met Jesus and deceased loved ones.  The movie Heaven is for Real, currently in theaters, tells the story.

Heaven is for Real is an enjoyable film, but reviewing it through the lens of Faith, I was less enthusiastic about it than many others.  The film has been well supported by Christians, and for good reason.  Near-death experiences are very often unexplainable by natural means.  They are valuable evangelistic tools, so much so, that the Magis Institute, founded by Father Robert Spitzer, is creating a video presentation documenting the miraculous quality of many of them, and suggests using it as a tool for discussion among high school students (and others).  There are certainly documented events that prove without a doubt the existence of a spiritual soul.

That being said, for Catholics, I think it is important that I relate some of my concerns with the film.  It seems to have been made as a celebration of the spiritual and casts Christianity in a very positive light, all of which is good.  However, I got the impression it is the product of filmmakers who don’t necessarily have the context or theological understanding to know what to do with it.

Though I have no reason to doubt the real-life story of Colton Burpo, I do fear the film could cause theological misunderstanding.  Allow me to give a few examples.

Whatever young Colton saw would be what God knew to be appropriate for a four-year-old to receive, and can not be taken to dogmatically define doctrine.  In the film, after his vision, Colton complains when he sees images of angels that, “That’s not what they look like.”  Obviously, angels are pure spirits with no bodies at all.  Yet, they can and do appear to people.  We see in Scripture, even, angels appearing in different forms in different contexts.  So how they would appear to a four-year-old child does not reflect how they are in their essence.  It is this type of thing that can be misconstrued and is never really cleared up in the film.  From the way angels look, to the nature of Heaven itself, there are numerous examples in which Colton’s vision could be used to define something in its essence.

I don’t expect Hollywood to be able to make such theological distinctions, but considering that everyone knows this is based on a true story, I fear it can lead to confusion for some viewers.

There also is a relativistic element that I found distasteful.  For example, at the end of the film Colton’s father, a Protestant minister, is preaching about his son’s experience, and he asks the question, “Is Heaven for real?”  His answer: “For me, it is.”

The film is not relativistic propaganda, and I doubt that is what the filmmakers intended with this scene (and a few others somewhat similar).  I also doubt that is what the real Todd Burpo said.  But again, in contrast to my first concern, when confronted with the reality of Heaven, this scene could encourage some viewers to take a relativistic view of it.

I will say that I greatly appreciate the pro-life spirit of the film.  Especially powerful is the scene in which Colton meets his sister in Heaven.  His sister had died as the result of a miscarriage when she was still in utero.

In all, there are some real merits to Heaven is for Real, but I would not go so far as to recommend it for everyone.  It may cause unbelievers to think, which I pray is the good fruit that comes from it.  Christians need to take it for what it is, and not let the film make dogmatic theological statements for them, perhaps other than, as the title states, that Heaven truly is for real.