|Featuring:||Greg Kinnear … Todd Burpo
Kelly Reilly … Sonja Burpo
Thomas Haden Church … Jay Wilkins
Connor Corum … Colton Burpo
Lane Styles … Cassie Burpo
Margo Martindale … Nancy Rawling
Jacob Vargas … Michael
Thanya Romero … Rosa
Danso Gordon … Ray
Rob Moran … Dr. O'Holleran
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|Director:||Randall Wallace—“Secretariat,” “The Man in the Iron Mask” and writer of “Braveheart”|
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|Distributor:||Sony Pictures Entertainment|
Secret knowledge? Are visits to heaven for real?
Editor’s Note: Be warned, the “Heaven Is for Real” movie was produced by wealthy Word-Faith movement, megachurch Bishop T.D. Jakes. This should be a red flag for mature followers of Christ. The film is based on a book titled Heaven Is For Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back—a major money producer (more than 7-million sold—Christian Retailing). Many factual claims made in the book have been researched and found errouneous (not Biblical, contradictory, etc.). The book (and film) are not safe sources of information. We caution viewers to remain skeptical about the veracity of everything they see and hear in this movie.
In recent years, Christian booksellers have inundated the evangelical world with testimonies from people who say they visited heaven in near-death experiences. Their stories are full of specific details about what heaven is like, who is there, and what is happening in the celestial realm. But when we compare their claims with Scripture, it becomes clear that they are merely figments of the human imagination, not true visions of heaven as it is described in God’s Word.
The best known of all these tales, Heaven Is for Real, is now a major motion picture. It is the story of Colton Burpo, whose parents believe he visited heaven when he was just four—during surgery after a burst appendix nearly took his life. Colton’s descriptions of heaven are full of fanciful features and peculiar details that bear all the earmarks of a child’s vivid imagination. There’s nothing transcendent or even particularly enlightening about Colton’s heaven. It is completely devoid of the breathtaking glory featured in every biblical description of the heavenly realm.
Stories like Colton’s are as dangerous as they are seductive. Readers not only get a twisted, unbiblical picture of heaven; they also imbibe a subjective, superstitious, shallow brand of spirituality. Studying mystical accounts of supposed journeys into the afterlife yields nothing but confusion, contradiction, false hope, bad doctrine, and a host of similar evils.
We live in a narcissistic culture, and it shows in these accounts of people who claim they’ve been to heaven. They sound as if they viewed paradise in a mirror, keeping themselves in the foreground. They say comparatively little about God or His glory. But the glory of God is what the Bible says fills, illuminates, and defines heaven. Instead, the authors of these stories seem obsessed with details like how good they felt—how peaceful, how happy, how comforted they were; how they received privileges and accolades; how fun and enlightening their experience was; and how many things they think they now understand perfectly that could never be gleaned from Scripture alone. In short, they glorify self while barely noticing God’s glory. They highlight everything but what’s truly important about heaven.
It is quite true that heaven is a place of perfect bliss—devoid of all sorrow and sin, full of exultation and enjoyment—a place where grace and peace reign totally unchallenged. Heaven is where every true treasure and every eternal reward is laid up for the redeemed. Anyone whose destiny is heaven will certainly experience more joy and honor there than the fallen mind is capable of comprehending—infinitely more than any fallen creature deserves. But if you actually saw heaven and lived to tell about it, those things are not what would capture your heart and imagination.
You would be preoccupied instead with the majesty and grace of the One whose glory fills the place.
Sadly, undiscerning readers abound, and they take these postmodern accounts of heaven altogether seriously. The stratospheric sales figures and far-reaching influence of these books ought to be a matter of serious concern for anyone who truly loves the Word of God.
There is simply no reason to believe anyone who claims to have gone to heaven and returned. John 3:13 says, “No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.” [NLT: “No one has ever gone to heaven and returned. But the Son of Man has come down from heaven.”] And John 1:18 says, “No one has seen God at any time.”
Four biblical authors had visions of heaven—not near-death experiences. Isaiah and Ezekiel (Old Testament prophets) and Paul and John (New Testament apostles) all had such visions. Two other biblical figures—Micaiah and Stephen—got glimpses of heaven, but what they saw is merely mentioned, not described (2 Chronicles 18:18; Acts 7:55).
Only three of these men later wrote about what they saw—and the details they gave were comparatively sparse (Isaiah 6:1–4; Ezekiel 1, 10; Revelation 4–6). All of them focused properly on God’s glory. They also mentioned their own fear and shame in the presence of such glory. They had nothing to say about the mundane features that are so prominent in modern tales about heaven (things like picnics, games, juvenile attractions, familiar faces, odd conversations, and so on). Paul gave no actual description of heaven but simply said what he saw would be unlawful to utter. In short, the biblical descriptions of heaven could hardly be any more different from today’s fanciful stories about heaven.
Lazarus of Bethany fell ill and died, and his body lay decaying in a tomb for four days until Jesus raised him (John 11:17). A whole chapter in John’s Gospel is devoted to the story of how Jesus brought him back from the dead. But there’s not a hint or a whisper anywhere in Scripture about what happened to Lazarus’s soul in that four-day interim. The same thing is true of every person in Scripture who was ever brought back from the dead, beginning with the widow’s son whom Elijah raised in 1 Kings 17:17–24 and culminating with Eutychus, who was healed by Paul in Acts 20:9–12. Not one biblical person ever gave any recorded account of his or her postmortem experience in the realm of departed souls.
Far too much of the present interest in heaven, angels, and the afterlife stems from carnal curiosity. It is not a trend biblical Christians should encourage or celebrate. Any pursuit that diminishes people’s reliance on the Bible is fraught with grave spiritual dangers—especially if it is something that leads gullible souls into superstition, gnosticism, occultism, New Age philosophies, or any kind of spiritual confusion. Those are undeniably the roads most traveled by people who feed a morbid craving for detailed information about the afterlife, devouring stories of people who claim to have gone to the realm of the dead and returned.
Scripture never indulges that desire. In the Old Testament era, every attempt to communicate with the dead was deemed a sin on par with sacrificing infants to false gods (Deuteronomy 18:10–12). The Hebrew Scriptures say comparatively little about the disposition of souls after death, and the people of God were strictly forbidden to inquire further on their own. Necromancy was a major feature of Egyptian religion. It also dominated every religion known among the Canaanites. But under Moses’s law it was a sin punishable by death (Leviticus 20:27).
The New Testament adds much to our understanding of heaven (and hell), but we are still not permitted to add our own subjective ideas and experience-based conclusions to what God has specifically revealed through His inerrant Word. Indeed, we are forbidden in all spiritual matters to go beyond what is written (1 Corinthians 4:6).
Those who demand to know more than Scripture tells us about heaven are sinning:
“The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but those things which are revealed belong to us and to our children forever” (Deuteronomy 29:29).
The limits of our curiosity are thus established by the boundary of biblical revelation. In the words of Charles Spurgeon,
It’s a little heaven below, to imagine sweet things. But never think that imagination can picture heaven. When it is most sublime, when it is freest from the dust of Earth, when it is carried up by the greatest knowledge, and kept steady by the most extreme caution, imagination cannot picture heaven. “It hath not entered the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him.” Imagination is good, but not to picture to us heaven. Your imaginary heaven you will find by-and-by to be all a mistake; though you may have piled up fine castles, you will find them to be castles in the air, and they will vanish like thin clouds before the gale. For imagination cannot make a heaven. “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither hath it entered the heart of man to conceive” it. [Charles H. Spurgeon, The New Park Street Pulpit, 6 vols. (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1856), 2:18.]
What God has revealed in Scripture is the only legitimate place to get a clear understanding of the heavenly kingdom. God’s written Word does in fact give us a remarkably full and clear picture of heaven and the spiritual realm. But the Bible still leaves many questions unanswered.
We need to accept the boundaries God Himself has put on what He has revealed. It is sheer folly to speculate where Scripture is silent. It is sinfully wrong to try to investigate spiritual mysteries using occult means. And it is seriously dangerous to listen to anyone who claims to know more about God, heaven, angels, or the afterlife than God Himself has revealed to us in Scripture.
It is, however, right and beneficial for Christians to fix their hearts on heaven. Scripture commands us to cultivate that perspective:
“If then you were raised with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God. Set your mind on things above, not on things on Earth” (Colossians 3:1–2).
“While we do not look at the things which are seen but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:18).
Such a perspective is the very essence of true faith, according to Hebrews 11. Those with authentic, biblical faith acknowledge that they are strangers and pilgrims on this Earth (v. 13). They are seeking a heavenly homeland (v. 14). They “desire a better, that is, a heavenly country. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them” (v. 16). The “city” that verse refers to is the heavenly Jerusalem, an unimaginable place—the very capital of heaven. It will be the eternal abode of the redeemed. No wonder Christians are intrigued with the subject.
About the author: John MacArthur is pastor of Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California and president of The Master’s College and Seminary. Dr. MacArthur is also the author of more than one hundred books, covering a great expanse of Christian topics. He also is heard worldwide on his radio program Grace to You.
But no matter how much they might obsess over what heaven is like, people who fill their heads with a lot of fantastic or delusional ideas from others’ near-death experiences have not truly set their minds on things above. If the inerrant biblical truth God has given us is the only reliable knowledge about heaven we have access to (and it is), then that is what should grip our hearts and minds, not the dreams and speculations of human minds.
When a young Todd Burpo asks his father if heaven is real, Mr. Burpo responds, “By the time I know, it will be too late to tell you.” But when Todd, by this point a pastor at Crossroads Wesleyan Church in Imperial, Nebraska, hears his 4-year-old son describe his supposed journey to heaven, which he experienced while undergoing an emergency operation for a burst appendix, he is forced to ask: Can a young boy, who is near death, really experience heaven, walk with Jesus, and return to Earth to talk about it?
In the film adaptation of the New York Times bestselling book Heaven Is for Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back, Rev. Todd Burpo (Greg Kinnear) is skeptical of his son’s claims that, while he was on the operating table, he temporarily left his body and visited heaven.
“I want to believe [Colton]”, Todd says, “but everything he talks about is impossible.”
For most of the film, Todd is oscillating between doubt and belief, experiencing frustration, and becoming so enthralled by Colton’s story that he begins to focus on the afterlife at the expense of the present. As a result, his wife chides him for ignoring the family’s financial troubles and risking his own job over his obsession with what it was exactly that Colton witnessed.
Todd’s inability to account for Colton’s description of heaven leads him to the reluctant conclusion that his son was shown heaven — or, at least, a version of it that is intelligible to the mind of a young child. How else could Colton see himself, while the doctors were swiftly completing the surgery? How else could he see his mother, while she was calling friends and asking them to pray for her son? How else could he see his father, while he was sitting in the chapel and crying out to God? How else could Colton describe his conversation with “Pop,” his great-grandfather, and his unnamed sister who “died in Mommy’s tummy,” when he hardly knew the former and was not even aware of the latter?
Despite Todd’s doubts and his persistent efforts to find a rational explanation for his son’s story, he becomes convinced that Colton, an innocent young child, is telling the truth. Still, the film leaves open several other possibilities. In numerous scenes, children overhear their parents’ conversations, making it possible that Colton is aware of certain facts not because they were supernaturally revealed, but because they were discussed in his presence. Also, Colton describes the “markers” on Jesus’ hands and feet, even though, when the film depicts Colton’s visions, Jesus has no such wounds where the nails would have pierced his flesh during the crucifixion, meaning that Colton is either giving an inaccurate report or embellishing.
While reminiscing about his time spent walking with Jesus and sitting on his lap, Colton makes mention of Jesus’ rainbow-colored horse as well as Jesus’ blue-green eyes (a combination of his parents’ respective eye colors which would have been rare for a first-century Jewish male). In heaven, Colton discovers that everybody is young, nobody wears glasses, and everybody (including angels) laughs at his jokes. Throughout the film, Colton’s parents — and audience members — are forced to consider whether Colton’s vision is simply an amalgamation of childhood stories about heaven, the result of a vivid imagination, or an authentic, divinely-inspired event.
One of the most prominent proponents of the film, Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, has hailed the film as an “experience” that will “change lives.” In a video in which he advises Christians to watch Heaven Is For Real, Rodriguez says, “[The story] speaks to the power of purity, how purity and innocence really carry the potential to see what others do not see. That’s what I call … holy, integrity, righteousness.”
Pastor John MacArthur, who, in addition to John Piper, has publicly lambasted Colton’s story, disagrees, saying, “There’s nothing transcendent or even particularly enlightening about Colton’s heaven. It is completely devoid of the breathtaking glory featured in every biblical description of the heavenly realm. … For anyone who truly believes the biblical record, it is impossible to resist the conclusion that these modern testimonies — with their relentless self-focus and the relatively scant attention they pay to the glory of God — are simply untrue.”
As a story about a father’s attempt to make sense of his son’s incredible near-death experience, Heaven Is For Real is gripping, emotionally wrenching, and heartwarming. T.D. Jakes, one of the film’s producers, highlights this aspect when he says, “The story of Todd Burpo [and Colton Burpo] proves to us that faith, fear, and doubt can cohabitate in the same human being, that those who preach don’t always have the answers.”
But — regarding Colton’s actual claims — the film neither serves as proof of heaven nor a reliable description of the afterlife. Unfortunately, many readers of the book — and presumably, many viewers of the film — are taking Colton’s vision as scripture. One reviewer on the Thomas Nelson website wrote, “I learned so much about heaven by reading this book.” Even the book’s official summary reads, “Heaven Is For Real will forever change the way you think of eternity, offering the chance to see, and believe, like a child.” But if our view of heaven has already been shaped by Scripture, do we really need to change the way we think of eternity?
If unbelievers, who previously assumed that life after death was a mere fantasy, are influenced by the film so that they begin to consider the possibility of heaven and hell, then perhaps the film will have a positive impact. The existence of heaven, hell, and a final judgment are critical Christian beliefs that give life meaning. A final judgment makes ultimate justice possible, while the reality of an afterlife means we are responsible for our actions, which have eternal consequences. Furthermore, God’s offer of salvation attests to his merciful character, his everlasting love and faithfulness.
While Heaven Is For Real may entice unbelievers to search Scripture for God’s definitive revelation about the afterlife, the film, which grossed $21.5 million in its opening weekend, is being marketed primarily to Christians and not to atheists or agnostics. If Scripture assures us of the existence of both heaven and hell, then why are Christians so compelled to rely on the testimony of a 4-year-old boy, who experienced a strange vision of Jesus on a rainbow-colored horse?
Gary Smith, history professor at Grove City College in Pennsylvania, explains the success of Colton’s story — both the film and the book on which it is based — by referring to the need for proof, for signs that verify our beliefs. “Near-death journeys,” Smith writes, “perhaps more so than many other transformative personal religious experiences, are the closest thing to proof of God’s existence [for many].”
But near-death experiences should not be the closest thing we have to proof of God’s existence. The dreams and visions of a little boy during his appendicitis operation should not be a replacement for our search for God that occurs through Scripture reading, prayer, and church involvement. Scripture tells us all we need to know about heaven.
Jesus’ resurrection from the dead is the only proof of heaven we need (Matthew 12:38-40).
One day, some teachers of religious law and Pharisees came to Jesus and said, “Teacher, we want you to show us a miraculous sign to prove that you are from God.” But Jesus replied, “Only an evil, faithless generation would ask for a miraculous sign; but the only sign I will give them is the sign of the prophet Jonah” (Matthew 12:38-40).
Despite healing the sick, the blind, and the lame, miraculously feeding a crowd of 5,000 people, and raising people from the dead, the scribes and Pharisees wanted more signs to confirm that Jesus was divine and that his teachings were authoritative. In response, Jesus said there would only be one sign — his own resurrection from the dead, which would testify to the truth of his words and serve as evidence of his divinity.
His subsequent resurrection from the dead is a sign to us, as well. Although we did not personally witness Jesus’ resurrection, we believe the eye-witnesses who have relayed the message to us. The apostles endured tremendous persecution for insisting that Jesus, who rose from the dead, is Lord. Paul writes, “[T]he fact is that Christ has been raised from the dead. He has become the first of a great harvest of those who will be raised to life again. … [T]here is an order to this resurrection: Christ was raised first; then when Christ comes back, all his people will be raised” (1 Corinthians 15:20, 23).
Although we cannot see and touch the resurrected body of Christ — as the Apostle Thomas was able to do — we believe that, just as Jesus rose from the dead, we who believe in him will also be resurrected in order to dwell in the new heaven and the new Earth (1 Corinthians 6:14; Revelation 21:1). And we who live in the 21st century will be doubly blessed for believing without seeing.
We must trust in Scripture — in the prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel, who, along with John the Apostle, relay their respective visions of heaven in Isaiah 6:1-4, Ezekiel 1 and 10, and Revelation 4-6. We must trust in Christ, who repeatedly describes the heavenly and hellish destinations of the just and the unjust. In Matthew 25, Jesus says, “[The King] will place the sheep at his right hand and the goats at his left. Then the King will say to those on the right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.’ … Then the King will turn to those on the left and say, ‘Away with you, you cursed ones, into the eternal fire prepared for the Devil and his demons!’” (v. 33-34, 41).
It is understandable that Colton’s story has remained immensely popular, since people are desperate to know what happens to the soul after death. As the teacher in the book of Ecclesiastes says, “God has planted eternity in the human heart” (Ecc. 3:11). Furthermore, the human demand for the accomplishment of perfect justice can only be fulfilled in the afterlife, when an all-knowing, all-powerful, morally perfect, and impartial judge renders a decisive verdict at the end of time, giving to each what is due according to his deeds.
In Scripture, we read that God will answer the universal and inescapable human longing for immortality and justice. The Apostle Paul writes that God, who will grant eternal life to those who believe in the testimony of the Messiah, will also administer justice, “For there is going to come a day of judgment when God, the just judge of all the world, will judge all people according to what they have done. He will give eternal life to those who persist in doing what is good, seeking after the glory and honor and immortality that God offers. But he will pour out his anger and wrath on those who live for themselves, who refuse to obey the truth and practice evil deeds” (Romans 2:5-7).
Scripture assures us of the existence of both heaven and hell. So, what do we gain from trusting in the vision of a 4-year old boy?
At the end of the film, Todd Burpo says in his sermon, “If heaven is for real, we would all lead different lives, wouldn’t we?” For the secularist, life is meaningless, since there is no objective standard of good and evil and no afterlife in which one is judged for one’s actions. His actions now have no eternal consequences. But for the Christian, life is full of meaning and unceasing hope in the everlasting God who has imbued humankind with dignity and extended an offer of grace through His Son Jesus Christ. Christians believe both in an intermediate state of bodiless existence after death and in the resurrection of the body at the inauguration of the new heaven and the new Earth.
In Philippians, Paul writes that living is good, but dying would be even better, for in death he would be able to live with Christ and ultimately be resurrected in a heavenly body. But he presses on for the sake of his flock, so that he can contribute to their growth and their spiritual well-being. Paul pressed on confidently and unashamedly, preaching the gospel and living for Christ, because of his hope in the resurrection of the body. The basis for this hope is the reality of Christ’s resurrection, not the vision of a 4-year-old boy with appendicitis.
21 factual problems—“Heaven is For Real—This Story is Not” (Discerning the World)
“Book Review: Heaven is For Real” (Steve Parker)
Heaven Is Real, but Heaven Is for Real Is Really Not (Hank Hanegraaff)
Justin Peters radio program about “Heaven is for Real” (streaming audio—44:24—How can you question their experiences? / Painting of Jesus by Akiane Kramarik was not based on a vision or near death experience, but on a portait sitting with a man from Idaho. …)
“Heaven Is For Real” (Tim Challies)
“Is ‘Heaven Is for Real’ for Real?: An Exercise in Discernment” (The Berean Call)
Worldview Weekend—“Justin Peters explains why stories of trips to Heaven do not line up with the Bible” (streaming video—15:12)
“The Gospel is at stake if ‘Heaven Is for Real’” (Victor R. Scott)
“The Burpo-Malarkey Doctrine” (Phil Johnson)
“Heaven Is for Real” (Jeffrey Gibbs, Concordia Theology)
“Review: Heaven is For Real” (Kevin Miller)
“How Real Is the Book ‘Heaven Is for Real’?” (John Piper—streaming audio—6:08)
See list of Relevant Issues—questions-and-answers.