The Christian-themed movies just keep coming these days.
If you recently went to see Son of God, God’s Not Dead or Noah, you probably sat through twenty minutes of endless previews for other films. The other night I must have gone out for popcorn and missed part of this, but there was one preview for the newest film in this genre, Heaven is for Real, co-produced by popular evangelist, T.D. Jakes, and directed by Randall Wallace, screenwriter for Braveheart and director for other well-known films, including The Man in the Iron Mask and Secretariat. It is based on a popular book, Heaven is for Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back, written by Nebraska pastor Todd Burpo about his son, Colton, who had a type of near-death experience during appendectomy surgery in 2003. After his remarkable recovery, young Colton Burpo told his parents of things that he experienced regarding true events that were otherwise unknown to him, such as seeing his miscarried sister, as well as sitting on the lap of Jesus and seeing other people in heaven with wings where everyone looked young.
“Heaven” fascinates people because despite living in the “information age,” we know very little about it. So when someone claims to have visited “heaven” and comes back with a story to tell, it draws on our curiosity. Most people today are so preoccupied with trying to make it in “this” world, that we never really consider what it will be like, if anything, on “the other side.” I sincerely doubt that a film entitled “Hell is for Real” would garner the same type of interest, which tells us quite a bit about contemporary culture’s aversion to that side of the story. But, alas, an experience of “heaven” is more appealing, but frankly it is fraught with many of the same difficulties as with the concept of hell: Is it true and in what sense is it true?
If someone does report on having a “near-death experience” (NDE), how do you verify the trustworthiness of the story? Young Colton Burpo has caught our attention, but is it really true that people in heaven will have wings? As with other popular movies like Son of God (see Veracity review), God’s Not Dead (see review) or Noah (see review), we need some way to evaluate the validity of what the film director is telling us. After you check out the following preview for Heaven is For Real, go on and explore this rest of this analysis….
Do Near Death Experiences Tell Us Anything Trustworthy About the AfterLife?
John MacArthur is a popular Southern California pastor with an extraordinary gift for Bible exposition, and sponsor of the nationally syndicated radio program, Grace to You. I know of many Christians who have benefited greatly from MacArthur’s teachings on fundamental Biblical doctrine in very clear, direct, and God-honoring language. He continues to do the church a great service in many ways. However, if you know me well enough, you will know that I have some reservations about some aspects of Pastor MacArthur’s approach….
…Let me just put it this way: If I were ever to come out and publish a study Bible with the following words in large bold print on the cover “THE MORLEDGE STUDY BIBLE”, I pray that you would come up to me and lovingly yet firmly rebuke me for such presumption, shake me until I wake up, and scratch my name off of the cover… Okay… I digress….
Anyway, I will have to say in all fairness that there are times when MacArthur (and his team at Grace to You) makes a stand on a controversial issue that deserves an attentive response whether you agree with him or not. In John MacArthur’s second edition of The Glory of Heaven, MacArthur notes that:
Scripture definitively says that people do not go to heaven and come back: “Who has ascended to heaven and come down?” (Proverbs 30:4). Answer:”No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man” (John 3:13). All the accounts of heaven in Scripture are visions, not journeys taken by dead people. And even visions of heaven are very, very rare in Scripture. You can count them all on one hand.
So much for “near-death experiences” and the like for MacArthur! These are strong words that fans of the Heaven is For Real book and movie might find troubling. John MacArthur, for example, observes that Lazarus had no story to tell of his after-life experience he had prior to being raised by Jesus from the dead (John 11:38-44). Furthermore, when the Bible does talk of heavenly visions, the focus is always on God’s glory and majesty and not the subjective, self-oriented observations of the visionary.
Is MacArthur being too harsh? After all, he is a well known critic of the contemporary charismatic movement and its association with modern claims of miracles, as we have briefly explored here on Veracity. If it was not literally a “real” trip to heaven and back, as I would agree with MacArthur, is it still possible that young Colton Burpo had a visionary experience from the Lord to some extent during his delicate and critical surgery?
As Michael Patton of Credo House writes in this more generous and yet even-handed critical review of the Burpo book, Colton’s experience is difficult to simply dismiss completely out of hand. How does one explain Colton’s knowledge of people and events that he never physically witnessed prior to his near-death experience? Nevertheless, it is very tempting for people today to look towards the subjective experiences of people, such as with near-death experiences, as being somehow normative or authoritative. But as my blogging colleague John Paine has been pointing out of late, Scripture is our plumb line. We easily forget that we must look instead to the authority of God’s Word for understanding what the nature of heaven is really like, and what it is not (the same applies to hell, by the way). Human experience may complement what we read in Scripture, but if we find something in human experience that contradicts God’s Word, we are obligated as believers to affirm the teaching of Scripture, even when the source of the experience is in the mind of a cute and adorable kid like Colton Burpo. Colton Burpo’s experience serves as a witness to the reality of an afterlife, but there is a need for caution.
Heaven is for real. The Scriptures teach this. But I am not convinced that we necessarily need to cling too tightly to Colton Burpo’s testimony, however encouraging it may be and remarkable in terms of accurate descriptions of hitherto unknown people or events.
Sadly, the history of the church is filled with numerous tales of people of who had some visionary experience of heaven and derived whole new doctrines based on those visions and departed from the “plumb line” of Truth. I have not read the Burpo book, nor have I seen the film. I lean towards the more “open, yet cautious” view of Michael Patton, but the challenge raised by John MacArthur demands a careful and Biblically informed response. Do we diligently search the Scriptures to learn about heaven, or do we out of lack of discipline avoid that step and go to some movie about a boy’s description of heaven instead? I would be curious to know from those who have either read the book or who have seen the film: Does young Colton’s vision of heaven line up with Scripture, or should we just take his story with a grain of salt?
* * * * *
Pastor John MacArthur lays out his understanding of “visits to heaven” from a Biblical perspective in full in this Answers from Genesis essay. Is his exposition of the Bible correct?
In the following video, MacArthur answers a question posed to him about near-death experiences (disclaimer: I wonder if the YouTube guy who cut this video is a GraceToYou fan… mmmm?):
Still curious about what the Bible says about “Heaven?” Our Veracity-blogger-in-chief, John Paine, read Randy Alcorn’s provocative book on Heaven a few years ago and wrote a bunch of blog posts about the subject, examining the teaching of Scripture along the way: #1, #2, #3, and #4, for starters. John also put together a series of posts regarding life after death and the issue of near death experiences (NDE): #1, #2, and #3.
Gary Habermas, philosopher of religion at Liberty University, gives us a brief overview of why near-death experiences are important for Christian apologetics on the One-Minute Apologist, offering a different angle from John MacArthur:
And finally, for a completely different take on the Colton Burpo story from the perspective of an agnostic, you might want to read the following review in the New York Times. It underscores what tragically happens when some Christians push a particular experience outside of Scripture as being normative to such an extreme that it stirs up doubt in others around them.
April 15th, 2014 at 10:11 pm
I have read the book and found it very moving and hard to dismiss out of hand. As a Catholic, there were two aspects of this Protestant-authored book that inclines me strongly toward belief in the reality of Colton’s experience.
The first is that, according to Colton, Jesus had “markers”–the nail holes in his hands. According to Catholic doctrine, there have been saints throughout history, beginning with Francis of Assisi, who have been granted the privilege of sharing the stigmata, or wounds, of our Savior. The knowledge of the stigmata is not one that would naturally occur to the child of a Protestant.
The second was that he said he saw Mary, and that she was either standing next to Jesus, or kneeling in front of the Father’s throne. When I read that, I immediately thought, of course that’s what she would be doing! Again, a Protestant child would not be expected to visualize so beautifully and yet so simply, the role of the Mother of God.
I would definitely recommend reading this book. I’m hoping to see the movie, and, judging from the trailer I’ve seen, I’m expecting to be much more happy with this film than I was with “Noah”!
April 15th, 2014 at 11:05 pm
S.M., I thought it rather striking that a son of a Wesleyan pastor would see Mary in his NDE. I did not pick up on the stigmata observation at first. Thanks for pointing that out.
It is true that part of the early Protestant polemic against Catholicism was a rejection of the contemporary miraculous as being “too” Catholic. Cessationism, the view that the extraordinary manifestations of the Holy Spirit ceased at the end of the apostolic age, was pretty much the standard Protestant doctrine (with a few exceptions here and there) until the rise of the modern Pentecostal movement in the late 19th century. I do not think it is an accident that the greater openness to Catholicism in recent years among Protestants is due to the breakdown in the cessationist doctrine.
I know that John MacArthur, who harkens back to that earlier Protestant polemic, frequently lumps NDEs with all forms of “mysticism”, which includes quite a large chunk of Catholic spirituality. Contra MacArthur, I am inclined that there might be some rapprochement between Rome and her biblicist critics, but the barriers are still present and the issues complex.
It just never occurred to me that Protestant Colton Burpo’s NDE might favor a Catholic apologetic.
April 25th, 2014 at 9:16 pm
Here is a more positive movie review and interview with Todd Burpo, the father of Colton, who had the NDE:
The main advantage of the movie: Go take a friend with you, and then grab some coffee afterwards and ask them what they thought, and compare the movie with what you know the Bible teaches about heaven.
April 26th, 2014 at 9:28 am
Marion and I saw Heaven Is for Real last night. I was expecting a theological train wreck, but was pleasantly surprised. It was well acted and tastefully produced. This is not so much a movie about what Heaven is like (although those issues are at the core of the movie–and yes, students of the Bible can find issues with the child’s account), but is much more about how people react when the Christian faith manifests itself strongly in their private and public lives. On that level it was an interesting and thought-provoking movie.