Heaven Is for Real (dir. Randall Wallace, 2014)

by Christopher B. Barnett

In cinematic terms, Heaven Is for Real is not a particularly good movie. It has a few things going for it: a nuanced and sympathetic performance from Greg Kinnear, as well as fetching camerawork from cinematographer, Dean Semler, a veteran of major Hollywood productions such as Dances with Wolves (1990) and Apocalypto (2006). But it is also mawkish at times, and director Randall Wallace seems to prefer eagerness to mystery — a point underlined by his decision to actually stage the heavenly visions of four-year-old Colton Burpo (Connor Corum). In short (and whether or not this is a good or bad thing will depend on whom you ask), it is like a Lifetime movie with class.

Nevertheless, Heaven Is for Real (and, presumably, the book on which it is based) manages to raise a number of interesting questions, not just about heaven itself, but also about the status of heaven in contemporary Christianity. When, after an emergency appendectomy, young Colton reports that he visited heaven and even sat on Jesus’ lap, he brings his father, Todd (Kinnear), to a point de crise. On the one hand, Todd — who, notably, is also a pastor in the Wesleyan tradition — is astonished at how the experience has affected Colton. The boy seeks to comfort those around him, particularly the sick, and he seems to have acquired preternatural knowledge about his parents’ lives. On the other hand, his understanding of heaven is, well, childish. He speaks of angels and of songs and of Jesus riding on a colorful horse. How, Todd wonders, is one to reconcile Colton’s spiritual wisdom with his less than sophisticated theology? Is doubting the latter tantamount to rejecting the former — or worse? Has Todd, perhaps, lost his own faith?

Heaven Is for Real is a little too ripe to press these questions, and therein lies its failure. For it wants to have its cake and eat it too. Whether or not one believes or doubts in Colton’s vision is deemed irrelevant, so long as one tries to be a “good” person. Nothing essential is claimed, and so nothing essential is gained. Perhaps that’s not such a bad thing: one shudders to think at how poorly a more dogmatic film might have come off. At the same time, however, this approach cannot help but evacuate the doctrine of heaven of its intellectual content and peculiar role in Christian eschatology. After all, as doctrines go, it is something of a new kid on the block, not receiving its definitive formulation until Pope Benedict XII’s Benedictus Deus (1336). This delay, among other things, suggests that the “life everlasting” mentioned in the fifth-century Apostles’ Creed was first and foremost understood in Pauline terms — namely, as bodily resurrection. For the early church, then, Christian eschatology was intrinsically bound up with the redemption of the physical as well as the spiritual, with the renewal of the material and not just with the immaterial.

That is not to suggest, however, that the doctrine of heaven lacks biblical warrant altogether. Jesus refers to “eternal life” throughout the Gospels, and the beatitudes speak of “seeing” God (Mt 5:8). And yet, this phrase and its implication of the so-called “beatific vision” — that the bliss of heaven consists in the immediate vision and perfect love of God — does not disclose pat truisms but, rather, incomprehensible mysteries. As St. Paul writes, “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard; neither hath it entered into the heart of man, what things God hath prepared for them that love him” (1 Cor 2:9).

Ultimately, then, heaven ought not be reduced to a good feeling or a kind deed or a hope for a better tomorrow. But Heaven Is for Real would make it all of these, even as it tiptoes around the traditional profession of the resurrection of the body. For a movie that overtly engages Christian theology, it has far too little theology in it.