The skeptic inside of us may knee-jerk away from going to see "Heaven Is for Real." However, may I suggest fighting that impulse and instead, taking yourself to see an extremely powerful movie that, in the end, is a movie about our own questions regarding life and the life-after.
The movie is about our humanness because nearly all of us question where it is we go when we die. We may not be part of a pastor's family, and surely most of us have never had a near-death experience, but we go about our lives doing much like the Burpo family portrayed in the movie, doing the best they can at making sense of things in day-to-day living, until the unexplainable happens.
Whether the real life, 4-year-old Colton Burpo went to the actual heaven during his emergency surgery in 2003, has not really been my concern since I caught a pre-release screening at the National Religious Broadcasters Convention in Nashville last Sunday. What I was impressed with most, and still marvel at, is that the life of an ordinary pastor and his family living in Nebraska were so authentically captured in a Hollywood film. That's not a given.
"I think that when you see this movie, the thing that is really amazing, is the family dynamics," Colton's father, Todd Burpo, told The Christian Post during an exclusive interview at NRB (see below). "We can talk about how well Greg Kinnear played me, but how they captured my family, they were spot on."
"Heaven Is for Real" is based on the true story of a 4-year old son of a small-town Nebraska pastor who experienced heaven during emergency surgery. Consider "experienced" as the operative word here, and I will tell you that there is no doubt in my mind that Colton experienced a divine appointment, whether he was in heaven or not.
Colton, played breathtakingly by newcomer Connor Corum, talked about looking down to see the doctor operating for a ruptured appendix and his dad praying in the waiting room. The family, like most of us would have reacted, didn't know what to believe, but soon the evidence was clear.
In heaven, Colton meets his miscarried sister whom no one ever had told him about and his great-grandfather who died 30 years before Colton was born. He shared impossible-to-know details about each, according to his father. Colton went on to describe the horse that only Jesus could ride, about how "reaaally big" God and his chair are, and how the Holy Spirit "shoots down power" from heaven to help us.
"Told by Colton's father often in Colton's own words, the disarmingly simple message is that heaven is a real place, Jesus really loves children, and to be ready … there is a coming last battle," the film's producers say.
The movie is based on the #1 New York Times best-selling book of the same name, Heaven Is for Real, and "brings to the screen the true story of a small-town father who must find the courage and conviction to share his son's extraordinary, life-changing experience with the world."
Talking to Todd Burpo before his interview with CP began, I knew I was talking to a father and pastor that was still trying to find that courage to go to the world with his son's message – now through Hollywood's big screen.
He shared that the most important part of his family's day is when they all gather for prayer, even if it means family members have to call in, and share their prayer requests. Flying into the convention, Burpo said he really missed Sunday's prayer session because on that day everyone gets to share their prayer request, instead of just one family member sharing during the rest of the days of the week. He said, "It was tough," and you could see it in his eyes that it certainly was.
"When Hollywood approached us, and I think, to put it into perspective, if someone from Hollywood came up to you and said, 'I would like to make a movie about your life, and by the way, you can trust us,' what would you be feeling? Right then, you are like 'I don't think so,'" Burpo told CP during the interview. "And this is sacred to us. What my son experienced was life-changing for us, but we didn't want that to get messed up, so from the very beginning, DeVon Franklin, Joe Roth, and T.D. Jakes came, and these are the people that God picked and said that 'I want you to trust these guys.'"
He said, "The very first discussions we had were [about them saying] 'you have to protect this story' because at the end of the day my son is 'going to see what you put on a movie screen' and one day he is going to hold me accountable for it. I'm not going to risk that and they said, 'We understand.'"
Colton Burpo watched the movie for the first time last week.
"My son saw the whole movie for the first time and we had the talk the next day, but with his younger brother and his sister in the room, too," Todd Burpo said. "And they were like 'Dad, we can support this. This is good.' He still had a few things, 'Well, I wish they'd change this or that,' but all three of my kids said, 'Dad, this is a good thing.' For me as a Dad, that was huge."
Burpo and the film's producers want to make it clear that this movie is "not the theology; it's a boy's story."
"At 4, he understood more than any 4-year-old could ever know," Burpo told CP. "A lot of people say, 'Well, you are a pastor and he's a pastor's kid. Yes, but he went to pre-school. I've never met an adult that could explain God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit like my 4-year-old can.
"He's now 14 today, but I think the movie captures that 4-year-old incredibly well. He captures the push and pull we had in our family, and what are people going to say if he starts sharing this stuff. This child actor, Connor, God brought him to this movie. A kid that age can't act, so God had to find a kid that was just like Colton and He did."
"Heaven Is for Real" is directed by Randall Wallace and produced by Joe Roth and T.D. Jakes. The screenplay was written by Wallace and Christopher Parker. The executive producers are Sue Baden-Powell, Sam Mercer, and Derrick Williams. The cast includes Greg Kinnear, Kelly Reilly, Connor Corum, Margo Martindale, and Thomas Haden Church.
The movie releases to the public on April 16, the Wednesday before Easter.
I'm going with the Burpo family on this one – this is a good thing.