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'Heaven Is for Real' movie opens, stirs debate on near-death, heaven experiences

Heaven Is For Real” opened this past week with a surprising debut at number 3 at the Box Office, no doubt spurred by the Easter holiday weekend. The movie tells the tale of a supposedly real life experience of a young boy that came near to death and recalls visiting heaven before being revived. The film is based on the 2010 New York Times best seller of the same name, co-written by the boy's father, Pastor Todd Burpo, and Lynn Vincent.

Heaven is for Real
Facebook / Heaven is for Real

According to the Huffington Post on April 21, the film is stirring both conversation and controversy over the existence of heaven, who goes there and if Colton Burpo – the 4-year-old son of a Nebraska pastor – did indeed glimpse heaven when brushing death in a 2003 emergency appendicitis operation. The film opened last Wednesday, and brought in $28.5 million in its first five days. Almost all of the sales came from the holiday weekend.

Says the Post: “Is it possible to die, take a quick look around, and come back to life to describe what you found? Seekers have asked the question for millennia, with the answers elusive and inconclusive at best.” Those who have had so-called near death experiences speak of such commonalities as intense light, a tunnel, floating above their corpse or seeing dead loved ones. The film is reviving talk among individuals who insist such experiences are factual, and critics who debunk such out-of-body occurrences.

In the story told by the book and film, Colton experienced events that would seem impossible for him to have known, absent some sort of Divine intervention. The 4-year-old’s recounting of what he saw, while turning some into believers, has also spurred others to become his harshest critics. Colton, who is now 13 years old, has been traveling with his mom and dad, Sonya and Todd Burpo, on an interview tour to promote the new movie.

According to WebProNews, Colton said that his hope is that the movie will help viewers to realize that “God loves them and wants them to go to heaven.” He also gave very Christ-like advice on the reason that many will not be permitted to travel to heaven – an over-attachment to material things. Says Colton: “So when you love Jesus and you decide to follow him, it’s easier to let those things go so you can be in heaven for an eternity,” the teen said in an interview.

Among Colton’s claims: He says he met up with family members that he was never even told about, including a miscarried older sister that his mother and father say they never revealed to anyone. Colton says he also spoke with his great grandfather, who died 30 years before Colton was born, and met up with Jesus, whom he described as having “brown hair, a brown beard, and beautiful sea-blue eyes.” According to the young boy’s memory, Jesus was “riding a rainbow-colored horse” and Colton sat on the Prince of Peace’s lap. He further describes angels that were singing to him and claims to have saw Mary, Jesus’ fleshly mother, “kneeling before the Throne of God.”

The film is the latest in a revival of sorts among religious movies that hit the big screen shortly after the success of History Channel’s “The Bible” miniseries. Films like “Noah,” “God's Not Dead,” and “Son of God” have all been pulling interest back into the religious genre of movie-making.

The New York Times reported on the success enjoyed by such recent religious films: “Religious movies have been hot at the box office this year in part because the current boomlet follows a drought. Studios also aim to lock in sales by church groups, resulting in an opening-weekend pop that can drive positive word of mouth.”

“Heaven is for Real” so far has received mixed reviews, but the makers of the film say that their goal is not about making money and entertaining people, but spreading a message and spurring discussion about heaven and what it takes to get there.

“Churches should talk more about heaven,” said Colton’s father Todd Burpo, who serves as a pastor at the Crossroads Wesleyan church in Imperial, Neb. “We seem to avoid talking about things like life and death until we are confronted with them, like at a funeral, but it can be comforting to know there is more out there. Still, heaven is so much bigger than one person or one story.”

Critics says that such experiences reflect an “un-Biblical perspective” on what happens in life after death. Others say that in Colton’s situation, no medical evidence was presented that he was clinically dead, meaning that he could not have been in two places at the same time. As far as the knowledge that Colton says he possessed after he “returned,” critics say his parents told him about such things, and that they are simply trying to benefit from his personal experience with a big bucks book and movie now to boot.

“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,” Baptist author and radio host John MacArthur wrote last month. “They are either figments of the human imagination (dreams, hallucinations, false memories, fantasies, and in the worst cases, deliberate lies), or else they are products of demonic deception.”

The Huffington Post picks up the story:

Among those who believe in near-death experiences, there are also detractors. Nan Bush, a blogger on near-death issues, said she believes Colton Burpo visited another place during his near-death, but said the story has become "more elaborate and more doctrinally focused as the now-teen has expanded on it over several years." Bush criticized the film's focus on "Christian exclusivity and holy warfare that puts Revelation imagery into the hands of human warriors resembling Marvel comic book heroes." (In the book, Colton Burpo is told that the righteous, such as his father, would be fighters in a last battle on Earth). Though "positive" near-death experiences get the bulk of media coverage, there are terrifying, dark ones that often are ignored, Bush writes in her book, Dancing Past the Dark: Distressing Near-Death Experiences.

The Bible of course does speak of heaven, and indicates that a limited number would be privileged to serve there as co-priests with a ruling Jesus Christ, King of the Messianic Kingdom. Since Jesus resurrects such ones to serve as co-rulers, their number would be few. (Revelation 7:4) But the vast majority of mankind pray for God’s kingdom to come “on Earth, as it is in heaven.” The Bible speaks in numerous places of the righteous inheriting the earth. (Psalm 37:29)

What are your thoughts on the movie and its message? Leave your comments below.

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