The controversial Christian movie "Heaven is for Real" tells the story of a young boy who claims to have visited the afterlife during a near-death experience. Based on the best-selling book of the same name, the movie stars Academy Award nominee Greg Kinnear as the boy's father who grapples with the impact of his son's experience on his family, as well as the over-arching religious implications.
Released on April 16, 2014, "Heaven is for Real" has been plagued by controversy. Critics believe that the story expresses problematic ideas about heaven that are not borne out in the Bible. Despite the controversy, however, fans are flocking to the movie. In its first week, the film more than doubled its modest $12 million budget and debuted at number two in the box office.
The book that inspired the movie, "Heaven is for Real: A Little Boy's Astounding Story of his Trip to Heaven and Back," was written by the real-life father of the boy, Todd Burpo, with the help of Lynn Vincent. It was released in 2010 and hit the New York Times bestseller list within weeks.
"Heaven is for Real" is the story of a four-year old boy named Colton Burpo. Colton underwent an emergency appendectomy in 2003 and nearly died. In the months following his surgery, Colton described people that he met and events that he witnessed while he was in surgery, or while he was in heaven, as his family later began to believe.
Among the people that he encountered were an older sister who was miscarried before his birth and a great grandfather who died 30 years prior to his birth. Colton also said that he met Jesus and John the Baptist. He described heaven as being filled with bright colors and rainbows. Colton also knew exactly where his parents were during his surgery and what they were doing.
Colton's father, Todd Burpo, is a Christian pastor. Played by Greg Kinnear in the movie, Todd struggles with his son's revelations. Colton's mother Sonja (played by Kelly Reilly) and his older sister must also deal with his newfound insights.
Since the release of the book, the Burpo's story has been the source of enormous controversy. The worldwide fascination with near-death experiences like Colton's is evidence of the natural human interest in the meaning of life and the substance of the afterlife. However, there are many who stress inconsistencies or problematic religious issues in the story.
Some critics of "Heaven is for Real" claim that the entire story is an outright hoax. They suggest that the Burpos fabricated the entire story for their own financial gain through the sale of the book and movie rights. The family's overnight celebrity also boosted attendance at the Nebraska church where Todd preaches and gave him new status in religious leadership circles.
Critics point out that there is no medical evidence that Colton was clinically dead at any point. They also claim that Colton's otherworldly experiences do not coincide with basic reason and pander to the simplest human fears about death and afterlife.
From a religious perspective, critics assert that the story goes against some basic Christian beliefs. The Bible does not state that the dead are hanging around in heaven waiting to be reunited with their loved ones, as they are portrayed in Colton's account. Nor does the Bible state that everyone in heaven is young, as Colton claims. Detractors also point out that the Bible forbids communicating with the dead, and they denounce the story for focusing on that practice.
Supporters of the movie dismiss critics by reminding them that the story is simply intended to be the testimony of a little boy. For some, Colton's experiences solidifies their faith and provides a sense of peace. At the very least, the story prompts people to stop and consider the afterlife and ponder their beliefs and their place in the world.
Stories like Colton's fascinate people with spiritual interests, because it is not possible to prove or disprove their veracity. In that sense, they generally coincide with a general Christian view of faith.
"Heaven is for Real" is a remarkably tender story about a family coping with unusual, confusing and enlightening circumstances. Near-death experiences are always a source of controversy; they are minimized or outright dismissed by some and heralded by others. The fact of the matter is that whether or not movie-goers believe the authenticity of the story, they are heading out to see the film in droves.