I finally got around to seeing one of the other religious-themed movies that has been in theaters: Heaven is For Real. I had read the book the movie is based on several years ago, and from what I remember, the movie version stays pretty close to the book, which is the reflections written by the father of a young boy who had visions of heaven during surgery for a life-threatening illness. My overall reaction to the movie was similar to what I remember thinking after reading the book: it’s a remarkable story, it’s hard to judge the “authenticity” of the boy’s experiences, but for me, it didn’t really change much about my understanding of or belief in heaven.
I do think the Catholic Church gives us some language to be able to think about Colton Burpo, the child who says he saw heaven, and his experiences. The movie in particular goes to great lengths to emphasize that Colton didn’t die – although he was just clinging to life during major surgery, there was no medical evidence of death. Colton’s experience of heaven was more like a vision of heaven than actually being there – albeit a very vivid and detailed vision. In the book, Colton’s father, a small-town pastor, likens this vision to similar experiences recorded in Scripture – such as John in the Book of Revelation. As Catholics, we might use the language of mysticism or private revelation to describe Colton’s visions – he had a mystical vision of what heaven is like while clearly remaining on this earth and alive throughout the experience. In this sense, Colton could be described as something of a mystic to whom God gave a foretaste of what heaven is like, without actually being in heaven. To me, that general concept is believable.
When it comes to private revelations like this, the best ways to interpret them are to place them next to what we know through Scripture and Tradition and to witness the fruits of the sharing of these visions. There are countless individuals all over the world who claim to have received visions or messages from God – the Church often does not pronounce on whether these visions are “authentic” because we view them as primarily private revelations – intended for the spiritual benefit of those who receive them. When they do turn from private revelations to public messages, if they involve Catholics directly, then the Church does often make an inquiry into the experiences to offer a statement on whether, in the best judgment of the Church, they should be considered worthy of attention; such an inquiry is currently underway regarding visions at Medjugorje in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
So back to Heaven is For Real. It seems to me that the primary audience – whether intentionally or not – is people who already believe that heaven exists and are simply confirmed in their beliefs by watching the movie (or reading the book). For some, it might help to confirm details on what heaven is like – although any attempts to visually portray heaven, even with movie magic, can’t help but fall dramatically short of what we believe heaven will really be like (and the few visuals of heaven in the movie weren’t powerful enough to want me to go there!). The movie also plays heavily on emotion – which appeals to some Christian believers more than others. It also has a very interesting view of small-town Protestant pastors and churches – close-knit, prayerful, focused almost exclusively on the personal charisma and preaching ability of the pastor, who often has to hold multiple jobs to support his family, and whose position at the church is contingent on bringing in people and money, a position that can be withdrawn at any time if the leaders of the congregation don’t like what is happening. (On a side note, I didn’t think the pastor’s preaching was particularly inspiring or edifying; he is shown preaching several times during the movie, but none of these sermons are noteworthy.)
Bottom line – did Heaven is For Real make me believe more in heaven? No. Did it change my understanding of heaven? No. Did it strengthen my faith? No. Did the experience change the lives of Colton and his family? Yes. Does the sharing of their story provide opportunities for conversation about heaven? Yes. And there, as it is with most movies, lies the benefit of this big-screen feature. It can spark conversation among Christians about a topic that we probably don’t talk enough about – what is heaven? what does Scripture tell us heaven is like? how do our lives on earth prepare us for or lead us away from heaven? are there ways we can glimpse heaven here on earth, whether through mystical visions or ordinary experiences? Those are conversations much more worth having for us than whether or not we believe that Colton Burpo’s vision of heaven was authentic.