“You’ve made me suffer. And I took that. You’ve made my family suffer. And I took that. You’re gonna take my boy? Don’t you take my son. Don’t you take my son!”
That’s the desperate, angry prayer Todd Burpo flings heavenward when his four-year-old, Colton, lies in a hospital bed, his life hanging in the balance as surgeons operate following a ruptured appendix. And it might well be said that it’s an effective prayer. Because not only does Colton live, but he comes back from the brink talking about an unexpected thing that happened during his surgery: a round trip to paradise.
Colton’s memoir of sorts became a best-seller as Todd Burpo recounted the boy’s adventure in 2010’s nonfiction tome, Heaven Is for Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back. Now with the help of Braveheart screenwriter and Secretariat director Randall Wallace, that same tale has come to the big screen.
When we first meet him, Todd is a rock-steady man of faith, splitting his vocational time between pastoring Crossroads Wesleyan Church in rural Imperial, Neb., and installing garage doors. Neither gig is quite keeping up with the bills, his faithful and loving wife, Sonja, regularly informs him. But that hard reality hardly inhibits Todd’s goodhearted faith in God’s provision. Nor does a badly broken leg in a church softball game, for that matter … even though the hospital bills pile on even more financial stress.
Colton’s experience, however, is something else altogether. And while you might think answered prayers and Colton’s detailed account of his time with Jesus would engender even greater faith for his parents, it has just the opposite effect. Struggling to understand what happened—and, indeed, what he really believes—Todd plunges into a spiritual crisis. It’s a dark night of the soul, he says, referring to that season of deep doubt originally expressed by the 16th-century Christian mystic John of the Cross.
Todd and Sonja love their son deeply and want to believe that what he says he saw is true. But it’s as hard for them as it may be for some moviegoers. Still, the details Colton reveals—meeting Todd’s beloved grandfather and a sister with no name who died in a miscarriage years before, among other things—are simply too precise for his parents to pass off as chemically flooded neurons firing wildly during the lad’s dramatic near-death experience.
Pastor Todd is a good man, any way you want to look at it. He’s a well-loved minister. And he works hard, both spiritually and physically. When a client can’t pay for a new garage door, he graciously accepts a trade (for new church carpet). When Sonja stresses about bills, Todd maintains his emotional equilibrium. And when he gets home from work, he’s quick to engage with Colton and older sister Cassie. Similarly, Sonja is devoted to her family and to her husband, even though she has doubts about her son’s experience too.
Todd’s best friend is a banker named Jay Olson, who listens to and counsels Todd throughout the film. Jay is one of the pillars of the church, and he’s patient with Todd’s journey. But he eventually has to tell Todd that his wavering faith and obsessive fixation on figuring out if Colton’s heavenly experiences were real or not is taking a toll on the congregation’s faith—a problem amplified by the media spotlight that inevitably shines on the Burpo family.
Representing the congregants is a woman named Nancy Rawling. It’s clear that she’s deeply unsettled by Colton’s story about heaven, in part because of questions about her own son’s death. (We’ll talk about that more in Spiritual Content.) She and Todd go head to head for a while, but ultimately find common ground and reconcile.
In his first conversation about his experience during surgery, Colton says that there were angels singing to him, and that he floated above the operating table and could see himself. He says he saw his mom on the phone and his dad angrily praying (in separate rooms). Later, he mentions meeting Jesus and sitting on His lap, as well as encountering his miscarried little sister and his great-grandfather. Everyone in heaven is young, Colton says, and there are many animals present too. Heaven is a lot like earth, the little boy says, except more colorful and more beautiful.
We first hear Colton recount these details verbally, then the film visually imagines what it all might have been like. He enters the family’s church, sits in a pew, then is greeted by Jesus, with whom he holds hands as they walk into a cloud-filled realm.
More specifically biblical is something Colton says to a reporter: that Jesus had “markers.” When she asks him what he means, he points to his palms and feet, seemingly indicating crucifixion scars. There’s a reference to Jesus having not chosen the easy path when He faced the cross.
Still, the movie never explicitly links Christ’s sacrifice to our salvation or access to heaven. Indeed, virtually nothing is said connecting a person’s beliefs to an eternal destiny. And when it comes to Colton reporting that he saw Todd’s granddad in heaven, the pastor responds with a line about how no one ever really knew what the man believed.
A conversation Todd has with Nancy seems designed to get about as far under the skin of our qualifications for the afterlife as the filmmakers want to. Todd has learned that Nancy’s been resisting his frequent discussions about Colton’s heavenly interlude because she’s still angry at God for her son’s death in the war. He apologizes for not offering her the kind of hope and encouragement she needed in that moment, and then she asks this question:
“Do you think—I have to ask—do you think my son went to heaven?”
“Do you love your son?” Todd replies.
“Of course,” she says.
“Do you think I love mine?” he asks.
“I know you do,” she replies.
“Do you think I love my son more than you love yours?”
“Do you think God loves my son more than He loves yours?”
Todd’s focus on God’s love continues in the film’s conclusion, in which he preaches to his congregation, “So now we’ve got a question: Was Colton in heaven? Yes. He was in the heaven that God showed him. Is heaven real, ’cause if heaven is for real, we’d all lead different lives, wouldn’t we? Would we? Really? Haven’t we already seen heaven? In the first cry of a baby? The courage of a friend, the hands of a nurse or a doctor, the love of a mother or father? Haven’t we already had a glimpse of heaven and so often chosen the hell of hate and fear? Is heaven for real? Every single one of you has asked that question. All of us have. And for me the answer, it’s yes.”
Todd also preaches, “I see it, so I believe it. What we believe changes what we perceive, and I believe that God, He’s love. Ten thousand times I’ve been here, and I’ve talked about ‘On earth as it is in heaven.’ And I don’t know that I ever listened to that. And my son, he saw something, he saw heaven. He’ll tell you all about Jesus. How ’bout that name, Jesus? Ooh. Jesus. Creates so much hope in so many of you. So much distrust in so many others. That’s OK. I believe God asked me to be a pastor. Did he insist on my vision being the same as yours, or yours? Of course not. Did he make me one of those heroes like the lion and the bear and the unicorn I preached about? No. That’s what I wanted. God had a different plan. God crushed my pride, opened my heart to love. And all I have to do, the one thing this love requires, is that I let others know they’re not alone.”
We hear such Christian songs as “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” and “This Little Light of Mine.” And when it looks as though Colton might die, Sonja rallies church members to pray for him. An interjection of “God!” is said in a way that could be heard either as a misuse or a spiritual exclamation.
Sonja wears some clingy outfits with low-cut necklines. In her home, we see her bare shoulders and camisole’s spaghetti straps. To convince her hard-working and reluctant husband to take the family on a much needed vacation, she whispers something sexually suggestive in his ear (we can’t hear it), and he immediately changes his mind. Elsewhere, Todd and Sonja are physically affectionate.
Todd slides into third base during a church softball game, resulting in a sickening crunch and what appears to be a severely broken leg. We see him writhing in pain on the ground and glimpse the bloody wound.
Defending her little brother from taunts at school, Cassie hits two bullies in the face. She’s disciplined by the school, but Dad expresses nothing but pride in her. Laughing off the Bible’s admonition to turn the other cheek, he says he’s going to need to teach her how to hit without hurting her hand.
In a moment of deep frustration, Sonja angrily hurls a glass into the kitchen sink, where it shatters.
One use each of “heck” and “oh my gosh.”
While sick, Colton and Cassie are shown vomiting into a toilet and the bathtub, respectively.
Heaven Is for Real is a cinematic take on one boy’s remarkable testimony about where we go when we die. In young Colton Burpo’s experience, heaven is a place of beauty, peace, comfort, joy and eternal youth. It is presided over by a loving, caring Jesus—whose scars from the cross are still visible on His hands and feet. So Colton’s heaven is assuredly Jesus’ heaven. There, we meet generations of those who’ve passed on before us, and we never have to be afraid of anyone or anything because pain is a thing that’s forever in the past.
That’s what the film offers, and it does so in a compelling and sometimes emotional way. What it doesn’t offer is much that will convince those with theological concerns—John MacArthur and Hank Hanegraaff among them—about the idea of God routinely inviting people up into His presence for a visit when they’re at death’s door. Nor does it offer an explanation for how we can go to heaven when we actually do die.
The result is a faith-oriented and family-friendly film that will both inspire and vex—much like Colton’s stories affect his own father.
After serving as an associate editor at NavPress’ Discipleship Journal and consulting editor for Current Thoughts and Trends, Adam now oversees the editing and publishing of Plugged In’s reviews as the site’s director. He and his wife, Jennifer, have three children. In their free time, the Holzes enjoy playing games, a variety of musical instruments, swimming and … watching movies.