Opening Easter weekend with $21.5 million in ticket sales, the popularity associated with "Heaven Is for Real" is encouraging. At the same time, the movie should have Christians scratching their heads.
Based on the No. 1 New York Times Bestseller of the same title, the movie recounts the struggle that small-town pastor and father Todd Burpo (Greg Kinnear) faces as he struggles to embrace his 4-year-old son's claim that he went to heaven in a near-death experience during an emergency appendectomy surgery.
Burpo's wrestling with such an extraordinary claim is often manifested in his sometimes-tense relationship with his wife Sonja (Kelly Reilly), his shaky friendship with those who serve with him at the local volunteer fire department, and in his unconvincing leadership of the church he pastors. The movie predictably plods along the storyline of the Burpos slowly finding out more and more about what their son Colton (Conner Corum) tells of hearing singing angels, sitting on Jesus' lap, seeing Jesus' rainbow-colored horse, hugging his sister (who had died in utero) and talking to "Pop," Todd's maternal great-grandfather who had died years ago.
After grappling with the veracity of his son's claim by having a heart-to heart talk with a close friend and conducting a Google search of "near-death experience," as well as by visiting a university psychologist, Burpo seems to make a blind jump of faith in acknowledging his son's extraordinary experience. After weeks of timidity, Burpo boldly stands before his congregation and says with conviction that he indeed believes. The movie concludes as parishioners smile and walk to the front to hug their pastor who has courageously embraced the child-like faith modeled by his son. If hearts are not warm enough by now, Sonja Burpo hands her husband a blue baby outfit and announces they are now expecting another child.
In a day when violence, perverted sexuality and general crudeness are splattered across the silver screen, a heartwarming, spiritually-oriented film like Heaven Is for Real containing nice, moral, churchgoing Nebraskans is somewhat of a relief.
Of humanity's search for God, Augustine said long ago that our hearts are restless until they find rest in Thee. As millions read the book and flock to theaters to see such a celestial film, reflecting an obvious restlessness in our society, Heaven Is for Real seems to encourage a less-than-informed approach to the subject of Christian faith. As the Burpos and their close-knit community struggle to embrace Colton's claims and the realities of their faith, multiple warmhearted conversations ensue and lots of staring off silently into vast distances takes place, but there is no searching the Scripture. Sadly, as a result of this visit to heaven and the fervor that it enflames, there is no talk of an awesome God.
No, "the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh," and yes, we "have divine power to destroy strongholds," and because we are human beings, there is much we'll never understand. On the same token, we "take every thought captive to obey Christ" (2 Corinthians 10:4-5). We do not take off our thinking caps in order to be people of faith. Regardless of how others may encourage us, we do not "let go, and let God." Rather, as Anselm said in the 11th century, our faith is continuously in the process of seeking understanding.
The producers of the movie may believe that heaven is for real, but the heaven depicted in the movie seems to be more about how modern Americans may view God than the actual place where God dwells.
In the midst of a churchgoing society where sentimental spirituality is frequently on display, let us be reminded that those in Scripture who experienced the God of heaven were often marked by overwhelming terror, uncontrollable trembling, paralyzing fear, incredible awe, jaw-dropping astonishment and silencing amazement.
When Moses requested to see the glory of God, God hid him in a rock and allowed Moses to see only His back (Exodus 33:18-23).
When Ezekiel saw the glory of the LORD, he fell on his face (Ezekiel 1:28).
Daniel was overwhelmed by his vision of God. He was "anxious" and his visions "troubled" him (Daniel 7:15). Moreover, he summed up his experience by saying, "Here is the end of the matter. As for me Daniel, my thoughts greatly alarmed me, and my color changed, but I kept the matter in my heart" (Daniel 7:28).
Isaiah cowered in God's presence and cried "Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!" (Isaiah 6:5). God would later tell him, "But the LORD of hosts, him you shall honor as holy. Let him be your fear, and let him be your dread" (Isaiah 8:13).
The disciples who witnessed Jesus walking on water "were terrified" and "cried out in fear" (Matthew 14:26). When they all got in the boat together, the disciples "worshipped him, saying, 'Truly you are the Son of God'" (Matthew 14:33).
When God thundered from the bright cloud over the Mount of Transfiguration and told Peter, James and John, "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him," the disciples "fell on their faces and were terrified" (Matthew 17:5-6).
John records that when he saw Christ, he "fell at his feet as though dead" (1:17).
Christians are people with a thinking faith. Simultaneously, we are a people who exercise faithful thinking. Our thinking faith and faithful thinking is focused on God and rooted in His Word. As a result, we realize that heaven is where the One, True, Almighty, Majestic and Holy God lives.
Regardless of whatever extraordinary experiences there may be, heaven is ultimately about the God who is there.
Todd Brady is vice president for university ministries at Union University in Jackson, Tenn. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).
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