He was three years old and on the brink of death. His appendix had ruptured and he was enduring hours of surgery when he had what many would call an out-of-body experience.
When he awoke, Colton Burpo told his family he had seen his miscarried sister. He had seen Jesus. He had been to heaven and back.
Have you heard this story? Maybe you’ve read the New York Times bestseller about his experience, or watched an interview with the Burpo family (including Colton’s father, Todd, who preaches the gospel in a small town in Nebraska).
Colton’s experience has became a sensation, one that you can now watch on the big screen, courtesy of Sony Pictures.
When Heaven is For Real, the movie, is released today, the number-one question in viewers’ minds will be, “Can this really be true?” Did Colton Burpo have a real vision of heaven? Or did he simply have an out-of-body experience based off of what he already knew of heaven, having been raised in a Christian home?
There is no easy answer.
From an early screening, though, what we can tell you is what you can expect and not expect in the movie:
- No Gospel: For all of its talk about Jesus and the afterlife—the movie leans toward universalism—the film has a scant amount of rich spiritual content. Even if the movie convinces its audience that heaven truly is for real, no one will know how to get there.
- Production Value: Hollywood loves to criticize the flaws in Christian films, such as poor production quality and bad acting. But this movie, released by Sony Pictures, was produced right. Skilled artists and technicians worked on this film throughout the production chain.
- Cheese Factor: Sony Pictures thinks it has the Christian market pegged. But this movie is wrought with scenes—including the kids cheerily singing hymns in the car—that just aren’t 100 percent believable.
So … back to the main question. True or not true?
Of Colton’s story, a skeptic may point out that when out-of-body experiences occur around the world, most of those people report an afterlife scene that is culturally relavent, and somewhat preconceived. A Christian will speak of angels and streets of gold, but a Buddist will talk about discovering who he was in their previous life.
On the other hand, some Christ-followers may remind us that we worship a supernatural God and we must not forget that He can do anything. Scripture records instances of God revealing himself through visions (though those visions were generally only for a time) and Muslims the world over testify to encountering Jesus in dreams and becoming Christians.
Why not approach stories such as Colton Burpo’s as both a sceptic and a believer?
In his book, Colton describes a heaven that doesn’t contradict what Scripture tells us. (Though, be warned, the movie adds to that description.) Let us not forget that there are secret things that belong to the Lord our God, only (Deuteronomy 29:29).
But we also have to be careful that we don’t get too caught up in sensational stories.
There is a reason that the book Heaven is For Real sold millions of copies—human beings are longing to catch a tangible glimpse of what comes next.
Fortunately for us, Scripture is clear about what happens when we die. Those who have rejected Christ in their hearts will spend eternity apart from God.
In the book, What Happens When I Die? And Other Questions about Heaven, Hell and the Life to Come, author Marcus Nodder gives an appropriate response for the believer who is uncertain of what happens beyond the grave:
If we are those who trust in Jesus we have the answer to death. We can face it and think and talk about it and have no need to fear it, because we believe in the one who has destroyed it.
That is our good news. None of us can judge whether Colton’s experience was the product of chemical reactions in his brain or the outcome of God reaching out to him in a supernatural way.
What we, as believers in the gospel of Jesus Christ, can whole-heartedly believe in is simply this:
Heaven IS for real.
Corum Hughes works on the production team for Haven Today. Drawing from his experiences in managing a McDonald’s, working in mental health, and watching lots and lots of movies—Corum seeks to find Jesus in places he is seldom sought.