Heaven is for Real, the story of a boy who allegedly visited heaven and lived to tell the tale, is getting a big Hollywood treatment this week.
The film centers on four-year old Colton Burpo and his supposed vision of the afterlife following a traumatic near death experience. Greg Kinnear—and his signature confused stare no doubt—stars as Colton’s father, a small-town pastor faced with the decision to either share his son’s account or keep it hidden from the rest of the world. Spoiler: his book becomes a hit.
With the film releasing this week, Christians are left to wrestle with exactly how they should respond theologically to both Colton’s story and other popularized near death experiences (NDEs). Can—or should—these narratives be used to inform our beliefs about the afterlife? What about our Christian apologetic?
While it may rattle some fans of the book, Christian philosopher and apologist William Lane Craig encourages followers of Jesus to proceed with caution when studying NDEs and, in particular, Heaven is for Real. In a podcast dedicated to the issue, Craig says:
“My concern is this: Christians, in their enthusiasm for the glimpse of heaven that is offered in the book, may begin to base their view of the afterlife and of heaven on these sorts of experiences rather than on what the Bible teaches.”
While Colton’s story might have us crying in the bathroom after the film, NDEs are often inconsistent with one another. “We know that some of these [NDEs] are not authentic or veridical because they contradict each other. And yet how do you know whose experience is authentic and whose is not genuine?” Craig states.
As much as it may pain some to admit, Heaven is for Real is difficult to prove, especially as it relates to the Colton’s heavenly experience itself. Could this vision, or Colton’s interpretation of the vision, be true? Yes. Is it? We can’t be sure.
Dr. Gary Habermas of Liberty University does, however, point out one important aspect of NDEs that he feels Christians can’t overlook. In his book Beyond Death, Habermas provides close to twenty cases of what he cites are verifiable NDEs. He goes on to argue that while NDEs can’t necessarily construct a biblical worldview, they can be used to refute naturalism.
So, given all this information, how should Christians respond to Heaven is for Real?
In one sense, followers of Jesus should judge the film with the same standards we use to assess all movies. Is it artistic? Does the plot work? What about Kinnear’s confused stare?
On the other hand, Christians should be quick to remember that while Colton’s story might be heartfelt and inspirational, it isn’t the Bible. The film can be used as a conversational piece about death and a pointer to culture’s interest in the afterlife, but audiences shouldn’t allow this account to dictate their view of the afterlife.
Yes, we can develop our theology of heaven from a book. No, that book is not Heaven is for Real.