Have we misunderstood Heaven? The dangers of Todd Burpo
It's the Box Office sensation that is taking America by storm – and it's all about a central tenet of Christian belief.
The film Heaven Is For Real, which took $22.5 million (£13.4 million) in its first three days, is based on a best-selling book telling the story of US preacher Todd Burpo. His four-year-old son Colton suffered a burst appendix and nearly died.
However, as The Daily Telegraph reported, "what Todd did not expect was that little Colton would not only survive his near-death experience on the operating table but come back full of stories of the angels and rainbows he had seen while unconscious. He told his parents that while visiting heaven he met John the Baptist... and sat at Jesus' knee." Apparently what lent Colton's story credibility was that he was able to describe people of which he could have had no knowledge – unless he had really been to heaven.
Since its release, the film has "played to rapturous and often tearful crowds who seem to view Colton's claims as gospel" according to one news report. Meanwhile, an atheist reviewer in The Washington Post described its popularity as "scary".
So what are we to make of all this? Certainly, Colton's vision of "riding a rainbow-coloured horse in heaven while being serenaded by angels singing Jesus Loves You" and his description of Jesus' "sea blue" eyes may cause understandable scepticism. And US theologian John MacArthur has warned that Colton's portrait of heaven is "completely devoid of the breathtaking glory featured in every biblical description of the heavenly realm." However, as far as I am aware, no-one has produced evidence to suggest that the family involved are anything but honest.
Whatever the truth of the matter, which we cannot know right now, there are some real dangers here. One is simply that the film apparently contains substantial differences from the original book. Writer Peter Chattaway has observed: "The film changes the actual content of Colton's visions themselves, and the lessons that both Colton and his father draw from those visions." This raises all sorts of questions.
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The second issue is the danger of people having a faith centred on "celebrity Christians" – rather than on Christ himself. Church history is littered with examples of preachers, leaders or just well-known believers who have either later been exposed as frauds or been genuine, but then gone off the rails. As a result, those whose beliefs particularly depended on them have found their faith shipwrecked.
However, the greatest danger is simply that of people taking their theology from a film rather than from the Bible. Recent books by former Bishop of Durham Tom Wright have shown how radically different the Scriptural picture of "heaven" is from that which exists in many people's minds. As he says in Surprised By Hope: "Far from sitting on clouds playing harps, as people often imagine, the redeemed people of God in the new world will be the agents of his love going out in new ways to accomplish new creative tasks."
The truth is that heaven is for real, regardless of Todd Burpo. And it is better that our beliefs our shaped by the breath-taking, brain-stretching, exhilarating vision of Scripture than by a controversial film which generates as many questions as answers.
In his book What Happens When I Die, London minister Marcus Nodder concludes: "We can face death with courage and conviction and peace because we know the one 'who has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel' (2 Timothy 1v10)."
It's much wiser to place our faith in Christ than in a film.