AUDIO VERSION: YouTube Podbean
What does it mean to be a Christian? Does it mean we just carry around Bibles, quote verses, and at the same time tell everyone that we have no idea if anything God says is really worth a hill of beans? Apparently so, according to Heaven is for Real. In this movie, we don’t find any committed believers. We find a family that has no idea what they believe, and yet the father is a pastor. Go figure.
The first hint of trouble comes early on when pastor dad gives an introductory voice over about how he once asked his grandfather if Heaven was real. The grandfather said that he wasn’t sure, but he figured that by the time he really knew the answer, he’d be dead, so it will obviously be too late to tell his grandson. Well…how unhelpful.
It turns out that Grandpa walked on water in the eyes of his grandson, who is the adult pastor and main star of our movie. Later on when he is confronted with possible evidence that his grandfather might be in Heaven, our pastor insists that his grandfather was “a very good person”—whatever that is supposed to mean. And the idea of Gramps making it through those pearly gates is so intensely emotional that our pastor is hesitant to believe it. Apparently he had concerns that Grandpa might not have made it. Our pastor then says that he became a minister in order to try and “Give Pops a break in Heaven.” Apparently God was supposed to be so moved by the grandson’s good works on earth, that He’d agree to squeak the old man through. Wow. Did someone say this was a Christian movie?
Of course it’s Christian—people mention Jesus and the main character is a pastor. Isn’t that all it means to be a Christian? You don’t have to actually believe anything Jesus says—you just have to say His Name with confidence now and then.
But who is Jesus, anyway? The movie assumes you already know…sort of. At least you assume that’s what they assume when a woman throws out the comment: “You don’t have to save the world. I think that’s already been done.” Is this a reference to Christ’s saving work on the cross? We think it is until we start getting more and more bothered by these people’s salvation theology.
Just who gets into Heaven, anyway? According to four-year-old Colton—a boy who had a vision of Heaven while he was passed out on an operating table—everyone is in Heaven. It’s where all nice people go—and everyone who is loved by someone else. Why? Because God is love. And according to this movie, that’s all He is. Hell is mentioned a couple of times in passing, but we’re never encouraged to take it seriously. “Heaven and Hell have always been used as concepts to control people,” a woman on the church board says. Concepts?? Is that really all these things are? Apparently so, since the whole movie is about people who don’t believe anything God says. God says there’s a Heaven, but according to the “Christians” in this movie, that doesn’t mean much. It’s quite clear that none of these people have truly committed to God in their hearts because when they are presented with the idea that something He said might actually be real, they all balk in shock for 90 minutes.
One of the most disturbing things about this movie is that a bunch of Christians are so stunned at the idea of a child getting a vision of Heaven. Where do these people put the book of Revelation or the visions of Ezekiel and Isaiah? How are they so shocked at the notion of God giving people metaphorical glimpses into the supernatural realm? Now there are certainly things about Colton’s visions which should give us pause, but as Christians we shouldn’t be blown off the map by the concept of God communicating with us in some personal way.
Watching the pastor stumble around in Heaven is for Real is like watching a calculus teacher struggling over basic arithmetic. It doesn’t make sense. We keep finding ourselves asking, “What the heck is a man doing preaching in a church when he obviously doesn’t believe anything God says?”
“When God called me to preach, I thought I was going to save the world,” our pastor says at the end of the movie. Well, God obviously didn’t call this man to preach, because he doesn’t even know who God is. Without trying to, Heaven is for Real does a great job of portraying how meaningless words like pastor, Christian, faith, and callings have become.
In this movie we spend a lot of time in the cemetery. Our pastor is routinely putting fresh flowers on the grave of a young man who was killed in the military. Again, we are disturbed by this man’s terrible example as a spiritual leader. When people die, their souls leave this dimension and their bodies decompose. There is no ghost peeking up through the lawn or down from the sky to notice that you’re putting fresh flowers on his grave, so can we please stop obsessing over the dead? No, we can’t. It turns out our pastor has a guilt complex about the fact that he had no words with which to console the young man’s mother on the day of her son’s funeral. The mother is on the church board, and when word starts spreading that a child has visited Heaven, she reacts with hostility. Why? Well, for one thing, she’s jealous of the fact that the pastor got to keep his son while hers was taken away from her. “Do you think my son is in Heaven?” she tearfully asks the pastor as the two sit together in the graveyard holding yet more flowers for her son’s grave. In what is clearly meant to be a climaxing moment in the movie, the pastor looks at her and unrolls this disturbing string of logic:
“Did you love your son and do you still love him now?”
“Do you think you love your son more than I love mine?”
“Do you think God loves my son more than He loves yours?”
Big glowing smile as the mother has a breakthrough moment.
Um…what was that? We’ve just confirmed that everyone loves everyone—but so what? The son was nineteen-years-old. He was certainly old enough to comprehend right and wrong and grasp the truth about Jesus, so the only way he’s going to be in Heaven is if his soul bowed down in sincere submission to God. This should be ultra-obvious to both our pastor and our church board member, so what’s with these wide eyed questions about whether or not the son is in Heaven? What is wrong with these people? They go to church, they sing to God, and they preach sermons, but they obviously don’t have faith in anything, plus they’re constantly pretending that they’ve never been exposed to God’s requirements for salvation. Did someone say this was a Christian movie?
So then, according to our pastor, it’s a mother’s ongoing love that shoves young men through those pearly gates. Well, three cheers for staying emotionally stuck in life. Why should any of us strive to let go of the past if our ongoing obsession with the dead is helping to secure their eternal bliss? So when we get multiple shots of the mini shrine that mom has set up to her dead son in her house, we’re supposed to what—cheer her on? Be impressed by her refusal to get on with her life? Applaud her commitment to stagnation? Good grief.
When it comes to giving useful spiritual guidance, our pastor’s wife is as bad as he is. She’s tired of talking about her son’s vision of Heaven and has nothing to offer when her husband crashes down into a personal faith crisis. No one says “Let’s pray about it and ask God for guidance.” The only time prayer comes up in the movie is when it looks like Colton is about to die on the operating table from appendicitis. Then, in classic Christian style, his mom gets on the phone and asks everyone in the church to pray for them. We get many shots of people bowing their heads and closing their eyes. The underlying message is clear: it’s the power of numbers that makes miracles happen. And the pastor confirms this later by saying that yes, he thinks God did use the prayers of the people to heal his son. Really?? So, God only helps the popular people?
So what exactly did little Colton see when he had his vision of Heaven? He saw angels singing not just around him, but to him. Huh. Didn’t know angels would be singing to us—the Bible gives us the impression that they’d too busy worshiping and serving God to parade around humans. But in this movie, Heaven is everything the human ego could possibly want. It’s beautiful, lush and green. It’s filled with familiar faces. Everyone you really, really miss is there and they’re all having a glorious time. And of course there is perpetual youth—well, sort of.
It’s a bit tricky to pull off the heavenly youth angle. After all, what age is really ideal? In this movie, an old grandpa with glasses shows up in Heaven as a young man with no glasses. But he’s not that young—he’s perhaps in his late twenties or thirties—just young enough to perfectly match the photograph the pastor has stuffed away in some old family album. And as for the miscarried baby that the pastor and his wife had—well, she actually had to age a bit in Heaven so she could be old enough to talk. When Colton meets her, she’s skipping around with no name and very aware of the fact that she died in her mother’s tummy. Hm. So apparently we have to settle for “hey, you” in Heaven if our parents didn’t come up with a name for us on earth. And apparently being in the Presence of God isn’t enough to get us to stop fixating over how we exited earth.
Just when the pastor’s wife is ready to write the whole thing off as her son’s overactive imagination, Colton shares how he met his miscarried sister in Heaven (the girl with no name). The miscarriage is a well-kept secret, so when mom hears this piece of the vision, it makes her a believer. But the thing that is constantly moving people to tears in this movie is not God’s mercy or their sweet soul communion with Jesus. Instead, it’s knowing that the people they miss the most aren’t really gone, nor is anything bad happening to them. In other words, no one has the guts to face the hard facts about Hell and God’s wrath. Instead, Heaven is for Real does the classic picking and choosing of which truths we want to believe. Jesus is just some nice Guy who plays host in Heaven and lets kids sit on His lap while He walks around in a robe and sandals. God the Father is some love puff in the sky who can’t stand the thought of ever letting His creatures be unhappy. Heaven is all about human comfort. There’s no mention of worshiping God or looking forward to communing with Him. Who needs God when we’ve got Grandpa, the lost daughter, and a bunch of animals? And yes, there are animals in Heaven—are you kidding? Why would Satan miss the opportunity to encourage us in thinking that little Fido is waiting for us up there in endless fields of green? With so many Christians today calling their pets their children, holding pet funerals, talking about doggie angels and doggie prayers, Satan is not about to let us think that Heaven is devoid of any four-legged animals. Then we might have to finish growing up.
Heaven is for Real is based on a true story, and it was preceded by a book with the same title which of course became mega popular. No surprise there—people have always leapt upon any testimonial that makes them feel justified in treating eternity like a “choose your own ending” affair. And as our dimwitted pastor says to his beaming congregation at the end of the movie: “We’re all seeing a bit of Heaven right now.” Whenever people are kind to each other, whenever they love on each other and smile and do nice things—well, that’s a foretaste of Heaven. So let’s all gush over each other and avoid the “Hell of hating” and the Hell of other nasty things. And let’s all kiss off the fact that God likes Hell, because we don’t like Hell, and God is supposed to revolve around us.
It’s only humans who try to say that Hell is a bad thing. Jesus is a huge fan of torturing us for eternity in some hideous burning place if we try to approach salvation with a “You owe me” attitude. And no matter how many movies, books, and children’s testimonials we come up with to try and brush off the notion of Hell like it was some kind of mistake, Hell will still be the place where most of us end up. Why? Because there’s only one way to get into Heaven, and that is through reverential submission to the true Gods: Yahweh, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. If we just can’t be bothered with taking Their conviction seriously, then we will find out just how hateful our loving Gods can be when we reach the other side.
Eager to make believers out of us, Heaven is for Real offers us two “proofs” that little Colton is telling us the straight story. At the end of the movie, when the whole church has clustered up for a big group hug to create a little Heaven on earth, soldier boy’s mom sees a ghost of her dead son decked out in uniform and holding the flowers she had put on his grave. We know they are her flowers because they look very different from the pastor’s usual offering. So now she knows for sure that her son is in Heaven, and we see that huge beaming smile of relief spread across her face. But while she’s feeling happy, we feel a bit confused. What’s with the military uniform? Is Heaven the land of many flags? Are we doomed to spend eternity in our burial clothes? And what’s with the flowers? Are we really supposed to think that God is encouraging this woman to spend the rest of her life decorating a grave because her ghost son makes regular trips down from Heaven to pick up the fresh flowers…or is it the ghost of the fresh flowers? Do flowers have ghosts? Can this movie get anymore ludicrous? Oh wait–yes it can.
At the very end, pastor dad who has now moved from disturbed faith crisis to happy delusion, is browsing through the internet when he pulls up a screenshot of some little girl who has also visited the Great Beyond. Happily, she can paint like a professional at the tender age of six, and we see one of her finished works on the screen of his laptop: a huge oil painting of Jesus’ face. Not just any Jesus, mind you, but the official Jesus–who of course is a whitey with blue-green eyes and just enough facial hair to make us think of Sunday School but not enough to make us think of a Jewish man wandering around ancient Israel with more important things to do than shave. Apparently the girl had her magic visions at the same age that Colton had his–and that obviously proves, well, nothing. At this point, Colton wanders over to the porch, sees Jesus, and says the line we know is coming: “That’s Him. That’s Jesus.” And since we’re obviously supposed to assume that the same lie couldn’t possibly be told in two different places in the world, the movie is satisfied that we’re convinced.
No matter how many little white children have visions of Jesus with blue-green eyes, we still have no idea what He will actually look like in eternity. If you’re going to watch this movie, remember that God isn’t the only One who can produce supernatural visions and smartly dressed ghosts. There’s a whole army of nasty little deceivers running around called demons, and they have found it is very easy to lead adults astray through the mouths of unsuspecting children. Did Colton really see visions? Undoubtedly. But if you base your personal theology on the visions of a four-year-old boy instead of on the guidance of the magnificent Holy Spirit, then you’re in for quite a shock, because Heaven isn’t the only thing that is “for real.”
Honoring God with Our View of Heaven
Will all Christians be equal in Heaven?
Seances, Mediums & Ghosts
Dealing with Death: Eight Lies that Keep Us Stuck in the Past
Miracles from Heaven: What the Movie Won’t Teach You
Movie Review: War Room
Movie Review: 90 Minutes in Heaven