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When Colton Burpo was just 4 years old, he suffered a burst appendix and became gravely ill. While his church and family prayed, surgeons were able to save him. After his recovery, he began to share the experience he had while in surgery. He told his father, Todd Burpo, that he had visited heaven. Todd, a minister, struggled to understand what had really happened.

Not only had Colton seen angels and Jesus, which would be an understandable dream for a young boy under anesthesia, but Colton had seen family members who had passed away before he was ever born. Todd was torn between wanting to affirm his son’s experience and wanting to explain it away. Eventually Todd wrote the book Heaven Is for Real, which became a bestseller.

In the movie Heaven Is for Real (Sony), Greg Kinnear plays Todd, a man weathering a series of difficulties even before his son’s illness. Colton’s experience of heaven leads him to question many things. Does he really believe there is a heaven? And what is it, really? It also leads his congregation to question his ability to lead their church.

Kinnear plays Todd Burpo with compassion, giving viewers a man in a state of faithful confusion. Kelly Reilly portrays his beautiful wife. Together they depict a marriage full of love and also of real-life struggle. The real charmer, though, is 6-year-old newcomer Connor Corum, who is so adorably sincere that you can’t help but believe his story too.

And there is the rub, of course. Do we believe? Should we believe? We may believe that heaven is for real, but we really don’t know what it’s like. Stories of these visions and near-death experiences are very popular among evangelical Christians, but none of us can know for sure what is real and what isn’t. The movie itself is not strong on theology.

Which is OK with me, as it is a movie, not a sermon or a Bible study. In that way, this movie is more likely to open a real conversation with a non-Christian than many Christian movies out there. I have not read the book, but I understand that it is much more specific in its Christianity.

The movie is lacking in craftsmanship—it will not be on the next list of Best Picture nominees. However, its success so far (grossing over $52 million) indicates an audience that is looking for a thoughtful movie that asks serious questions about spiritual things.

I am a movie reviewer, not a theologian, so I’ll leave the theological commentary to others. What I did appreciate about this movie, in spite of some filmmaking fumbles, was that it didn’t give viewers cut-and-dried answers. Kinnear’s character allows room for questions and mystery, even as he believes that his son has been given a glimpse of what God has in store for us. He points out that we are all given glimpses of heaven, through beautiful acts of kindness, through the natural creation around us, and through the love that we show to each other.

If you’ve read the book or seen the movie, please share your thoughtful comments with us!

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