Making the Grades
Who would guess a four-year-old could cause such a ruckus? In 2010, Preacher Todd Burpo released the book Heaven Is for Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back. In 2003, his son Colton Burpo had undergone emergency surgery. But since he hadn’t actually died on the operating table, people refused to call this a near death experience and thus tried to discredit it.
In the movie adaptation of the book, Todd (Greg Kinnear) works as a garage door installer, coaches high school wrestling and serves as a volunteer fireman during the week. On Sundays he preaches to his congregation in Crossroads Wesleyan Church in Imperial, Nebraska. But despite his best efforts to support his family, Todd and his wife Sonja (Kelly Reilly) struggle to make ends meet in a community dealing with economic challenges. Then Todd breaks his leg and suffers a kidney stone attack. It’s enough to make anyone feel like Job.
Just as Todd is healing, Colton (Connor Corum) undergoes emergency surgery. After the young boy miraculous recovery, he begins talking about his visit to heaven while on the operating table. His comments aren’t preachy; just the kind of random remarks you’d expect from a four-year-old. It seems this affirmation of a life after death, even from a child, would be reassuring to Colton’s father and the rest of the congregation. Not so!
Todd (who preaches from the Bible every week) hesitates to accept the reality of heaven, or hell for that matter. In some ways his reaction might be understandable. He’s been through a lot. At some point in life most people will be faced with the choice of believing in a higher power or the arm of flesh. Even the seemingly faithful, like this small town reverend, can struggle when life gets hard. And that’s what Todd does as he seeks to define what heaven is to him. But rather than turning to the Bible, he goes online looking for explanations about his son’s experience.
Oddly enough, the reaction of the congregation isn’t at all expected either. Instead of strengthening their faith, many of them are confused or even outright vitriolic toward Todd’s family following Colton’s innocent comments. Those who joined in prayer for Colton only a few weeks earlier suddenly mock the boy and his parents. One is left to wonder if they see themselves as believers or merely members of a Sunday social club.
The film contains references to death and the depiction of some very sanitized medical procedures, along with a bloody sports injury. But other than that there is little content for parents to worry about. In the end, the point of the movie isn’t really a debate over the existence of heaven. Whether or not you agree, it’s hard to discredit another person’s personal experience, especially one as adorable as Colton. The real question of the movie seems to be one of faith—do you have it or not? And if you don’t believe in God, is the Internet the source of all truth?
Discussion Ideas After The Movie
Teaching ideas and topics to discuss about Heaven is for Real.
Although Todd preaches to his congregation every Sunday, how do the trials in his life force him to decide whether he believes what he preaches or not? Is it okay for religious people to have questions? How is the power of prayer portrayed in this movie?
Financial and emotional difficulties can often drive a couple apart. How do Todd and Sonja react to their difficulties? What seems to pull them through?
Sonja says that a person’s personal concept of God often comes from a person’s relationship with his or her own father. What do you think?
Todd visits with a professor in the story. She tries to explain away Colton’s experience by attributing it to extra sensory knowledge, telepathy or the release of hormones at the onset of death. How does her own personal experience with the death of a loved one affect her feelings about heaven?
This movie is based on the book Heaven is for Real by Todd Burpo (with Lynn Vincent). Todd Burpo is a Christian pastor and father of the little boy who recounts the experience. Click here to watch a video interview with Colton and his parents.
More and more people are sharing near death experiences. How do you feel about their testimonials? What are your feelings about life after death? Do you feel turning this kind of a personal experience into a movie adds to or diminishes from the credibility of the account?