Earlier this week, I sat down with my copy of Entertainment Weekly‘s summer movie preview and I flipped through it, taking note of all the movies that I have to go see this summer. And yes, I phrased that correctly. I have to go. It is imperative that I see these movies. The list is fairly long, but there is one noticeable omission from it.
That may seem a little odd. I mean, I’m a Lutheran pastor. I should be happy that a movie with strong Christian themes is out in theaters now. And really, isn’t this movie, about a young boy who goes to heaven, just the perfect pairing for the Easter season?
No. No, it’s not.
Now, granted, I haven’t seen the movie and usually, that’s enough to keep me from being critical of something. It’s one of my personal pet peeves when someone judges a book by its cover. In this case, though, I feel that I have to be a little more discerning simply because this movie, while well-intentioned and well meaning, misses the mark.
The reason I can say that with confidence is because I’ve seen opinions from people that I trust regarding the whole “Heaven Is For Real” phenomenon. For example, earlier this morning, I read this blog post by Randy Alcorn concerning the movie. Mr. Alcorn has seen the movie and, while he’s perhaps a bit more forgiving than I am, he raises a number of red flags about its content or, more specifically, its lack thereof.
There was one part of the movie that made me decidedly uncomfortable. It portrays a graveside conversation between Pastor Todd Burpo, Colton’s dad, and a woman in the church whose son, a soldier, had died. The woman asks the pastor whether he thinks her son is in Heaven. He in turn asks her whether God loved her son who died as much as He loves Todd’s son, Colton. The pastor’s logic seemed to me to be that if God took Colton to Heaven, and if He loves this woman’s son as much as Colton, then surely her son would be in Heaven too.
This reasoning is fatally wrong. God loved the world so much that He sent His Son (John 3:16), yet there is also the need to turn to Christ for salvation (John 1:12; Romans 10:9-10). In the movie, Heaven is apparently a place of great comfort and beauty where most everyone automatically goes—at least, there seems to be no suggestion to the contrary. As far as I saw, there was not a hint of the Bible’s teaching of Hell as our default destination unless we are converted and regenerated and thereby can enter Heaven with the righteousness of Christ.
But it’s not just Alcorn’s criticism that makes me unable to see this movie. One of my professors from the Seminary, Dr. Jeffrey Gibbs, wrote a review on the original book that cemented my opinion about both the book and the movie. Dr. Gibbs is a lot more critical of the questionable theology of the book and has a number of very important points that I’m sure would carry over to the movie as well:
In the third place, and most foundationally, this book wrongly assumes throughout that God’s purpose in sending His Son into the world to serve, suffer, die, and rise from the dead was so that when we die, we can “go to heaven.” To be sure, there is sufficient testimony in Scripture to say that when a believer dies, his soul goes to rest with Christ. But as every writing in the New Testament shows, Scripture reveals very little of what “heaven” is like, and (more importantly), “heaven” is not the great hope and promise of the Christian message at all! Rather, the return of Christ in glory is the time when God’s good work, begun in us, will come to completion (Phil 1:6), and the creation itself will be set free from decay into the glorious freedom bestowed on God’s children (Romans 8).
The book actually narrates one grotesque example of what can logically happen when “dying and going to heaven” is made the greatest good. Young Colton has just articulated this view: “Jesus died on the cross so we could to see his Dad” (p.111). Several weeks later, when Rev. Burpo is trying to teach his son not to run out into traffic, he tells him, “You could die!” Colton smiled and replies, “Oh, good! That means I get to go back to heaven!” The father has no real answer, except to say that he wants to die first. In the reality created by this way of thinking, death is your best friend. In the reality created by the Apostle Paul, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, death is an evil invader, and the last enemy that the Lord Jesus will one day fully overthrow (1 Cor 15).
And that right there is the primary reason why I won’t go see this movie. It is well-meaning and I’m sure the Burpos, in telling Colton’s story, were well-intentioned, but as Dr. Gibbs rightly points out, the hope that Christians have for eternal life is not going to heaven. That’s only half of the story. The true hope we have is that we will one day rise!
Think about how Paul comforted the Thessalonian Christians when some of their family and friends died. He didn’t point them toward heaven. He didn’t promise them wings, halos, and harps. Instead, he pointed them to the promise of the resurrection:
Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words.
Notice how Paul’s last words: “Therefore encourage one another with these words.” When people are faced with death, Paul says, encourage them with the promise of the resurrection. Remind them that their loved one will rise at the Last Day.
Or look at what happens when Jesus encounters death. There’s only one time that He speaks of heaven, and that’s to the thief on the cross. In every other instance, though, whenever Jesus went to a funeral, He didn’t speak some pithy platitudes about going to heaven. No, He rolled back the powers of death. In the New Testament, every time Jesus went to a funeral, the dead were raised back to life.
That is the hope we have, the promise of resurrection through Christ, not some nebulous vision of some otherworldly place. Instead, it’s the hope that this body, the body you have right now, will be brought back to life, imperishable and immortal.
I think I’ll let Dr. Gibbs close us out today:
As N. T. Wright, the great New Testament scholar has quipped, “I’m not against heaven; but it’s not the end of the world!” It is the Easter season. Christ did not rise from the dead so that when we die, our souls could go to be in heaven. No. Christ died and rose, ascended and will come again, in order to renew the creation, and “on the Last Day He will raise up me and all the dead, and give unto me and all believers in Christ eternal life. This is most certainly true.”