The movie “Heaven Is for Real,” based on The New York Times bestseller of the same name, made an impressive debut last week. The film recounts the near-death experience (NDE) of then 4-year-old Colton Burpo as told by his father, a Nebraska pastor. While already grossing more than double its $12 million budget, the movie is generating substantial debate about the reality of such experiences and the nature of heaven. Following closely on the heels of “Son of God,” “God Is Not Dead,” and “Noah,” “Heaven is for Real” is the fourth major faith-based or Bible-inspired movie released in 2014.
The images of heaven supplied by NDEs have fascinated many Americans since the publication of two books in 1975. “Life After Life: The Investigation of a Phenomenon – Survival of Bodily Death” and “Beyond Death’s Door,” by Raymond Moody and Maurice Rawlings respectively, featured dozens of accounts of these experiences. Moody and Rawlings were physicians at the time.
Soon thereafter, blockbuster narratives appeared. Betty Maltz’s 1977 book, “My Glimpse of Eternity,” and Richard Eby’s 1978 book, “Caught Up into Paradise,” set the pattern, but the most dramatic and controversial account of a NDE in the last quarter of the 20th century was in 1992 with Native American Betty J. Eadie’s “Embraced by the Light.” During the time she was clinically dead, she met “Christ, the Creator and Savior of the earth” and felt “unconditional love.”
Other recent books with similar themes include: Kevin Malarkey’s account of his 6-year-old son’s heavenly journey in “The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven,” “Proof of Heaven,” anout-of-body experience recounted by neurosurgeon Eben Alexander, and spine surgeon Mary Neal’s “To Heaven and Back,” in which she claims to have visited heaven while trapped in a waterfall for nearly 15 minutes in a kayaking accident. All of them have both increased interest in heaven and sparked controversy.
Christians debate the validity and value of these NDE accounts, including the one described in “Heaven Is for Real.” Roma Downey and Mark Burnett who produced HBO’s “The Bible and Son of God” series laud the film. Bishop T. D. Jakes, the pastor of The Potter’s House, a Dallas megachurch, who helped produce the movie, argues that it provides inspiration and hope. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, insists that the film shows how the purity and innocence of a child enables him “to see what others do not see.” He and others urge church members to see the movie, and the blogosphere abounds with praise for “Heaven Is for Real.” The movie’s supporters also emphasize that Colton supplies details about meeting family members in heaven who had died before he was born and he had not been told about.
Other Christian leaders, however, sharply criticize the movie. John MacArthur, a Baptist author, radio show host, and pastor in Sun Valley, Calif., protests that the book and movie are “a hoax" that "has nothing to do with Christianity” or the Bible. Those who believe in the authority of the Bible, he adds, must conclude that “these modern testimonies – with their relentless self-focus and the relatively scant attention they pay to the glory of God – are simply untrue.” MacArthur continues saying, “They are either figments of the human imagination (dreams, hallucinations, false memories, fantasies, and in the worst cases, deliberate lies), or else they are products of demonic deception.”
On the other hand, numerous investigators accentuate the positive benefits of NDEs. Moody, for example, claimed that every subject he interviewed “had a very deep and positive transformation.” As a result of their experiences, Moody reported, people lost the fear of dying and lived lives dominated by love. They developed a “profound appreciation of life” and a deeper spirituality.
Many Christians appear to agree with philosopher Jerry Walls that “NDEs have given many people fresh reason to hope for life after death.” Although these experiences are not an essential ground for believing in the Christian doctrine of heaven, he argues, they do supply glimpses of “realities we know about from the revelation of Scripture and Christian tradition.”
Burpo, Neal, and Alexander have been interviewed on leading television talk shows, and “Newsweek” and “Christianity Today” have included feature articles about the afterlife. The brisk sales of these books, the popularity of “Heaven Is for Real,” and the tremendous interest in heaven testify to the human desire to know both what the afterlife is like and to live beyond this world.
For Christians, the teachings of the Bible and the resurrection of Jesus provide the primary reason for believing in heaven. Nevertheless, many Christians find firsthand accounts of journeys to heaven to be fascinating and reassuring. These experiences confirm Scriptural teaching that they will be reunited with loved ones and have a more intimate relationship with God. Because of their belief in the afterlife and desire to go to heaven, many find NDEs both encouraging and comforting.
Dr. Gary Scott Smith chairs the history department at Grove City College and is a fellow for faith and politics with The Center for Vision & Values. He is the author of “Faith and the Presidency From George Washington to George W. Bush” (Oxford University Press, 2009) and “Heaven in the American Imagination” (Oxford University Press, 2011).