Do you believe in Heaven?

Most studies show that 85-90% of Americans believe in some kind of afterlife they call Heaven.  That is a high percentage of people to believe in anything.  For comparison, some polls have that only 80% of Americans believe we actually landed on the moon in 1969.  Heaven is doing pretty well in the court of public opinion.

The widespread belief in Heaven might be why the interwebs are all abuzz about the movie Heaven is For Real.  I have been asked by several people over the past couple of days what I think about the movie.  At first, I referred them to my review of the book a couple of years ago.  Click here to read the review of the book.  Yesterday, though, I broke down and bought my ticket to see the movie.  I watched it in a theater filled with 70ish year old women.  I sorta stood out.

Part One:  The movie as a movie

The acting in the film was really great.  Greg Kinnear and Kelly Reilly are great together and it feels like they’ve been married for years.  It was good to see Thomas Haden Church again and Margo Martindale almost steals the show.  Most people will point to the child actor, Connor Corum as cutely adorable and compelling in his portrayal of Colton Burpo, but I have high standards for kid actors and only rate him as average.  In some parts of the movie he reminded me of the creepy kid from The Shining rather than the sweet boy from the book.

The movie is beautifully shot.  Most of the filming takes place outside, which is nice.

Kinnear and Reilly
Kinnear and Reilly

The key problems with the movie was pacing, editing, and the screenwriting.  Some of the dialogue, particularly that of anyone not Greg Kinnear and Kelly Reilly was either filled with clichés or weirdly over structured.  I found this particularly with lines ascribed to Colton.  I didn’t feel the movie came to a good conclusion either.  It just sort of ended without any kind of resolution.

Watching the film I could tell there was a tension in the storytelling.  I think the creative people knew that keeping as much of Colton’s experiences mystical was a positive.  They didn’t want to show too much.  The producers though, with their churchy agenda, needed to always explain everything and make sure there was no room for doubt as to what really was going on.  What I am saying is that the movie explains too much, instead of letting things sometimes just hang there.

Overall I would give the film a C+ because it was slightly above average, enjoyable, and overall positive.  It is the kind of movie you can take your whole family to and not have to worry about language, nudity, or violence.  It was much better, than say, Iron Man 3 or American Hustle.  Another plus for the movie is that it will spark conversation.  That is always good.

Part Two:  The movie as a theological/ecclesiastical vehicle

I believe in Heaven because Jesus said so in the Bible.  I don’t need the movie to affirm it, however, that is major theological contribution of this film.  It affirms the biblical belief in Heaven as place where Jesus is and that Heaven is possible because of Jesus.  I like that part.  The book does a much better job of processing Todd Burpo’s belief in the Bible with his son’s experiences.  But books always do, because we don’t just have the narrative, we have the explanation.  The movie misses some of that theological nuance.

If you came into the movie already believing in Heaven, you probably left with some level of warmth in your heart.  If you came into the movie with doubt and skepticism, you might leave questioning those assumptions.

The movie does other theological things too.  They let the dialogue of Kinnear and Reilly ezpress doubt and frustration about God and the nature of faith.  Kinnear is very believable as an overly emotional bi-vocational preacher who doesn’t think about biblical exposition as much as moves from one emotional moment to the next.  I’ve met a lot of pastors like that.  The people in this film and the events in this film are more emotional than theological.

Church life is portrayed somewhat accurately.  Although a lot of church personalities and issues are compressed into only a couple of people and covered fairly quickly.  When Kinnear’s character is called before the board and his job is in jeopardy, I felt a certain pang because I know good people who have gone through great crisis only to be turned out on their ear by their church.  Honestly, because I’ve seen inside the velvet rope, that part of the film had the most emotional impact for me.

I would not point to the movie as a theological exposition as much as it is an exposition of the Burpos’ life and experiences as well as an exposition of many people’s grappling with the nature of faith and the afterlife.  Here it is important to keep this key thing in mind–whether it is about the movie Noah, Heaven is For Real, or any other film we must never rely on Hollywood for our theological insight.  Hollywood is built to put butts in the theater.  Our theology is built to change lives for eternity.

One more theological thing–because it is Hollywood, there is a very universalist bent to it.  By that I mean, the assumption seems to me in the film that everybody goes to Heaven.  That is not part of my belief system.

Part Three:  Credibility

So much of this movie boils to whether you believe the kid or not?  It is that simple.  I just can’t believe that the dad intentionally made it up, but I also have hard time taking my gospel cues from a 4 year old.  I am so thankful that I have the Bible as my guide and can look at a film like this objectively, knowing that ultimately our personal experiences are not what I rely on.  I rely on the promises of God.  It is possible that an overzealous dad took a few off handed comments from his son and lead him on, we all know that is possible.

I would like the story to be true, though.  If it is true; then what is the key value for it?  It is nothing more than what we used to call ‘testimony’ in the old days.  Simply someone sharing, albeit with a large audience, what God has done in their life.  I put it in the same category as someone who tells me that they dreamed about Jesus and he told them to do something specific.  It happens all the time.

If it is not true, well, then that is not our problem.  It is Todd Burpo’s.


This past week I read two amazingly different books.  As I thought about it last night it occurred to me that I don’t think I could have read two more opposite books.  I started the week by reading The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo, because it needed to be read before I saw the new film.  It is a good book, but very predictable at times and slightly too formulaic.  It is also gruesome and violent at both a physical and psychological level.  The second book I read this week is Todd Burpo’s syrupy sweet tear inducing Heaven is For Real.  My reading was distinctly bi-polar this week.  I thought I would spend some digital ink with a brief review of Heaven is for Real.

The Great Stuff

  • Disclaimer, I did not think I would like this book.  In general I am not a big fan of books like this which involve dying and coming back to life , ala Don Piper.  These kinds of books are not bad, it’s just that I don’t need them.  I’m already convinced that heaven is real.  But . . . this particular book has such a compelling story that it is interesting in spite of the fact you know from the very first page where this is headed.  There are no surprises here; nevertheless it is fascinating.  I do not know whether that is Burpo or his co-author Lynn Vincent.

The Good Stuff

  • There are a lot of good, wholesome things about this book, but one which sticks out is that I think I would like this family.  More than that, there is something about the way in which the story unwinds that feels familiar.  At several points in the narrative I kept thinking, ‘Yeah, that is exactly how I would be,’ or ‘I’ve felt that way before.’
  • A second bit of good stuff would be the way in which Todd Burpo, a pastor, uses Scripture as his guideline for interpreting what his son is telling him; not the other way around.  It would be so tempting to take our experiences and then view Scripture through that lens, but Burpo works hard to rightly point out that Scripture is our guide and we must start there.  I appreciated that aspect of the book very much.


The Bad Stuff

  • There is not too much bad in the book, but I somewhat worry about this little boy as he grows up.  His parents are going to need to make very certain that he is healthy and well-adjusted as he grows up in his small town.  I can see where something like this–not the going to heaven business, mind you but the celebrity of being the boy who died and went to heaven–might eventually become a negative on him.  I’m not saying it will, but I’m saying the possibility is there and those adults around him will need to help him process through it all.


In summary, I liked this book, and I recommend it.  The read is quick, only 154 pages of text with a fairly large font (but not as quick as Don Piper’s book 90 Minutes in Heaven.  He was in heaven longer than it took me to read his book.)  Inevitably people ask me, “Do you believe the story is true?”  Well, I suppose I have to now, don’t I?  I have no reason not to and there is nothing in the book contrary to my theological construct of eternity.  I can say that the narrative is persuasive and has the feel of authenticity.  I hope its true.  But whether Heaven is For Real is for real or not; I do know that heaven is for real.


Preaching is all about conviction.  I have several convictions about preaching such as the worst sin a preacher can make is to be boring.  The Bible is many things, but it is never boring.  God is not boring either, but often preaching makes God sound boring.  To that end one of my subsidiary convictions about preaching is that the style of the sermonizing I do should be varied.  It is easy to get into a preaching rut and rely upon the same sermon schema week in and week out.  Some preachers I’ve talked to say they don’t think the form matters.  I disagree.  The form matters a great deal.  Choosing the form of the sermon is often the most important part of settling in on the sermon itself.

Tonight I worked on my series for October on finances and decided to use four different patterns of preaching for each of the four sermons.

  • October 2.  This is the launch of the series and I am covering Matthew 6:19-24 where Jesus says two powerful things about money.  He says that where our treasure is, that is where our heart is and then he says we cannot serve both God and mammon.  For this sermon I am going to use a method I learned from reading Fred Craddock.  Craddock is a great storyteller preacher, but he is also an advocate of letting the form of the text dictate the sermon.  So in this sermon, I am going to block it into groups of ideas and then finish with two or three summary concepts.  To keep it interesting for me, I will weave into this another style of “narrative exposition” I learned from Calvin Miller, my preaching hero.  Narrative exposition is my default style and I am most comfortable with it.
  • October 9.  For this sermon I’m going to go Hegelian.  My concept is that there is a connection in the language of the Bible between debt and sin.  This is most famously shown in the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew.  The Hegelian method follows a very strict form that cannot be toyed with too much.  It has a thesis which is a positive statement, then that statement is balanced with an antithesis that is the opposite.  Then the two are held in contrast with a relevant question.  Then the sermon follows the course of answering how the thesis and antithesis work in the life of the believer.  It is a very old form of preaching that still works very well.
  • October 16.  On this day I will preach about the ways we can work ourselves out of debt.  It looks like an old fashioned list sermon because the title is “Five Steps to Getting out of Debt” but really it is my old friend the narrative exposition.  For example, the first step to getting out of debt is to tithe, but the first step will be communicated by way of a story.  I don’t know what that story will be yet, but I have an idea or two.  Then each step will be the different aspects of a good narrative sermon which are biblical exegesis, supporting scripture, other stories, some statistics, probably a poem to quote, and then some real life application.
  • October 23.  This is the last sermon in the series and I intend to have real fun here.  I will present various quotations in a “symposium” on money and finances.  With each of the quotations I can interact and bring the biblical worldview into focus.  Some of these quotations will be, of course, some Bible verses such as “silver and gold have I none.”  I might play some more and add a piece of artwork to the symposium.  I’ve preached this style a couple of times.  The most successful attempt was about three years ago in a sermon about joy.

The more I work on these sermons, the most excited I get about preaching them because I love what I do.


I intended to blog about this on Monday, but worldwide events prompted my thoughts elsewhere.  Now, back to the serious business of heaven.  Sunday I preached about heaven from a skeptics perspective, not necessarily from a pastoral perspective.  In that context there were several things I did not say which, I could certainly have included but for reasons of time or rhetorical arrangement I did not.

1.  Anything else heaven might be, I do not think it will be a time when I will be justified in decisions or actions I’ve made on earth.  My perception is that I will be vindicated as a follower of Christ, but not, for example, taking it on the chin when that loud mouth bully insulted me and I did not answer in kind.  Part of it wants me to be the case, though.  Part of me wants for Jesus to stand next to me and rip into someone and say, “Jamie was right all along and you are a moron for not listening to him.”  It is a scenario I play in my head whenever I have had to endure other people’s troubling perspectives.  The other part of me is glad this is not the situation in because I believe I would spend far more time having Jesus rip into me for all the people I wronged.  It wouldn’t be heaven if I spent most of it avoiding Jesus to stay out of a tongue lashing.  Heaven just can’t be a place of eternal “I told you so.”

2.    Oddly, one of the most frequent questions I get asked about heaven is about pets.  Those who love me the most know that this drives me insane because I hate pets.  I like animals on my plate not on my chair.  People often assume that in the resurrection Jesus will bring back to life our dear pets from the past and let them live in heaven too.  Animals will be in heaven, that much I affirm, i.e. lion and the wolf frolicking together.  But your pet kitty cat Tubby or beloved dog whom you named Mr. T will probably not be there.  I could be wrong, but I don’t think I am.  I push back with—if Heaven is really about being where Jesus is, does it matter whether your Tubby or Mr. T (the imaginary pet, not the actor, fool) are there?  That is the real heart of the pet issue for me.  Why do you want to go to heaven?

3.  As a writer the Bible has such a beautiful denouement with the book of Revelation ending with a view from heaven.  It brings everything full circle.  Humanity started in an idyllic garden called Eden which was perfect until we messed it up.  Humans have spent all of our history systematically destroying the rather gorgeous world and striking out at the image of God in each individual.  But dramatically at the end of everything God puts us back in Eden.  Heaven is best understood as a return to Eden.  There are trees, picturesque waters, and beautiful natural wonders.  Note that the “city” is made of natural products—not concrete, brick, or even planked wood.  The Bible, as a piece of literature (although it is more than literature) begins by casting us as prodigals out of our home, and then winds us slowly through time until we, like a Hollywood ending, come home again to live happily ever after.