“Heaven Is for Real”: A Nickell-odeon Review

June 11, 2014

Based on the bestselling book of the same title, this is the story of a little boy, a pastor’s son, who had what is known in the parlance of paranormal claims as a “near-death experience” (NDE). That is taken as proving what the title declares, Heaven Is for Real.

As the narrative unfolds, the Burpo family in Imperial, Nebraska, consists of Crossroads Wesleyan Church pastor Todd Burpo (Greg Kinnear), his wife Sonia (Kelly Reilly), and their two children: Cassie (Lane Styles) and her four-year-old brother Colton (ably played by Connor Corum). Colton becomes very ill from a ruptured appendix, and—during emergency surgery—has a dreamlike vision. Believers rush to claim this is proof of heaven (in Christian mythology, the upper firmament, also called paradise, that is the abode of God and redeemed souls). Skeptics were just as quick to disbelieve.

From a scientific standpoint, NDEs are hallucinations. They often involve an out-of-body experience (or OBE—a sense of floating that can occur during an altered state of consciousness), a sense of passing through a tunnel (the effect of oxygen depletion on the visual cortex), seeing one’s life flash by (the stimulation of memory-associated areas of the brain), and otherworldly visits (a product of the imagination). (For more, see my The Science of Ghosts, 2012, 43–45, 153, 254, 350–351; Entities 1995, 172–176.)

Skipping to the book (which is less hollywoodized), we learn that young Colton Burpo experienced an OBE, and went to heaven, where angels sang to him and he sat on Jesus’s lap (pp. xvii–xviii). He got to pet Jesus’s “rainbow horse,” explaining to his father that heaven is “where all the rainbow colors are” (63). Jesus, he said, had “pretty eyes,” was dressed in white (although with a purple sash), and wore a gold crown with a “kind of pink” diamond in the middle (65–66).

If this seems only a child’s fantasizing, Todd Burpo is more convinced by Colton’s seeming to know things he supposedly could not have learned except by visiting heaven. For instance, the boy mentioned encountering another sister there, and, when his mother failed to understand, he asked her, “You had a baby die in your tummy, didn’t you?” (94)—sounding just like what some adult had explained to the little boy. And whereas he described the heavenly sibling as a little girl, in fact his parents had never learned the sex of the fetus which—of course, in any case—never reached the age of the girl Colton imagined.

When we consider that seven years elapsed since the events of 2000 were recorded in a book published in 2010, we see how the well-known fallibility of memory could have come into play—improving what is, in any event, nothing more than anecdotal evidence.

Besides, as medical records show and the book (78–79) and movie admit, Colton did not die: neither did he cease breathing nor his heart stop. As the Rev. Burpo concluded, “People have to die to go to heaven.” In fact, however, it is not necessary to die to have the effects of an NDE, which can occur under many other conditions—as Colton’s case indeed shows. Thus, Heaven Is for Real is proof of little other than imagination and the will to believe—rainbow horse and all.

Three Nickels

Rating: One and a half wooden nickels (out of four).