The Catholic Thing
“Heaven Is for Real” and the Gospel of Life Print E-mail
By Paul Kengor   
Wednesday, 07 May 2014

I recently bought the book Heaven is for Real and then saw the movie. That was unusual for me. I don’t typically do the books and movies everyone else is doing, especially the touchy/feely spiritual ones. Maybe it’s the snob in me, or, really, I just don’t like to do what the culture is doing. I try my best to swim against the cultural tide, especially this culture. But this time, I made an exception, for reasons I’ll explain.

The story is about the near-death experience of a four-year-old named Colton Burpo, a pastor’s son from Nebraska. I’ll say up front that I didn’t like the movie much, certainly not like the book. The screenwriter took too many shortcuts and liberties and redirections with new characters. Most annoying was the sexualizing of the little boy’s mother, Sonja Burpo. Don’t get me wrong, she’s no Miley Cyrus or Madonna, but she’s repeatedly represented in an alluring, suggestive, sensual manner. I was almost expecting a nude scene.

The writer/director, Randall Wallace, explained Sonja’s portrayal this way: “So many people believe that Christians, and particularly the wives of ministers, would be these sexless, sweet, butter-wouldn’t-melt-in-their-mouths kind of people, and that was the opposite of what I thought Sonja was or should be. And Kelly [Reilly, the actress who plays Sonja] just had this sense of romance and charisma – you couldn’t take your eyes off of her.”

Who are these “many people” who think of Christian women this way? Must we cater to secular ignoramuses who imagine that the vast sea of American churches they never visit have no attractive women inside? If a 20-something “progressive” New Yorker is that clueless, too bad. Let’s not tailor to his ignorance by sexualizing the church-mom in a story about a little boy’s visit to heaven. I wonder how the real life Sonja Burpo feels about this portrayal of her.

But on the positive side, there was much about young Colton’s story that I found compelling and convincing.

Generally, both the movie and book detail things that this child, even as a minister’s son, couldn’t have known – including some Catholic things that a Protestant kid wouldn’t think of. I don’t have the space to detail all of those here. You’ll need to see for yourself. Actually, read the book first, because it recounts these things much better and far more believably than the movie does. But I will share just one especially poignant example that really touched me when I viewed the movie trailer; in fact, it prompted me to buy the book first.

Well after he has come home from the hospital and recovered, one day out-of-the-blue Colton [Connor Corum] tells his mother that he has two sisters. Sonja casually corrects him, “No, Colton you have your [one] sister.”

“No,” Colton responds. “I have two sisters. You had a baby die in your tummy, didn’t you?”

“Who told you I had a baby die in my tummy?” a stunned Sonja responds to her four-year-old.

She did, Mommy. She said she died in your tummy.”

     Greg Kinnear and Kelly Reilly in Heaven Is for Real

Sonja is speechless. She had a miscarriage a few years before Colton’s birth, but no one ever told little Colton. How did he know? He knew because he met the deceased sister in heaven.

A shocked Sonja, long grieved by that miscarriage, asks Colton the girl’s name. He tells her that she doesn’t have one, because mommy and daddy [Greg Kinnear] never gave her a name. The crushed Sonja responds that they indeed didn’t name her, because they never knew she was a she. It’s okay, Colton tells his mother, she’s fine, she has hair just like yours, and God has adopted her: “she just can’t wait for you and Daddy to get to heaven.”

This scene really hit me. My wife and I have a bunch of kids, but between the second and third there were miscarriages. I’ve often thought about where those unborn lives are now. Should I pray for those unborn children, if they are indeed children and waiting for us? This innocent account by this little boy really struck me with a sense of hope. A cynic might say that this is a purely emotional response, that this book/film pushed my buttons. But I’m not like that; emotions alone rarely sway me.

I think there’s much more to it. Consider: Our Catholic faith teaches that life begins at conception. I know it. I believe it. I’ve read it for years in Church documents. I write about it. I teach it. I say it in lectures.

So, if I believe that’s the case, then why wouldn’t I believe that those miscarriages, which were lives that began at conception, aren’t waiting in heaven, just as the lives that make it out of the womb go to the other side?

It makes sense, doesn’t it? Did it take little Colton Burpo’s story, a feel-good, modern spiritual story about how heaven is for real, to make me – this longtime Catholic writer and academic – understand that those unborn lives are also for real, in heaven?

Call me a sentimentalist, but something about this particular account of heaven struck me as really real.

Dr. Paul Kengor is professor of political science at Grove City College. His latest book is 11 Principles of a Reagan Conservative. His other books include Dupes: How America’s Adversaries Have Manipulated Progressives for a Century and The Judge: William P. Clark, Ronald Reagan’s Top Hand (Ignatius Press).
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

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Comments (16)Add Comment
written by Manfred, May 07, 2014
"...that those unborn lives are also for real,in heaven?"
Excuse me, Dr. Kengor, but is this a book/movie review about a small Protestant boy who "visited heaven", or is this a serious theological discussion? The Church went through a similar discussion a few years ago on the subject of aborted fetuses. The traditional belief (not de Fide) is that babies who die without being baptized went to "Limbo" where they existed without the pain of Hell. The document which resulted from that discussion was a vague understanding that somehow, through God's mercy, these fetuses had been granted Heaven. Then sane theologians and lay people came forward and reminded the world that if someone knew their aborted fetus would be awarded Heaven, who wouldn't abort their child who might otherwise grow and die in the state of mortal sin??? Was not this a heresy in the early Church where Catholics would bear the child and then murder it after it had been baptized as they understood it was in the State of Grace? The parents argued that they would face eternity in Hell in order to save their child(ren).
The theological study was promptly discarded as the sop to mothers who had aborted their children it was.
You, and I, have no de Fide idea where the souls of miscarried and aborted children go.
written by grump, May 07, 2014
Now that we've had articles on heaven and hell (see Brad Miner's a couple of days ago), how about one on Purgatory? Always wanted to know what that would be like. Kind of a halfway house or rehab center? Any input appreciated.
written by Howard Kainz, May 07, 2014
Like almost all Near-Death-Experience-of-heaven books, this book contains about 3-4 pages actually describing that experience, and the rest is biographical and autobiographical filler, to allow it to be published as a book. The boy's knowledge about the miscarriage could be explained as an example of ESP. Clairvoyance and precognition are phenomena connected with quite a few ESP reports.
written by Marie Therese, May 07, 2014
In both Mark 10 and Matthew 19, Jesus is quoted as saying: "Let the children come to me, do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of God." The children Jesus is referring to here were certainly not baptized, and it follows logically - as Kengor maintains - that since life begins at conception, the aborted and miscarried are at this moment taking their right places in heaven.

Thank you for a lovely reflection, review, theological insight, Mr. Kengor. As the mother of a miscarried baby, and also as one who has read "Heaven is for Real," this particular account of heaven strikes me as really real also.
written by Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz, May 07, 2014
Manfred, while the Church has never ruled on this in a definitive way, there is a way to what Dr. Kengor has said. If an unbaptized catechumen suddenly dies, that person is given a church funeral because he or she was desiring baptism. Can the same not be said at least for the unborn children of Catholic parents who desire baptism for their children? I don't think that's too much of a logical or theological leap.
written by DeGaulle, May 07, 2014
@ Manfred:

I appreciate exactly what you are saying. I think it is an example of the mysterious Wisdom of the Church that She has not definitively ruled on the destination of the souls of unborn children. I believe this ambiguity is not heartlessness but a holy awareness and expectation throughout the history of the Church of the imminent terrible times that have now come upon us. If the Church had declared without a shadow of a doubt that the souls of these little innocents go straight to Heaven, what a salve that would be to the consciences of abortionists and their facilitators? As it now stands, they have no authority to console themselves that they are not denying these innocents access to Heaven. These murderers might mostly deny publicly the existence of these final things, but I have no doubt most of them suffer terrible nightmares of guilt, no matter how hard they try to oppress them.
written by Howard Kainz, May 07, 2014
@Grump: Would the metaphor of a moth attracted to the flame be helpful?
written by Manfred, May 07, 2014
@ Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz:

You are correct. The miscarried children of Neo-Catholics (pastoral) do go to heaven. The final resting place of the miscarried children of Traditional Catholics (doctrinal) is not assured, so these parents pray for the souls of their children lost in this manner. The same applies to any inconvenient teaching, e.g., contraception. For the Neo-Catholics, this action is harmless. For the Traditional Catholics, each intentional act of contraception is a mortal sin, each of which, if we die unrepentant, will consign us to Hell.
The ONLY reason the Church exists is to assist those willing to be faithful and obedient to, with God's Grace through the Sacraments, prayer and penance, enjoy the Beatific Vision for eternity. We should not look to be "comfortable" in this world.
written by Jack,CT, May 07, 2014
Doc Kengor;
Most importantly I am very sorry for your
loss and the wifes,I will pray for all involved.

ok,then to the 2nd par. on, I at first felt an overly
stoic man about all things "spiritual",but you relieved
all those " suspicions " in the last paragraph.Suspect
that doc Kengor is a real mans "Man"!

I think we should stay focused on the reason for the
book and Movie; Eternal Life!

I do not see a pretty woman playing a role of mother

as Hyper sexual at all.

The fact is most Americans are pretty cute and the use

of a Bland" mom would never have stolen for me the

moral of this' story,nor do i suspect anyone who would

read a article such as this.

Some of the remarks after seem to take a Light review

to places i dare say Dr Kengor had not intended to go!

Life After Life" i the 1970s' started the entire NDE
conversation with the ground breaking book named the
Dr Moody admitted years later he never intended to 'Prove"
anything about "Life after Life" and that "publishers"
Played a role in his diction with his first book,the book
that would secure his lifestyle for life,so there is some-
thing to be said about "Romantic" way we present these
storys for sure.

Well thanks for a wonderful piece that truly was written
very well.

written by Jeannine, May 07, 2014
Dr. Kengor, have you read "Pearl"? An anonymous Anglo-Saxon poet wrote it about the loss of his baby daughter; Tolkien did a translation of it. In a vision, the poet encounters his child as a great lady in heaven.
written by Howard Kainz, May 08, 2014
@Jack CT: Raymond Moody's 1999 book, The Last Laugh, disclaims any belief in the reality of NDEs. He interprets it as a kind of playful video produced by the imagination, and suggests ways of recreating the experience. A strange analysis from the one who instigated investigations into NDEs.
written by Jack,CT, May 08, 2014
@HowardKainz,yes I am aware as reader of Moody.
I would suggest his 2012 book with
Perry,"Paranormal",this is a very
good read and certainly debunks
the critics that "Hold unto" his
every word as gospel,but breathes
life into his work as a whole.
written by bill b, May 09, 2014
Manfred, something has made you too sour in the wrote: " The theological study was promptly discarded as the sop to mothers who had aborted their children it was.". But John Paul II wrote along the same lines in Evangelium Vitae to those mothers and he just noticed you writing the word "sop" from Heaven.

St. Pope John Paul II saw aborted babies as being in heaven in a non infallible section of the encyclical, Evangelium Vitae in section 99...( skip to last sentence if speed reading):

" I would now like to say a special word to women who have had an abortion. The Church is aware of the many factors which may have influenced your decision, and she does not doubt that in many cases it was a painful and even shattering decision. The wound in your heart may not yet have healed. Certainly what happened was and remains terribly wrong. But do not give in to discouragement and do not lose hope. Try rather to understand what happened and face it honestly. If you have not already done so, give yourselves over with humility and trust to repentance. The Father of mercies is ready to give you his forgiveness and his peace in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. To the same Father and his mercy you can with sure hope entrust your child. "
written by Paul, May 10, 2014
Be very careful of NDE stories. These could be caused by hallucinations or there could be demonic forces involved.
written by Jack,CT, May 10, 2014
@Paul,I shall but what ND Experience was told-
written by Paul, May 11, 2014

If your comment is addressed to me I'm confused. Do we have the same definition of near death experience (NDE)? I'll explain further:

I'm referring to the near NDE of four-year-old Colton Burpo as referenced if not told in this article. I'm not familiar with Colton's story other than what I just read by Dr. Paul Kengor (ie.I didn't read the book or see the movie). From what I gather this is a typical NDE story. I have a different take on NDE stories than many Christians because I interpret death differently. My thoughts on death can be summed up by "the dead know nothing". So when some one tells me a story of a person having a NDE and now knows some thing they possibly couldn't know I get very concerned.

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