“Heaven Is for Real” and the Gospel of Life


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.

Paul Kengor

Paul Kengor



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