4 Stars — Intriguing
In Matthew, the Bible tells us that "unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven." The innocent faith of a child who enters heaven without fear is the simple truth of the vision expressed in the film Heaven Is for Real. However, even within the Christian community it is not that simple.
There are several views of heaven. These varying beliefs often make people uncomfortable when someone claims to have a vision of heaven and then proceeds to describe what he or she saw. Even when it matches what another Christian might envision, it seems to be wishful thinking.
Most often, such visions are considered to be simply a near-death hallucination or even a hoax to sell books and films. However, when the person describing the vision is only 4 years of age and has collaborating evidence of things he could not have known otherwise, people can get upset because it seems to require a response. This is the situation in Randall Wallace's film Heaven Is for Real.
Based on a book by pastor Todd Burpo (Greg Kinnear) about the vision described by his son Colton (Connor Corum), Wallace weaves a tale that is intriguing. A master at telling a story, as seen in his previous movies Braveheart, Pearl Harbor, Secretariat and The Man in the Iron Mask, Wallace doesn't just have little Colton explain what he saw, he helps us know him, his parents, his town, his church and his life so that we live with the same tension everyone else experiences when they hear his account and have to confront the implications that become obvious when this little boy shares his experiences in heaven.
The tension comes from the incident itself. "Everyone must die," as Wallace explains in Braveheart, "but not every man really lives." It is this awareness that death is inevitable but life is not that causes any discussion about heaven to have an existential reality for each of us.
This is seen not only in Todd, but also in his wife Sonja (Kelly Reilly), church leaders Nancy Rawling (Margo Martindale) and Jay Wilkins (Thomas Haden Church). Their own personal experiences with life and death have caused pain and doubts that each struggles to understand. This is also seen in Dr. Charlotte Slater (Nancy Sorel), whose loss of her husband caused her to see any belief in heaven as "magical."
Recent studies in brain function show that hallucinations actually activate the visual centers of the brain. Thus, the brain cannot tell the difference between a "vision" and an actual physical sight the eyes see. Though not yet fully understood, the implications seem to be that what Colton "saw" was in fact something his mind records as a visual experience. Remembering them as he would any visual experience, Colton is able to identify his great grandfather as a young man, his sister who died in the womb and Jesus Himself.
One of the intriguing parts of the film is his rejection of all art depicting Jesus until he sees a painting by Akiane Kramarik, who saw a "vision" of Jesus when she also was 4 that she painted at age 8. Her mother says that "the first time she came to me I knew that what she saw was real for her." We would expect that if both of these children are having hallucinations rather than visions that they would have unique or idiosyncratic experiences. This is not true because they both identify the same picture as being Jesus who they "see" in heaven.
Though Wallace ends the film with a more generalized acceptance of Colton's vision, the tension for his father Todd is released when he acknowledges that he believes that heaven is indeed real. The message of the film is one that requires at least investigation and then the decision to either affirm or deny the existence of a place beyond death prepared by the Creator. It is this choice that brings the film around to the question that each of us must face: Is death the end, or is heaven for real?
» The recent MRI research during hallucinations and the activation of visual centers creates a fascinating support by modern brain science for the claims of people over millennia that they have had a "vision." Have you ever experienced a vision, and how was it different for you from your imagination or a dream?
» Pastor Todd struggles with his own concept of heaven as he is confronted by his son's experiences. He also struggles with experiencing God for himself. Do you think pastors have more experiences of God than do others and that is necessary for their care of the congregation, or is that not necessary? Why do you answer as you do?
» One of the strengths of the film is the humanity portrayed in a pastoral family. Did you find that helpful, respectful, enlightening or not? Why do you answer as you do?
— Cinema in Focus is a social and spiritual movie commentary. Hal Conklin is a former mayor of Santa Barbara and Denny Wayman is pastor of Free Methodist Church, 1435 Cliff Drive. For more reviews, visit www.cinemainfocus.com, or follow them on Twitter: @CinemaInFocus. The opinions expressed are their own.