Another person has a story to tell. This time, it’s Colton Burpo and the “story” was first a best-selling book, Heaven is for Real, which has now been released as a movie. Christians are flocking to see it all over the country. I don’t live in the United States these days, but if I did, I wouldn’t go see it (and if it comes here to the Philippines, I won’t see it here). So, what’s my objection to Heaven is for Real?
My main objection isn’t what this book/movie says about heaven; my main objections are the messages it conveys about God and about the Bible. Now, I have already seen some people respond negatively to any kind of critique, saying: Who are you to judge? Assuming the person asking the question claims to be a Christian, my response to this common mantra is, “When were you relieved of your responsibility to judge?” The Bible is pretty clear that we are to judge those in the church (1 Cor. 5:12). Of course, we are to judge others with the understanding that we, too, are subject to being judged (Mat. 7:2) and we are cautioned to judge with “right judgment” (John 7:24). How do we judge with right judgment? By using Scripture – and Scripture alone – as our standard, just as the Bereans did (Acts 17:11). They were excited to hear the new teachings of Paul, but they didn’t accept them on face value: they examined the teachings in light of God’s Word. That is how we are to judge people in the visible church who teach anything; and that’s how we should judge Heaven is for Real. It is the product of an evangelical pastor (Todd Burpo, Colton’s father). By virtue of his profession of faith and his office in Christ’s church, his message is properly measured against Scripture.
Now to my objections:
Already, a common defense from Christians, who acknowledge at least some misgivings about the movie’s inaccuracies, is that it gets people talking about God. Actually, no. It doesn’t. It gets people talking about a non-God. You see, if we define “God” in any way other than how the Bible defines God, we aren’t just presenting Him in a different light or from a different perspective – because we don’t have the liberty to do that. If we say something – anything – about God that He has not revealed about Himself in His Word, we have shifted our conversation to something that is “other than” God. I’m not sure why this idea is so difficult to grasp sometimes; after all, we apply the same logic in everyday language.
Here’s what I mean. If I were to start describing an “egg” to you, but I said that it was a fuzzy ball filled with caramel, you would say, “No, you’re not describing an egg; you’re describing something different.” Why would you say that? Because you know what an egg is. You may not have exhaustively investigated “eggness,” but you know one when you see one, right? How do you know one? You have seen them, touched them, tasted them, and so on. In other words, you are familiar with the body of evidence about eggs.
Where do we get the “body of evidence” about God? Is it subjective – is it from our feelings or experiences? If that’s the case, then nobody can really know anything about God, because people have different feelings and experiences. Or, put another way, everybody would think that they know something about God, but they could only know their part (along with what they heard about – and chose to believe – from someone else’s feelings or experiences). Now, I can have an opinion about eggs that is different from your opinion about them. You may like them scrambled with cheese, I may like them fried over easy, and someone else may not like them at all. Still, we would all agree about what makes an egg an egg, and our opinion wouldn’t change what an egg is. Likewise, people have different opinions about God. Many people hate Him (John 15:23-24); others adore Him. Yet that hatred and adoration does nothing to change the nature of God: He is God, irrespective of our feelings.
Any teaching that claims to give new, extrabiblical knowledge about the nature and character of God will always reflect an effort to reduce God to human terms. This robs God of His unsearchableness and denudes His essence. As an example, maybe you’ve seen the bumper sticker that says, “My boss is a Jewish carpenter.” If your supervisor at your workplace is a Jewish carpenter, I guess you could say that. If you’re talking about Jesus – no, He’s not. He was a Jewish carpenter during His earthly ministry, in His state of humiliation. But that was a temporary, limited state wherein He chose not to fully manifest His glory. Now, in His state of exaltation, He is no longer a Jewish carpenter: He is the King of all kings and the Lord of all lords. When we see Jesus (only after we die or He returns), He will not be as He was before Calvary. He will appear as He did to John: “clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around his chest. The hairs of his head were white, like white wool, like snow. His eyes were like a flame of fire, his feet were like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace, and his voice was like the roar of many waters (Rev. 1:13-15).
That’s not the Jesus described in Heaven is for Real. That Jesus wears a pink crown and has a rainbow-colored pony. That Jesus is also apparently incapable of calming the fears of the little boy, so He calls angels over to sing for him. That Jesus goes up and down like an elevator. The Bible says that no one can see God the Father (John 1:18), but Colton says he saw Him and He is “really, really big” – and the Holy Spirit (also visible to Colton) is “kinda blue” and sits in a chair nearby. All in all, it is consistent with the kind of fanciful tale kids often tell. By contrast, every biblical vision of heaven (and there are exactly five who had them: Isaiah, Ezekiel, Stephen, Paul, and John) is consumed with the holiness and glory of God. These witnesses utter their reports through trembling lips, their awe palpable in their descriptions. No mention of pink crowns, blue spirits, and multi-colored ponies.
So I object to how this movie – and much else in the Christian marketplace today, for that matter – replaces the true God by redefining Him (this redefining most often takes the form of mitigating the holy wrath of Jesus, cf. Rev. 6:16, in favor of a kinder, gentler Judge). This leads to the other really big problem I have with so many of the books and movies that flood the evangelical market these days, including Heaven is for Real: the practical denial of the sufficiency of Scripture.
That we need the story of a child in order to believe in Christ is quite telling, don’t you think? Why would that account be more credible than the one given to us by God Himself? Do we have such a low few of God’s Word that we really think that we need more? Did God withhold the really good stuff when He gave us the Bible? Over the past few decades in the evangelical world, we have (in theory, at least) defended the challenges to the authority and inerrancy of Scripture. Did we fight all of those battles to now surrender on the issue of its sufficiency?
What do we do with verses, such as Dt. 29:29, which tell us that God has determined what things to reveal to us (in His Word) and what things to keep “secret”? Do we really think that we can trump that distinction and peer into the secrets of God? Are we really going be so bold? It would be one thing if we could say that we have exhaustively studied God’s Word and know everything contained therein, and wanted more; but can anyone honestly say that? Of course not, and, in fact, the closer one gets to knowing God through His Word, the less one would be inclined to seek “revelation” elsewhere. So I object to this movie – just the latest in an increasingly burgeoning body of new “revelation” – because, in effect, it casts aside God’s precious Word as deficient and inadequate.
That’s why I won’t be seeing the movie. I’m not interested in being “entertained” by hearing (or watching) a professing evangelical Christian say things about God that add to or contradict what He says in His Word (which is also, by the way, why I won’t be seeing Noah, but that’s for a different article). God’s Word is all we need. As long as we keep buying into the notion that we can better understand God through some means other than that which He has appointed, we will understand Him all the less. As long as we need “proof” beyond what God has revealed, our faith – the conviction of things not seen (Heb. 11:1) – will be weakened. Better to be counted among the blessed, who have not seen Him and yet believe and love Him (John 20:29; 1 Pt. 1:8). In the end, I don’t need this book – or the host of others like it – to tell me what to expect after this life or, for that matter, that heaven is for real; the Bible tells me so. That’s all I need.