Monday, January 12, 2015

Heaven Is For Real

This post was written in August 2014, and was a casualty of the whirlwind that is our life. In the spirit of catching up (my unspoken resolution for 2015), I am posting it in the hope that someone finds it worthwhile despite being *gasp* five months old.

We recently watched the movie "Heaven is for Real." I enjoyed it, but I remembered reading some sort of caution about it, so afterwards I went looking.

So far the only things I have come up with were that many criticized it (and the book on which it was based) for being unbiblical, and that it promotes a Universalist view of salvation.

I found it interesting that (in the film—I haven’t read the book yet) some of the people in Paster Todd’s church were resistant to the idea of a literal trip to Heaven. I’m not sure what problem they were having. Was it that Heaven is a real place? It seemed that way at times. Todd protests at one point, “Why does it have to be just a mythology?” At these times I wanted to take them by the shoulders and say, “Why is this so difficult for you? Just what do you claim to believe in, anyway?” But at other times, it really seemed to be more complex, and I think, in a sense, their skepticism honored the complexities of walking by faith in this life. Because for some, it really did seem for them to come down to a crisis of faith that resembles St. John of the Cross’s “Dark Night of the Soul” (what I understand of it—still have to read that one, too) that a more spiritually mature person experiences.

As for the “unbiblical” claims, well, maybe that accounts for some of the problem. Maybe this is too simple, but for self-described Bible Christians who adhere to the literal words of Scripture—no more, no less—maybe it’s just that they had no framework for handling such a claim as what Heaven consists of. That’s not as much of a problem for Catholics. We have the freedom and safety of a living Magisterium. We have the ecstasies and visions of the saints for predecents. We have a very clear set of principles for judging private revelations, which in itself allows for the possibility that this little boy’s experience is genuine. And though it would be tough to submit this particular phenomenon for ecclesiastical approval, we can apply the basic ideas of such guidance: I heard nothing in the things film-Colton reported about Jesus or Heaven that contradicts the revealed truth as safeguarded to and by the Church.

Those who want to say such visions of Jesus and Heaven are unbiblical and therefore problematic seem to me to have God pretty tightly restricted. Frankly, I find such objections laughable. But in the movie, Todd offers even them an acceptable way of looking at what this was—basically, an interpretation of Heaven, as seen by a four-year-old boy. In fact, at first I was disappointed in that characterization. It seemed too wishy-washy—I wanted him to come out and say, “Yes, my son went to Heaven and I believe it!” But I quickly saw the wisdom of the approach he took. It felt very like the approach of the Church to approved apparitions: “We see no obstacle to belief, no harm in believing it; you’re not required to, but it might do you some good.” I’d like to read the book before making any firmer (personal) judgment, but I haven’t seen anything troublesome about what he reports.

What resounds in my own mind as I contemplate the possibility of Colton’s account of Heaven is this: "What eye has not seen, and ear has not heard, and what has not entered the human heart, what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Cor: 2:9).

As for the Universalist issue, Brantly Millegan at Aleteia says that the movie left out a crucial focus on Christianity and its view of salvation that was present in the book:

This theme of God’s love meaning that people can’t be excluded from heaven is explicitly communicated in one particular scene in the film. Todd is sitting in a cemetery with a woman who lost her adult son in the military, and she asks him if he thinks her son went to heaven. Todd responds along these lines, “Do you love your son? [Yes.] Do I love my son? [Yes.] Do you think God loves my son who went to heaven as much as he loves your son?” The implication ends up being that since Colton went to heaven (albeit briefly), and since God loves both Colton and the woman’s son, the woman’s son must also have gone to heaven.

Todd doesn’t say, “Don’t worry, we both know your son loved Christ.” He says, in effect, “Don’t worry, God loves him, therefore he’s in heaven.”

Actually, Todd doesn’t say that either, because I was listening for it. Here’s how the scene actually goes:

Nancy: Do you think—I have to ask—do you think my son went to heaven?

Todd: Do you love your son, still?

Nancy: Of course.

Todd: Do you think I love mine?

Nancy: I know you do.

Todd: Do you think I love my son more than you love yours?

Nancy: No.

Todd: Do you think God loves my son more than he loves yours?

That’s it. The last question is not answered, just contemplated. Even if it were explicitly answered, "No," is there anything in that answer that is untrue?

Todd says a few minutes before this dialogue that he failed the grieving parent in her hour of need. My assumption about this statement, based on a limited understanding of a common Protestant view of salvation, is this: it was his belief that as far as anyone knew, this woman’s son was not saved, and so he could not offer her any hope at his graveside. The Catholic Church, while recognizing the need to be reconciled with God for salvation, also leaves open, through the richness of her teachings and the counsel of the saints, the possibility through God's vast mercy of that reconciliation and salvation in all kinds of situations—a mercy that is not bound by his sacraments or any other stricture save our own free will.

I agree with Millegan that the film would have been more true if the idea of some kind of reciprocal relationship with Christ had been preserved. But I also agree with Kathy Schiffer, who has written about both the book and the movie, that this movie is a good movie (in the sense of approaching "God-liness"), and Hollywood needs to make more movies as full of faith as this one.

When I think of the nonbelievers who took part in making this film, and who have seen and will see it, I think of what one review highlighted of Colton’s words: “We don’t ever have to be afraid.” Doesn’t that sound like someone to you?

Or, more to the point, where JP got it to begin with: 

It’s my opinion that many are kept from God by fear, and that goes for believers and nonbelievers. When someone judges you, rightly or wrongly—and especially when you are afraid of being rejected, one protective response is to do the rejecting first. It’s a way of shielding yourself from the risks inherent in loving someone, and as C. S. Lewis noted, the only place where you can be safe from love is hell.


Just for good measure, I believe that hell is for real too, and offer this fascinating counterpoint: The Flip Side of Heaven Is For Real.

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