Correctly Understanding the Theology of “Heaven is for Real”

I recently had the privilege of watching a great movie.  You might be familiar with the title.  It’s called “Heaven Is for Real.”  I had heard about the book for quite a while but never had an opportunity to read it.  When the movie came out, I put it on my list of films to watch.  But it wasn’t until a few days ago, with my fiancé, that I finally watched this story.

If you’re interested in a movie with lots of action and a suspenseful plot, it’s probably not your type of movie.  But if you’re interested in the gospel of Jesus Christ and learning about one boy’s incredible, God-given vision of eternity, then watch the movie.

Granted, the movie has been adapted to a film version from the book, so I’m sure there were some changes.  However, at the end of the day, the basic story is the same: Colton, at a young age, became sick with appendicitis, and while unconscious on the operating table, had a vision of Jesus Christ and heaven.  He recovered, only to have extraordinary and unexplainable observations and insights.

I have to admit, though, I was a bit skeptical at first.  Trained in theology, I need to be able to think very critically about stories like Colton Burpo’s.  The particular branch of theology that this movie deals with is eschatology – the end times of this fallen creation in anticipation of the coming age in a new creation.  While it doesn’t deal with the “end times” specifically, it does deal with life after death, which is related to eschatology.

That is why I can appreciate an article like Drew Dyck’s, “What Hollywood gets wrong about heaven.”   It is definitely a great article.   Drew reminds us of scriptural accounts of heaven from the prophets Daniel, Ezekial, and Isaiah.

Drew writes, “In Scripture, when mortals catch a premature glimpse of God’s glory, they react in remarkably similar ways. They tremble. They cower. They go mute. The ones who can manage speech express despair (or “woe” to use the King James English) and become convinced they are about to die. Fainters abound.”

He also reminds us of John’s revelation, in which heaven is presented as an awe-inspiring place.  But it is also quite terrifying from the perspective of our fallen and limited human understandings.  I like the text CNN uses for the link: “heaven is for scary real.”  It’s because it is for scary real.

It’s also why I can also appreciate noted Christian leader John MacArthur’s critique, “Heaven is Real; Hallucinations are not,” in which he says he simply does not believe the child at all.

However, as smart as the man is, I, along with many others, disagree with John MacArthur’s theological viewpoint. He is approaching the movie from his system of thinking, which comes from a very rigid Reformed theology.  Don’t get me wrong, though – he makes several legitimate points and has an understandable reason to write what he wrote.  His article should be taken very seriously because there can be such a wide variety of  these types of near-death experiences.  He offers great input as part of the conversation, but as a former professor used to say to me, “What’s the so-what?”

Unlike John MacArthur, coming from the Wesleyan tradition of Christianity, I cannot simply ignore someone’s profound personal experience – especially when the boy’s experience offers such unexplainable happenings like Colton recognizing his great-grandfather as a young man, Colton knowing that his mother miscarried, and Colton recognizing the Christ from a painting done by a little girl, whom he had never met or heard of, on the other side of the world who had a similar experience.

In the Wesleyan tradition, I have to at least try to reconcile a story like Colton’s with Christian tradition, Christian experience, theological reason, and scripture.  We must think a little deeper in order to figure out how this makes sense with a correct understanding of theology and scripture.  We must ask, “What’s the so-what?”  We’re on the right track; we just have to think a little harder.

We must ask how Colton’s story fits in with the greater story of God’s redemption of the creation that is explained in scripture.  The Spirit of God is at work in people’s lives today – even a child’s life – just as much as the Spirit of God was at work in the thousands of years of history that scripture covers.

Moreover, as a Christian I’m asked to believe in the possibility of the miraculous. We have to have faith, after all, in the life, death, and resurrection of a living Jesus Christ!

Perhaps the misunderstanding comes from an overly-simplified version of eschatology in which a person dies and either goes to heaven or hell, and that’s the end of the story.  However, that is not necessarily how it works.  Paul, prophets of the Old Testament, apostles and disciples of the New Testament, and most importantly Jesus Christ, the Messiah, all speak of a resurrection and judgment at the last day and of all things being made new in eternal life with God.  If you’d like to read a little further on this subject, as well as dive a little deeper into the possibilities of immediate life after death, check out a previous post, ““The Great Divorce” and Understanding Eschatology.”  Part of the post summarizes N.T. Wright’s “Surprised by Hope”, which is also an excellent resource on life after death.

What I’ve come to realize is that, most of the time, when people speak of heaven they mean the new creation that God will redeem this world into at the onset of the next age.   This fallen age will come to an end with the return of Christ, resurrection, and judgment unto eternal life or death by Christ.  The earth will be made new, and heaven (God’s dwelling place) will come down to a new Jerusalem.  Those whose hearts Christ judges worthy will dwell in this new creation.   It will certainly be heavenly, but it won’t be heaven proper.

Heaven, properly understood, is God’s dwelling place.  It is not of this earth.  It is the place described in Daniel, Ezekial, Isaiah, and John’s revelation.  It is awe-inspiring and terrifying.

But here’s the key: God did not create humans to dwell in heaven proper.  He created us as the pinnacle of his creation to dwell among the rest of his creation – the beautiful earth described in Genesis 1-3.  It is the beautiful earth we still see today.  And when this creation will finally be fully redeemed, wiped free from effects of sin and fallenness, it will so much more incredibly beautiful!

As people created to be part of a creation, being in heaven proper – a place not ultimately intended for us – would have the exact effect it had on Daniel, Ezekial, Isaiah, and John – trembling, cowering, speechless, and faint.

This quick illustration might help – you were created to drink out of a cup, not from a high-pressure firehose.  A human being in heaven proper is like drinking out of a high-pressure firehouse.  Even a short period of time will most likely produce some extreme consequences for the person!

Or think about this other example – an animal, taken out of its normal habitat, will not do too well; it was designed to function best in its original habitat.  Humans, as creations of God, are designed to function best in God’s creation.  And they will ultimately function greatest in God’s redeemed creation!

Considering everything, we must ask how Colton’s vision fits in with a correct theological understanding of God’s plan for people and his creation.  Ultimately, I just cannot dismiss Colton’s story as hallucination.  Theologically speaking, it cannot be dismissed as such either, as John MacArthur is quick to do.

It can be explained best, however, as a vision from God, given to Colton, of life in this new creation.  It is an incredible experience.  The mystery of God, in all of its greatness, made complete in Jesus Christ, and given to us by the Spirit, has given Colton a vision of God’s new creation – the place so many people call heaven.  Scripturally and theologically speaking, Colton’s vision is actually an accurate experience of the new creation.   Christ has a horse; Christ rides on a horse in John’s revelation.  The new creation is also free from the effects of fallenness; Colton describes everyone as young and with perfect vision (that’s great for me and my fiancé, because we’ve had bad vision our entire lives!).

It is certainly not an event where we can just put our foot down and exclaim with all certainty, “Impossible!”   To do so would be to put the power and mystery of God in a box and limit the work of the Spirit and the risen Christ, which will lead no where good.

God has shown his love to Colton through this vision, and in doing so, has inspired so many countless others to also turn their hearts to the reality of God and Jesus Christ.  And ultimately, hearts oriented and turned toward the love, grace, and glory of Jesus Christ is what matters most.

I pray that throughout the remainder of his entire life, Colton continues to inspire others toward the gospel of Jesus Christ.

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