Jesus and His Rainbow Horse

Greg Kinnear and Connor Corum discussing the afterlife
“Jesus and His Rainbow Horse”
A Review of Heaven is for Real by Nick Olszyk

MPAA Rating, PG
USCCB Rating, A-I
Reel Rating, Three Reels           

            April 27th is St. Thomas Sunday – or Divine Mercy Sunday for all you Latins out there – when Jesus told his disciple “because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” Since then, Jesus still appears from time to time to remind those who need to see him. Heaven is for Real describes such a true story when a young child almost died, saw Heaven, and told the world. It is a mostly pleasant film that raises several interesting questions but rarely follows through. It is easy, simple, and will affirm the faith of believers but doesn’t challenge its critics, although sometimes a small push is all one needs.
            Todd Burpo (Greg Kinnear) is a hardworking pastor/firefighter/wrestling coach/whatever else the script needs and dad of young Colton (Connor Corum in a surprisingly good performance by a child actor). Colton’s appendix bursts and barely makes it out alive. Several days later, he tells his father that during surgery he visited Heaven. This experience causes trouble for Burpo who isn’t sure he believes his son and for the church as more and more people here about the story. Kinnear does a wonderful job showing the determination and love of a father but as a pastor seems confused and woefully inadequate even approaching tangible evidence of the divine, which is all the more problematic for someone tasked with attending the dying moments of his parishioners (which includes repentance but not last rites). Colton handles these events infinitely better with “the faith of a child,” simply asserting the truth then returning to his Spiderman toys.
            Near death experiences are well known and documented throughout the world, providing both inspiration and skepticism. There is a physiological phenomenon that can explain many visions (hallucinations?) that the formally near dead experience. As the brain is deprived of oxygen, it panics, shooting out signals that are interpreted as images. As demonstrated in the wonderful documentary Moment of Death, this can be replicated in test pilots who undergo high G-forces. The origin of Colton’s visions seems to have an easy explanation; his father is a Christian minister after all. However, there are NDEs that demonstrate supernatural qualities like knowledge of hidden things. Colton is able to identify a younger version of his great-grandfather from a photo and, in a very moving scene, tells his mother that his miscarried sister was in Heaven. His mother never told him or even knew the gender.      
            The public revelation that Jesus gives on Heaven is grand in scale but rather limited in detail. St. Paul said it best as “eye has not seen, ear has not heard, what God has prepared for those who love Him.” This basically amounts to “I have no idea, but it’s gonna be awesome.” While Colton’s vision contains no glaring theological errors, it does strike a fantastical note. He mentions that Jesus has a horse that is “all the colors of the rainbow.” Uh-huh. Lest Catholics be too quick to judge, Colton originally saw Mary kneeling before God’s throne, a scene conveniently left out of the film. Did Colton visit Heaven? A better phrasing would be that Colton experienced Heaven. He really met Jesus, and if Jesus brought his horse along, well that would make sense to a four year old.

            The problem with the film isn’t if Colton went to Heaven; he did. The letdown is that, for a supposedly seasoned pastor, Burpo is quite vague on what he means by Heaven, and the film’s final sermon doesn’t help much. His final sermon states Heaven is something like the summation of love, not really a place. He even includes that possibility that all religions can experience this same vision. While it’s true that a non-Christian can go to Heaven, they do not go because they were a non-Christian. It’s a little annoying; for nearly 90 minutes, good Christians who seem faithful and wise in other things can’t wrap their heads around this incredibly simple concept. All they had to do is look up the Nicene Creed: “I believe the resurrection of the body and life everlasting.” Duh. I mean, Amen.

This article first appeared in Catholic World Report on April 24th, 2014.