A Quick Catholic Theological Analysis of the Book (and Movie), “Heaven is for Real”
This is about a year late. However, I’ve been meaning to do a piece on heaven for quite some time. So I thought I would just combine the two. Overall, I thought the movie was quite good. As far as I can tell, there wasn’t anything that was blatantly disagreed with the Catholic faith, outside of the normal disagreements between Catholics and Protestants.
In the book, on pages 57 and 59, Colton says we need to have Jesus in our hearts. This is true. We do need Jesus in our hearts in order to get to heaven. The question is, “What does this mean?” The ordinary, revealed path to having Jesus in our hearts and getting to heaven means being baptized with water and the Holy Spirit (John 3:5, Matthew 28:19), visibly belonging to the Catholic Church, and following the commandments of Christ as revealed through the Catholic Church to the best of our abilities. (CCC 846 and Lumen Gentium 14: “Hence they could not be saved who, knowing that the Catholic Church was founded as necessary by God through Christ, would refuse to either to enter it or to remain in it.”) However, the Catechism of the Catholic Church says that others who are not visibly a part of the Catholic Church can be spiritually part of the Catholic Church by following God to the best of their ability in what they do know. (CCC 847 and Lumen Gentium 16: “Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and , moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience-those too may achieve eternal salvation.”) This would seem to be true as Colton’s grandfather was not Catholic, but sounds like he was a very holy man. Colton believes that a person must know who Jesus is and believe in Him in order to get to heaven. However, the statement from the Catechism of the Catholic Church leaves room for non-Christians to maybe being saved as well.
On page 63 (and mentioned on other pages), Colton sees animals in heaven. Now classical ancient philosophy (Greek and Roman) says that animals do not have an eternal soul. Therefore, most Catholic theologians have said that our pets do not live on after they die. However, the Holy Spirit has not revealed to the Catholic Church a definitive answer to this question. Colton says Jesus has a horse. So it would appear that there are animals in heaven. The question is, “How did they get there?” (So maybe unicorns really do exist, just in heaven. I’m keeping my fingers crossed. Or maybe they were too stubborn to get on Noah’s ark and died out then.) C.S. Lewis (author of the Narnia series) reasons that if there is a new heaven and a new earth, there would likely be plants and animals in the new creation. So maybe the animals in heaven are not the souls of our pets on earth, but animals that were created to exist just in heaven. When kids do ask me about their pets, (because they naturally do), I tell them that they will be in heaven in so much as they will exist in your heart and mind and memories (if and) when you get to heaven.
On page 72, Colton says everyone has wings, some bigger than others. The Bible never directly talks about wings of human beings who have made it to heaven. It could be a function of how much they help others, intercede for others. This may be why Pop had large wings and Colton only had small wings. Another possibility is the wings could be an image of how fast the person can travel. Also on page 74, everyone has a halo, which would make sense since everyone in heaven is holy.
On page 89, Pop is said to have only gone to church every once in a while. However, two days before he died in a car accident, he gave his life to Christ at an altar call. As Catholics, we would call this the Baptism of desire. Even though he wasn’t baptized in the form prescribed by Jesus in Matthew 28:19 and John 3:5, he desired baptism. It should remind us of what Jesus said to the thief as He hung upon the Cross: “Today you will be with me in paradise.”
On page 90, Colton’s grandmother is kind of surprised that Pop would know his great-grandson even though they were born decades apart. As Catholics, we might be surprised that Colton’s grandmother is surprised. As Catholics, we believe that we are all one Church, one Body of Christ. There is the Church Triumphant in Heaven, the Church Militant on earth, and the Church Suffering in Purgatory. As Catholics, we believe that we can intercede for each other, especially the Church Triumphant since they are in heaven and have the close ear of God. In 2 Maccabees (a book not found in the Protestant Bible), chapter 12, verse 15, we see Jeremiah, who would have been dead for several hundred years, give Judas Maccabees a sword in which to defeat the enemy. However, many Protestants, taking cues from the parable of the rich man and Lazarus and other places in the Bible, have concluded that not only does the chasm between heaven, hell, and earth, prevent one from going from one place to another, but it also prevents communication or knowledge from one place to another. That is why the author, Colton’s dad, writes, “That got Mom wondering whether those who have gone ahead of us know what’s happening on earth. Or is it that in heaven, we’ll know our loved ones–even those we didn’t get to meet in life–by some next-life way of knowing we don’t enjoy on earth? As Catholics, we know it is the former, but this is hard for some Protestants to understand based on their understanding of the Communion of Saints and the interaction between the Church Militant and the Church Triumphant. (Hebrews 12:1 – “cloud of witnesses”)
On page 95, Colton says that God the Father adopted his unborn sister, the one who had been miscarried. Colton explicitly explains that God the Father adopted her and not God the Son, Jesus. This would be Biblical. For example, Romans 8:15 says, “For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you received a spirit of adoption, through which we cry, ‘Abba, Father!'” Also, Galatians 1:4b-5, says, “In love he [God the Father] destined us for adoption to himself through Jesus Christ, in accord with the favor of his will…” In our baptism and through our faith in Jesus, we are adopted by God the Father.
In some ways the events on page 96-97 seem odd. When asked what the miscarried girl’s name is, Colton responds, “She doesn’t have a name. You guys didn’t name her.” A couple of lines later he continues, “Yeah, she said she can’t wait for you and daddy to get to heaven.” For some reason, the author and his wife connect these two statements and just assume they have to wait until they get to heaven to name their unborn daughter. Again, maybe it is the evangelical assumption that there is no communication between heaven and earth. If I had been their pastor I would have encouraged them to name their child right away. In the last year, I had a couple that lost a child still-born. I encouraged them to name the child and we had a funeral ceremony for the child, using the ceremony for the unbaptized child found in the Catholic Funeral Rite.
This brings up another theological point. Again, God has revealed to us that the ordinary means of salvation are through baptism of water and the Holy Spirit. (See Bible passages referenced in paragraph 2 of this article.) In 2007, Pope Benedict XVI called a Pontifical Commission to study and pray about the pastoral question of the destination of the unbaptized, especially those who die so young that they could have no personal sin, but would still be marked with the deficit of original sin, one of the things that Baptism washes away. Basically, the Commission concluded that we still don’t know for sure. Yes, the revealed, ordinary way to heaven, to salvation, is through baptism of water and the Holy Spirit (or Baptism of desire or blood). However, God is not limited to His revelation to us. He may save souls through other means. Thus, pastors and parents are to pray for the souls of their unbaptized and hope in the mercy and love of God. Without getting into the subject too deeply, one could argue that children are baptized at the desire of their parents. Could the unborn, in an analogous way, like an adult who dies during the middle of RCIA, be said to have received the Baptism of Desire by the desire of their parents? Colton’s experience of heaven would seem to suggest that the answer to this question is, “Yes.” Th author’s argument is that Jesus loves the children even more than we do, so therefore, they must be in heaven.
Again, on page 102, the author seems surprised that Colton would have prayed for him from heaven. Again, as Catholics, we don’t believe there is an unbridgeable chasm between heaven and earth. We believe there is an intimate union between the souls in heaven, earth, and purgatory. This union allows us to pray for each other. (Although, remember the souls in heaven don’t need our prayers. They are already in heaven. The souls in Purgatory very much need our prayers as do others on earth. The souls in hell will never escape so praying for them is useless as well.)
Another couple of interesting theological questions come up on pages 122-123. It is interesting that Colton doesn’t recognize Pop when shown photos of when Pop was older. He recognizes Pop when shown a picture in which Pop was about 29. At the end of the Creed we say every Sunday at Mass, we say we believe in the resurrection of our bodies. There has been endless speculation about what kind of bodies we will have. Yes, we will have glorified bodies, but what does that mean? We get some insight into Jesus’ body after His Resurrection. For example, He can walk through locked doors (John 20:19, 26) and He can disappear in an instant (Luke 24:31). The Old Testament talks about the sacrificial lamb being a year old and unblemished. Some have equated this to about 33 years old in human years. Old enough to be wise in mind and soul, but not so old that your body starts to fall apart. In other words, the prime of your life. So some have speculated that our resurrected bodies will look similar to what we looked like when we were 33. Thus it would make sense, if this were true, that Colton would recognize Pop in a picture in which he is 29, but not when he was much older.
However, there is a deeper rub here. Catholic theology says most of us will receive our resurrected bodies at the end of time, at Jesus’ Second Coming. (Jesus already has His, as does Mary.) Thus, it would seem odd that Colton would recognize Pop by how he looked and not by some immaterial spiritual way. Throughout history, angels have appeared to human beings on earth in human form. (Jacob wrestles with an angel in Genesis 32:22-31.) Maybe in a similar way, the souls in heaven took on a body in appearance only for Colton’s sake. That way he could interact with them in a way he could digest and understand.
In pages 133-134, Colton affirms that Satan is an actual individual evil being, not just an idea, the absence of good. Satan is so evil that if we could see him, as it would appear that Colton at least caught a glimpse of Satan, we too would be speechless in sight of Evil Itself.
Catholics sometimes get accused of focusing too much on the the Crucifixion and not enough on the Resurrection. “Why do Catholics still have Jesus crucified on their crosses? Don’t they realize Jesus has risen?” Todd Burpo, a Protestant, on pages 148-149 gives a great answer.
“When I was a kid, I always wondered why the cross, Jesus’ crucifixion, was such a big deal. If God the Father knew he was going to raise his Son from the dead, how was that a sacrifice? But now I understand why God doesn’t view Easter as just the endgame, just the empty tomb. I understand completely. I would’ve done anything, anything, to stop Colton’s suffering, including trading places with him.”
Todd affirms that Colton saw Mary. Colton saw her kneeling before the throne of God and at other times, standing besides Jesus. He does not mention a crown on Mary’s head and her being the Queen of Heaven. However, we need to remember this is a Protestant author so he is going to have a Protestant bias. Also, along those lines, throughout the whole book, there is no mention of Purgatory. You would think in a book that talks about death, heaven and hell, purgatory would be in there too if it existed. To this too, I just say, maybe Colton did receive and even see Purgatory, but a Protestant father isn’t going to inquire about it or write about it. Not that there is any malicious thinking here. He is a Protestant minister so he is going to write and experience things from that viewpoint.
Can I just say I was disturbed by the movie’s portrayal of Todd’s relationship with others? Maybe it did happen, but the book does not portray any conflict with parish members or wife. In fact, in the book, he talks about how supportive they were.
Again, there is nothing in the book (or movie) that contradicts what we believe as Catholics. And this makes sense. If Colton had an authentic experience of God and Heaven, and we believe that the fullness of Truth has been revealed to God by the Holy Spirit (Matthew 16:16-19) to the Catholic Church, then it would make sense that what the Catholic Church teaches and what Colton saw would be in agreement.