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Hollywood's religious revival
April 21st, 2014
11:00 AM ET

What Hollywood gets wrong about heaven

Opinion by Drew Dyck, special to CNN 

(CNN) - The 4-year-old boy sees angels floating toward him. They start out as stars, then slowly become more visible, wings flapping behind orbs of white light.

As they approach, they sing a melodious song. The boy cocks his head, squints into the sky, and makes a strange request. “Can you sing ‘We Will Rock You’?”

The angels giggle.

So do people in the theater.

The scene is from “Heaven is for Real,” the latest in a string of religious movies soaring at the box office. Based on the best-selling book of the same name, the film tells the real-life story of Colton Burpo, a 4-year-old boy who awakens from surgery with eye-popping tales of the great beyond. The film took in an estimated $21.5 million in opening on Easter weekend.

Even Colton’s religious parents (his dad, Todd, is a pastor) struggle to accept the celestial encounters their son describes: seeing Jesus and his rainbow-colored horse, meeting his sister who died in utero, and talking to his deceased great-grandfather, “Pop,” who, Colton exclaims, has “huge wings.”

The book and film are part of a larger trend. Depictions of journeys to heaven have never been more numerous or more popular. There’s “90 Minutes in Heaven,” “To Heaven and Back,” “Proof of Heaven,” and “The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven,” just to name a few.

Does God have a prayer in Hollywood?

So what should we make of such accounts? And what does their popularity say about us?

Some may be surprised that the Bible contains not one story of a person going to heaven and coming back. In fact Jesus’ own words seem to preclude the possibility: “No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven the Son of Man” (John 3:13).

Scripture does contain several visions of heaven or encounters with celestial beings, but they’re a far cry from the feel-good fare of the to-heaven-and-back genre.

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.

Take the prophet Daniel, for instance. He could stare down lions, but when the heavens opened before him, he swooned. Ezekiel, too, was overwhelmed by his vision of God. After witnessing Yahweh’s throne chariot fly into the air with the sound of a jet engine, he fell face-first to the ground.

Perhaps the most harrowing vision belongs to Isaiah. He sees the Almighty “high and exalted,” surrounded by angels who use their wings to shield their faces and feet from the glory of God. Faced with this awesome spectacle, Isaiah loses it. “Woe to me!” he cries, “I am ruined!” (Isaiah 6:5)

New Testament figures fare no better.

John’s famous revelations of heaven left him lying on the ground “as though dead” (Revelation 1:17). The disciples dropped when they saw Jesus transfigured. Even the intrepid Saul marching to Damascus collapsed before the open heavens and walked away blind.

How different from our popular depictions. And it isn’t just “Heaven is for Real.” In most movies angels are warm, approachable teddy bears with wings. God is Morgan Freeman or some other avuncular presence.

Scripture, however, knows nothing of such portrayals. Heavenly encounters are terrifying, leaving even the most stout and spiritual vibrating with fear or lying facedown, unconscious.

When God plays the villain

Yes, the Bible teaches that heaven is a place of ultimate comfort, with “no more death or mourning or crying or pain” (Revelation 21:4).

But it is also a place where the reality of God’s unbridled majesty reigns supreme and that’s scary.

Did a 4-year-old boy from Nebraska really visit heaven? I don’t know. My hunch is that the popularity of such stories tells us more about our view of God than the place in which he dwells.

Ultimately I believe we flock to gauzy, feel-good depictions of heaven and tiptoe around the biblical passages mentioned above because we’ve lost sight of God’s holiness.

I fear we’ve sentimentalized heaven and by extension its primary occupant. I worry the modern understanding of God owes more to Colton Burpo than the prophet Isaiah. And I think this one-sided portrayal diminishes our experience of God.

We can’t truly appreciate God’s grace until we glimpse his greatness. We won’t be lifted by his love until we’re humbled by his holiness.

The affection of a cosmic buddy is one thing. But the love of the Lord of heaven and earth, the one who Isaiah says “dwells in unapproachable light,” means something else entirely.

Of course it means nothing if you think it’s all hokum. If for you the material reality is all the reality there is, any talk of God is white noise. But if you’re like me, and you think heaven is for real, well, it makes all the difference in the world.

Drew Dyck is managing editor of Leadership Journal and author of “Yawning at Tigers: You Can’t Tame God, So Stop Trying.” The views expressed in this column belong to Dyck.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Art • Belief • Bible • Christianity • Heaven • Media • Movies • Opinion

soundoff (2,107 Responses)
  1. itisalsowrittenthat

    The world like fables more than the truth. That is why they don't read the Bible but watch these so called 'Christian' movies.

    May 20, 2014 at 8:58 am |
    • jbhollen

      How can you, with a straight face, look down your nose at a hollywood interpretation of an old fable and take exception that the details of that fable don't line up with the details of your fable. This is like watching a "serious theological" discussion regarding who has the moral high ground: Bullwinkle or Natascha. Before you get all wrapped around the axle regarding my total disrespect of your belief in Bullwinkle, sorry I meant Noah, don't forget that the entire Noah fable was lifted from the fables of Gilgamesh. So just how incensed can you be that hollywood ripped off your Noah fable, when your religion ripped it off thousands of years earlier from the stories of Gilgamesh?

      May 20, 2014 at 3:55 pm |
  2. jbhollen

    Believerfred – so, no the law does not demand death to the master, just "punishment" of some sort. That was the point I was trying to make. What is in the masters interest, the value of the slave as an asset or the master being sideways with his god are not germane to the discussion. If everyone acted appropriately, then there would be no reason to write down laws. They are written down because people often do not act in their own or others best interest.

    Your last paragraph has me scratching my head. I did not "get technical about the usage of the Rod meaning something else". You were the one who said "The Rod was not an instrument of death" in a previous post. My response was that the rod is exactly what 21:20 said it was. Something than can be used to beat a slave to death. You said that I "insist on the specific word death"? What are you talking about? I quoted 7 other verses that were specific about death, but the point I was making was verses 20 and 21 used "punishment" so it must mean something other than death. I have no idea what you are talking about regarding 21:12.

    I was trying to close on two questions on my last post that you did not respond to. First, does the bible condone slavery? Given that we have spent a lot of time in discussion around the technicalities of beating slaves, I have to assume the answer is yes. Secondly, I persist that 21:21 clearly states that if a master beats his slave and he survives for a day or two and then dies, the master is held blameless. I have heard no convincing argument otherwise.

    You seemed to have kind of lost-it on this last post which is not like you. Are you OK?

    May 1, 2014 at 9:01 pm |
  3. believerfred

    jbhollen
    I would be nice to resolve one issue before moving on. You said punishment for murder could mean anything. According to the time and culture Moses recorded the verses you question I think it was clear that if you kill your slave you are sentenced to death. Do you still question that?

    May 1, 2014 at 1:25 pm |
  4. schroera

    If you have a chance, check out what this Christian pastor wrote about the movie:
    http://364daysofthanksgiving.com/heaven-real/

    April 29, 2014 at 1:20 am |
    • igaftr

      Cannot read it. The deep blue background with that faint text is too hard on the eyes. Someone doesn't know about proper presentation, contrast.

      April 29, 2014 at 3:46 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.