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Is heaven a real thing? Well, according to Colton Burpo, it is. And, because his young son’s story was so surreal, Todd, a Nebraska pastor, decided to write about his son’s miraculous experience to the afterlife and back in his New York Times #1 best-selling book Heaven Is For Real—a New York Times best-selling novel, released in 2010, detailing the story of his son who was forced to undergo emergency surgery, only to awaken from the operation with the seemingly undeniable proof of the existence of heaven.
Happy that their son survived surgery, Todd and his wife Sonja are overjoyed by his miraculous survival. But they are wholly unprepared for what happens next when Colton starts to matter-of-factly recount what he says was an amazing journey to heaven and back. As Colton innocently tells his parents details of things he couldn’t possibly know, including meeting his great grandfather and his miscarried sister, the later of who he did not know about, Todd finds himself colliding against a wall of mystery and doubt, until he breaks through to rediscover hope, wonder and the strength of purpose.
Colton continued to describe even more exceptional details such as just how huge God and the chair He occupies are as well as a special horse that only Jesus can ride and the Holy Spirit shooting power down at the people of Earth. Even though Todd grappled with his son’s “stories” he came to the conclusion that something more powerful was at play.
The soaring journey of Todd’s book began with a parent’s worst nightmare: a sick little boy doctors said was unlikely to pull through. After Colton recovered, the 4-year-old began to tell an incredible story: that during his touch-and-go surgery he had gone to heaven and been shown a realm of indescribable beauty and supreme peace, even meeting deceased relatives he had never known personally. At first, the Burpos were unsure what to make of their son’s revelations. He had such a childlike innocence when talking about it, they were 100% convinced he wasn’t making it up.
But even though they were already people of faith—Todd being a pastor—they were suddenly confronted with questions they had never really considered. Sure, they had talked and thought plenty about heaven in the abstract; but was it possible their son had experienced it for real? And if he had unlocked one of life’s greatest mysteries . . . should they, and how could they, share this bewildering event with a world prone to disbelief and skepticism?
It was this part of Todd Burpo’s journey – through a storm of doubt and into standing up for his son and his own hard-won convictions – that intrigued the filmmakers behind the book’s screen adaptation. They saw a story that nearly anyone who has wondered about life, death and the meaning of it all, or ever took a risk for their deepest beliefs, could relate to on a personal level.
“I was skeptical of the book, but then I read it and I found it riveting,” director Wallace admitted to The Daily News. “This story gets into some fascinating topics,” Wallace says. “The question of what happens when we die is certainly a question that everyone in life ultimately asks themselves. But the Burpos’ story also gets to some other really important questions: What makes us feel alive right now? What is the source of faith? What motivates us? What is the instrument of change in our lives? What makes us stop fearing and start moving forward in our lives with belief and confidence? What I liked about this story is that it pertains to all of that.”
Playing Todd in the movie adaptation, Academy-award nominee and Emmy award-winner, Greg Kinnear, who grew up in a small town in Indiana understands the manic faith. “I’d met Todd. I didn’t know him, but I had a good sense of who he was, who the family was,” he told The Toronto Sun. “It’s important to point out that Colton was then a four year-old kid, so there was no affectation, nothing artificial about what he was saying. It was complete innocence,” Kinnear says. “And while children at that age can have huge imaginations, they also say things that you know they believe with all their heart. So it’s really interesting to play a father trying to sift through what’s real and what’s not in this kind of event.”
It wasn’t just the film’s director and actors who had their doubts about the story’s legitimacy. Todd Burpo himself had moments of doubt where he grappled between believing his son or his common sense. “I didn’t know what I believed about near death experiences,” Burpo confessed to The Christian Post. “Where does his vision match reality, scripture and reason? No one had prepared me to talk to someone who had a [Near Death Experience]. I come from a church tradition that sometimes undervalues personal experience and says scripture’s way more important and I agree with the validity of scripture, but sometimes to a fault where we almost dismiss personal experience. But I could not dismiss my son and I had to deal with that.”
Ten years after the initial event, Colton Burpo (played by Cleveland native Connor Corum), credits his brief visit to heaven as continuing to inspire and influence his life. “It allows me to have a little more of an understanding of why it’s harder for people to grasp on to the thought of heaven,” he told The Christian Post. “I got to experience it so I know what to expect. But with some people that not knowing just gets the better of them.”
Heaven Is For Real opens in theatres on April 16 and stars Greg Kinnear, Kelly Reilly, Thomas Hayden Church, Margo Martindale and Connor Corum.