For a film that’s explicitly about the power of God, the promise of an afterlife, and the salvation of Jesus Christ, Heaven Is for Real, adapted from the bestselling Christian book of the same name, feels hardly devotional; in fact, it’s rather defensive, not to mention indignant, hardened, and petulant. It tells the “true story” of Colton Burpo (Connor Corum), a four-year-old boy whose near-death experience supposedly took him to heaven, where he conversed with Jesus (who rode a rainbow-colored horse), stood in God’s presence, hung out with dead relatives he never met, and encountered a bunch of other apparently irrefutable things he recounted to his family in the months following. His father, Todd Burpo (Greg Kinnear), a reverend, small-business owner, and volunteer firefighter, is at first dubious, but eventually convinced of his son’s claims and uses them to kick-start both his own waning beliefs and those of his skeptical flock.
Like its source material, which was co-written by the real Todd Burpo and Lynn Vincent (Sarah Palin’s ghostwriter, interestingly enough) and published six years after Colton’s ostensible trip to paradise, Heaven Is for Real is firmly rooted in evangelical rhetoric and post-Bush conservatism, playing off the charms of the adorable little boy at its center while boasting an obstinate you-weren’t-there-so-you-can’t-disprove-it attitude. Quite dogmatically, the film demands we accept the second- and third-hand accounts of things that allegedly happened to Colton as fact, leaving non-believers to look for their inspiration elsewhere. Heaven Is For Real is, then, a film by Christians, for Christians, and deliberately, if subtly, antagonistic toward everyone else.
In adapting the book, Wallace and co-screenwriter Chris Parker excise a good deal of Burpo’s thinly veiled judgments (concerning nonbelievers, the author condescendingly wonders, “In times of crisis, where does their support come from?”) and more outlandish assertions (toward the end of the book, he writes that his son also claimed to have caught a sneak peek of the end of days—of Satan, hell, and the apocalypse), though his “conservative values” are still felt in the film’s depiction of agency-free wives and minorities as mere window dressing. Like Colton’s visions (or, more accurately, his father’s fishy novelization of his visions), these aspects are central to Heaven Is for Real’s faith-is-for-winners narrative, which ultimately proclaims that Jesus lives, and he’s exactly what Pat Robertson says he’s like.