During a family vacation in July 2003, four-year-old Colton Burpo calmly told his parents that he had visited heaven and talked to angels months earlier while undergoing surgery.
“They sang ‘Jesus Loves Me’ and ‘Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho,’” Colton told his surprised parents. “I asked them to sing ‘We Will, We Will Rock You,’ but they wouldn’t sing that.”
Colton’s recollections are the foundation of Heaven Is For Real, a movie that opens today and is based on the book by the same name, which has sold nearly 10 million copies, been translated into 39 foreign languages, and generated more than half a dozen related products.
But five years ago, the proposed Colton Burpo book project looked deader than dead. The process by which this concept became the bestselling book that inspired a Hollywood movie offers insights into the dynamics of the publishing world and the nature of evangelical Christian hopes for heaven.
Not Another Balloon Boy
During his six years as an agent for Alive Communications, a successful Colorado Springs-based Christian literary agency, Joel Kneedler had helped publish a hundred books. But after a year of trying to get a publisher to bite on his Heaven Is For Real proposal, Kneedler was almost hopeless, his efforts going nowhere.
First, finding a writer to collaborate with Todd Burpo, Colton’s father and the pastor of Crossroads Wesleyan Church in Imperial, Nebraska, proved unusually tough. One pastor who wanted to write the book didn’t have the chops. Lynn Vincent, a top Christian collaborator, had just committed to writing Sarah Palin’s memoir, Going Rogue. Another writer declined for theological reasons, dismissing Colton’s heaven stories as “extra-biblical.” Family issues prevented a fourth writer from making any progress.
By 2009, Vincent had completed her Palin project and was ready to work, but by then publishers were considering a competing boy-nearly-dies-and-goes-to-heaven project. (Tyndale published Christian counselor Kevin Malarkey‘s The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven in 2010.)
Then came Colorado’s balloon boy. On October 15, 2009, cable news channels followed the progress of a gas balloon that supposedly carried a six-year-old boy more than 50 miles. It turned out to be an elaborate hoax — the boy was actually safe at home — designed to help the family launch a reality TV series. His father spent 90 days in jail for orchestrating the stunt; Kneedler and Burpo, meanwhile, saw danger signals and feared publishers would be suspicious of their motives.
But Kneedler, a member of a Colorado Springs megachurch called New Life, remained passionate about Colton’s story. His all-time favorite movie is Heaven Can Wait, and he has a soft spot for books about kids. ”Jesus really loved children,” he said.
Still, the thing that moved Kneedler most deeply was Colton’s descriptions of meeting his miscarried sister in heaven. “My wife miscarried,” he said, “and Colton’s message shows that the Lord has your child who has passed away. That’s a comforting message for me, and it’s a good message to share with the body of Christ.”
Just as Kneedler was about to give up, Thomas Nelson Publishers offered a contract in the low five figures. The book Heaven Is for Real released in November 2010. By the end of the year it was a national bestseller, and by early 2011 it was the bestselling non-fiction book in the country.
A line of product extensions followed: an eBook, a Spanish-language edition, a hardcover deluxe edition, Heaven Is for Real for Kids, the Heaven Is for Real for Little Ones board book, a devotional book called Heaven Changes Everything, and Heaven Is for Real Conversation Kit, a curriculum product with DVD and study guide, and now of course, a movie tie-in edition.
Interest in a movie version soared the day after the New York Times reported on the book’s success in a March 2011 story headlined, “Celestial Sales for Boy’s Tale of Heaven.”
Alive received so many calls that a spreadsheet was created to track them all. A dozen serious players seemed interested, including independent Christian filmmakers and major Hollywood studios. The agency had dealt with Christian independents 15 years earlier when it sold film rights for the novel Left Behind. The resulting film was so horrible, it and performed so poorly, that Left Behind co-author Tim LaHaye sued the filmmakers.
“We wanted to avoid that experience,” said Kneedler. “And when Sony Tri-Star said they would hire Randall Wallace, whose credits include Secretariat (director) and Braveheart (writer) to direct, that was music to our ears.” The film is co-produced by T.D. Jakes and stars Oscar- and Emmy-award winning actor Greg Kinnear.
So how will Heaven Is for Real fare during Hollywood’s year of the Bible? And how will movie-going audiences respond to a story about heaven that comes with “based on a true story” claims?
Fiction or Non?
Before Colton’s experience, Pastor Todd Burpo seldom preached about the hope of heaven, in part because he found Bible passages about the afterlife frustratingly incomplete.
“Jesus told his disciples about heaven,” Burpo said, “but the Bible verses on heaven are disconnected and not very clear.”
Now, when he preaches on heaven at his church or speaks nationally on the topic through his Heaven is For Real Ministries, Burpo fills the gaps in the biblical record with Colton’s recollections, citing Heaven Is for Real, which was published as a non-fiction book.
But some critics say Christian standards of truth are giving way to popular acclaim and itching ears. The prominent Christian blogger Fred Clark called the theology behind the book “execrable . . . biblically indefensible, inane and heretical,” but predicted that won’t stop the movie from being a hit: “white evangelicals (will) eat it up,” he wrote.
And Susan Jacoby, writing in the Washington Post, said, “What is truly disturbing about this book’s huge commercial success is that it attests to the prevalence of unreason among vast numbers of Americans.”
This weekend’s box office will not settle the debate, but it may show how much more appetite American audiences have for inspirational stories about the afterlife.
Images courtesy of Sony Pictures Digital Productions Inc.