A recent popular movie entitled Heaven is for Real is probably well-intentioned, but according to some it taps into many modern errors related to death, judgment, Heaven, and Hell. We have discussed in the past on this blog some of the many modern errors related to these issues.
Chief among these modern errors is the notion of “universalism,” which accords the vast majority, if not practically everyone, the reward of Heaven. But of course this notion runs directly contrary to Scripture, which says that many will be lost. And while we cannot assign percentages or make judgments in individual cases, nevertheless we ought not entertain the fanciful notion that “many” being lost actually means “just a few,” let alone “hardly anyone at all.”
To its credit, the Washington Post recently published an article allowing critics of the movie to speak of their concerns. Though no Catholic theologians were interviewed, the concerns and critiques voiced by the Evangelical pastors consulted for the article articulate fairly well that the movie Heaven is for Real, while often referring to Scripture, is a movie essentially rooted in popular culture, which has become unmoored from 2000 years of biblical tradition.
Let’s look at some of the critiques in the article. As usual, the text of the article is denoted by bold italics, while my remarks are in red text. The full article is available here: Movie on Heaven has its Critics.
I want to emphasize that my comments here are on the critique; I have not seen the movie. My remarks here are to affirm what the critique says, not of the movie, but of our modern culture.
Heaven is not only “for real,” it’s pretty much for everyone in the new movie based on the near-death experience visions of a precocious preschooler.
We know we’re already in trouble when a movie involving any theological speculation at all relies on the visions of a preschool student, even if a precocious one. The book was published over two years ago, and frankly, when I noted that it was based on the visions of a preschooler, it never occurred to me to buy the book, let alone read it or take it seriously. While it is true that children can have beautiful spiritual visions, the accuracy of those visions cannot be guaranteed, and surely they are in very childlike categories, which often lack important distinctions, etc.
In this opening critique we are told that the film says that Heaven is “for everyone.” So it seems according to the critics that the film is rooted in the modern heresy of universalism described above. The article continues with,
…the film jettisons doctrine. Instead, it celebrates an unabashed “God is love” view that goodness in this life gets you, your friends, and your family a crown and wings in the next.
The essence of heresy is not the outright denial of all Christian truth. Rather, it is the taking of one or several teachings and emphasizing them to the exclusion of other teachings meant to balance and frame them. It is true that God is love. But we ought not set up a false dichotomy between love and God’s judgment of our final disposition in terms of His offer of love. Love does not mean that there is no accountability, no consequence, no judgment, no day when God will determine our final disposition based on our for regard for Him and the values of His Kingdom.
Yes, God is love, and no one loves you more than Jesus Christ does. Yet no one warned you more than Jesus did about judgment and the possibility of Hell. Jesus did so in parable after parable, warning after warning. There are sheep and goats (Matt 25), some who are taken and some who are left (Matt 24:40), some who are at the right and called to the Kingdom prepared for them and others to the left who are told to depart into the flames prepared for them and the devil (Mat 7). There are wise virgins and foolish virgins (Matt 25), there are the merciful who obtain mercy (Matt 5) and those who are not and are judged without mercy. There are those who have forgiven and are thus forgiven by God (Matt 6), and those who did not forgive and are therefore not forgiven by God. There are those courageous souls who announced and lived God’s Word in chaste purity and fidelity, but there are also those who are on the outside, whom the Lord calls dogs, cowards, fornicators, liars, and so forth (Rev 21). The list could go on.
And while there is something of a tension between judgment and love, to say that love cannot be squared with judgment is to set up a false dichotomy and to offend the testimony of Scripture. The same Jesus who loves us and died for us is also the Jesus who will judge us. And He says to us that the judgment is essentially in our hands; either we will love the light and will choose Him and His Father’s Kingdom, or we will prefer the darkness and will not choose the Kingdom.
The modern heresy of universalism seeks to resolve the tension between God’s love and justice by choosing love and discarding justice. And yet part of His justice is to respect the freedom of our choice for or against Him and what He values! The heresy of detaching God’s love from His respectful justice turns His love into a doting, fawning, inconsequential love. It is a one-sided love in which God calls the shots and our own stance really doesn’t matter. But of course this is not really true love; it is a kind of paternalism wherein we never really attain the glorious freedom of Children of God because our choices never really mattered anyway.
Pay attention, fellow Christians! Modern, “cheesy,” sentimental notions of God’s love are unbiblical, beneath the dignity of God, and also beneath the dignity of the human person. At the heart of our dignity is the fact that we have real decisions to make, decisions with consequences, decisions that actually matter.
Yes, God is love, but that love requests, respectfully, to be loved in return. It is a love that respects our freedom, and while seeking our “yes,” is willing to accept our “no.” Only then does our “yes” have true meaning.
Heaven is a real place, not just a concept…We just wish many people would go to the Bible, rather than the cinema, to find out what heaven is.
This is well said; Heaven is a real place. Heaven is not just some “designer” place; Heaven is the Kingdom of God in all of its fullness and with all of its values lived perfectly. And frankly, many of the values of the Kingdom of Heaven are not popular today – values such as chastity, love of enemies, forgiveness, generosity as opposed to greed, etc. Heaven is not just some egocentric place of our own design. It is the place where we will see God, as He really is, in all of His justice and mercy.
Reducing Heaven to merely sentimental notions such as mansions and streets lined with gold, nice though these things seem, is to ignore the most essential aspect of Heaven. The heart of Heaven is the encounter with God, in all of His glory and in all of His truth. Heaven is also very liturgical, resembling to a great degree the Catholic Mass. There are priests in long white robes, candles, incense, a book, the lamb on the altar, hymns, praise of God, and so forth. Given the empty churches of today, many apparently find this vision less than appealing.
Heaven isn’t just “for real,” it is what it really is, not what we want it to be. Some find it attractive and glorious. But as Scripture says, many will find the “real” Heaven intolerable. Why? Because as Jesus says, This is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, but many prefer the darkness because their deeds are sinful. (Jn 3:19)
But who wants to tell…[a parishioner] that her soldier-son may not be in heaven after all?…[Pastor] Challies knows he’s up against a cultural tide that celebrates “the heaven we want, the Jesus we want, not the Jesus we’ve really got who is worthy of worship and won’t allow unholiness in heaven.”
Yes, the cultural challenges are enormous; the uphill climb really does seem rather steep. Scripture is clear regarding Heaven: nothing impure shall enter there (Rev 21:27). We need to be serious about our preparation. I DO think it is possible to speak boldly of this at funerals without getting too personal about the deceased. We cannot be their judge one way or the other. But we can still ask prayers for the deceased and can warn the living. I have published a funeral sermon here: Funeral Sermon
While heaven books delight publishers with divine sales numbers, the afterlife actually isn’t a top-of-mind issue for many people: 46 percent told a 2011 LifeWay Research survey they never wonder whether they will go to heaven. But it’s unknown whether they are unconcerned because they already feel sure of their ultimate fate one way or another.
And here’s the ultimate harm of heresy: it has God’s people locked in the clutches of evil one. They have bought into his lies that Heaven is a done deal, in direct contradiction of Jesus’ words that we must endure to the end in order to be saved (Mat 24:13). We must grow in virtue and struggle to be free of sin.
The sin described here is one of presumption. It is sin against hope; for who hopes for what he already has? Hope is confident expectation of God help. It is a good thing to be confident, but it is the kind of confidence that summons us to battle, not to the sofa or to the victor’s box before the race is even run!
The indulgence of the heresy of universalism means that many do not take their own battle seriously, nor do they battle seriously for the souls of others. The result is that many souls are likely lost.
Hence according to the critique, the movie seems at best flawed, at worst harmful. For though it draws from Scripture, it does so selectively, and uses as its main source a preschool child and the popular imagination of heaven, which has been unmoored from 2,000 years of Christian teachings.
Given the tenor of some of the comments rolling in let me repeat what I said above: I want to emphasize that my comments here are on the critique; I have not seen the movie. My remarks here are to affirm what the critique says, not of the movie, but of our modern culture.