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If heaven exists, what about hell?

By Philip Martin

This article was published April 18, 2014 at 2:05 a.m.


Members of the Burpo family — Sonja (from left), Todd, Colby, Colton and Cassie — pose with Bishop T.D. Jakes, who is one of the producers of Heaven Is for Real, a movie based on Todd’s nonfiction book about Colton’s visions of the afterlife.

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. - They warned us about the Burpos.

The Burpos - Todd, Sonja and Colton - are not ones to resist the convicting fire of the Holy Spirit. There is no mistaking their evangelical zeal. They have finished their interviews with the so called “faith-based” press about the film Heaven Is for Real and they are now about to witness to the “mainstream” - or, as we have dubbed ourselves, “heathen” - press.

Their publicist minder, no doubt used to looking after movie people, seeing to their predictable needs for bottled water and chaitea, seems genuinely amused. “I’m just warning you guys, these people are loose cannons,” he says.

The past decade or so has been surreal for this Nebraska family; having their lives transposed into cinema is hardly the strangest thing that has happened. In2003, when Colton was 4 years old, his appendix burst. Initially this was misdiagnosed and he ended up in the hospital in a touchy situation. As he lay on the operating table, he says, he had an out-of-body experience. He could see the doctors working to save him, he could see his pastor father becoming angry at God in the hospital chapel, he could see his mother calling friends to ask for their prayers. He found himself in a realm among the clouds where he met Jesus and where angels sang to him. He met his father’s father there, and a sister who was miscarried. Colton believes he went to heaven.

He told his father, and Todd wrote a best-selling book about it. A Hollywood producer, Joe Roth, saw it on the best-seller list and acquired the rights. Now the movie is out. For the most part, the Burpos are happy with it. For the most part, it tells their story pretty much as they would tell it.

But I’m wondering about things that aren’t in the movie. If heaven is real, that might seem to suggest that hell is also real. Except there is a line of theological thinking that suggests that a loving God couldn’t really condemn any of his creatures to a place of eternal torment and that we will all eventually be redeemed. And then there’s “annihilationism,” which posits hell as a place where souls are destroyed.

“In the book it’s very clear,” Todd says. “Colton saw Satan. He saw a final Armageddon, like the Bible talks about, he saw me fight in it, he saw Satan thrown into hell. There is a source for evil. When you look at this world, there’s no way an honest person can say there’s not evil down here. And I think an honest person would say there’s no way a loving God could dismiss evil. If some of the things that people do to others just get a pass - that’s not love.

“You know Noah - I know there’s a lot of controversy about that and I haven’t seen that and I’m not going to say one thing about the movie - but the whole concept … that was the first Armageddon. God said, ‘I’ve had enough of evil. I’m starting over.’ The Bible says that’s coming again, and Colton saw it … Jesus believed in sin and he believed in the consequence of sin.”

Let’s try another angle. What does the sure knowledge of heaven mean for a person in their daily life? What’s it like to grow up as the kid who went to heaven?

“Trust me, I’m still human,” 15-year-old Colton says. “Just because I had my experience doesn’t mean I’m special. It may mean I know what to expect … but I still have to take tests, I still worry about them.”

Todd says his son used to wonder “why adults didn’t believe the Bible.”

“I told him, ‘They haven’t seen what you’ve seen.’” But he understands one of the reasons that the film and his book make the message palatable is because the explicit vision of heaven is presented by a child.

“I’ve had one person say to me, ‘Well, wasn’t it pretty open-ended?’” he says. “And I say, ‘Er, it was pretty close-ended. You just didn’t get offended because a kid was saying it.’” Email:

MovieStyle, Pages 31 on 04/18/2014

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