An ordinary small town family is forced to grapple with an extraordinary, almost unbelievable phenomenon in the movie “Heaven is for Real,” which is based on the No. 1 New York Times Best Seller by the same name written by Todd Burpo with Lynn Vincent.
Four-year-old Colton Burpo was unexpectedly stricken with a near-fatal illness requiring surgery and a 17-day hospitalization. Though extremely serious, Colton fully recovered.
To the family’s amazement, singing angels commanded their attention. It happened four months later when the family traveled through the area where the hospital is located. Colton’s father, Todd, a pastor and volunteer fireman, jokingly asked his son if he’d like to go back to the hospital. Colton said he’d rather not but paused a moment to reflect and said, “That’s where the angels sang to me.”
Hearing Colton speak about the angels forced Todd to genuinely begin to more earnestly piece together the previous bits of descriptions that Colton had understatedly disclosed after his life-threatening illness. Everything seemed to indicate a visit to heaven.
In addition to making sense of Colton’s compelling, yet mind-boggling story, the family had to deal with the townspeople’s reactions as well.
“Heaven is for Real” will hit theatres April 16. It is a true story about one family’s incredible journey, which ultimately affected their entire town and, possibly, the world. Our Sunday Visitor recently spoke to Colton’s father, Todd Burpo.
Our Sunday Visitor: How did you feel, and what did you do, when your son started sharing bits and pieces of his visit to heaven?
Todd Burpo: At first we were in healing and recovery mode. My son was 17 days in the hospital ... and all those nights I didn’t get much sleep. ... You just can’t go to sleep if you don’t know if your son is going to be alive the next day or not. As he would share things ... it took his mom and me so long to recover from — to heal ourselves. We were so exhausted — spent. He’d make little comments. We were not healed spiritually, emotionally and mentally. So his comments just weren’t sticking. But it wasn’t until four months later when we were traveling back through North Platt, Neb., where he was in the hospital for so long.
Finally, I felt healed enough to kind of joke about it, and I asked Colton if he wanted to go back to the hospital. Colton said he didn’t want to go back. He then said, “But you know, Dad, that’s where the angels sang to me.” That was kind of the moment that we were kind of healthy enough to listen. That was the statement that caught our attention.
We asked what he meant about angels, and from there he started to unpackage that and tell us what the angels sang to him, and that he sat on Jesus’ lap, and that Jesus told the angels to sing to him because he was scared.
Then what really grabbed my attention was when he told me, “Dad, I could see you when I was in the hospital. You were in a room by yourself yelling at God. Mom was in a different place and praying and she was asking people to pray.” He was giving accurate information about stuff I didn’t tell anybody. He told me, “I rose up above you and was looking down and I could see you.”
I could come up with no earthly explanation.
OSV: Where did you find the courage to come forward with your son’s amazing story?
Burpo: The movie accurately captures that. Colton talked about it in bits and pieces. Being in a small town, everybody has access to everybody. So my son was not only talking to me, he was talking to his friends, his babysitters, other people in the church. I wasn’t the only one having conversations with my son that were heavenly. One night we went out on a date night and when we came back the babysitter was crying. She told us that Colton told her all about his other sister in heaven.
OSV: Could you share what happened after you decided to come out with the story?
Burpo: It was a small church in a small town, and there was no place to hide, and I wasn’t going to tell my son to hide. ... It came out in bits and pieces. The big reaction to Colton’s experience came when the book was written and all of a sudden people discovered the book. ... It was old news to Colton’s friends ... but it really got people’s attention when people saw the success of the book more than it did as it came out when we shared. Most of the feedback we got was very positive and gradual because we shared gradually. ... There were seven years between the book and Colton’s hospital surgery and three years between the book and the movie.
OSV: Was there a particular reason why you felt compelled to share your family’s personal story?
Burpo: If God is answering your prayer or doing something for you, I think as Christians, we need to tell people about that.
OSV: You must be excited about getting your story out.
Burpo: What we are really excited about is that the movie does a good job of translating Colton’s story from the pages of the book to the screen. (Director) Randal Wallace really did a masterful job of creating characters, creating a town similar to ours. ... I had huge concerns up front, but at the end of day it stayed true to Colton’s story and told it in a way that mirrors the book; they complement each other very well.
OSV: You mentioned earlier that 10 million books have sold. Why do you think your book is read much more than other near-death experience books?
Burpo: It’s the story of a child. Plus his memories of it are so specific; they are not vague, and he describes details that a child cannot pretend and that are not only incredible but Scripturally on target.
OSV: What are your hopes for this movie?
Burpo: I think one of the biggest things for me is the peace I found, especially from my son’s innocent and childlike descriptions of his experience. When we found out about our daughter in heaven — this healing that we experienced that we never thought we would find after we miscarried that child — incredible!
Learning about what my granddad looked like in heaven and what others might look like, and how people connect with each other. ... I think that God just knew that the world needed a kid to describe heaven to it.
This movie has a great family message — an uncompromising message of hope and peace — but it’s not preachy, plus it’s entertaining. I hope that when people come out of this movie that they say, “Wow!” (and) that they have that same experience as they go through this journey with us.
Donna-Marie Cooper O’Boyle is an EWTN TV host and author of numerous books including “Mother Teresa and Me: Ten Years of Friendship.” Learn more: www.donnacooperoboyle.com.