By Mark Ellis
Pastor Todd Burpo, who penned the dramatic account of his son’s trip to heaven and back – now a blockbuster film – fends off Christian critics who contend the colorful account could never have happened.
“The Jesus in the Bible is the same Jesus who did this for Colton,” Todd affirms. “If Christians don’t like that they must be Pharisees,” he says. Pharisees were members of a religious party that emphasized strict interpretation and observance of the Mosaic Law. The New Testament frequently depicted them as self-righteous, because they placed the letter of the law above its spirit.
Todd says the attitude of his critics toward the supernatural is telling. “Christians and sinners still appreciate miracles,” he notes. “Pharisees never have and never will.”
“In the Bible, Pharisees used to call themselves Jews. Today they call themselves Christians.”
Todd points to the story of Jesus, Moses, and Elijah on the Mount of Transfiguration to bolster his argument. “Were Moses and Elijah angels or people?” he asks. “Are they lying in a grave somewhere waiting for the Second Coming or are they in heaven with God?”
“The people who say Colton’s trip to heaven can’t happen, I say, ‘Read your Bible.’”
Todd believes the movie is a fair and accurate representation of the book. “The integrity of the story was the biggest thing we protected,” he notes. “There are some things they had to change, but it’s very close to the story.”
Father and son agree with some of the film critics who say the strength of the movie lies in the drama that unfolded on earth, rather than the representation of heaven. “Colton would say, ‘Heaven is way much better than how they made it in the movie.’”
“With all the things Hollywood can do, they still can’t depict heaven,” Todd adds.
Before shooting on the movie began, Todd and his wife Sonja had dinner with actors Greg Kinnear and Kelly Reilly, who portray them in the film. “Greg asked me some personal questions and Kelly asked Sonja some questions. They learned to copy us fast,” he notes. “The casting is what makes the movie phenomenally good.”
“With the little boy (Connor Corum) who plays Colton, you see pretty much what I saw 11 years ago. He looked at me and he looks at you through the screen and in his uncompromising and childlike way tells you what he saw.”
Todd also had frequent interaction with Randall Wallace, director of the film, who also worked on the screenplay
with Chris Parker. “Randall Wallace called me many times and asked about our reaction to events. He used that in the writing of the screenplay. We had suggestions and he was very cooperative.”
Wallace wrote the screenplay for Braveheart. He also directed The Man in the Iron Mask, We Were Soldiers, and Secretariat. Wallace identifies himself as a Christian and has spoken at the Fellowship Foundation National Prayer Breakfast. He also delivered the commencement address at Liberty University in 2011.
“I know the only way to get to heaven is by Jesus,” Wallace told Todd during their meetings. “I just don’t know all the ways Jesus makes Himself known to people.”
While Colton’s memories of his hospital stay are fading, his memories of heaven have not. “When it comes to the hospital (memories), yes it’s foggy,” Todd relates. “Most of his memories of heaven are still very clear and we’re grateful for that.”
“Here’s the litmus test on the book and movie: it points everybody to Jesus,” he notes emphatically. “Jesus is the person who made this happen. If we compromised or tried to embellish or said something that didn’t happen, I don’t think God would have blessed it.”
“That’s why God has allowed this to grow so big,” he adds.
Todd encourages Christians to invite non-Christians to see the movie. “Here is a bridge God built for you. He is saying to His church: Use this bridge.”
Related: Story of Akiane
Todd Burpo interview about book (including details of heaven not found in book)