Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta


Author’s story of faith depicted in ‘Heaven is for Real’

By ERIKA D. ANDERSON, Special to the Bulletin | Published April 16, 2014
Jenny Marlowe Marvin Todd Burpo is the author of “Heaven is for Real.”

Jenny Marlowe Marvin
Todd Burpo is the author of “Heaven is for Real.”

ATLANTA—In an especially emotional scene in the new film, “Heaven is for Real,” Pastor Todd Burpo, played by Greg Kinnear, says to another character, “You never have to apologize to me for being a broken person.”

It’s Burpo’s favorite line in the movie, based on the book he wrote by the same name. “Heaven is for Real” tells the story of Burpo’s son Colton, who claimed to have visited Heaven during a lifesaving surgery.

Hailing from a small town in Nebraska, the Burpos’ life changed forever when Colton, then 4, nearly lost his life as the result of a burst appendix. After he recovered from surgery, he told his family of visiting Heaven and meeting Jesus. He also spoke of meeting deceased family members he never knew about, including a sister who had died as a result of a miscarriage.

In the film, which will be in theaters April 16, Burpo is shown wrestling with his own faith while trying to come to grips with everything his son is telling him.

Burpo was in Atlanta to promote the movie and sat down with The Georgia Bulletin for an interview, in which he talked about his faith, why Catholics are an ideal audience and what it’s like to see his family’s life depicted on the big screen.

Burpo is a volunteer firefighter. A small-town pastor. And a reluctant New York Times bestselling author. He had no idea that his story—Colton’s story—would touch so many people’s lives.

“I didn’t write this book to change our lives. I struggled with the notoriety. But I felt like God was asking me to share. I had to trust God and take that leap of faith,” he said.

One of the most profound things Colton shared about his journey in Heaven was meeting his sister, who had died in the womb. Tears still fill Burpo’s eyes when he talks about it.

“When Colton told me he had met her and she was all right, I experienced a peace unlike anything I’ve ever had. When I thought about writing this book, I felt like God was saying, ‘Remember that peace you felt then? Is it right for you to keep it to yourself?’ That’s why I had to take the risk. If it helped one single person experience that peace, it would be worth it,” he said.

Since writing the 2010 book, Burpo has been a featured speaker to audiences across the country.

“Anywhere I go, I speak to people who have lost children, lost family members. Through ‘Heaven is for Real,’ we are dealing with the most broken people—those who’ve experienced life’s biggest hurts, because they are the ones who need the most hope,” he said. “We meet them everywhere.”

A parent of a child who died in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting reached out to Burpo and told him how much Colton’s companion book, “Heaven is for Real for Kids” had meant to her family. And Colton, now 14, has written praise and worship songs based on his experiences and often uses Skype to speak to terminally ill children.

“God has gifted Colton in an extraordinary way,” Burpo said.

Though the overwhelming response to “Heaven is for Real” has been positive, Burpo has been confronted by naysayers.

“The false accusations don’t hurt as much as they did. I think your skin thickens. I just look at the people we’ve helped. On, there are over 8,000 reviews. For every one-star review, there are 10 five-star reviews and people talking about how much the book has helped them,” he said. “That’s why we do this.”

Though Burpo is a Protestant pastor, he has spoken to people of all faiths who have taken the “Heaven is for Real” message to heart.

“Our greatest fans are Catholics and Pentecostals—because they really embrace miracles,” he said.

When making the movie adaptation, Burpo said he wanted to make sure the integrity of Colton’s message was captured.

“Everyone who came to this project, regardless of what they believed, was committed to telling Colton’s story Colton’s way,” he said. “That was what was most important to me.”

He hopes that the movie will start a dialogue and help people begin to heal.

“The movie’s honest. That’s what I like about it. Faith isn’t just about everything being easy. Your faith matters most when it gets tested—how do you react to that?” he said. “This movie is honest about that—faith is a struggle. I hope when people see this, they are honest about their own broken parts. I hope it might be a beginning point for people to find healing.”

Burpo also said that the movie may be a chance for Christians to subtly evangelize to their non-believing friends and families.

“We all have those people in our lives who would never go to church with us, even when we ask. But they would probably see a movie with you,” he said. “This movie can build a bridge of faith between you.”

Visit for more information about the Burpos and “Heaven is for Real.”