“The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed…For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.”
When I was 13 years old, my father died suddenly. He had been ill for some time but was showing hopeful signs of recovery. Four years earlier, exhausted after working several double shifts in the steel mill, he collapsed at home and hit his head on the edge of the bathtub. He subsequently underwent three surgeries to remove blood clots from the brain, which led to epileptic seizures that eventually took their toll on his heart.
I was devastated. My father was everything to me. For years afterward, I was angry at God. How could a loving God have taken the one person that mattered most in my life at an age when most children need their fathers?
I lost interest in church and stayed away in a display of defiant rebellion. It took most of my teenage years to reconcile my feelings toward God. This was a defining moment in my life and has been a factor in every vocational decision I’ve made. It was one of the considerations that delayed my decision to enter the ministry until late in life, when most others have sights set on retirement.
I’ll spare you the synopsis of the plots. You can read them for yourself by clicking on the titles which will link you to them. There are also innumerable reviews, both good and bad, elsewhere in cyberspace.
What I found compelling in both films were the struggles of the principal characters. Their faith was being tested in a variety of ways: illness, relationship, cultural/religious conflict, financial strains. As evidenced by my own personal story above, their challenges were somewhat believable.
But both films had a very obvious agenda, and that’s what was most disappointing.
I had high hopes for God’s Not Dead when I read the previews, but it fell far short of my expectations. The central plot, the college freshman challenging his narcissistic atheist philosophy professor’s premise that God is dead, was somewhat implausible, but I was willing to endure it to see how it would develop. But then there are all these other dysfunctional personalities with all kinds of issues that created far too many more subplots than necessary. I was exhausted just trying to connect the dots.
One example is the pastor of a nondescript denomination and his visiting African missionary friend who just happened to be in the middle of everyone else’s dilemmas. But the two scenes which I found most blatantly reprehensible are the typecasting of a Muslim father who beats his daughter and disowns her because she is drawn to Christianity; and the Chinese father who rebukes his son for talking about Jesus. While incidents like these do take place, here, they came off looking more like predictable cheap shots against non-Christians. If anything, they reinforced the stereotype that Christians are a narrow-minded, judgmental lot. Christianity is not without its share of fanatical fathers who commit the same heinous acts of abuse against their children.
Interestingly enough, I went into the other movie, Heaven Is for Real, with a bias. My wife had encouraged me to read the book and it sat on my study for months until she finally determined I wasn’t going to open it and took it back. I was prepared to be dissatisfied.
But this one left me with a warm and fuzzy feeling. The four year old son of a Nebraska pastor has a near-death experience and afterwards describes heaven in vivid detail, to the astonishment of his family. His son’s imagination arouses the curiosity of the townspeople, and the discomfort of the church’s leaders.
The family is also going through some grim financial calamities, which add to the stress of trying to keep a lid on the controversy created by their son’s visualizations. It also generates a crisis of faith in the pastor himself, and a great part of the film deals with that struggle. Again, I related with his struggles because of the tragedy in my own personal life.
Ultimately, all is resolved and the move ends with a rousing church service in which the pastor explains that heaven lives in all of us. It is love, and that love is what gives us the hope to deal with this earthly life.
Although I would rate both these films Hallmark Channel material, I would encourage anyone to see both films and judge for yourself. I stated earlier that both had an agenda, but whereas I would categorize God’s Not Dead as shamelessly manipulative, Heaven Is for Real is the more tolerable of the two. Although both preach to the choir, God’s Not Dead shouts at us whereas Heaven whispers. In either case, the cynics will remain unconvinced.