Heaven is for Real: the Sceptic, the Faithful, the in-betweeners

How do we deal with miracles? Some of us love them, some of us run from them….What to do?

This post is a discussion of miracles and the supernatural based on the movie “Heaven is for Real”

+ Christ is risen!

A friend from Church and I went to see the movie, “Heaven is for Real” today. I went in with no preformed judgments. Now, I admit, I’m a bit of a sap, and I was tearing up at several parts. They have the great background music, touching scenes, perfect hugs, the whole shebang. Anyway, I’ll try and divorce my emotional side from some thoughts about the movie. Especially because lately there’s been a lot of rumbles about it as well, ranging from: Is it for real? There’s no way!, Of course it’s true, and it’s beautiful!, It just doesn’t make sense, of course heaven is real, but I don’t know if I believe this story or not! etc…

To be very clear: I am adamant about not casting judgment on this particular miraculous story as real, false, likely, or not likely. Instead, I want to talk about what the movie made me really think about.

What is the real reason for scepticism about these things?

I think these are the guiding questions for myself in addressing the conundrum:

1. Is it because we think it’s actually truly a lie?
2. Is it because I disbelieve that God can do that?
3. Is it because there are uncomfortable consequences if it is true?
4. Is it because of my lack of faith?

The movie itself was addressing this theme, I just want to stop and think about it out loud.

Is there a valid reason to have doubt? If for example, the pastor is known to be a con-artist, or something occurs that is clearly against the foundations of Christianity (e.g. our Lord tells the child to tell the world that He has given up on them), then sure, worry; be sceptical. But challenge yourself as to whether you are forming your argument against the person or the event, because they’re two different things. God can and does work with both sinners and saints. So I would have difficulty understanding someone who is against a miraculous event because ofto whom the miracle happened, rather than about the miracle itself. Who the miracle happened to is relevant only insofar as repute goes, but even that with limits. The more important question is is there ample evidence that the event happened or not, and if the answer is that something supernatural happened, the next step is the discerning of whether or not it is from God. Because there may be cases where the person is of terrible repute, but at the same time, there may be no way of denying that something really happened.

But irrespective now if it’s true or not, I think we are in need of convicting ourselves. Do I secretly actually think that God can’t do things? Of course, most of us wouldn’t admit that out loud, but is there a part of us that thinks it’s actually impossible?

Am I afraid that if it’s true, it might mean that my understanding of something is incomplete, and rather than deal with a hole in my knowledge, that I should pretend it never happened? I feel like Christians often do this. Where something hurts their image, they pretend it’s false or fabricated, or they ask God to blind them, just to avoid addressing it.

Or, are we afraid of a different consequence: the atheist’s response? Would we rather say that it is not real and admit it ourselves before the atheist scoffs at us, telling us it’s fake? Because of a fear that we don’t know how to answer, do we preemptively agree with our accusers so that it’s only the fringe extremists who believe? Is this honest? It may be comfortable, sure, but honest? Hmmm…

I think it’s an escapist’s route. Sometimes people fear saying, “I don’t know”. People would prefer the event to be past tense, see what the popular masses say, then agree with that, and avoid dealing with the real issue. If we take this route, we can run into problems.

Look at the Old and New Testament, and specifically look at the number of totally incredible things that God did. Now stop and think about what the word incredible actually means –> it means not credible –> read: impossible to believe. It’s impossible to believe because it defies all logic. If the Lord were to work the same miracles as those in the Bible, would we deal with them in the same way? If we heard that a bunch of Christians were able to walk through the middle of the sea? Would we scoff? If we heard of food multiplying, would we say “no no no, they were confused, it was a mistake”? When St. Paul says that he saw the heaven of heavens and what “eye hath not seen”, would we believe it of someone today or would we find reasons to defame his character? Our Lord said that we would do even greater miracles than Him. But do we believe that?

Please don’t misinterpret, there’s an absolute and fundamental need for discernment, and I’m not advocating running after every so-called miracle that allegedly happens, but there’s a big difference between not chasing something in particular, and not believing that it is possible. In the case of the latter, it is not a seeking of truth that is the underlying factor, it’s a lack of faith. When I hear that an icon is dripping oil, do I need to believe that it’s genuine? No. Do I need to go see it? No. But do I disbelieve the possibility of it? I ought not to.

That’s where the movie led my thoughts: what do I disbelieve because it’s uncomfortable? Where are the lines between discernment and belief?

The Othodox balance: Couple With God all things are possible. with Be wise as serpents, gentle as doves.

Your thoughts?

10 thoughts on “Heaven is for Real: the Sceptic, the Faithful, the in-betweeners”

  1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, dear father.

    I’ll share some of my own…

    For me I have no problem believing miracles; I believe God can do anything.

    Though, in my effort to be “as wise as a serpent” I think I disbelieve in miracles that may be true. I found myself doing this a lot after the departure of the late Pope Shenouda III. Every day my mother was sharing another miracle she heard with me, and I would nod and smile while thinking “I wonder who made this one up?”…

    The film you reference is another example of where I get more skeptical and probably disqualify miracles that may be true…It’s not that I think God can’t bring someone to heaven and reveal to him the Kingdom of God, I just don’t think He would *want* to. So I tend not to believe in these divine revelation type miracles…why would God bring someone to heaven only to send them back to earth? It seems kind of cruel. What person having seen the things that are inexplicable and beyond comprehension could, a) not rather want to die and beg God to let him stay in heaven, and b) return to earth and describe these things. Moreover, the persons in the Bible that God did allow to see the Kingdom were authors of the Bible. Since the revelation has been complete, what reason would God have for bringing someone to heaven, only to send him back again?….

    Personally, I kind of think it is better when trying to discern true miracles from false ones, to err on the side of caution. I know we are all afraid of being considered as having weak faith because we don’t believe…

    But, maybe I’m wrong. It’s a difficult line to walk. Perhaps the closer we are to God, the more we will know what is truly from Him…

    I hope you can parse out some coherent thoughts from this post and share your response.

    Pray for me.

    1. +Christ is risen,

      Thank you for this!

      I was raised, and I think this is right, to err always on the side of caution. I was also taught, and I believe this to be true, that God would never be upset with us for disbelieving a TRUE miracle, but that we could run into problems in our lives if we chase after a false miracle. I also firmly believe that our faith cannot be based on miracles. I know (and have witnessed many times) the devil can make supernatural events and work ‘miracles’, and that the Antichrist when he comes will do signs and wonders greater than our Lord Christ’s. Sometimes people are so intent on something being a miracle that they call it that, when really it was not. In all of this, I think we are in agreement. I am definitely not advocating believing every miracle no matter what.

      Where I take issue here, is your reasoning. It is one thing for me to elect not to believe in something for the sake of my salvation and to avoid running after false signs, it’s another to say that something simply does not make sense based on my own feelings and thoughts. If the latter is being said because something is clearly wrong or has wrong doctrines, okay great. But one of the questions that I asked was, am I rejecting it because of the consequences of it being true, and is it because of my own understanding or lack of understanding? The miracle can challenge me on whether or not this is compatible with the faith, and you have to examine yourself “are you in the faith”? Is what is happening actually contrary to the Church Universal and Traditions we received, or is it against your own personal understanding? In the case of the former, easy answer, Mr. Wise Serpent! In the case of the latter, you must challenge yourself even if no matter what you want to refuse the miracle (not unwise either).

      I wanted to avoid discussing whether or not I think the story in this film is true or not, but I will deal specifically with what you said. You asked the question of why would God want to, then said that it’s kind of cruel. Well, you have to ask yourself, is that against our faith and Theology as a Church’s, or is that your opinion? If it is the former, you should shun it immediately. In your analysis though that it’s cruel and undesirable, I would suggest that Saint Paul saw heaven and came back, St. John the Divine saw heaven and came back, and there are stories in the lives of the desert fathers and synaxarium about people who saw heaven and came back. Each of them saw it for different reasons, but each of them returned to earth. So I’m giving this as an example to say that there’s a precedent that this has happened. Is it possible that God wanted to use this child to bring the millions of people who have watched the movie or read the book to challenge themselves about eternal life? It is possible. Is it true? I don’t know. Do I need to believe this? No I don’t.

      Let me ask a question: the Two Disciples on the Road to Emmaus… why would it have made sense to them that this was Christ? It wouldn’t. Why would someone who rose from the dead who is allegedly God, come and ask “what’re you guys talking about?” I mean, as God, He should already know. Why would someone who should have no need of food and drink, eat with them? What’s more, they didn’t know about the Eucharist yet, they weren’t among the twelve in the Upper Room, so it’s not like this would have been a huge sign to them yet. If they were to go based on those things alone, they would naturally think, this is not Christ, because it does not make sense, or that Christ is not God because it doesn’t make sense. But, He is actually Christ and He is actually God, but their own understanding of the events had not yet come. Still, it was a true miracle that may have caused them to doubt.

      So, while I strongly feel that we ought not to chase miracles, even ones that may be true, and that the devil can do such things, and that I don’t need them to be a Christian, I would still strongly suggest that the reason cannot be because of how we “feel” about it. If something is clearly doctrinally wrong, then obviously we have a problem. If it is not obviously wrong, it is better to say, “I don’t know, and so I am erring on the side of caution”, but without saying “It’s wrong, it’s impossible, it doesn’t make sense” . Being wise as serpents is part of discerning the miracle, but we don’t all have that discernment. If we do not have the discernment, then let’s trust another person who actually has discernment (very rare these days), or stay away from it for our own safety —


      not because we believe God cannot do something. We cannot force our personal logic on God:

      “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Is. 55:8-9)

      In our zeal to be wise as serpents, we need to be careful that we do not go to the other extreme where our hearts are extremely hard and we stop recognising real miracles of God that He worked and still works in our lives. These miracles are truly beautiful and can strengthen our faith. We need to be discerning, but not with hardness of heart.

      1. Thanks for the reply, father.

        I agree that with every thing you have said. When in doubt, and there is no doctrinal reason the alleged miracle cannot be true, we should say “I’m not sure” instead of being quick to dismiss it as false.

        I guess my problem with the particular example of your post is that many of the people claiming to have went to heaven and returned to earth are heterodox. They are not in communion with the Church and when they “return to earth” they remain outside the Body of Christ. How can I reconcile this? Is it possible that God would allow this?

        1. +Christ is risen

          I actually haven’t read or watched accounts of other people who claim to have gone to heaven. So commenting on it from my part would be done in ignorance. Is it possible? Yes. What is His reason? I don’t know. For example, Saul wasn’t converted when Christ appeared to Him, of course you would say but he was sent to someone who was in the faith. Fair enough. But I would say that I know people in the Church who have experienced miracles and actually left the faith. It’s the opposite side of the same concept, but does it still make the miracle untrue?

          Some of the early fathers believed that God was speaking through Plato, Socrates etc… Even though they were outright pagans. They believed that they were receiving glimpses of truth that they were shedding light onto others through. Is it possible that this is similar? It’s possible. Is that what the reality is? I don’t know.

          Miracles are not done to confirm the holiness of a person. Miracles are done for the need of the people or for incomprehensible reasons for throwing to us grace. So if a miracle happened outside of the Church, that is not a confirmation that what the person holds to is true, nor is it a testament that the person with whom the miracle happened is a saint. Now, there’s a responsibility to the people who receive a miracle to look for the Truth. I think if that’s done honestly, if they seek, they will find. And the Church has arms wide open. 😀

  2. Christ is Risen!

    Thanks for your post, Abouna. I have not yet seen the movie, but I plan to see it. I have two issues with it (before having seen it) that make me uncomfortable:
    1. The father of this boy must have made (and be making) a lot of money out of this story. That makes me question the truth of the story, without even knowing it.
    2. Especially after the passing of my son, it would be so nice to believe this is true, it would encourage me, and fill me with happiness and warm, fuzzy feelings… but I feel like it’s emotionally manipulative, and that makes me uncomfortable, too. Having said that, I feel so joyful reading the book of the Revelation, too, or singing the midnight praises… so, I know it’s not wrong to have good emotions, but how to separate this from trying to discern the truth? So difficult.

    What do you think?

    With love and prayers.

    1. +In Truth He is risen!

      Very valid concerns.

      1. One of the points in the blog was discussing the credibility factor, but that even that can be limited. Yes, if they are millionaires off of this story, it may make the whole thing look pretty suspect, but I think we are still forced to do one of a few things. One: avoid it altogether as discussed, with the belief that “Lord, I know you can do all things but I don’t need this miracle to believe in you”. Two: Investigate: did something supernatural occur or not? Because if it did, whether or not the guy made money or not becomes irrelevant. I’ll give you an example. Both of us know about “the miracle of Rose” that happened 19 years ago. We all know it to be factual. Could I not, today, publish the story in a book and make lots of money off of it? I could even be corrupt! But it wouldn’t change that the miracle really did happen. It just shows that miracles don’t always change the character of people. The person who receives the miracle has a responsibility to react to God’s grace in a healthy way. We also don’t know if he made lots of money what he actually does with it. The movie was pretty honest about the Church being financially motivated and that it was one of the reasons why they wanted the man to actually be silent about the miracle. So again, I’m not trying to prove or disprove this particular miracle, but I’m just saying that unless for the sake of peace of mind we are avoiding the miracle altogether (without a hard heart), then the more important question is: is it absolutely true that an event happened?

      2. As you said, emotions are not wrong. They are, however, simply not everything. God created emotions, the problem is that we develop and condition our emotions over time, and so we cannot always trust them. I’m not totally grasping though, why this story is emotionally manipulative. If the people are lying, then they are being manipulative in every respect, not just emotionally. If it is true, then I do not see it as manipulative. If it is true, they are simply telling people what happened.

      Discerning the truth is hard. As discussed, few people have discernment these days, and I certainly don’t claim to have it myself. In my limited knowledge, the things that would be needed to discern are:
      – Is it in accordance with the teachings that we received from Christ and the Apostles
      – Is it verifiable that this happened – for example, did only the parents ever witness anything but not anyone else
      – Does it glorify God or the individual involved?
      – Does it lead people to God or does it lead them to people?
      – In the case of repeat occurrences or strange phenomenon, does the sign of the Cross have an effect on it?
      – Does it bring anxiety and nervousness, or does it fill a person with peace and joy (this one can be tricky, too)?
      – On a very small scale, sometimes the question of “why?” is important, but it’s limited because we can’t always know why God chose to give grace (the fathers teach this)

      I’m sure there’s more but that’s all I got off the top of my head. I’m not sure if I answered sufficiently, feel free to say that I haven’t!

      Your brother,

  3. I think I’m struggling with one of the earlier points that you raised, namely…accepting that this is possible has some implications about the faith that I don’t think I want to/or know how to answer. Because if God allows someone who is heterodox to return to the world and remain outside His Body, what does that say about heaven? What does it say about the Body of Christ? What if this person goes on to profess incorrect theology? What does this say about God?

    It takes some humility to say “I don’t know, and just trust in God’s judgment”…pray for me to gain such humility.

    1. +Christ is risen!

      Andrew, it’s not just about humility, but I’m glad you’re asking these questions. THis is why I put in there, are we uncomfortable with possible consequences if something like that were to be true, and commented that sometimes we like to bury our heads in the ground rather than face something.

      To me, if that was the question that came to my head, the next thing for me would be to go and delve deeply into ecclesiology and find out, what is the body of Christ? What is the Orthodox teaching on this matter? What did the Fathers say about this? What is our belief about people within the church and what is the belief concerning those outside of the Church? How does Christ view the present state of Christianity, does He see it as ONE body but divided and fractured? Or does He see only Apostolic Church and not non-Apostolic, or does He see only Orthodox? Or does He see only Non-Chalcedonian but not Chalcedonian? All of these questions stem from your question and they are things that have to be considered. If you go through all of these things, then you may arrive a doctrinal reason to reject it as being from God.

      I would like, however, to reemphasise yet again, that I am NOT evaluating this particular story, because quite simply: I do not know.

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