Two-thirds of Americans believe in heaven. Several million people claim that they have gone through near-death experiences, as many as 15% of the population of some countries. But does anyone really know what happens when we die and what heaven is really like? Most importantly, will we ever get there? A burning desire to know explains the popularity of stories like the recent movie 90 Minutes in Heaven, based on a book that sold over 5 million copies and was translated into 40 languages.
The movie grippingly depicts the path to healing of a Protestant pastor who was declared medically dead for 90 minutes and then came back to life after a passerby prayed over him. Based on a true story, the book was only published after years of soul-searching when the author Don Piper realized that the purpose of his near-death experience was for him to share it with others.
After experiencing heaven for 90 minutes, Piper had very little will to return to life on this earth. Lying in a hospital bed for months, he asked over and over why God couldn't have just let him die. The movie gave me uncomfortable flashbacks of my husband in a hospital bed recovering from his multiple brain surgeries -- only I was the one in danger of despair, not my husband. Actor Hayden Christensen (of the recent Star Wars trilogy) is believable in his utter despondency. Watching Hayden Christensen in Star Wars, I thought that the tragic role of Darth Vader was beyond his talent. But Christensen has grown as an actor, and the tragic role of Don Piper is not writ quite so large.
The surprising character of the film was Piper's wife Eva, played by Kate Bosworth (of Superman Returns). On the first day in the hospital, she couldn't even provide financial or insurance information -- her husband had taken care of everything and left her in a state of dependence. She reminded me of my Southern grandmother (also married to a Protestant minister), who neither learned to drive nor balance a checkbook. Only when my grandfather developed Alzheimer's did my grandmother have to take the reins. Similarly, in the Piper family, Don's car accident forced Eva to become the leader of the family temporarily, to the extent that she even overrode his decisions since he was in no emotional shape to make rational choices.
Kate Bosworth makes Eva's strength and determination shine through, although her stoicism at times translates into a lack of expression. It was also jarring to see a blond fashion plate (and celebrity fashion designer) like Bosworth dressed in one of the drabbest wardrobes I've ever seen. The calf-length skirts were refreshingly modest and could have been beautiful if they weren't in unrelieved shades of brown. It's as if the costume designer thought that religious Christians were opposed to beauty.
At the end of the movie, the audience gets to see a cinematic representation of Piper's vision of heaven. Obviously, nothing on the big screen can come close to capturing reality. As the hymn based on St. Paul's Letter to the Corinthians says, "eye has not seen, ear has not heard, what God has ready for those who love him." Whatever heaven is like, Hollywood can't recreate it. On an artistic level, I preferred the representation of heaven in What Dreams May Come, a 1998 movie with Robin Williams. But theologically speaking, 90 Minutes in Heaven makes the important point that none of us gets to heaven alone. Close friends, distant acquaintances, family members and even strangers play important roles in our salvation. We impact each other in ways that we will never know until we approach the pearly gates. The movie presents a compelling counter-argument to Sartre's wry dig that "hell is other people." It reminds us that heaven holds the communion of saints.
My thanks to Carmel Communications for providing a no-cost advance screening of the film.