The movie Heaven is for Real is coming out at Easter, and all hell is going to follow. Here’s how I know.

During the past week, this email arrived in my inbox:

The movie, Heaven Is for Real, is coming out at Easter. It’s the story of 4-year-old Colton Burpo’s NDE.  His father’s book has been on the bestseller list for more than  3 years. It’s a Christian NDE account, and I flatly predict it will propel  NDE-awareness into the stratosphere for the general public – beyond any and all the books that have been written thus far – with the exception of Raymond Moody’s book, Life After Life.

The friend who forwarded the message to me had responded to its author, “This is incredible news…Thank you so much for alerting me.”

At Easter. Of course. And now I was on high alert as well, though in a different direction.

You may have read Heaven is for Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back, if only because it is likely to wind up rivaling Agatha Christie for longevity on best-seller lists. In its simplest element, it is a sweet story. The little boy was three at the time of his NDE, four when he began mentioning it to his parents. He said angels sang to him, and he sat on Jesus’ lap .

If the resulting book dealt only with that part of his story, all might have been well. But the child’s father is a conservative Protestant pastor, a biblical literalist. By the time the sincere but hardly impartial father stopped asking questions, and the boy stopped adding details in response to those questions, seven years had passed and the entire project was in the hands of Lynn Vincent, the ghost writer behind Sarah Palin’s memoir, Going Rogue. Further, the relative simplicity of the few original details had grown as the boy grew, into an elaborated account of Christian exclusivity and holy warfare that puts Revelation imagery into the hands of human warriors resembling Marvel comic book heroes.

The book was published in November, 2010. Today, the end of January, 2014, its front cover announces sales of more than eight million copies; of 6,249 Amazon reviews, 84% (5,345) boast four or five stars. The writer of my email message is certainly right about the story’s hitting the stratosphere.

I can authoritatively report that four hours of reading those reviews, while not an exhaustive study, has been exhausting but informative.  Not surprisingly, most of the reviewers identify as Christian, though with a wide range of theological perspectives and opinions about the book. What has struck me is that of the four- and five-star reviews, few are longer than two or three lines. In fact, the average number of words is inversely related to the number of stars. Reviews giving one or two stars may run to paragraphs, sometimes pages, as readers analyze their unfavorable views, their reasons for negativity and degree of distress. In fact, reading through pages of reviews is like discovering alternative universes of thought, entirely separate and distinct, with depth of expression thinning out as the stars increase.

Perhaps my favorite quote is this, from a pastor:

Many of my members read this story and loved it because of its immature understanding of God. I find it sad that we continue to produce literature like this that is self serving and fails to capture the real message of Jesus. By the way, I have no doubt that many reading this will be greatly offended by my opinion.

I surely do relate!

Substitute the word Spirit or transpersonal experience for ‘Jesus’ in the pastor’s sentence, and we can lament with him the same superficial and immature understanding that plagues almost the entire world of near-death studies. Consider a view that came to me shortly before the forwarded email. The editor of a well-respected professional journal wrote in his column:

We scrupulously avoided recounting of NDEs by [people outside this field]. Too often these people follow this suspect sequence: report a NDE, write a book on their NDE that purports knowing the meaning of life, the answer to what happens after we die, and confirms that there is a heavenly life after death. Then they start giving seminars, lectures, paid consultations, writing more books, sell DVDs, blogging, and shilling on their website…Like the long ago purveyors of ectoplasm, there is a fringe commercial NDE industry whose testimony lacks credibility.

And here comes Heaven is for Real, the movie. At least in my part of the NDE universe, I tell you, it’s going to be hell.