Films trumpeting their Christianity can certainly draw an audience of believers — for example this year’s War Room which celebrates prayer as a “powerful weapon” — but tend to get short shrift from skeptical critics. While some are slickly produced, most are light on artistic merit and heavy on proselytizing and preaching to the choir. Which brings me to Michael Polish’s two-hour 90 Minutes in Heaven and what to make of it.
There’s no mistaking the inspirational religious message. The movie was made by Giving Films “of hope and faith” and promises that 100 per cent of profits will be donated to charities. The good news is that 90 Minutes is a decently made drama based on actual events (deserving better than its 25 per cent rating on rottentomatoes.com, which is even lower than War Room’s 37 per cent). Writer-director Polish is a well-regarded filmmaker and the cast features prominent actors, including Polish’s wife Kate Bosworth in the role of Eva, the wife of Don Piper (Hayden Christensen), an evangelical Christian Texas pastor almost killed in a 1989 automobile crash. The aftermath is obviously traumatic for her and their small children, a daughter and twin boys.
Piper was initially pronounced dead at the scene but, after another passing clergyman prayed over him, showed vital signs and was rushed to hospital in Huntsville, then to Houston where he underwent major surgeries (one leg had to be reconstructed) and endured months of difficult recuperation but was eventually able to walk again. At one point medical bills become too much for the family’s private insurance and accident claims against the truck driver that hit Piper, so he has to make a painful move to a cheaper public hospital. (No comment on how “Christian” such a health care system is.)
Piper narrates the story which includes self-pitying lows to the point of being suicidal. There’s a lot of earnest praying for him during these hospital stays but he never utters a word about heaven. The only hint is a voiceover warning that “survival was going to be difficult because heaven was so glorious,” which sets us up for the big reveal after he comes home. Even before telling his wife, it’s a concerned fellow pastor who finally gets him to speak about how he had died, gone to heaven and wanted to stay there. Piper recounts images of a paradise beyond the pearly gates and blissful reunion with departed relatives and friends. The movie conjures these and ends with a clip of the real-life Piper, who has since travelled the world, giving his stump “heaven is real” sermon.
There are lots of tales of people having near-death experiences and visions of the afterlife. But if Piper had actually died, gone to heaven and been brought back by God, would he not be the first human being to do so since Jesus of Nazareth? Why him? Clearly saintliness isn’t enough. No Catholic saint has ever claimed to be resurrected from the dead.
Piper sincerely believes he has been sent by God to bear witness to heaven. But are we such doubting Thomases that faith in Jesus’ promise of eternal life would require the testimony of a recovered accident victim from Texas? That’s essentially what this movie comes down to. Moreover, as Rev. Ron Rolheiser points out, in Christian theology heaven and hell begin in how we act in this life. One might say, blessed are they who follow his teachings and believe in him without having to see their reward.