April 13, 2014 Updated: April 13, 2014 at 8:01 am
During his six years as a literary agent for Colorado Springs-based Alive Communications, Joel Kneedler has helped publish a hundred books. He also has broken the hearts of hundreds of aspiring authors.
"I have conversations where people are bawling, or saying I don't appreciate their life story, or accusing me of not cooperating with God's plan," Kneedler says.
Five years ago, he said yes to an unusual proposal about a 4-year-old Nebraska child who said he visited heaven during an appendectomy, surprising his pastor father with his insights into the afterlife.
The resulting book, "Heaven Is For Real: A Little Boy's Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back," has sold more than 9 million copies in the U.S. and been translated into 35 foreign languages.
The film version, which debuts Wednesday in 2,000-plus theaters, boasts all-star credits: co-producer T.D. Jakes, director Randall Wallace ("Secretariat," "Braveheart," "Pearl Harbor"), and Oscar- and Emmy Award- winning actor Greg Kinnear.
In a year overflowing with movies meant to appeal to Christian audiences, this film already has a devoted fan base. Plus, Kneedler says "the hope of heaven" is a timeless theme that connects even more strongly with viewers at Easter time.
But he says the journey from idea to book to movie was difficult.
Seeing angels, talking with Jesus
In March 2003, Todd Burpo took his family on a road trip to Denver's Butterfly Pavilion, but son Colton became gravely ill. Colton underwent two surgeries in Nebraska for a ruptured appendix and an abscess.
Four months later, Colton surprised his parents when he matter-of-factly told them that during surgery he had been to heaven, where angels sang to him.
"They sang 'Jesus Loves Me' and 'Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho,'" Colton told his parents. "I asked them to sing 'We Will, We Will Rock You,' but they wouldn't sing that."
Over time, Colton shared more otherworldly memories, claiming he had seen Jesus riding a rainbow-colored horse and had even sat in Jesus' lap.
Todd Burpo didn't know what to think. As pastor of Crossroads Wesleyan Church in Imperial, Neb., a farming community of 2,100 people, he had preached sermons about the hope of heaven. But he never focused on this topic as much as some preachers, in part because he found Bible passages about the afterlife frustratingly incomplete.
"Jesus told his disciples about heaven," says Burpo , citing John 14:2. "But," he says, "the Bible verses on heaven are disconnected and not very clear."
As Colton's revelations continued, his parents became convinced he was telling the truth when he offered detailed descriptions of his miscarried sister (who no one had told him about) and his great-grandfather (who had died decades earlier). Soon, dad was sharing his son's anecdotes in his sermons and at pastors' gatherings.
Burpo writes in "Heaven Is For Real" that the first time he spoke publicly about Colton's experiences was at a Sunday morning service at Mountain View Wesleyan Church in Colorado Springs in January 2007.
People got so excited about the sermon on the disciple known as "doubting Thomas" that they told their friends and invited them to come to the Sunday evening service to hear more. "That night, the church was packed," wrote Burpo, who says he answered people's questions for 45 minutes that night.
Then, at one gathering, a fellow pastor approached Burpo, saying he wanted to help him write a book. Burpo wanted to get Colton's message out but was ambivalent about writing a book.
"I was incredibly busy working as a businessman, pastor, volunteer firefighter, wrestling coach and dad," he said. "Being an author was not on my bucket list." So he prayed, asking God to "open the door" if publishing was God's will.
Literary agent moved by story
Decades ago, the Christian publishing industry shunned agents and other trappings of the secular publishing world. Alive helped change that by representing clients in some of the industry's bigger deals.
Alive's clients include Black Forest author Jerry Jenkins (co-author of the 66-million-selling Left Behind series), pastor and Bible scholar Eugene Peterson (whose The Message version of the Bible sold more than 15 million copies for Springs-based NavPress, the publishing arm of the Navigators ministry), and other major Christian authors such as Billy Graham, Philip Yancey and Karen Kingsbury.
Alive's website tells writers how to submit book proposals, attracting hundreds of submissions every week, but typically only one of these thousands of unsolicited ideas is published each year.
When Kneedler heard about Colton's story from a pastor in October 2008, he was moved. Kneedler, a member of New Life Church, says his favorite movie is "Heaven Can Wait." And he has a soft spot for books about kids. "Jesus really loved children," he says.
But it was Colton's descriptions of meeting his miscarried sister that touched Kneedler most deeply. "My wife miscarried," he says, "and Colton's message shows that the Lord has your child who has passed away. That's a comforting message for me, and it's a good message to share with the Body of Christ."
Kneedler called Todd Burpo and said, "I would like to work with you if God opens the door."
The first challenge was finding a writer to work with Burpo. Kneedler approached Lynn Vincent, a top Christian collaborator, but she had just committed to writing Sarah Palin's memoir, "Going Rogue."
Another writer declined for theological reasons, dismissing Colton's stories as "extra-biblical." Family issues prevented a third writer from making any progress.
By then, Vincent was available, but now a competing near-death book proposal was diverting publishers' attention.
"All my efforts went nowhere," says Kneedler, who like agents everywhere only makes money when a project is signed.
Finally, Thomas Nelson Publishers offered a contract in the low five figures. "Heaven Is for Real" was released in November 2010 and quickly took off. By the end of the year, it was a national best-seller. By early 2011, it was the best-selling nonfiction book in the country.
Next came the related products: an e-book; a Spanish language edition; the hardcover deluxe edition; a movie tie-in edition; "Heaven Is for Real for Kids;" the "Heaven Is for Real for Little Ones" board book; a devotional book called "Heaven Changes Everything;" and "Heaven Is for Real Conversation Kit," a curriculum product with DVD and study guide.
From page to screen
In March 2011, the New York Times reported on the book's success in a story headlined, "Celestial Sales for Boy's Tale of Heaven." The next day, movie studios started calling Alive.
In fact, so many calls came in that a spreadsheet was created to track them. When the dust settled, 12 serious players seemed interested, including major Hollywood studios and independent Christian filmmakers.
Call it the Passion Effect. Ever since Mel Gibson's independent blockbuster, "The Passion of the Christ," earned more than $600 million worldwide a decade ago, Hollywood has been more aggressive about reaching Christian audiences.
Fifteen years ago, Alive sold the film rights for Left Behind to two independent Christian filmmakers. The resulting film was so bad, and performed so poorly, that Left Behind co-author Tim LaHaye sued the filmmakers. (A new Left Behind film starring Nicolas Cage is scheduled for release this fall.)
"We wanted to avoid that experience," Kneedler says. "And when Sony Tri-Star said they would hire Randall Wallace to direct, that was music to our ears."
Kneedler hopes the movie is a huge success, but after five years of working with Todd Burpo, he's leaving the film's fate up to God, citing a Bible verse millions of Christians will hear in Easter sermons celebrating Christ's resurrection from the dead.
"It's like Jesus told his disciples before his death: 'Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only one seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds' (John 12:24, NIRV)," he says.
"After so many of my efforts went nowhere, life is springing up. But I can't claim any real credit. This project would have succeeded without me."
Burpo disagrees. "I think God picked Joel for this," he says.
And he hopes the film version of his son's story makes heaven equally real for viewers.
"Jesus did this for Colton," he says, "but Colton is not special. Jesus wants to share heaven with everyone, and if they just follow Jesus, they can see heaven themselves."