There’s a rich history of art made about heaven, and it hasn’t always been this way. Dante had the benefit of writing the Divine Comedy in a time when pretty much everyone in his sphere of influence agreed about the nature of the afterlife. Accordingly, his imagery is awe-some, in the hyphenated sense of the word. In the final book of his famous trio, Paradiso, Dante follows his guide, Beatrice, to the dwelling land of God, which he describes in stunning detail:
In fashion, as a snow-white rose, lay then
Before my view the saintly multitude,
Which in his own blood Christ espous’d. Meanwhile
That other host, that soar aloft to gaze
And celebrate his glory, whom they love,
Hover’d around; and, like a troop of bees,
Amid the vernal sweets alighting now,
Now, clustering, where their fragrant labour glows,
Flew downward to the mighty flow’r, or rose
From the redundant petals, streaming back
Unto the steadfast dwelling of their joy.
Faces had they of flame, and wings of gold;
The rest was whiter than the driven snow.
In trying to make a mass-market film for 2015, Polish had no such luck. He did seem to understand the awkwardness of his position; as he was describing heaven in an interview, he flipped back and forth between asserting the truth of heaven and offering a more relativistic shrug. “Heaven means different things to different people. I would like my heaven to have a little more grass, maybe a white-picket fence, maybe some animals,” he said. But to depict heaven in the movie, “I ended up asking [Don Piper], the person that had been there … It’s very hard to hit a home run on this one. I did Don Piper’s heaven—I believe it’s the heaven he saw.”
God does show up in the movie here and there. Throughout the film, the fictional Don frequently calls out to the Almighty, lamenting his pain and the responsibility he’s been given to keep living. The last few minutes also show the real-life Don preaching about his experience—his message, as the tagline to the movie puts it, is “Hope lives!” In an interview, the Pipers affirmed their desire for the movie to serve as a form of witness. “We are Christians. We believe that the way to heaven is clear,” Don Piper said. Even so, the couple was mostly focused on sharing the broadly accessible meaning of heaven: comfort. “People were looking for hope about overcoming tragedy and suffering and loss,” Piper said.
More than anything else, this seems to capture the purpose of the movie: It’s a story meant to make people feel good. “I’m personally drawn to sort of darker material,” Christensen told me. “But half of the appeal in this story is that you feel like you’re showing the triumph of the human spirit.”
The heaven of 90 Minutes is not secular in the sense that it’s totally unconnected from God and religion. But it is secular in that it transforms a theologically specific concept into something totally general, an afterlife destination open to all. There’s nothing wrong with that, and in a way, it belies a certain kind of pluralistic progress. For example: Christensen said he grew up identifying as a Christian, despite having parents who weren’t very religious. In making 90 Minutes, “I felt a connection to those beliefs,” he said. “I walked away from the experience feeling like I had met some of the classiest, most decent people I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with.”
This is a movie made for an culture that is attached to and admires the hope of faith. But it isn’t a film of conviction, one that embraces the teeth of theology alongside the nice parts. Maybe that’s what religious art in a pluralistic, largely secular culture has to look like. The creations to mourn aren’t the Ben-Hurs; they’re all the Empyreans that have yet to be imagined.