In 2004, six-year-old Alex Malarkey and his father, Kevin, were in a horrifying car accident. According to his father, things looked so bleak at the scene of the accident that they were advised to call the coroner for Alex. The boy was in a coma for two months, and it wasn’t really expected he would survive. But Alex did survive, and eventually related a startling tale that brought hope and wonder to his family – especially to his father Kevin, who along with Alex penned the now-famous book The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven: A Remarkable Account of Miracles, Angels, and Life Beyond This World (Tyndale, 2010).
The book offers a remarkable account of what heaven is like, with the promise that many (but not all) of us will make it there. But as news outlets have widely reported, Alex has publicly announced that he made it all up.
The Boy Who Came Back is a vast collection of impressions of heaven, a twenty-first century form of the literature that’s been around for over two thousand years in Christian tradition: the otherworldly journey.
Alex’s report includes “a recounting of the way Alex and God sometimes talk face-to-face, and details about Alex’s direct experience with angels, demons, and, yes, the devil himself.” We also see angels playing music, a beautiful landscape, and the pearly gates. Alex claims to have seen “people from the Bible” in heaven, but doesn’t specify which ones. Heaven may be an “unseen world” to those of us stuck down below, but the lucky few like Alex who get to travel its environs in “physical” form are rewarded with powerful reassurance of the life to come. The rest of us sods must just take the word of those who have actually been there.
The story takes a near-tragedy and creates theological order of it, giving it purpose and meaning. Instead of Alex’s father Kevin being ruthlessly flung from the car by impersonal forces of physics, we have Alex’s account of five hunky, winged angels carrying Kevin gently through the air before setting him down in a ditch. The book is filled with the stuff of heavenly dreams, and surely offers comfort to many who look for assurance of the afterlife in the face of trauma. It’s no wonder the book has sold so many copies.
Of course, Alex and Kevin’s book isn’t the only example of heavenly travel marketed to a hungry Christian audience. There’s even a recognizable subgenre of books about children traveling to heaven while coping with life-threatening conditions. Celeste Goodwin’s A Boy Back from Heaven chronicles the otherworldly travels of her son Matthew, after a minor surgery revealed a major health issue (Cedar Fort, 2014). Better known is Todd Burpo and Lynn Vincent’s Heaven is For Real. Burpo’s book. A New York Times bestseller, is an accounting of his four-year old son Colton’s trip to heaven during emergency surgery (Thomas Nelson, 2010). Burpo’s book has become a burgeoning franchise, spawning follow-up popular theology books, children’s books, an iPad app with puzzles, coloring sheets, and digital postcards, a Facebook page that regularly generates new memes for the book—and even a movie released in 2014.
The successful marketing of such books reveals our craving for reassurances about what lies beyond death, but it can also raise problems for scripturally strict readers of the Bible like Alex’s mother, Beth Malarkey. Beth is now divorced from Kevin, and she has played a major role in the debunking of her son’s story. Beth claims she has been trying since December 2012 to get people to listen to her concerns about the book. In April 2014, Beth related in her blog “how biblically off the book is,” adding that at the time of his original recounting “Alex was a kid with major brain trauma which alone should raise questions as to validity.”
In their accounting of the issues this week, Pulpit and Pen agree with Beth, claiming that they published Alex’s letter out of pure theological concerns. Book marketers, they claim, too often look for profit to the detriment of remaining scripturally pure:
[W]e are publishing this story because Christian publishers and retailers should have known better. They should have had the spiritual discernment, wisdom, compassion, and intestinal fortitude to not sell a book which contains, along with all books like it, deep theological problems.
Claiming that the book relies too much upon experiential wisdom at the expense of the Bible, they bemoan “how far we are willing to go outside the realm of scripture and accept [extra-biblical accounts] as having been from God.” They cite Alex’s vision of the devil as evidence of the kind of foolishness that can result from non-biblically sound spiritual experiences:
The devil’s mouth is funny looking, with only a few moldy teeth. And I’ve never noticed any ears. His body has a human form, with two bony arms and two bony legs. He has no flesh on his body, only some moldy stuff. His robes are torn and dirty. I don’t know about the color of the skin or robes—it’s all just too scary to concentrate on these things!
For Christians like these, scripture alone—not personal experience—should be used to determine what awaits us in the afterlife.
In June 2014, Patheos tried to publicize Beth’s complaints, but the story didn’t go mainstream. The editor of the piece added this angry introduction, accusing Kevin of not properly supporting his quadriplegic son with the book proceeds:
This piece [The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven] is an excellent example of the Evangelical tendency to dramatize or even outright lie in order to have a testimony convincing enough to reach the ‘unsaved’ Lying for Jesus [sic]. This child’s father is despicable for making money off his son’s tragedy and giving not one penny of the monies made towards the long-term care this child needs.
Despite multiple attempts to get the story heard, Tyndale had no formal response until this week, when it finally announced a recall of all remaining copies of the book. Why now, more than two years after Beth first started trying to tell the story?
The new publicity has, in part, to do with Alex finally making a public statement himself. Until now, critics could conceivably argue that Beth’s efforts to kill the book were fueled by anger at Kevin for not providing better child support. One could also reasonably point out that it was Alex, not Beth, who made the heavenly claims in the first place.
Even so, this isn’t the first time Alex has tried to express his own opinion. Beth reports on her blog that when Alex first attempted to inform his pastor “how wrong the book was and how it needed stopped, Alex was told that the book was blessing people.” According to Pulpit and Pen’s report, Alex also tried previously to share his opinion on his own Facebook fan page, “after which the comment was deleted by moderators and he was blocked from the group.”
This week’s letter was Alex’s first announcement in his own words to a large audience, and the story has gone viral. The story now has traction, in part, because it so effectively highlights some contemporary Christian debates about truth, the afterlife, inspiration, experience, and of course – marketing.
In his letter, Alex echoes his mother’s call for scriptural guidance in determining the truth, saying unequivocally:
I did not die. I did not go to Heaven. I said I went to heaven because I thought it would get me attention. When I made the claims that I did, I had never read the Bible. People have profited from lies, and continue to. They should read the Bible, which is enough. The Bible is the only source of truth. Anything written by man cannot be infallible.
This modern-day controversy seems to spark some of the same tensions that inflamed the early church, with a markedly twenty-first century marketing spin. The early church fathers were disdainful of those – especially the Montanists in Asia Minor – who claimed they could have spiritual inspiration through experience alone, and in so doing, supplement scripture. If we look at the earliest years of the Christian tradition, we can find both Jewish and Christian extra-canonical accountings of trips to heaven – and yet most of these traditions didn’t make it into received canon.
In the early centuries of Christianity we can also find a powerful experiential tradition in the Gnostics, who didn’t claim to visit heaven, but who did claim that their own spiritual insights could outweigh the opinion of institutional authorities and scripture.
Today, we have a pop-version of the same debates. Alex and Beth see new inspiration as dangerous. As Alex puts it, “I want the whole world to know that the Bible is sufficient. Those who market these materials must be called to repent and hold the Bible as enough.”
Todd Burpo and Kevin Malarkey, on the other hand, would have us allow new otherworldly visions to guide us—and would have us buy their heavenly storytelling as a means of expressing our extra-biblical convictions.