Heaven is a swell place to visit, the books’ authors say. There, according to one boy’s published recollection, you can hang out with John the Baptist, who is “really nice.” Or you can look upon “Mary kneeling before the throne of God and at times, standing beside Jesus.” Everyone has wings. Except for Jesus, who “just went up and down like an elevator.”
Heaven is also a great place to return from. It was for 4-year-old Colton Burpo, whose recollection of his time there became the 2010 book “Heaven Is for Real,” which sold 10 million copies, spawned a big-time movie and gave way to a children’s picture book that featured Colton-approved imagery. It was great, too, for neurosurgeon Eden Alexander, who did “Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife,” an account that hung around on the best-seller list for 35 weeks. And it definitely was for 6-year-old Alex Malarkey, whose tale was represented in “The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven,” which sold more than 1 million copies.
At least it was until Malarkey’s tale fell apart. Late last week, the major Christian publisher Tyndale House said it would stop selling the book after Malarkey said he made the whole thing up. “I did not die,” he wrote in a blog on Pulpit and Pen. “I did not go to Heaven. I said I went to heaven because I thought it would get me attention.”
Did it ever. And he’s far from the only one. Malarkey’s account was just one entry in a genre called “heaven tourism.” It means pretty much what it sounds like: a person dies, experiences a heavenly experience, then returns to the realm of mortals to spread the good news and reap the profits. “I see it as my duty — both as a scientist and hence a seeker of truth, and as a doctor devoted to helping people — to make known to as many people as I can that what I underwent is true, and real, and of stunning importance,” wrote neurosurgeon Alexander in a book an Esquire investigation last year called “a stew of factual inaccuracies, misrepresentations, and omissions.”
But no one denies either the success of these books nor their resonance. To get an idea, consider the following titles: “To Heaven and Back: A Doctor’s Extraordinary Account of Her Death, Heaven, Angels, and Life Again: A True Story”; “90 Minutes in Heaven: A True Story of Death and Life”; “A Vision from Heaven”; “Revealing Heaven: An Eyewitness Account”; “Waking Up in Heaven: A True Story of Brokeness, Heaven, and Life Again”; and “My Journey to Heaven: What I Saw and How It Changed My Life.”
Many of these books detail an archetypal heaven, with Jesus and Mary in the flesh, angels and sometimes even wings. Most of them, noted the New York Review of Books, are written sincerely and vividly and marketed brilliantly. “The tale of Colton Burpo, so slickly told and efficiently exploited, poses and immediate question, of course: Are the Burpos sincere, or is this a fraud?” wrote Robert Gottlieb. “Despite all the commercialization, I believe that they believe; that little Colton said things that he thought to be true and that were shaped into this artful narrative by an astute collaborator.”
People eat these tales up for any number of reasons. But the leading reason, Gottlieb argued, is that they tell us something we desperately want to hear: that the show doesn’t end when we die, that we can go on living in a place that’s so great that we won’t even want to leave. But if we do, it’s okay. Because a book deal and big bucks await.
Though the genre is explicitly targeted at the nation’s robust evangelical community, it drives some of its denizens crazy. One of the earliest writers to question “The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven” was Phil Johnson, now criticizing the publisher’s slow response to its boy author’s recantation. He says the main problem with heaven tourism is that it exploits Christian theology for profit while ignoring basic scripture, which holds heaven is a place from which you most definitely do not return.
“These books are coming out with such frequency that it is virtually impossible to read and review them all,” he wrote. “But that shouldn’t even be necessary. No true evangelical ought to be tempted to give such tales any credence whatsoever, no matter how popular they become. One major, obvious problem is that these books don’t even agree with one another. They give contradictory descriptions of heaven and thus cannot possibly have any cumulative long-term effect other than the sowing of confusion and doubt.”
And now, as millions of consumers learn of the hoax that is “The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven,” there could more confusion and doubt sowed into the genre than ever. “It’s easy to see Malarkey’s case as an example of how religion can be used by the unscrupulous to fool people,” wrote NPR writer Adam Frank. “Of course, lots of things can be used by the unscrupulous to fool people.”
Even heaven. Which is a swell place to visit. But an even better place to come back from.