Last April I wrote a review of the bestselling book Heaven is for Realfor Acculturated, in which I kept an open mind about young Colton Burpo’s tale of visiting heaven during a life-threatening medical emergency. After all, though we should always be skeptical, his story was one in a thousand-year tradition of remarkably similar near-death experiences (and not only in the Christian tradition). And just as there is no physical proof that heaven exists, neither is there proof that it doesn’t. But another boy who claimed to have made a similar journey announced recently that the book based on his experience was spun out of lies.
The 6-year-old Alex Malarkey – incredibly, that’s his real name – and his father Kevin were in a terrible car crash in 2004. Alex wasn’t expected to survive, but after two months in a coma he woke to share a vision of the angels who took him through the gates of heaven itself. Though he was and remains paralyzed, his father helped Alex write and publish in 2010 The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven: A Remarkable Account of Miracles, Angels, and Life Beyond This World, touted on the cover as “a true story.” The book did brisk business for Christian publisher Tyndale House, selling over a million copies and spawning a TV movie.
But as far back as 2012, Alex and his mother Beth both began complaining that the book was a distortion and embellishment of Alex’s experience. Tyndale claims that Beth refused to meet with them and discuss her concern over the “inaccuracies,” and so they continued to publish the book.
Until last week, that is, when Alex, now a teenager, published a brief open letter in which he firmly renounced his “remarkable account,” saying,
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.
It’s hard to know what the full truth is here. Kevin and Beth have been estranged since the book’s publication – there are accusations that Kevin “neglected his duties” as husband and father – and Alex himself apparently has never received any royalties from the book despite being named as co-author. Despite Alex’s repudiation of his heavenly vision, it’s possible that he and his mother are simply fed up with how Alex has been treated by a too-adoring segment of the Christian community, by his own father, and by Tyndale.
Whatever the truth, what is the impact of Alex’s statement? What does this mean for believers and non-believers alike? What does it mean for other tales of near-death experiences?
First, it means that the lucrative publishing industry that has built up around such miraculous tales will take a big hit in credibility and sales. Tyndale House, for example, has announced that it is pulling Malarkey’s book from the shelves. Other such books may droop in sales as well, and any future ones may have difficulty finding a home with even Christian publishers, at least until the Malarkey controversy fades.
More importantly, it means that skeptics or outright atheists have been handed damaging ammunition for assaults against the very notion of an afterlife, certainly any that resembles the stereotypical vision of winged angels and Pearly Gates.
But does Malarkey’s malarkey prove or disprove anything about the afterlife? Apart from being a sad tale of exploitation (and possibly even fraud), public credulity, and family dysfunction, the answer is no. This is what I previously wrote about Heaven is for Real:
The fact is that all of us are ignorant of the realms beyond the narrow chinks of our caverns. To paraphrase Hamlet’s familiar lines, there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in all our philosophies. Colton Burpo brought a childlike innocence to one of the most profound and mystical questions of our existence – is heaven real? Whether or not one believes his answer is real brings to mind the words of Thomas Aquinas: “To one who has faith, no explanation is necessary. To one without faith, no explanation is possible.”
While credulity is easy, so is disbelief. The trick is to balance skepticism with intellectual curiosity and the humility to know that “now we see through a glass, darkly.” Now we know only in part, but the time will come for each of us when we know the truth face to face.
(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 1/26/15)