by Wayne Greeson
The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven came out in 2010 and sold more than 1 million copies and spent months on the New York Times’ bestseller list. Kevin Malarkey and his six-year-old son Alex were driving home from church in Huntsville, Ohio, on a Sunday morning in November 2004, when they were in a traffic accident and Alex was severely injured. He suffered, what is called, an “internal decapitation”, his skull separated from his spine. Alex’s condition was so severe that the coroner was called to the scene of the crash.
The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven (TBWCB) listed Kevin and Alex as co-authors. It is about Alex’s amazing recovery, but what drove its popularity and sales, was the claim that Alex had spent time in heaven after the accident and came back to tell about it.
In the book, Kevin and Alex claim that two months after the accident, when Alex came out of a coma, he was visited by angels and demons. Further, that he had traveled through a bright tunnel to be was greeted by five angels, and then met Jesus, who told him he would live. He also claimed he saw 150 “pure, white angels with fantastic wings.” Heaven is described as a place with lakes, rivers, and grass. Near to where God sits on His throne is a scroll describing the “End Times”. He describes the devil has three heads, red eyes, moldy teeth, and hair of fire.
The popular success of this book was followed by other “heaven tourism” books, giving fantastical details about heaven, angels, and God. Heaven Is for Real is a book that came out later as a movie based upon a 4-year-old’s descriptions of his visit to heaven, which included supposedly seeing a rainbow horse and meeting the Virgin Mary.
Other heaven tourism books include 90 Minutes in Heaven from a car accident, Flight to Heaven based upon a plane crash, To Heaven and Back, about a kayaking accident, and Miracles From Heaven following a fall into a hollow tree. Over 20 million books have been sold since 2005.
One writer described this “Folks have been going to heaven with amazing regularity lately. They look around-one even sat on Jesus’ lap-then come back to report on the trip. It’s a lucrative journey.” [“Publishing World Cashes in on Heavenly Journeys”, USA Today, January 11, 2013].
Heaven tourism did not just begin in the 2000s, nor the cashing in on such stories. People have been telling stories for centuries for profit about trips to heaven and visits by angels and the Lord.
In the 19th century, the founder of the Mormon church, Joseph Smith, claimed to be visited by many angels, many figures from Old and New Testament figures, and the Father, the Son, and Lucifer. The founder of the Seventh Day Adventist Church, Ellen G. White, claimed she had visited heaven and was told by the Lord: “Ellen, I want you to paint a picture of heaven for My people.” Both of these self-described “prophets” profited from their tales by the followers and the money they collected.
In 2012, Alex Malarkey's mother, Beth, wrote a series of article admitting that her son’s story was a hoax. In 2015, Alex wrote a letter to a conservative Christian blog to “Lifeway and other Sellers, Buyers and, Marketers of Heaven Tourism” in which he stated: “I did not die. I did not go to heaven. When I made the claims, I had never read the Bible. People have profited from lies, and continue to. They should read the Bible, which is enough.”
The book’s publisher announced they would stop selling the book. Subsequently, Kevin filed a lawsuit against the publisher and claimed that his father “concocted” the story that Alex had gone to heaven.
In the Bible, there are but a handful of people who report seeing heaven. This includes the prophets: Isaiah, Ezekiel and Daniel, and the apostles Paul and John. All had visions except perhaps the apostle Paul (II Corinthians 12:2-3).
None of the Bible accounts of heavenly visits are ascribed to near-death experiences. None of those who did come back from death in the Bible ever described their journey or profited from it by writing a book about it. (The widow’s son, Elijah raised, I Kings 17:17–24; Lazarus of Bethany, John 11:1-46; Eutychus, raised by Paul, Acts 20:9–12).
Those Bible figures with visions of heaven give few details, they focus on the glory of the Lord on His throne and not on themselves. The apostle Paul even said it was not lawful for him to speak of his visit. (II Corinthians 12:4). Why would God forbid Paul from telling us what he saw in heaven, but tell many others in the last few years to give all these fantastic details and profit from their favored insight? While the apostle John’s account of heaven contains the most details, absent are the silly, trivial and self-serving details found in so many recent accounts.
Some claim the modern storytellers’ stories about visits to heaven are faith-building and encouraging. But John told us not to be gullible about the claims and teaching of every storyteller. “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world” (I John 4:1).
The danger of these storytellers is, in their desire to profit from their stories, truth becomes a casualty and fiction becomes a commodity. Peter explained: “But there were also false prophets among the people, even as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Lord who bought them, and bring on themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their destructive ways, because of whom the way of truth will be blasphemed. And through covetousness shall they with feigned words make merchandise of you” (II Peter 2:1-3).
The fictions in TBWCB show the dangers of false teachers making merchandise of believers by feigned words. The truth is, the boy didn’t come back from heaven because he didn’t go there, to begin with.
Other heaven tourism books do not need the admissions of falsity as TBWCB, for us to know they are just as untrue. Anyone who teaches on heaven, matters of faith and God must “speak as the oracles of God” (I Peter 4:11). “If they do not speak according to this Word, it is because there is no light in them” (Isaiah 8:20).
We are “not to think (of men) beyond what is written” (I Corinthians 4:6). Paul warned us: “But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed” (Galatians 1:8).
I know heaven is real, not because of these storytellers, but because the Bible tells me so. Do not allow these heaven tourism storytellers to make merchandise of you.