, speaker and director, It Is Written
A number of years ago my wife, Melissa, and I were driving across Idaho when we stopped to use a payphone. The payphone booth was covered with pink tracts that turned out to be excerpts from a book written by someone claiming to have visited hell. The author’s description of hell was partly graphic, somewhat entertaining, quite incredible, and entirely unbiblical.
In 2010, a book was published that claimed to be the story of a young boy who had visited heaven. The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven is the spectacular story of a child’s visit to heaven after he “died” in a car wreck that left him a quadriplegic. Alex Malarkey’s story sold more than a million copies and was developed into a television movie, gripping hearts around the world.
But several days ago Alex admitted that his story was nothing more than a heavenly hoax.
Following the near-fatal accident, 6-year-old Alex spent two months in a coma. The wonder of Alex regaining consciousness was overshadowed by the incredible account he gave of what he experienced while he was unconscious. He claimed angels had escorted him through the gates of heaven, that he heard heavenly music, saw the devil, and talked with Jesus Himself.
But Alex wrote an open letter published on the Pulpit and Pen website last week that flatly said, “It was all a lie.” Alex now says he didn’t “die” in the accident, and he never at any time went to heaven.
“I said I went to heaven because I thought it would get me attention,” Alex said. “When I made the claims I did, I had never read the Bible. People have profited from lies, and continue to.”
The book has been taken out of print by its publisher, and bookstores have stopped carrying it.
Of course the bigger question is whether the book should have been published in the first place.
From a biblical point of view, the clear answer is no.
The Bible speaks nothing of people dying, going to heaven, and returning to the Earth to tell people what they have seen. Paul spoke about his own experience of seeing heaven in vision (2 Cor. 12:2-4), and the prophets Daniel and John wrote of visions of heaven they had experienced (Dan. 7:9, 10; Rev. 4:1-11). Jesus returned from heaven to Earth after His resurrection to spend a few days with His disciples. But like Moses, the only other person the Bible discusses who died, went to heaven, and returned to Earth, Jesus was silent about what heaven is like.
What’s alarming about The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven and similar stories is that they directly contradict the plain testimony of the Bible. The Bible clearly says that death is a sleep, not a condition in which people can travel to heaven or any other place. Jesus spoke of Lazarus as being asleep (John 11:11), which he clearly interpreted as meaning “Lazarus is dead” (John 11:14).
The Bible is remarkably consistent on the subject. Paul wrote that the dead sleep until Jesus wakes them at the Second Coming (1 Cor. 15:51, 52), and that the saved who are alive when Jesus returns will go to heaven at that time, along with those who had previously died in faith and slept he sleep of death.
Numerous times the Bible refers to death as a dreamless sleep that lasts from the moment of death until the first resurrection takes place (Rev. 14:13; John 5:28, 29).
Over the years, the enemy of souls has conducted a deliberate and carefully orchestrated campaign to confuse people regarding death and life after death.
Like the majority of Christian believers, I was taught as a child to believe that those who die are ushered immediately into either heaven or hell—or in certain other cases purgatory or limbo. Rather than this being a minor theological point of debate or discussion, the twisting of truth on this subject leads to at least two extremely serious theological problems: the marginalizing of Jesus, and the opening of the door to spiritualism.
Spiritualism is serious business—literally and figuratively. Millions of dollars are spent on psychics, mediums and related materials. A person who entertains thoughts of contacting a spiritualist medium is entertaining thoughts of getting into very close contact with the devil himself. Such was the experience of King Saul (see 1 Sam. 28).
The Bible makes clear that spiritualism will be a major influence in Earth’s final days in preparing people to accept Satan’s final deceptions (Rev. 16:13).
A friend recently told me that following the tragic death of his 23-year-old daughter, he would undoubtedly have sought to contact his daughter through a spiritualist medium if he had not understood what the Bible says about death. Such involvement with the enemy has disastrous consequences.
And while a misunderstanding of death opens the door to spiritualism, it also reduces Jesus to being less than He actually is. In John 11:25, Jesus explained to the sister of Lazarus that He is “the resurrection and the life.” Without Jesus, the dead have no hope of life beyond the grave. Only through Jesus’ direct intervention at the time of the Second Coming can anyone be raised from the dead. Without Jesus waking the sleeping dead, the grave will never release its prisoners. Even the giants of faith listed in Hebrews 11—with the exception of Moses and Enoch—“did not receive the promise” (Heb. 11:39). They also wait for the return of Jesus before they can be raised from their various places of rest (verse 40).
If people go to heaven immediately upon dying, then a resurrection is unnecessary and Jesus is no longer “the resurrection and the life.” Paul’s question in 1 Cor. 15:55—“O grave, where is thy victory?”—is a question not worth asking. We could then travel to heaven without a resurrection having taken place.
Stories like that of Alex Malarkey are extremely popular. The book 90 Minutes in Heaven, published in 2004, spent more than years on The New York Times bestseller list and sold more than 6 million copies. Heaven is for Real, the story of a 4-year-old who visited heaven, has sold more than 10 million copies and spawned a 2014 movie that grossed more than $100 million. This publishing phenomenon is now a genre of its own known as “heavenly tourism.”
This boon in heavenly tourism has upset the mother of Alex Malarkey, who apparently has tried to get her son’s book pulled for some time.
“There are many who are scamming and using the Word of God to do it,” Beth Malarkey said in a blog post cited by NPR radio last week. “They are good, especially if you are not digging into your Bible and truly studying it. They study their audience and even read ‘success’ books to try to build bigger and better … ‘ministries/businesses.’”
Phil Johnson, the executive director of a media ministry led by author and broadcaster John MacArthur, said publishers of bestselling books on heavenly tourism have little motivation to hurt sales.
“The idea that Alex suddenly recanted is just not true, he said in comments carried by The Washington Post. “There was proof everywhere that he did not stand behind the content of this book. But it was a bestselling book. Nobody in the industry wanted to kill it.”
So how could this heavenly hoax have happened?
Some say Alex’s father, the co-author of the book, saw an opportunity to make money from his son’s vivid imagination. There seems to be little doubt that Alex was a genuine soul who had no idea of the harm his creativity was going to cause. But informed by a flawed belief system, Alex was able to believe that an out-of-body escape to heaven was entirely possible. Millions of people believe the same thing around the world.
Similar stories have been prominent in pop culture and within religious circles. Movies dealing with out-of-body and other paranormal experiences have played to audiences in all corners of the planet. Claims of mystical occurrences such as apparitions of the Virgin Mary continue to encourage the faithful, even though they have no support whatsoever from Scripture.
A number of years ago, as a young Roman Catholic believer, I was praying in a small group at a Catholic youth convention. My eyes opened wide when a young man started “prophesying.”
“My people,” the young man, Peter, began. “I have a message for you, my people.”
It was well known that Peter was a plumber. What was not known was that he was a prophet. Few of us were convinced. Several of us tasked a young nun with talking to Peter about his “prophesying.” But before she had a chance to approach Peter, Peter came and spoke with our small group and admitted his “prophesying” was nothing more than a case of misjudged wishful thinking.
“I just wanted it to be real, and I’m sorry. That won’t happen again,” he said.
As far as I know, it never did. Peter had been exposed to Pentecostal worship services where “prophesying” is common or even expected. His desire to possess this type of spiritual gift got the better of him.
Alex Malarkey acknowledges that his desire for attention prompted him to tell a story that simply wasn’t true. Now 16 years old, Alex offers some sound advice. People “should read the Bible, which is enough,” he said. “The Bible is the only source of truth. Anything written by man cannot be infallible.”
My hope is that many people will take his counsel now as seriously as they took his story.