Heaven. That lovely place of angels, harps and camaraderie. Where nary is heard a discouraging word and good souls loll about in bliss all day.
At least, that’s what Alex Malarkey insisted he saw after a car crash left him in a coma for weeks and a paraplegic. In his 2010 book, The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven: A True Story, Alex, then just 6 and writing with the help of his father, described journeying through a tunnel, being welcomed by five angels, meeting Jesus and seeing 150 “pure, white angels with fantastic wings.” He viewed lakes, rivers and grass, he wrote, while God perched on a throne next to a scroll pinpointing the end of time. In the book, Alex said the Devil was there, too, with three heads, red eyes, moldy teeth and hair made of fire.
One of them was his father, Kevin Malarkey, who still insists he was just repeating what Alex told him. Now divorced from Alex’ mom, Kevin is not sure with what happened with all the money from royalties, estimated at about $1 million.
Alex’ confession also undermined the genre. Books about heavenly visits dried up immediately.
The twisted tale, recounted recently on the internet, reminds me of The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown’s 2000 opus that went international. It described a fictional world where Jesus survived the cross, an idea promulgated multiple times in religious history and given wide exposure in The Passover Plot in 1965. People believed Brown's version too. The reality that the Romans did not let anyone off a cross alive didn’t factor into thinking or that the concoction, if true, would completely contradict Christian religious claims.
Actually, the books reflect his personal philosophical thoughts by assigning them to God. That, too, has a long history, starting with Bible. Modern evangelicals, maintaining that ancient tradition, keep the idea going by telling their congregants what “God wants,” which is mostly for them to tithe.
These kinds of very popular books capture a wide swath of believers because of the desire to “know” what happens after death and to find some basis for belief.
There are several reasons for that. To begin with, the faithful have to suspend belief in reality to accept the concept of a risen god. As early church father Tertullian said close to 2000 years ago, “It is absurd; therefore, I believe.” The absurd part has become more evident, especially with knowledge of 4,000 other religions and the existence of a deadly virus and changing climate, both clearly unconnected to any deity.
In addition, believers are slowly evolving into a minority. Belief in Christianity has fallen to an historic low. The religion has virtually disappeared in some, previously faithful, countries. In the United States, individuals with no belief represent close to 25 percent of the population, forcing hysterical Christians to attempt to impose their beliefs.
In the end, we are left with just lovely images created by human writers and artists desperate for some proof of post-life existence.
“The idea that someone could go to heaven and come back with visions and dreams and we should take that seriously is as far from historic evangelicalism as it’s possible to get,” said Phil Johnson, a California pastor and author who Alex’ mother Beth contacted in 2012. Quoted in an online interview, Johnson added, “To me, one of the real signifiers that modern evangelical Christianity is badly astray and in serious jeopardy of even existing 50 years from now is the ease with which evangelicals buy into stories like this.”
Nobody is listening to him either.
Maybe something tangible about a post-life existence will turn up someday. Until then, writers will continue to tap into to a desperate section of the population willing to buy into a range of farfetched idea and trying to turn fiction into fact.
Long-time religious historian Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history with an occasional foray into American culture. He holds an ABD in American Studies from Case Western Reserve University. He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida. You can reach him at email@example.com. He is the author of the recently published novels Revelation! (Southern Owl Press) and The Great Seer Nostradamus Tells All (Bold Venture Press) as well as a variety of nonfiction books, including The Gospel Truth: Where Did the Gospel Writers Get Their Information and Comparative Religion for Dummies. His books are available on Amazon.com, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers. He can also be followed on Twitter.