THE BOY WHO (never really) CAME BACK FROM HEAVEN
One of the major breaking stories this week is the decision by Lifeway (the Southern Baptist Convention bookstore chain) to pull The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven from its shelves because one of the authors, Alex Malarkey, (the boy who “came back from heaven”) has recanted his story, saying “I didn’t die. I didn’t go to heaven.”
Alex was six years old in 2004 when the car his father, Kevin, was driving was hit broadside by another car. The horrific accident left Alex paralyzed from the neck down, and he became the youngest person to receive the Christopher Reeve breathing device at the age of ten.
Not only has the book been pulled from the Lifeway bookstore chain, the publisher, Tyndale House, the publisher, has known about the situation for at least a couple of years, but is just now discontinuing its publication. This book, although not as well-known as Heaven is for Real, (and the movie of the same name that debuted in April 2014) is one of many in the genre that has come to be labelled “heaven tourism” and has sold over one million copies.
From the back cover of The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven:
An accident. A miracle.
And a supernatural encounter that will give you new insights on Heaven, angels, and hearing the voice of God.
In 2004, Kevin Malarkey and his six-year-old son, Alex, suffered a terrible car wreck. The impact from the crash paralyzed Alex—and it seemed impossible that he could survive.
“I think that Alex has gone to be with Jesus,” a friend told the stricken dad.
When Alex awoke from a coma two months later, he had an incredible story to share. Of events at the accident scene and in the hospital while he was unconscious. Of the angels who took him through the gates of Heaven itself. And, most amazing of all . . . of meeting and talking with Jesus.
The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven is the true story of an ordinary boy’s most extraordinary journey. As you see Heaven and earth through Alex’s eyes, you’ll come away with new insights on miracles, life beyond this world, and the power of a father’s love.
I have personally spoken with Beth Malarkey (Alex’s mother) on the phone in a 90-minute conversation and have corresponded with her on several occasions. There are a number of very troubling things related to the book which I will leave to her to discuss publicly, but the bottom line is that both she and her son have both stated that the book is largely a fabrication, not only because of the made-up story of Alex going to heaven, but because of a number of inconsistencies and inaccurate information concerning various events and situations throughout the book.
It is also worth noting that although both Alex and Kevin (his father) are listed on the front cover, the copyright information page lists only the father as the copyright owner. In this regard, Beth Malarkey has stated more than once that Alex hasn’t received any royalties from the book, even though he has been left a quadrplegic who requires nearly 24-hour care.
In studying the phenomenon of Near Death Experiences (NDEs) (which is a misnomer, because most say they actually died), I have read somewhere between 25 and 30 different accounts – and there are a number of things that need to be noted:
There are four things that are generally uniform in every account. a) The sense of rising up out of the body and looking down upon it, b) going through a dark tunnel, c) seeing a bright light or ending up in the presence of a bright, unidentified being, and d) experiencing a feeling of overwhelming and unconditional love and acceptance.
These things, being fairly uniform, are said to be experienced by everyone, regardless of their faith and beliefs or no beliefs are all.
There is reportedly a substantial number of those who have experienced this who have been conservative, Bible-believing Christians, who afterward leave their churches, declaring that the “Jesus-is-the-only-way” message is false and that everyone is accepted into heaven.
Beyond the four common things noted above, everything else is almost completely different concerning what these individuals saw and experienced. In fact, out of the 25+ of which I’m presently aware, there are NO TWO that agree on virtually anything – whether it be their accounts of the “gates of heaven” (if there is such a thing) – with some saying they are made of wood, others say they are of gold, while others say pearl – and some not mentioning them at all – or their accounts of seeing angels, meeting Jesus, or what they did or what they heard or what heaven looked like in general.
This presents an overwhelming problem – because if they all really did go to heaven – which is a very real place (as described by John in revelation) – then their accounts should have some similarities concerning what they actually saw – but they don’t.
In a number of cases they were completely unbiblical. For example, one person stated that he first went to a “cold hell” before being whisked to heaven. In the case of Colton Burpo – he maintains that a) he sat on Jesus’ lap and talked with him, b) that Jesus has a rainbow-colored horse, c) that everyone, including dead people, have wings, d) that they brought a chair to him so he could sit beside the Holy Spirit who was “kind of blue” – and the list goes on.
The obvious question that begs to be asked is, Do these sound like biblical descriptions or something that comes from the mind of a 3 to 4 year old – and particularly one who is the son of a pastor and who had undoubtedly seen many “biblical” pictures in story books and pictures both at home and in church?
The reasons given for Colton Burpo’s parents believing are a) he reportedly met a sister who had died in a miscarriage – and about whom his parents say he didn’t know, b) he knew about his father’s angry prayer to God in the hospital’s chapel and a phone conversation his mother had in a waiting room while Colton was in his room, c) he claimed to have met his grandfather whom he only recognized from a picture of him at age 25, rather than pictures of him at an older age near within years of his death.
Again, the question that must be asked about these three things is, Is a “trip to heaven” the only possible explanation. All things being equal, if what Colton saw and experienced closely reflected what is found in the Bible, then that might be a different situation. However, since that is not the case, this demands further examination. First, how many times have we been totally stunned that one of our children knew about something that we were sure they could not have known. This can easily happen when we think our kids are asleep or in another room or outside—when they are actually just around the corner listening to a conversation. And is it not possible that he was in another family member’s house and saw a picture of his grandfather and told who he was by an aunt or uncle or grandmother?
Further examining Colton’s story reveals other problems, as well. For one, approximately 100 people die every minute worldwide. If we take a conservative estimate that 5% of those who die are born-again believers in Jesus Christ, then that would mean 5 Christians would be entering the Lord’s presence every minute – or one every twelve seconds on average. This raise the question of how he could sit on Jesus’ lap for an extended conversation – and nothing be mentioned about the growing crowd of people who would also be entering the Lord’s presence?
In this regard, some might argue that since Jesus is God, he could be multiple places at once. However, that is not a biblical answer because at the incarnation, the eternal Son of God took on human flesh and became a man – eternally. After the incarnation, Jesus is only ever seen at one place at one time – including after his resurrection and ascension. He was seen by the two on the road to Emmaus, and then he disappeared to be seen by others – as many as 500 at one time in one place (1 Cor 15). As Stephen was dying from being stoned (Acts 8) he saw Jesus at the right hand of the Father. Paul saw him on the road to Damascus (Acts 9). John saw him multiple times in Revelation – including a glimpse of his return on a white horse (Rev 19). While fully God and is omnipresent by virtue of His deity, Jesus’ has a single, physical, resurrected and glorified human body that is never in more than place at once.
As I frequently tell my students, sometimes the most spiritual thing you can do is to think logically. Of course spiritual things and matters of faith are far more than simple logic – but they aren’t less.
In one discussion in the comment section under an article about this issue where Colton Burpo maintains that what he experienced was a genuine trip to heaven, one person brought up the matter of Enoch, Elijah, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Paul and John to suggest that these stories of trips to heaven can be found in the Scriptures. However, there is a significant difference between what happened with them and what is claimed by Colton Burpo in Heaven is for Real or by others who believe they, too, went to heaven during an NDE. The first major difference is that none of these people came back from the dead to relate their experiences, but where shown these things while they were alive, except for Enoch and Elijah, who didn’t die and never came back to tell us what happened or what they saw. And, In the case of Paul, he couldn’t even express what he saw and was harassed by “a messenger from Satan” to keep his pride in check. (2 Cor 11).
Furthermore, for the few in Scripture who did actually die and were brought back to life, there is not a single account by any of them concerning what they experienced. If the Scriptures are sufficient to thoroughly equip believers, then this lack of any discussion of NDEs (or rather, “DEs”) is extremely significant.
Going back to the four common experiences of rising out of the body, going through a tunnel, seeing a bright light and feeling peace / love – it must remembered that “we are all made of the same stuff.” In other words, at the threshold of death, the things that all of our bodies go through in those moments when life and death are balanced on a knife edge – the release of chemicals in the brain, the bio-chemical process of bodily functions shutting down, the last fading firing of neurons in the brain, the rapid reduction in oxygen to the brain and vital organs, etc. would be virtually identical in every case – and so could produce nearly identical experiences of some kind. We know our brains are more than capable of producing experiences that seem very real such as when we have vivid dreams.
It is also important to note that there is a significant difference between being “clinically dead” and being “biblically dead.” To be clinically dead is to have no detectable physical vital signs. However, to be dead from a biblical perspective means that we are separated from our physical body—which is left behind as a believer enters the presence of the Lord, awaiting the resurrection of the body. Therefore, it is very possible for someone to be clinically dead, but without that person actually leaving their body when the bond between the spirit and body is broken. And in the case of Colton Burpo it is even stated in the book that there are no hospital records of him ever being clinically dead – which must happen either before or simultaneously with leaving the body. That being the case, Colton could not have “gone to heaven.”
This is not to say that I don’t believe that some may experience some glimpse of the spiritual realm while balanced on that knife edge between life and death, but that is far different than someone claiming to have died and then returned from heaven to speak about their experience, which has no biblical precedent.
Nor is this to suggest that there aren’t great mysteries that transcend our ability to comprehend them – or that the normal Christian life is devoid of powerful spiritual experiences and the ongoing work of the indwelling Spirit. However, all experiences must be evaluated in light of the Scriptures’ clear teaching to establish their validity and to discern their meaning. Conversely, we cannot allow our experiences to be the final arbiter in interpreting Scripture.
Concerning The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven, there are probably revelations still to be made public and more twists and turns the story, because the family of Alex’s father, Kevin Malarkey, has come to his defense. Time will tell.
However, no matter how this particularly story ends (if it ever does), we must be extremely careful about the types of books we allow to influence our theology, whether they be “Christian” fiction, or supposed non-fiction accounts of someone’s claimed spiritual experience. We live in a sinful, fallen world that is under the influence of the god of this world who is the enemy of all that is true—and no one is exempt from the possibility of being deceived. When so many Christian publishers are now owned by major secular publishing empires (a fact of which most Christians are probably not aware), the bottom line can, unfortunately, be primarily financial.