Some years ago I stopped to use a pay phone and found the phone booth had been virtually wallpapered with pink tracts, which 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 un-Biblical.
In 2010, a book was published which claimed to be the story of a young boy who had visited not hell, but heaven. The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven was 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 over a million copies and was developed into a TV movie, gripping hearts around the world. But several days ago Alex admitted that his story was nothing more than a heavenly hoax.
Following the accident which almost claimed his life, Alex – six years old at the time of the accident – 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 recently wrote an open letter that was published on the Pulpit and Pen website in which he flatly said, “It was all a lie.” Alex now says he didn’t “die” in he 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 in a brief statement. “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 the book.
Of course the bigger question is, “Should the book 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 Corinthians 12:2-4), and the prophets Daniel and John wrote of visions of heaven they had experienced (Daniel 7:9,10; Revelation 4:1-11). Jesus returned from heaven to Earth, but like Moses – the only other person the Bible discusses who died, went to heaven and returned to Earth – He was silent about what heaven is like.
What’s alarming about The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven and stories like it is that they directly contradict the plain testimony of the Bible. The Bible clearly states 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 Corinthians 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 the sleep of death. While such a view may come as a surprise to someone who has not carefully investigated this subject, it is certainly biblical.
Numerous times the Bible refers to death as a dreamless sleep which lasts from the moment of death until the first resurrection takes place (Revelation 14:13; John 5:28,29).
Over the years there has been a very deliberate and carefully-orchestrated campaign conducted by the enemy of souls 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). And 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 are spent on psychics and mediums and related materials. And a person who entertains thoughts of contacting a spiritist medium is entertaining thoughts of getting into very close contact with the devil himself. Such was the experience of King Saul (see 1 Samuel 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 (Revelation 16:13). A friend recently told me that following the tragic death of his 23-year-old daughter, if he had not understood what the Bible says about death, he would undoubtedly have sought to contact his daughter through a spiritist medium. 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 (Hebrews 11:39.)” They also wait for the return of Jesus to take place before they can be raised from their various places of rest (see 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 Corinthians 15:55 KJV – “O grave, where is thy victory?” – is a question not worth asking. We can travel to heaven without a resurrection having taken place.
Stories like that of Alex Malarkey are extremely popular. 90 Minutes in Heaven, published in 2004, spent over 5 years on the New York Times bestsellers’ list and sold over six million copies. Heaven is for Real – the story of a four year old who visited heaven – has sold over ten million copies. A 2014 movie based on Heaven is for Real has grossed over one hundred million dollars. This publishing phenomenon is now a genre of its own, having been dubbed “Heavenly Tourism.”
A story published by National Public Radio quoted a blog post written by Alex’s mother, Beth, in which she said, “There are many who are scamming and using the Word of God to do it. 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.’ “ And Phil Johnson, the Executive Director of the media ministry led by author and broadcaster John MacArthur said, quoted in the Washington Post, “The idea that Alex suddenly recanted is just not true. 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.”
The publisher of the now-recalled book said at the time of publishing that the story was “a supernatural encounter that will give you new insights on Heaven, angels, and hearing the voice of God.” Alex Malarkey is now saying something very different.
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 is entirely possible. Multiplied millions believe the same thing around the world.
Similar stories have been prominent in pop culture and within religious circles. Moves dealing with out-of-body and other paranormal experiences have played to audiences in all corners of the planet. And claims of mystical occurrences such as apparitions of the Virgin Mary continue to encourage the faithful, even though they have gain no support whatsoever from Scripture.
A number of years ago while I was praying in a small group at a convention for Catholic youth, my eyes opened wide when a young man from my church started ‘prophesying.’
“My people,” he 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.” 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 admits 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. The Bible is the only source of truth. Anything written by man cannot be infallible.”
The hope is that many will take his take his counsel as seriously as they took his story.
(Originally published in the Adventist Review online)