NASHVILLE (BP) — LifeWay Christian Resources’ decision to stop selling a discredited book about a 6-year-old’s supposed vision of heaven is being cited as a reminder that followers of Jesus should rely on the Bible rather than subjective experience for their knowledge of the afterlife.
“Anytime you step away from the clear, revelatory, propositional statements of Scripture into your own experience, then you open yourself to every kind of weird existential idea out there,” Chris Osborne, a Texas pastor who believes books like Malarkey’s are unbiblical, told Baptist Press. “We want people bound to truth, not to what they feel or what they think they saw or what they experience.”
LifeWay decided Jan. 15 that it would stop selling “The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven” by the father-son team of Kevin and Alex Malarkey after Alex, now 16, said in a statement that he fabricated the supposed vision of heaven on which the bestselling book is based.
“I did not die. I did not go to Heaven,” Alex Malarkey wrote in an open letter to LifeWay and other book retailers.
“I said I went to heaven because I thought it would get me attention. When I made the claims that I did, I had never read the Bible. People have profited from lies, and continue to. They should read the Bible, which is enough. The Bible is the only source of truth. Anything written by man cannot be infallible,” Malarkey wrote.
LifeWay spokesman Marty King said in a statement released to BP, “LifeWay was informed last week that Alex Malarkey retracted his testimony about visiting heaven as told in the book ‘The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven.’ Therefore, we returned to the publisher the few copies we had in our stores. LifeWay is committed to becoming even more proactive the next few months in evaluating the resources we carry.”
In 2004, Malarkey spent two months in a coma and was paralyzed from the neck down following a car accident. When he awoke, Malarkey reported experiencing a vision of heaven that included being guided by angels and meeting Jesus.
Kevin Malarkey said he “felt no urge” to share his son’s story for five years, but he retained an agent and secured a book deal with Tyndale House Publishers in 2009, British newspaper The Guardian reported. Though Alex is listed as a coauthor, Kevin Malarkey is the sole owner of the copyright, according to information posted in the United States Copyright Office’s public catalog. Kevin Malarkey also owns the copyright for a “The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven” film and a Spanish version of the book.
Alex’s mother Beth Malarkey — who Christianity Today reported is separated from Kevin — has been writing on her blog since at least 2011 that the book contains inaccuracies, according to the Guardian. Beth Malarkey said she and Alex have not received any proceeds from the book’s sale, CT reported.
Tyndale announced in a Jan. 14 statement that it would “immediately put the book and all ancillary products into out-of-print status” and allow retailers to return their remaining inventory.
Last June, the Southern Baptist Convention adopted a resolution that touted “the sufficiency of Scripture regarding the afterlife” and warned Christians not to allow “the numerous books and movies purporting to explain or describe the afterlife experience” to “become their source and basis for an understanding of the afterlife.”
Though the resolution did not list specific book or movie titles, it seemed to describe works like “The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven,” “90 Minutes in Heaven” by Don Piper and “Heaven Is for Real” by Todd Burpo along with its companion movie released last year by Sony Pictures.
The resolution affirmed “the sufficiency of biblical revelation over subjective experiential explanations to guide one’s understanding of the truth about heaven and hell.”
Osborne, who was a member of the SBC Resolutions Committee that proposed the resolution to the convention, believes the apostle Paul’s statement in 2 Corinthians 12:4 that he heard things during a vision of “paradise” which “a man is not allowed to speak” precludes anyone from describing a vision of heaven not in the Bible.
Although Scripture says much about where believers will live following Christ’s second coming, it contains far less information about what occurs between the time a follower of Jesus dies and the Lord’s second coming, Osborne, pastor of Central Baptist Church in College Station, said. Still, God has given humans all the information they need about what happens after death, he added.
Theologians refer to the condition of believers between their deaths and Christ’s return as “the intermediate state.”
“There are several things I know about the intermediate state,” Osborne said, citing John 14:2-4. “Number one, Jesus comes and gets me and takes me there…. There’s obviously a place that He’s built for me there and [I will go there] immediately upon my death.”
Osborne speculated that the lack of information in Scripture about the intermediate state may be one factor driving well-meaning believers to study books about near-death experiences for clues.
“The lack of explanation in the Scripture causes people to create things that are not true,” Osborne said.
Matthew Arbo, another member of the Resolutions Committee that proposed the statement on books about heaven, told BP Christians should not worry about what will happen to them during the intermediate state even though it is “kind of a mystery.”
“We have the word from Jesus on the cross, ‘This day you will be with me in paradise,'” Arbo, assistant professor of biblical and theological studies at Oklahoma Baptist University, said. “We should just lay hold of that truth and trust that as God worked all things together for our good in our salvation and in our calling, so also He will do the same thing in our death.”
Jesus’ promise that the thief on the cross would be in paradise the day of his death (Luke 23:43) and Paul’s statement that “to be out of the body” is to be “at home with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8) demonstrate that Christians’ souls will go to heaven immediately when they die, Arbo said. Believers’ bodies will remain in the grave until they are raised, perfected and reunited with their souls at Christ’s second coming, he noted.
The lack of detail in Scripture regarding the intermediate state should not drive believers to depend on fanciful portrayals in either secular or Christian media for information, Arbo said.
Books like Malarkey’s are “kind of an interesting juxtaposition to pop culture portrayals of death — vampire series, An American Horror Story — that are kind of morbid and nihilistic. They’re really bleak. And then you get these hits that aren’t quite so reductive and so defeating. It’s kind of understandable why somebody might fix onto that. There’s so very little that’s hopeful in pop culture today.”