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Gary Scott Smith / Jan. 20, 2015

Buyer Beware: The Value of Near-Death Accounts

Religious deception and hucksterism is certainly not a new phenomenon. From Sinclair Lewis’ Elmer Gantry to televangelist Jim Bakker to some proponents of the Prosperity Gospel, fictional and real life examples abound. So the revelation that Kevin Malarkey fabricated his six-year old son’s account of his near-death experience (NDE) in “The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven” is not shocking. In response to a letter by the now 16-year-old Alex, its publisher, Tyndale House, has announced it will no longer market the book, which has reportedly sold more than one million copies.

Claims have long circulated that Malarkey embellished, exaggerated, or even invented the experiences and visions he attributes to Alex. For several years, Beth Malarkey, Kevin’s ex-wife, has questioned the account. “Buyer beware,” she wrote. “There is only one absolutely infallible and true book: God’s Word. It does not need fancied up or packaged for sale.” Alex also previously denounced the story online as “1 of the most deceptive books ever.” However, only after he recently sent an open letter to Christian bookstores posted on the Pulpit and Pen Web site, directly stating “I did not die. I did not go to Heaven,” did Tyndale decide to pull the book from the shelves.

John MacArthur, the pastor of Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California, and the president of The Master’s College and Seminary, has led the attack on “The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven.” In his 2013 book “The Glory of Heaven,” MacArthur questions Malarkey’s account of his son’s experiences and claims that much of the book is unbiblical and “as a whole is dangerously misleading.” He denounces “The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven” as a “dangerous blend of fantasy, superstition, aberrant doctrines, and Bible references, composed with lots of evangelical-sounding language and peppered with patently false ideas about heaven, angels, and the afterlife.” MacArthur includes a statement from Beth that “Alex never concluded he was in heaven. He was a small boy who experienced something extraordinary. The adults made it into what would sell to the masses.”

Clearly, Kevin Malarkey concocted a story to capitalize on the phenomenal public interest in near-death accounts. Since Native American Betty J. Eadie’s 1992 “Embraced by the Light,” books describing journeys to heaven and back have sold millions. Especially popular has been Todd Burpo’s “Heaven is for Real,” the story of his 4-year old son’s trip to the other side, which was made into a movie last year. Meanwhile, two books published in 2012 – Mary Neal’s “To Heaven and Back: A Doctor’s Extraordinary Account of Her Death, Heaven, Angels, and Life Again” and Eben Alexander’s “Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife” – have given near-death accounts more credibility.

Christians have long debated the value of near-death testimonies, which Malarkey’s canard is likely to intensify. Defenders stress their positive impact, arguing that those who experience them often become more loving, forgiving, spiritually-minded, and responsible. Moreover, investigator Molly Cox-Chapman contends, they have helped millions believe in heaven despite the doubt “politics, science, psychology, and our personal histories” produce. Although the testimony of eight million Americans that they have journeyed “to the edge of the afterlife” does not prove that “God’s dwelling place” exist, she concludes, their “richly compelling” stories provides persuasive evidence for heaven.

Other Christians protest that many near-death experiences, especially ones that depict a “magnanimous, understanding, [and] all-loving” God who finds fault with no one, contradict scriptural teachings about God’s nature and life in heaven. Tim LaHaye, co-author of the “Left Behind” series, acknowledges that biblical teaching about the afterlife and the reports of NDEs have some similarities, including that individuals maintain their personal identity, recognize loved ones and friends, and communicate with other people. However, NDEs often present four unbiblical ideas: God accepts everyone regardless of their belief or character into His Kingdom, Jesus is not God’s unique son, sin appears not to be judged, and celestial travelers are “granted a second chance after death.”

Philosophers Gary Habermas and J.P. Moreland point out that people’s interpretation of their NDEs depend substantially on conceptions of the afterlife that are popular when they live. This, coupled with physiological explanations of these experiences, lead them to argue that NDE do not provide conclusive evidence for life after death or convincing descriptions of heaven.

The colossal sales of books about near-death experiences attest that many people desire to go to heaven and are curious about what the afterlife will entail. Despite the revelation that Malarkey invented his son’s story, millions will undoubtedly continue to find near-death accounts to be captivating, inspiring, and reassuring. Nevertheless, for Christians, the teachings of Scripture and the resurrection of Jesus should provide the principal basis for belief in heaven.

Dr. Gary Scott Smith chairs the history department at Grove City College and is a fellow for faith and politics with The Center for Vision & Values. He is the author of “Heaven in the American Imagination” (Oxford University Press, 2011).

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