Though I'd never heard of it, a book called The Boy who Came Back from Heaven has apparently been a popular title in Christian circles since 2010. It recounts the near-death experience of Alex Malarkey, who suffered a crippling accident when he was six years old. Here's part of the book description found on the Amazon sales page:
Two months later, Alex awoke from a coma with 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. Of the unearthly music that sounded just terrible to a six-year-old. And most amazing of all . . . of meeting and talking to Jesus.
Now Alex has publicly disowned the book, stating that it was based on lies he told to get attention, and his publisher has announced that the book will be discontinued.
The incident naturally raises questions about other NDE accounts. Given the popularity of books about NDEs and the widespread dissemination of NDE "memes" throughout our culture, it is certainly possible - in fact, likely - that some other NDEs are also made up or greatly exaggerated, either for the purpose of making a buck or just for a chance at the spotlight.
That said, we shouldn't let skepticism run away with itself. NDEs have been reported for centuries, and there are dozens - possibly hundreds - of cases predating the 1975 publication of Raymond Moody's Life after Life, which coined the term "near-death experience" and first popularized the idea. And it took a while for NDEs to catch on; many of the patients studied by Michael Sabom in his groundbreaking 1981 study Recollections of Death said they had never heard of an NDE. Since Sabom began his investigation only a short time after Moody's bestseller was published, and since he was working in a rural area with a low-income, low-education population, his patients' lack of awareness seems quite understandable.
In the present case, there's another factor - Alex Malarkey, like his parents, is a deeply religious Christian. It appears that his mother has been opposed to the book for years and recently "communicated to [a prominent retailer] that her son Alex was against the book that purported to be his story." It's likely that Alex - today a badly disabled 16-year-old - has come under pressure from those closest to him to recant the book.
Consider the public statement he released. Here it is in its entirety:
Please forgive the brevity, but because of my limitations I have to keep this short.
I did not die. I did not go to Heaven.
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.
It is only through repentance of your sins and a belief in Jesus as the Son of God, who died for your sins (even though he committed none of his own) so that you can be forgiven may you learn of Heaven outside of what is written in the Bible…not by reading a work of man. I want the whole world to know that the Bible is sufficient. Those who market these materials must be called to repent and hold the Bible as enough.
It seems pretty clear that Alex's motive, at least in part, is to advocate for "repentance" - repentance on the part of those who publish books like his, and also those who read them. The Christian blog Pulpit and Pen, from which I pulled Alex's statement, enthusiastically concurs, writing:
The Bible is enough.
The Bible is sufficient.
Christ is enough.
Christ is sufficient.
We don’t need Christian bookstores to sell us books and resources that tell us otherwise. We pray that Thom Rainer, Ed Stetzer, other Lifeway executives and all Christian book retailers will take notice of this courageous and Gospel-centered 16 year-old young man, and that everyone reading this will lift him up to the Lord.
Pulpit and Pen also tells us:
We are publishing this story because Christian publishers and retailers should have known better. They should have had the spiritual discernment, wisdom, compassion, and intestinal fortitude to not sell a book which contains, along with all books like it, deep theological problems. It also doesn’t help that in what is purported to be a “TRUE STORY” that there are vivid descriptions ... which test the limits of how far we are willing to go outside the realm of scripture and accept as having been from God.
In fact, the bloggers appear to be on a mission against all "heavenly tourism" books, complaining about a retailer that still sells them despite their own objections, and boasting that they have successfully gotten three other titles pulled from the shelves. It's not clear if the other three titles were about heaven, but they evidently contained material the blog disapproves of. ("Due to the pressure and pleas from the Pulpit and Pen and others, ... three of the books that we have taken aim at and labelled “the worst books Lifeway sells” have been pulled from their online store. We’re going for a fourth ...") In an update, the blog proudly announces that The Boy who Came Back from Heaven has now been pulled by Lifeway, as well.
I have no idea what really happened to Alex. It's possible he had an NDE and was later pressured into recanting, just as many people who've had mystical visions have been pressured by mainstream religious authorities. It's also possible that he had a less dramatic NDE and exaggerated it for "attention" and to win the plaudits of his Christian family. Or maybe he had no NDE at all, and made up the whole thing, as he now says. Or possibly his father, who coauthored the book, was responsible for the project from its inception, and simply used Alex as a pawn. This last is the apparent implication of a statement left by Alex's mother on her own blog, as reported by the Washington Post:
She goes on to say that the book is not “Biblically sound” and that her son’s objections to it were ignored and repressed. She also notes that Alex “has not received monies from the book nor have a majority of his needs been funded by it.”
She ends in obvious frustration, writing: “Alex’s name and identity are being used against his wishes …"
Whatever the truth, it seems clear that Alex and his book have gotten caught up in a religious skirmish, and that the people agitating against the book are motivated mainly by their interpretation of Christian doctrine. Their principal objection to the book is that it says things that fall outside of scripture and are therefore suspect, since only scripture is a guide to truth. This is the same objection that other religious persons lodge against mediumship, past-life recall, spontaneous after-death communications, apparitions and hauntings, etc. For such people, the Bible tells us all we can know or ought to know, and any attempt to go beyond it constitutes meddling with things we should leave alone.
If Alex did invent the story, or much of it, then he should recant, of course. If some adult(s) manipulated him into putting his name on it in order to make money, it's an outrage. But if Alex's experience was not made up and he's recanted only because of outside pressure, then he's been cheated of a great gift.
Any way you look at it, this is a sad story.