There is no shortage of books and movies about near-death experiences. Lee Strobel's documentary is the latest addition to the "I died and went to heaven then came back" genre.
The moment I began reading that Lee Strobel, an atheist-turned-evangelist, has released a documentary called A Case for Heaven about his own near-death experience, as well as the NDEs of others, my mind went back to the Malarkey saga dating back 18 years.
Alex Malarkey, then six, was badly injured in a car crash that occurred when he and his dad Kevin were returning from a church service in Huntville, Ohio in 2004. He was sadly left quadriplegic by the accident.
Six years later a book, The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven: A True Story was published, with Kevin and Alex listed on the cover as co-authors.
In it, Alex claimed he had spent time in heaven after the accident, and continued to be visited by angels and demons after he emerged from his coma two months later.
He wrote that he traveled through a bright tunnel, was greeted by five angels, and then met Jesus, who told him he would survive; later, he saw 150 “pure, white angels with fantastic wings.”
Heaven has lakes and rivers and grass, the book says. God sits on a throne near a scroll that describes the End Times. The devil has three heads, with red eyes, moldy teeth, and hair made of fire.
According to Wiki, the publishers, Tyndale House, promoted the book as:
A supernatural encounter that will give you new insights on Heaven, angels, and hearing the voice of God.
It was gleefully seized upon by NDE enthusiasts and believers in an afterlife and 112,386 copies were sold in the first year. Later it received a platinum award from the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association in 2013 after sales topped a million. It spent months on The New York Times bestseller list.
After the Malarkeys’ success, “all Christian publishers were looking for the next heaven book,” said Sandy Vander Zicht, a former editor at Zondervan, a large evangelical publisher based in Michigan.
Then Alex dropped a bombshell: in 2015 he confessed that his account of visiting heaven several times and meeting key biblical characters was a load of, well, malarkey.
He wrote an open letter to Christian bookseller Lifeway and “other sellers, buyers, and marketers of heaven tourism” that was published by Pulpit & Pen:
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. In Christ, Alex Malarkey.
In 2018, Alex Malarkey filed a lawsuit against Tyndale House, accusing them of charges including defamation and exploitation. He sought damages at least equivalent to the book’s profits.
According to this 2019 report, the money the Malarkeys earned from the book is “long gone”, and Alex’s mother Beth says the two of them are “on the verge of being homeless.” A judge dismissed most of the lawsuit.
You’d think that after this confession and subsequent court case, publishers would run a mile from any other accounts of NDEs. But in 2010, Thomas Nelson Publishers gave the world Heaven is for Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back.
According to Wiki, it was written by Todd Burpo and Lynn Vincent and published by Thomas Nelson Publishers. It documents a near-death experience of Burpo’s three-year-old son Colton, and was later adapted into a movie starring Greg Kinnear.
Time magazine published a cover story in 2012 titled “Rethinking Heaven,” opening with Burpo’s story—even more detailed than Alex’s—about seeing a rainbow horse and meeting the Virgin Mary.
A variety of Christians expressed questions regarding the book. The Berean Call, a Christian ministry and newsletter, criticized the book for its “extra-biblical” and “problematic” claims, as well as the lack of any medical evidence that the boy was clinically dead during surgery that had been performed on him
I then learned, via the International Association for Near-Death Studies, Inc, (IANDS) that around 20 years ago, the BBC had produced a documentary called The Day I Died. The IANDS was so enamored with the documentary that that it wanted to have is screened in a variety of venues. But it ran into a spot of bother because “the BBC had no intention of making the program available for purchase.” One has to wonder why.
Back now to the latest addition to the “heaven tourism” market. According to Crosswalk Strobel’s The Case for Heaven, confronts moviegoers with the reality of death—but are told they have nothing to fear if they trust in Jesus.
It quoted Stobel, above, as saying:
Even among non-believers, there’s an attempt to try to be immortal apart from God. The Bible says in Ecclesiastes that God has planted eternity in our hearts—there’s something inside of us that longs for eternity.
People who don’t believe in God try to achieve some sort of immortality by writing a best-seller or designing a cathedral or painting a masterpiece, or committing a crime. Look at Mark David Chapman—why did he murder John Lennon? He said, ‘I wanted to steal a bit of his fame.’ He wanted his name to go down in history.
Given that Heaven is for Real grossed over $100-million worldwide, it pains me to say that Strobel is onto a winner with this latest contribution. Given, too, that NDE visions seem reserved for True Believers™ I’m slightly miffed that, were I to die and be resuscitated, I won’t be able to make a killing writing a book about Technicolor visions of rainbow horses and other things that don’t exist except in hallucinations and Harry Potter books. Virgins are another issue, which I have no wish to get into here.
Note: The Atlantic, in 2015, carried an in-depth investigation into NDEs in a piece entitled “The Science of Near-Death Experiences.“
The author, Gideon Litchfield, pointed out that written accounts of near-death experiences—or things that sound like them—date back at least to the Middle Ages, and some researchers say to ancient times.
He said the medical journal Resuscitation published a brief account of the oldest known medical description of an NDE, written by an 18th-century French military doctor, Pierre-Jean du Monchaux (1733–1766). But the modern era of research into near-death experiences is generally said to have begun in 1975. That was the year Raymond A. Moody Jr., a philosopher turned psychiatrist, published Life After Life, a book based on interviews with around 50 people who had NDEs.