More than two years ago, I wrote an article titled “The Burpo-Malarkey Doctrine,” critiquing the insanely popular I-Saw-Heaven-and-Here’s-What-It’s-Like genre of Christian best sellers. We posted that article on the Grace to You blog in anticipation of a revised and expanded edition of John MacArthur’s The Glory of Heaven.
One of the books I critiqued in that blog post was The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven by Kevin Malarkey. That book, published by Tyndale, is the story of Malarkey’s son, Alex, whose spinal column was completely severed at the neck in a horrific crash at an Ohio intersection on the way home from church one Sunday morning. Alex’s survival is a remarkable providence, and his courage and endurance through the whole ordeal is a true wonder. His experience is a compelling story, apart from the heaven-and-back element. Doctors said he would not survive, but Alex pressed on through numerous surgeries, countless inconveniences, and unbelievable adversity, always with a smile and a grateful heart.
Even at age six, recovering from an injury that would ordinarily be fatal, and coming to grips with total paralysis, Alex kept an unusually positive frame of mind. He pondered (as anyone would) troubling metaphysical questions like Why? What next? and What is God’s plan in this? One of the ways six-year-old Alex dealt with the trauma and the questions (while totally immobile and heavily sedated) was by imagining what had happened to him and what it all might mean. The tedium of hospital life was excruciating. So he answered people’s questions with stories he knew would get and hold their attention. Those stories became the seeds that planted the idea for Alex’s father’s book about heaven.
Shortly after “The Burpo-Malarkey Doctrine” was posted on our blog two years ago, Alex’s mom, Beth Malarkey, contacted me to acknowledge that John MacArthur’s analysis is correct: “These modern testimonies . . . are simply untrue.” She and Alex had already been doing everything they could to get the word out that The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven told a largely imaginary story, and that most of the details had been greatly embellished and exaggerated in the writing. Publicity about the book had incited a cult of afterlife enthusiasts and hangers-on who wanted to canonize Alex and idolize him as a mystical seer with an open connection to heaven. Alex was uncomfortable with the feeling of moral and spiritual responsibility his sudden fame had thrust on him. Still a child, he nevertheless understood that the truth was more important than his own reputation.
The publisher refused to pull or alter the book. Alex’s father, thrilled with the book’s best-seller status, stood with the publisher. Even a pastor from whom Alex sought counsel said he thought the book was “blessing” people. He advised Alex to be quiet and let it ride.
Before John MacArthur’s new edition of The Glory of Heaven went to press, John added a section noting the disclaimers Alex and Beth Malarkey had published in their futile attempts to make the truth known. In a footnote on page 55, for example, John wrote:
Although Kevin and Alex Malarkey are listed as joint authors on the book’s cover, Alex has publicly disclaimed the book online, calling it “1 of the most deceptive books ever.” Beth Malarkey, Alex’s mom and Kevin’s wife, describes the book as “a beautiful testimony distorted, twisted, packaged and used as business.”
Reviewing The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven at length in Appendix 2, MacArthur noted:
The book’s cover lists Kevin and Alex as joint authors, but the copyright notice is in Kevin’s name alone, and it is clearly Kevin who tells the story. Also on the book’s cover, in large type, are the words “a true story.” But as we shall see, there is considerable evidence that Kevin Malarkey has embellished, exaggerated, and even fabricated the supposed visions and experiences he attributes to Alex. (p. 199)
. . . . . . . .
Kevin Malarkey has overlaid his son’s testimony with so much that is unbiblical that the book considered as a whole is dangerously misleading. Alex himself posted a similar assessment of his father’s narrative at a webpage publicizing the book, but the comment was quickly deleted. Beth Malarkey reposted Alex’s comment at her own blog, saying “Alex voiced accurately what the book was about but he was silenced.” Like Alex, she emphatically disavows many of the claims that are made in her husband’s book, adding this: “Buyer beware. There is only one absolutely infallible and ‘true’ book: God’s Word! It does not need fancied up or packaged for sale. It is incredible as it stands!” (pp. 200-201)
Beth Malarkey perfectly summarized the issue in three sentences, saying: “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” (footnote, p. 201).
The Glory of Heaven (2nd ed.) was published in early 2013, so the true story about The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven has been in circulation and widely available for two years. Justin Peters became aware of Mrs. Malarkey’s plight last year and tried many times to call attention to Alex’s disclaimers. But the publisher continued selling and promoting the book with a cover that boldly (and falsely) proclaims it “a true story.”
Last week, Alex Malarkey himself weighed in with a short open letter.
An Open Letter to Lifeway and Other Sellers, Buyers, and Marketers of Heaven Tourism, by the Boy Who Did Not Come Back from Heaven
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.
Alex’s letter is articulate. It is gospel centered. It has the clear ring of truth.
When Alex has tried to make similar statements on Facebook or in other online forums, he has been routinely shouted down, his comments deleted, and his fragile voice silenced. We want to give his testimony maximum exposure, because Alex is right: The truth is more important than how anyone feels about it.
One of the top online reviews of The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven says: “I can tend to be a little skeptical of otherworldly experiences, but when I hear it from the words of a child, I am much more open to the idea. A child is not going to be capable of making up these kinds of images and keeping his story straight for month after month after month.”
That, sadly, is what lots of readers think. What they don’t realize is that there is a massive industry behind books like these, heavily populated with decision makers who care more for filthy lucre than for truth. Employed in that industry are some mercenaries who have no scruples whatsoever about making up tales like these, polishing and embellishing them, and buttressing them with details designed to enhance the illusion of believability. It’s the very worst kind of pragmatism gone to seed. What’s “good” is defined by what sells. Scripture calls it “the teaching of Balaam” (Revelation 2:14).
Christian publishing is long overdue for reformation.