By Bob Allen
LifeWay Christian Resources agreed to stop selling a book about a child’s purported visit to heaven during a near-death experience in 2004 after the now-teenager recanted the story in an open letter to a Southern Baptist blog.
First published in 2010, The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven by Alex Malarkey and his father, Kevin Malarkey, describes what happened in the aftermath of a car accident that left the youth paralyzed.
“In November 2004, Alex and I were in a car accident,” the book says in the introduction. “The accident was so horrific that Alex, who was six at the time, was not expected to live, and a medical officer suggested that the coroner be called to the scene. Later, in the hospital, Alex was in a coma for two months. Alex spent time during this period in Heaven, and when he returned to us, he had much to say about his experience.”
A New York Times bestseller, the book is one of a number of near-death memoirs comprising a popular but controversial genre in Christian publishing labeled by critics as “heaven tourism.” In June the Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution “On The Sufficiency Of Scripture Regarding The Afterlife” warning that “many devout and well-meaning people allow these [books and movies] to become their source and basis for an understanding of the afterlife rather than scriptural truth.”
On Jan. 13 the group blog Pulpit and Pen published a statement from Alex titled “An Open Letter to Lifeway and Other Sellers, Buyers, and Marketers of Heaven Tourism, by the Boy Who Did Not Come Back From Heaven.”
The younger Malarkey began with an apology for brevity due to physical limitations and proceeded to proclaim: “I did not die. I did not go to heaven.”
“I said I went to heaven because I thought it would get me attention,” Malarkey wrote. “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.”
Pulpit and Pen blogger Dustin Germain said Malarkey reached out to the blog after learning about #the15, a collection of Twitter posts alleging that the Southern Baptist Convention publishing house puts profit ahead of doctrinal truth when it comes to deciding what products to sell in LifeWay Christian stores.
It is thought to be the first time for the teenager to recant his story, but his mother posted a blog in April alleging that her son’s name and identity were being used against his wishes.
She said her son is not an author, has received no money from the book and that there are facts that dispel many of the things contained in the pages of the book. She said when Alex tried to tell a pastor that the book was wrong and needed to be stopped, he was told that the story was “blessing people.”
LifeWay Christian Resources issued a statement Jan. 15 in response to an inquiry from Patheos blogger Warren Throckmorton.
“LifeWay was informed this week that Alex Malarkey has retracted his testimony about visiting heaven as told in the book The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven,” said Director of Communications Martin King. “Therefore, we are returning to the publisher the few copies we have in our stores.”
A Jan. 15 follow-up post on Pulpit and Pen, however, contained emails exchanged between LifeWay President Thom Rainer and a former trustee indicating that Rainer was told the story is fiction as early as May 2014.
The book’s publisher, Tyndale House, announced it was taking the book and related ancillary products out of print.
Kevin Malarkey, a Christian counselor who authored a second book titled A Beautiful Defeat: Find True Freedom and Purpose in Total Surrender to God published in 2014 by Thomas Nelson, did not respond to an email request for comment.