Nearly five years ago, a young man by the name of Alex Malarkey made the claim that he died and went to heaven after a horrific car accident. He detailed his experience in his book, “The Boy who Came Back from Heaven”, which became a best-seller.
Just a couple of weeks ago (January 15, 2015), this same young man said that the story was a lie, that he made it up to get attention.
“I did not die. I did not go to Heaven,” Alex wrote. He continued, “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 seems to me that if fallibility was suspect in any book written on the subject of near death experiences, it certainly hasn’t effected their popularity. The genre known as “heavenly tourism” include many best-sellers – Betty Eadie’s “Embraced by the Light”, Don Piper’s “Ninety minutes in Heaven”, even “23 Minutes in Hell” by Bill Wiese.
“Heaven is For Real” Book Cover
The more recent “Heaven is for Real” tells the story of four year old Colton Burpo’s visit to Heaven during an almost fatal emergency appendectomy. After the Malarkey recant came out, the now fourteen year old Colton wrote his own letter stating that he stands on his word.
This got me thinking. Those once on the bandwagon with Malarkey now agree his story was a scam, based on his own statement. Let’s just say, hypothetically, that Colton Burpo comes forward tomorrow and says his story was a scam as well. Wouldn’t those who believed him do an about-face? It seems odd to me that what is labeled as “truth” one day would then be “false” simply based on what the speaker says it to be.
After all, if someone says they went to Heaven, who are we to judge their experience?
And that is my point in writing today. Does experience determine truth? If it does, a reasonable conclusion is that there is no limit to what we call theology. Our doctrine would morph from one experience to the next. From someone else’s experience to the next.
Curious about the entire buzz, I rented “Heaven is For Real”, the movie based on the book, this last weekend. It’s a feel-good, family oriented movie in many respects. There’s a sprinkling of scripture and a positive view of Christianity, and yes, that’s good. I’d like to continue to say good things about it, since saying anything other than a glowing “thumbs up” to spiritually-oriented “wholesome” films is often seen as unloving or critical. That’s not my heart in this at all, but I am passionate about seeing life through the filter of scripture. In fact, as believers we have a responsibility to be discerning, and Biblically speaking, there’s a lot wrong with this story. 1 Thessalonians 5:22 says, “…Examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good; abstain from every form of evil.” In this day and age, that can be challenge. That being said, I am convinced that Burpo’s story cannot possibly be true. I don’t necessarily doubt his sincerity. He and his family could very well believe he went to Heaven and back, I just don’t believe He did. However, as I’ve always said, consider the issue and decide for yourself:
THE FOCUS OF HEAVEN
First and foremost, of all the scriptural accounts of any mortal vision of heaven, (which include only four people – Isaiah, Ezekiel, Paul, and the Apostle John), there’s one common denominator. They all focus on the all-encompassing, glory of God. To behold the glory of the Maker of the Universe staggered them speechless, as we would expect it to. Isaiah was immediately mortified by his own sinfulness, crying out, “Woe is me, for I am undone! Because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts.” (Isaiah 6:5)
Paul perhaps is the most demonstrative. In 2 Corinthians 2-4 he writes, “I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know—God knows. And I know that this man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows— was caught up to paradise and heard inexpressible things, things that no one is permitted to tell.”
He, being the Apostle Paul and the founder of the early church, out of humility doesn’t even identify himself as the one who visited heaven. This is a picture of a man who is absolutely stunned by His vision. He is petrified with a holy awe. He doesn’t even dare to broach the thought of talking about it; he is hushed silent.
What’s more, with the exception of Paul, all recorded revelation was for the purpose of communication of prophesy for what was to come. If God restricted his revelation to a few for a specific message which is already written in His word, why would He have anything more to add to a four year old, or anyone else for that matter?
In contrast, Burpo (told by his father), describes Heaven in entirely man-centered terms. He mentions angels singing to him, not to the King of kings. Apparently these angels saw it more fit to serenade him as he sat on Jesus’s lap rather than Jesus himself…unlike the angels and holy creatures described in Revelation 4:8 and Isaiah 6:1-3 that continually sing “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty” around the throne of God.
THE COMPLETED CANON
We can ask ourselves the same question we ask of any of these modern near-death experiences. Can we trust that these men are telling the truth? The answer is yes, by virtue that their experiences are written in scripture. Furthermore, since the canon is closed (that is, the gathering of books together to complete the Bible), no other revelation can be validated in the same way, neither can it be altered.
The words of Proverbs 30:6 are pretty straightforward: “Do not add to his words, or He will rebuke you and prove you a liar.”
As a Christian, I believe that God’s word is precise and complete (1 Thess. 2:13). It doesn’t change from one day to the next. (Luke 21:33). It must be the plumb line to measure any claim, otherwise, we are tossed by every wind of doctrine. (Ephesians 4:14).Tell me, friends, are we really believing the Bible if we latch on to whatever sounds right without checking it against God’s word? Where is our solid anchor if not God’s word?
There are many other direct contradictions in the movie (and excerpts from the book) as compared to scripture, but here are just a couple that put the Burpo’s account into question:
- At the end of the movie, a very handsome picture of Jesus is painted by a young lady (Akiane Kramarik) who claims this image comes from a vision from God. Colton identifies this image as an accurate depiction of Christ. However, this is in direct conflict with scripture, which describes Christ as having had “no beauty or majesty to attract us to Him, nothing in His appearance that we should desire Him. (Isaiah 53:2)
“Jesus, Prince of Peace” painting by Akiane Kramarik
- Little Colton describes Jesus having “markers”, on the palms of his hands and his feet. However, the Romans actually drove spikes through a victim’s forearms rather than the palms. It seems that Colton’s description falls more in line with pictures of the crucifixion or resurrection he may have seen in a children’s book.
“What’s the big deal?” You may ask… “these stories and others like them have inspired faith and brought hope to many”. While this may be true, my question in response would be “to what faith would this draw someone?” Is it toward hope in scripture, or is it toward a greater clinging to the supernatural “signs and wonders, anything goes” mentality?
Futhermore, where a nebulous foundation of faith exists, there is a foundation for false teaching and a skewed center of worship. We are opening the doors to a seductive realm of possibility that God never intended. Any time we rely or depend on anything that isn’t in the Word of God, we are depending on our own understanding, and that undermines God’s word.
But what about all the information that little Colton knew that he couldn’t possibly have known had he not “gone to heaven”? He said he recognized his grandfather who died before he was born, and met a sister who died before she was born. To this I can only say that there can be many explanations, even though they may be mysterious to us. It could be a connection to lost memories or a supernatural impression on the mind’s blank and unconscious state. It’s possible that the explanation is not mysterious at all, but a coaching and/or influence by those around him. It could be due to conversations overheard, responses to prodding and even embellishment of a child’s imagination to please those around him. Due to the world we live in, the unexplained, apart from scripture, does not prove the truth that anything is true in my mind.
THE GOOD NEWS
I realize that many of us have loved ones in Heaven; I realize there are strong feelings on this subject. We long to know how those who have gone before are doing, what they are seeing and experiencing. Stories like these appeal to our sense of imagination and wonder. They spark a “could be” mentality with convincing descriptions. However, let us bear in mind the warnings in Scripture: “For Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light”, (2 Corinthians 11:13-15).
But here’s the good news: Without a doubt, if your loved one trusted Jesus Christ for their salvation, their Heaven is far greater than any of the accounts we are reading today. We all have our Heaven is for Real story, and there’s an age-old book that already has all the details we need to know for now. Rest assured in this hope and be encouraged.
The law of the Lord is perfect, restoring the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple. The precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes. The fear of the Lord is clean, enduring forever; the judgments of the Lord are true; they are righteous altogether.” (Psalm 19:7-9)
Have you seen this movie or read any of the books about visiting Heaven or Hell? What are your thoughts about the recent statement by Alex Malarkey?