You’ve probably heard of that genre of books called heavenly tourism. In these books, a Christian discusses a Near-Death Experience (NDE) they had where they think they visited an afterlife that looks remarkably like the Christian Heaven. They were allowed to return (or requested to do so) and now they feel that their life’s mission is to tell as many people as they can about their experience. Christians love these books. But now one of these heavenly tourism claimants has recanted his story. Here’s how he did it, and why, and what it means for Christianity.
The second a Christian gets converted, the impulse is often to share the story of that conversion with the whole wide world and everybody in it who’ll stand still long enough to listen to the tale. To accomplish that goal, the Christian crafts a conversion narrative, which is called a testimony. A testimony is the very personal (and hopefully brief) story of how that particular Christian lived before conversion, what convinced that person to convert, and how the conversion affected that person’s life afterward. These stories are thought by Christians to be incredibly useful tools in their efforts to convert non-believers.
Nearly all of these stories are bullshit to one extent or another.
Human memory is so painfully unreliable that even if the testimony-bearer were trying his or her level best to be nothing but totally honest, the risk that the story is being distorted or massaged somehow is astronomical. And most of these testimony-bearers are not trying that hard to be honest.
I’ve personally seen thousands of Christians give testimonies, and I knew most of them weren’t telling the truth about what they were describing. Tiny coincidences became the grandest imaginable newsworthy miracles; unverified suspicions of aches and pains became cancer that got prayed away; a life of–at worst–generalized adultolescence became horrific days of debauchery and predation.
It wasn’t hard for me to notice that when Biff and my other Christian friends gave testimonies at churches where they weren’t regular members or known well to the congregations, their testimonies tended to inflate in scope and majesty dramatically. Noticing this tendency made me try very hard to stay honest about my own testimony, but about all that effort got me was a dwindling of requests that I share that testimony on public occasions. Who honestly wants to hear “I was basically a good kid; I converted because this made more sense than what I was doing before; and I’m still basically a good adult”?
Lemme help you out there: NOBODY does.
Motivated Reasoning on Both Sides.
These stories are not disinterested, third-party accounts of events, either. They are crafted and shared with an eye toward persuasion and proselytizing, which means that they’re going to be presented in a way that accomplishes an agenda.
We should be distrustful of stories told with an agenda. It doesn’t matter if the story is about a person claiming their cat is sick to get crowdfunded charity from strangers, a Gospel story in the Bible about the life of Jesus, a preacher on television claiming that he saw a blind man get healed in Jamaica, or a guy telling total strangers on a subway that he was healed of alcoholism by Jesus. When somebody stands to benefit somehow from the creation and sharing of a story, that person is going to be at huge risk for distorting or making up details in order to game the system, so they can get more of whatever the reward is.
Worst of all, testimonies are really not effective. They might work to inspire belief on the part of children or those who can’t think critically, but they will fail against anybody lacking any particular reason to accept the narrative’s claims as evidence. These stories definitely fall into the fallacy of mistaking anecdotes as evidence, but like most apologetics they will succeed mostly with people who already buy into the worldview needed to see them as true. If Christians actually had some of that more credible support, they’d be using it, you can be certain of that.
So testimonies are as slickly packaged, polished, and honed as anything else that comes out of the Christian fundagelical marketing machine. (Mormons have their own version of testimonies, but they sound much the same as standard fundagelical ones.)
Incentive to Lie.
As a standard rule of thumb, the more depraved the pre-conversion life was, the bigger the miracle that occurred at the time of conversion, or the more social or financial incentives there are for the person telling this story to make it sound amazing, the more likely the testimony that results will be a “lie for Jesus.”
The problem is that there is a huge incentive to lie in a testimony.
Christians, as a group, tend to assume that their peers would never lie to them. I’ve never even heard of a Christian questioning a testimony, much less investigating it without there being some very pressing reason to do so. Christian culture itself tends to stomp with both feet on anybody who expresses the faintest bit of doubt or disapproval about anything another Christian says or does.
A culture of silence results, one that opens the door to predators and scammers.
Heavenly Tourism: An Easy Gamble.
Even when one of these liars is caught, chances are the damage will be minimal–either the Christian will deny all charges and pretend nothing happened, a strategy that works in a surprising number of cases (Mike Warnke still hasn’t admitted that 99% of his testimony is a fabrication, while Tony Anthony is clearly still hoping everybody just forgets that he lied about being a globe-trotting Kung Fu assassin).
Or the Christian can cry crocodile tears and pretend to have repented, then try to rebuild their tattered ministry as most evangelists do. And either way the liar goes, there will be plenty of Christians who’ll support the next endeavor, and give the liar more money and loyalty.
Combine negligible risk with astronomical payoff, and I don’t know how Christians expect anything else to happen besides what does: constant lies streaming out of Christians eager to cash in on their peers’ gullibility and eagerness to hear “proof” of the religion’s many claims. They’re really left nothing to chance. They’ve built what is damned near an empire on lies, removed all ability to weed out liars, rewarded liars hugely, and penalized anybody trying to speak against these liars–then seem shocked when liars erupt constantly out of their ranks with false testimony after false testimony.
Interestingly, even some Christian groups don’t really care for the concept of testimonies, but not because of their inherent proneness to dishonesty and exaggeration. CARM objects to the way that these stories often bear next to no resemblance to anything in the Bible, and often make next to no mention of any Bible verses. For what it’s worth, I’d agree completely. Keep that objection in mind as we zoom in on a story that’s been shocking the religious world this week.
Christianity’s Version of the NDE.
One particularly pernicious form of the testimony is what’s becoming known as heavenly tourism, a new genre that combines Christian myths with general New Age spiritualism to create testimonies about Christians who apparently, went to heaven during medical crises and returned to share the story.
These stories are really just a reworking of a slightly older idea: the Near-Death Experience, told from a Christian standpoint in a way that won’t immediately make Christians recoil from what is at heart a very non-Christian idea. When Near-Death Experiences (NDEs) first became part of the popular lexicon, I remember thinking of them with a great deal of suspicion. My pastors all spoke out against them for a number of reasons: the Bible didn’t include any verses that talked about anything these NDEs talked about; people were thought to sleep in the grave until Rapture and/or Judgment Day; the idea encouraged people to focus too much on subjective experience and the person telling the story rather than on Jesus.
But over the years, the idea of NDEs has become more and more acceptable, to the point where just like horoscopes now have Christian equivalents in Christians who constantly try to predict the future “in the Spirit,” now NDEs have their equivalent in the form of people who claim to have gone to Heaven and returned to share the story.
The Heavenly Tourist.
Heavenly tourism means big bucks for the people who can spin the yarns convincingly enough. Eben Alexander’s book became a bestseller despite being thoroughly debunked by Sam Harris and Esquire (here’s a decent summary of the main problems with Dr. Alexander’s story if you can’t get past Esquire‘s paywall–I know, it’s the Blaze, but I checked it out and it seemed okay to me), among numerous others. Colton Burpo got not only a bestselling book but also a movie for his completely non-credible contribution to the genre, Heaven is For Real. There has been recently a proliferation of this bullshit, like 23 Minutes in Hell and the beyond-ludicrous To Heaven and Back. One blogger lists tons of these stories, each one peddled by hopeful authors wanting to cash in on the newest Christian trend.
Christians themselves tend to ferociously defend these works to the skies (both this link and that GTYCanada link in the previous paragraph include a lot of the standard rationalizations in the comments). I can see why. In absence of any real reason to believe in Christian myths, even a story that is obviously wish-fulfillment pandering stands in for more credible forms of support.
It normally falls to non-Christians to debunk these stories, since Christians generally won’t do it because doing so might shed unwanted light on the rest of their cherished narratives, or can’t do it because doing so would require critical thinking skills as well as the ability to weigh the validity of claims, neither of which are skills they have or want to use in evaluating their own religion’s claims.
The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven.
That’s why I was really startled by this story about Alex Malarkey, a boy who is listed as co-author of The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven.
The story’s quite standard: a Christian has acute medical distress, temporarily “dies,” and has an NDE that is very Christian-themed. Shocking details are revealed that the heavenly tourist couldn’t possibly have known. The tale ends on a note of hope and inclusiveness.
Christians tend to value the supposed honesty of children. I suppose none of them have ever been children or been around children. So if the story can be told by a child, so much the better. They’ll trust it more.
But this one’s got a serious twist.
Alex has since recanted his story.
The Boy Who Didn’t Come Back From Heaven.
Actually apparently he did quite some time ago, as did his mother. He has no financial incentive to lie–his father is the one who is apparently benefiting from the sales of the book, and Alex and his mother were left in the cold following what sounds like a truly nasty divorce (so much for Christian love, huh?).
Alex has finally gotten through to the tribe with a strongly-worded rebuke and confession about having made up the whole story. If that is his writing, then he seems like a genuinely decent young man who wants to atone and make up for the ruse he perpetrated, a young man who is devastated that this whole thing happened. For what it’s worth, I completely understand and forgive him. There’s nothing even really to forgive. He was just a kid at the time, and kids make stories up to please and amuse the adults around them. That’s just what they do; it’s how they learn to interact and define themselves.
I don’t hold it against Alex that he did this, any more than I hold against Colton Burpo. It was up to the adults around these children to set them straight, and nobody did that. Instead they just shined on these kids and encouraged them to make the stories as wild and as detailed as they could.
Who’s Surprised by LifeWay’s Reaction?
The twist gets even twistier, too.
For years, Alex and his mother have been trying to get the word out about the situation. A prominent debunker of Christian lies, Justin Peters, wrote to LifeWay (who distributed the book). He alerted them to the fact that the book was completely untrue. They childishly dismissed him out of hand as a mean ole meaniepie (no exaggeration). Then, LifeWay decided to just ignore him and keep selling the book.
Most of the time, their strategy works for them. Christians hear the claim, but rarely the debunking of that claim. They absorb the talking point, but rarely ever hear why that talking point is categorically false. And if they ever do hear the debunks and disavowals, they rarely seem to remember any of them.
This time, though, it didn’t work out quite that way.
In the wake of widespread disapproval from Christians and non-Christians alike, LifeWay finally decided to pull the book. They also promised to “evaluate” the other books like it more “proactively.”
In addition, the publisher, Tyndale House, issued a SHOCKED-YES-SHOCKED-I-AM response that is equally patently dishonest. It’s dishonest because they knew a long time ago that Alex had officially declared that the book was bullshit. But okay.
Finally, thanks to this brave young man, maybe Christians will start looking more critically at these stories.
Finally, maybe the “heavenly tourism” gravy train is rolling out of its last stop.
Happy Pretendy Fun Time Games.
And I’m so relieved.
It’s one thing if adults choose to deceive each other and believe blithering nonsense. It’s another when little children get dragged into the Happy Pretendy Fun Time Games. These poor kids are getting trotted out like little trophies to recite their coached dialogue and claims to the oohs and ahhs of Christians eager to lick their lips over anything, anything at all, that even halfway makes their beliefs sound less blitheringly nonsensical.
I realize that it’s a fallacy to say that just because every single time we really examine one of these stories it turns out to be false so that must mean that they are all false.
But how many of these false stories do people need to hear before they start holding all of these claims’ feet to the fire? Before demanding rigorous evidence for them before buying in? Before thinking that maybe there aren’t any true ones at all?
… Meanwhile, Colton Burpo, the other big name in heavenly tourism, is now a teenager. He clearly still has plenty of incentive to stick with his gravy train. And he wants to let everybody know that even though that other kid recanted his story and now admits it was false, his story is still totes for realsies, y’all.
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(Cas tidied this post up a bit on January 23, 2021.)