How the controversy around a Christian bestseller engulfed the evangelical publishing industry—and tore a family apart.
Kevin and Alex Malarkey were alone together when the accident happened. It was November 2004, and the Malarkeys had moved to rural Huntsville, Ohio, from suburban Columbus just weeks earlier. The family was struggling financially, and Kevin and his wife, Beth, wanted to pursue a quieter life. Beth had given birth to their fourth child a few days before. Six-year-old Alex was the oldest of the bunch. He and his father went to church that Sunday morning, just the two of them.
On the drive home, Kevin answered a call on his cellphone just as he approached an intersection with a blind spot that locals knew to fear. He didn’t see the other car coming. Kevin was thrown from his vehicle but was unhurt. Alex was taken in a helicopter to Columbus Children’s Hospital. (The occupants of the other car were not seriously injured.) Alex had suffered an “internal decapitation”—his skull essentially separated from his spine. His injuries were so serious that the coroner was called to the scene of the crash.
Six years later, a book was published that would become a sensation. The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven—with Kevin and Alex listed on the cover as co-authors—tells the saga of Alex’s improbable survival. But it wasn’t that medical miracle that launched the story to fame. In the book, 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, and 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.
The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven sold more than 1 million copies and spent months on the New York Times’ bestseller list. It was also on the leading edge of a boomlet of “heaven tourism” stories in Christian publishing, including Heaven Is for Real, a memoir about 4-year-old Colton Burpo’s experience that came out later in 2010 and was eventually 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. Other such books included 90 Minutes in Heaven (2004, car accident), Flight to Heaven (2010, plane crash), To Heaven and Back (2012, kayaking accident), and Miracles From Heaven (2015, fall into a hollow tree, made into a Jennifer Garner movie). 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.
Until things came crashing back to earth. The cover of The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven calls the book “a true story.” But the boy himself now says it was not true at all. Four years ago, Alex sent a letter to a conservative Christian blog dramatically renouncing the book. “I did not die. I did not go to Heaven,” he wrote. “I said I went to heaven because I thought it would get me attention. … People have profited from lies, and continue to.” Alex’s retraction also became a sensation, with reporters unable to resist the sudden, hilarious perfection of his last name: Malarkey.
Although The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven has been off shelves for years now, yanked by the publisher after Alex’s disavowal, the drama around it has quietly continued to roil. In 2018, Alex filed a lawsuit against Tyndale House, a major Christian publisher based in suburban Chicago, accusing the company of defamation and exploitation, among other charges. He’s seeking a payout at least equal to the book’s profits. Alex, who turned 21 in 2019, now lives with his mother. He was valedictorian of his high school, but he has been a quadriplegic since the accident and requires full-time care. Kevin and Beth divorced in 2018, and Beth says she has no idea what happened to the money Kevin earned from the book. The suit alleges that she and Alex are “on the verge of being homeless.” Alex was a minor when the book was published, and claims he was not a party to the contract. (Tyndale says in court filings that Kevin entered into an agreement on his own and Alex’s behalf, and that while Beth was not party to the contract, she “consented as a matter of fact” to the book’s production by helping to arrange interviews and supplying family photos.) A judge has dismissed most of the lawsuit’s counts. The next court date is scheduled for August 2019.
According to Alex and his mother, it was Kevin Malarkey who turned an injured boy’s murmurings about angels into a complex story of a journey to heaven and back. As Alex’s lawsuit describes it, Kevin “concocted” the story that Alex had gone to heaven. Though Alex was billed as the book’s co-author, he told me he has never even read the full contents of The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven, let alone knowingly contributed to it. He said that some of the passages under his name were drawn from conversations with his father, but he didn’t realize they were intended for a book. “I didn’t write it,” Alex told me. “I have no idea what’s in it. I don’t know what I said.” He knows enough about the book, however, to feel sure that it doesn’t represent what really happened.
No one spoke up to defend the book after Alex recanted his version of events. Tyndale caved quickly, not only taking the book out of print but also announcing it was “saddened to learn” that Alex now claimed to have made up the story. In the years since, the book has come to seem to most people like a straightforward case of fakery and exploitation. Kevin Malarkey, who had been the book’s chief promoter, stopped giving interviews the day of his son’s disavowal. He has not spoken to the press in more than four years. He disappeared so completely that the Washington Post reported in 2018 that he was dead. Until 2019, one afternoon, he finally decided to tell his version of the events that rocked the Christian publishing industry and tore his own family apart.
Even when Alex was still in a coma, the family saw their story as nothing short of miraculous, Kevin writes in the book. Their son had defied the odds by surviving at all, and soon his recovery was drawing people together and strengthening the faith of strangers. A family friend set up a website, prayforalex.com, to coordinate volunteers for meals, child care, and prayer. The site is now defunct, but some of its pages can still be retrieved via the Wayback Machine, and I was able to acquire an additional stack of printouts of various posts and comments; all of this now reads like a fascinating, real-time first draft of Alex’s story and the rapturous way readers responded to it. Prayforalex.com became a community for people who were invested in Alex’s recovery, including many who had never met him. Strangers and new friends posted prayers and stories about the ways they saw God moving in their own lives. “There is no doubt in my mind that Alex and this family are anointed with the power of Christ placed on them,” wrote one commenter.
The family’s faith fed their optimism. Kevin writes in the book that after the car accident, he was consumed by guilt for months, but that Alex forgave him completely shortly after he was able to speak. When Alex had a bad breathing episode, Beth wrote on the site in January of 2005, she suspected “Satan knew that I was a little down and he tried to bother me more.” Beth saw Satan’s influence in her own exhaustion and discouragement; she and Kevin often put out calls for emergency prayers to foil his plans. “[Our family’s spiritual battles are] very real and I sure wish that it was just a fictional account,” Beth wrote when she sensed Satan was trying to demoralize Alex in his recovery. The family’s church, Bellefontaine First Church of God, taught them that the Holy Spirit was actively working in the world, battling demonic forces in real time. The family’s pastor at the time, Gary Brown, told me that he and a friend once felt inspired to drive to the Malarkey family home and walk a circle around the house praying for the family’s immediate spiritual protection from some kind of demonic force. “The war was very real,” he said of that time in the Malarkeys’ lives. “The spiritual warfare was very real.”
Alex’s recovery was slow, but he was able to communicate more as the months wore on. According to his parents’ posts on the website, he began to share details with Kevin and Beth about his trip to heaven at the accident scene, and his ongoing encounters with angels and demons. Kevin and Beth both posted on prayforalex.com about the stories Alex told them about his supernatural encounters. Beth put a note by Alex’s hospital bed, informing visitors that when his mouth was open wide, that meant angels were in the room. On Valentine’s Day, Beth posted a lengthy entry about what Alex had told her about sitting “in the lap of Jesus” at the accident scene: “Jesus told him he that he would breath but did not say when.” Readers devoured the stories about Alex’s visions. “I love to hear about our home in heaven,” one frequent poster wrote. Another reader sent the family a painting of Alex in his hospital bed, surrounded by three angels.
People around Alex were having their own supernatural experiences, too. A volunteer who stayed with Alex overnight at the hospital wrote that she heard the faucet in his room turn on and off three times, even though no one else was present. “After that, I had the distinct feeling that I was in the presence of Angels,” she wrote. The angels she envisioned were holding Alex’s neck, and she could sense bones being realigned and nerve passages reopened. She recalled that one angel spoke to her, saying, “There is more to do, but this is all for now.” Kevin wrote on the site that he felt God tell him at church one day: “He will walk.” The license plate on the family’s 15-passenger van, a gift from a local church, read “WIL WALK.”
He didn’t. Alex came home from the hospital in February 2005. Four years later, he underwent a procedure known as “the Christopher Reeve surgery” to allow him to breathe without a ventilator. He received some local news coverage at the time, because he was the youngest patient to have had the complex procedure. After an Associated Press reporter mentioned offhand to Kevin that he should write a book, as Kevin explains in The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven, Kevin met an agent and signed a contract with Tyndale. At the time, the book was tentatively titled Angel Boy: The Boy Who Spent 7 Weeks in Heaven. The main text is written in Kevin’s voice, but the book’s first nine chapters include separate sections written in Alex’s voice, with titles like “Angels Helping Me” and “I Still Visit Heaven.” Several sidebars are attributed to Beth. But what happened after Kevin signed that contract is at the heart of the conflict still swirling around the book: Who wrote what, and what did they really believe about what they were writing?
Book publishers don’t normally fact-check books. They’ll run sensitive material by lawyers, but otherwise it’s on authors to make sure their work is accurate. Generally, this works out fine. Sometimes, it does not. When books like James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces and the Holocaust chronicles Misha and Angel at the Fence were exposed as being at least partly fabricated, it cost the publishers both expense and embarrassment. Memoirs, which often rely on a single person’s account of an extraordinary drama, are particularly vulnerable to this kind of spectacular collapse.
“Truth” in memoir is a knotty question to begin with, but at evangelical publishing houses, there’s an extra layer of complexity. For these publishers, the Bible itself is presumed to be true, and their corporate mission is to advance that truth—and sell books in the process. Tyndale, which was founded as a Bible publisher in the 1960s, has self-professed “core values” that include “dependent on God,” “trustworthy,” and “anchored in the Bible.”
“As Christians, we believe in miracles and believe in angels, but you have to make sure the source is credible,” said Vander Zicht, who retired from Zondervan in 2018 after 33 years. As an editor, she says, she vetted spiritual accounts by whether they came through a reputable literary agent, and by talking with authors to get a gut sense of their trustworthiness; occasionally she asked theologians to assess books for biblical correctness. She said she wouldn’t have rejected a heaven story out of hand. But Vander Zicht said she once turned down the opportunity to acquire a similar nonfiction account of a heaven story with a young child at the center. “I felt the book shouldn’t be published until the boy was old enough to tell it himself,” she said. “I suspected it would be a bestseller, but I was uneasy.”
“You didn’t have to be a theological whiz to immediately see problems with these books,” said Justin Peters, a conservative independent evangelist who has been critical of the heaven genre, and who is friendly with Beth and Alex. Peters previously sat on the board of LifeWay, a publisher and (at the time) a major chain of Christian bookstores. He says he had tried unsuccessfully to convince LifeWay to stop selling heaven books and others he deemed theologically problematic.
No one I spoke with suggested that Tyndale might have known Alex wasn’t on board with writing a story that only he could’ve told. But in hindsight, there were signs of trouble. A ghostwriter hired to polish the book told me he spoke with Kevin often and interviewed other sources, including doctors who had been involved with Alex’s care. But he found it odd that his requests to interview Beth were brushed off by Kevin. The ghostwriter never spoke with Alex either. In the end, his draft was rejected by Kevin through Tyndale. The draft that was published was written by Kevin himself. (The ghostwriter asked to remain anonymous because he continues to work in the Christian publishing industry.)
Tyndale also commissioned a short documentary to be sold as a DVD accompaniment to the book. Though Beth allowed the filmmakers into her home and sat for interviews with them in the spring of 2010, they told me that she and Alex proved elusive as subjects. Alex, they were surprised to find, was unwilling or unable to repeat the stories about his encounters with angels and Jesus. “We expected him to give us some version of what was in the book,” the film’s co-editor and director of photography, Mark Schlicher, said. “That was obviously the money interview.” The crew came back a second day to try to coax Alex into speaking more openly and still got almost nothing, although Kevin was in the room encouraging him to talk. “I almost got the idea he was resistant to anybody putting words in his mouth—even at his young age,” said Ken Carpenter, the director. Schlicher and Carpenter both remember some kind of conflict between Kevin and Alex over Alex’s unwillingness to open up on camera.
Alex and Beth are clearly still wary of having their story told. When I spoke to them on the phone, their lawyer sat in on the call; my requests to speak to Alex individually were denied. (They are represented by a firm headed by prominent religious-liberty lawyer David Gibbs III, who represented Terri Schiavo’s parents in their attempt to keep her on life support against her husband’s wishes.) Together, they described years of feeling manipulated and railroaded by Kevin, who they claimed put the book before the family over and over, even though they had only a hazy idea of what he was working on.
Alex told me that in reality, he doesn’t remember anything about the accident, and the whole idea that he saw angels started as a mix-up: He awoke alone in his dark hospital room, and looked groggily into the bright hallway, where he saw his father talking to someone. “I thought it was an angel, because I thought I was dead,” he told me. “I don’t know why I thought that, but I did, and that’s what I remember.” He has said he told those supernatural stories as a child because he thought it would get him attention. The whole thing “got blown out of proportion,” he told me. Yes, his father would ask him questions and write things down, but he had no idea why. “I thought he was writing down something to talk about at church or something,” Alex said. “I didn’t even know it was going to be a book.” Beth, meanwhile, now says she was opposed to the project from the start. Most of the brief sidebars in the book attributed to her were taken from her posts on prayforalex.com without her permission, she said: “I never approved of the book, and I never cooperated with it.” Beth recalls that she’d told Kevin at least once in a tense medical moment, “You’d better not put that in your book,” to no avail. She says that her theology back when she was writing posts on prayforalex.com “was not as sound as it is now”—she was more open to believing in near-death experiences—and she was “grasping at any signs of hope that I could find.”
After the book was published, and as the family relationship deteriorated, Beth and Alex turned to contacting outsiders. In August 2011, Alex left a comment on a Facebook fan page for the book, calling it “1 of the most deceptive books ever.” The comment was deleted, according to a 2015 report in the Guardian. Beth started writing to Tyndale the next year to complain about the book, though it’s not clear she raised specific objections about the truth of Alex’s supernatural encounters. Tyndale offered to meet with her, but she declined, citing Alex’s health. She left comments on Christian blogs, and she told a radio show that Alex was opposed to the book. She also reached out to conservative writers who were publicly skeptical of the heaven genre on theological grounds. Several of them, and the pastor of Beth and Alex’s current church, have connections to the ministry of John MacArthur, an influential conservative California pastor who is critical of the charismatic theology behind phenomena like faith healing and out-of-body experiences. In 2012, Beth reached out to his ministry after his website posted a piece titled “The Burpo-Malarkey Doctrine” that called firsthand accounts of heaven “simply untrue.”
None of these attempts to discredit the book stuck. In 2013, Beth wrote a 7,000-word post on her (now offline) personal blog; as an attempted exposé, the post, which I also read via the Wayback Machine, is confusing. It does not mention Kevin or Tyndale by name, does not mention angels or Alex’s heaven stories, and is bogged down by thousands of words of medical details. Beth’s primary objection seems to be that she did not want her words to be included in the book, that Alex’s health was depicted in the book as more stable than it really was, and that the book is theologically incorrect. The post concludes: “I will do whatever I can to stop the exploitation of my son and the twisting of God’s truth.” (In response to specific questions about Alex’s suit and the book’s origin, a representative from Tyndale offered a statement: “Tyndale has the deepest sympathy for this young man’s circumstance, and we pray for him and his family regularly. We also note that Tyndale obtained proper consent to publish the book and paid everything that was owed under the contract. Since the litigation is still pending, Tyndale cannot comment further.”)
Eventually, Alex himself emailed a rabble-rousing conservative blog, Pulpit and Pen, that had been sharply critical of the mainstream Christian publishing industry for insufficient theological rigor. The blogger, J.D. Hall, a pastor in Montana, asked him if he would publish an open letter on the site. Hall said he called Alex on the phone every night over the course of weeks, writing and revising a statement in which Alex disavowed the book completely. Hall posted it on Jan. 13, 2015. Finally, it was over: Tyndale pulled the book from circulation, and after a frenzy of rubbernecking publicity, the world moved on. A few months later, LifeWay announced it had stopped selling all “experiential testimonies about heaven,” dramatically reducing the market for future stories like Alex’s.
I emailed Kevin Malarkey near the end of my reporting. I had heard he was quick to anger, and I knew he hadn’t spoken to any reporters since the book’s collapse. One source called him a “mean guy,” and said Kevin had warned him to stay off his property. Beth described him as intimidating, and said he had abandoned her with no warning in 2018 and had rarely spoken to her and Alex since. I didn’t think Kevin would talk to me at all.
Kevin wrote me back on a Saturday morning. He was at his son’s baseball game, he said, but if I wanted, I could call him back and try to explain what I was working on. By the time I did, the game was over, and his youngest son was in the car; Kevin asked him to put on headphones so he wouldn’t hear our conversation. When we first started talking, Kevin said he would only speak to me off the record. But a few minutes into our call, he changed his mind. He said he had prayed about whether or not to speak to me, and received an answer: “Talk to her.” We spoke that afternoon for almost two hours.
Kevin Malarkey didn’t disappear from the public eye because his lies had been exposed, he told me. He disappeared because God told him to be silent, because anything he would say publicly would further hurt his family. “All it would do was make Alex look worse, make Beth look worse,” he said. “Alex either lied when he was 6 or when he was 18.” Kevin said that Alex spoke openly and frequently about his encounters with angels and demons for years, and that they worked closely together on his portions of the book. (Beth said that “a little boy who had just come out of a major coma” couldn’t be expected to understand that he was collaborating on a book.) Couldn’t Alex have just been trying to please his father with those stories, I wondered? He was too young to fake it so convincingly, Kevin insisted. “I still believe it today,” he said. “I absolutely believe everything in that book.”
The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven insists that it is an inspirational book, but reading it now is heartbreaking. The family’s financial stress is a constant theme. As early as Page 2, Kevin writes that the family’s new insurance plan didn’t cover the new baby’s hospital birth; two pages later, he mentions a missed mortgage payment. He reminds himself: God will meet our needs. Meanwhile, he returns over and over to the problems in his marriage, writing about his and Beth’s anger, irritability, and distance. “Our relationship suffered great trauma,” he writes, “not only during Alex’s first weeks in the hospital, but also for years after the accident.”
Kevin and Beth first met when she moved in next door to him, Kevin said, and Kevin “led her to Christ” and baptized her. Kevin told me the relationship was contentious almost from the start. (Beth described it as “dysfunctional.”) Alex was born three years into their marriage, and by the time of the accident the Malarkeys were a family of six. The friction in the marriage was obvious to their children. In a 2005 post on prayforalex.com that Kevin said he posted on Alex’s behalf, the boy wrote to his thousands of followers: “Please pray for mommy and daddy to get in less figts.” Kevin slept in a guesthouse on their property for the last few years of their marriage. By that time, he said, Beth did not speak to him or acknowledge him when he entered the room. In Kevin’s recollection of that contentious DVD filming at the house, the conflict was not between Alex and himself, but between himself and Beth: “[Alex] probably felt in the middle of his parents, unfortunately.”
Kevin and his oldest son had been close before the accident, and it is clear from the posts on prayforalex.com that Kevin spent significant time with Alex at the hospital. After Alex came home, in Kevin’s account, Beth took over Alex’s care and Kevin took charge of the three younger children, while he continued to work full time. He said Beth essentially cut him off from Alex, always finding an excuse to be in the room or to whisk him off to minister to him. Kevin and a family friend he put me in touch with, Jami Mosgrove, both said they suspected Beth would use Alex’s need to have his legs manually exercised as an excuse to shoo others out of the room. (Beth told me that Kevin “never engaged” in Alex’s care. Kevin, meanwhile, said he was intensely involved in Alex’s medical care in the early years after the accident, but that Beth eventually stopped updating him about Alex’s care.) By the time Alex disavowed the book in 2015, his relationship with his father had deteriorated, which Kevin attributes to Beth’s influence. But Kevin remains hurt by the fact that his son didn’t come to him first. “Alex never told me he made the book up,” he said. “I found out when it was in the national news.”
One reason Kevin says he still believes in the book is because he is accustomed to having intense spiritual experiences himself. Once, Kevin wrote in the book, Alex told him he would encounter an angel named John; that evening, while taking out the trash, Kevin felt an unseen presence “[speaking] to me in my spirit,” offering specific words of encouragement that he raced inside to write down. These days, he prays early every morning and takes notes in a journal about what he perceives he is hearing from God. He acknowledges it can be hard to sort out God’s intentions from his own, but he figures if the message is uncomfortable or difficult—like a command to forgive someone, or to act against his own interests—then it’s likelier to come from God. Sometimes the directions are specific. At a speaking engagement at a church before the book fell apart, he says he received an instruction to set aside his notes and just pray. In his own church recently, God told him to give a message to a woman he didn’t know well. He’s comfortable with the fact that this may sound strange. “The other day, when I was praying, I felt like he was saying to me, ‘I have no interest in you understanding your own life. I have an interest in you following me,’ ” he said. “I was like, ‘That sounds like something you would say.’ ”
Kevin says he’d hoped the book would be about the “church being the church”: a positive story about Christians rallying around a family in crisis. But he knows that it was Alex’s heaven stories that secured him the contract with Tyndale. “It’s an absolutely wonderful story that should be told,” he recalls his agent, Matt Jacobson, saying. “Because there was a heaven experience, it will be told.” (Jacobson declined an interview request.)
Those close to Kevin express frustration that he stayed silent so long about a book whose story he still believes. “[We’ve] been urging him to say something,” said Paige Gutheil Henderson, a family doctor who runs the medical group that hosts Kevin’s current counseling practice. Kevin estimates that he earned about $1 million from the book, including a $500,000 advance. The money is gone now, he says. He was the family’s sole breadwinner, and Alex’s medical expenses were high. Yes, he signed the contract on his own and Alex’s behalf, but there were no provisions for Alex to be paid separately, he said; Alex was a minor, and the book proceeds went to his food, medical care, and other family expenses. But Kevin also says that when he received the advance, he made extravagant—what some might call impulsive—gifts to Christian charities and individuals in his church. At one point, he claims, he wrote a check for $30,000 to his church. (The church did not respond to requests for comment.) He lost more than that when he invested in a friend’s failed startup. When he and Beth divorced, she and Alex kept living in the house, and he moved into a small rented house, he says, furnished through garage sales and curbside discards.
I reached out to Beth and Alex to ask if we could speak again, to give them a chance to respond to the specifics of Kevin’s account. I also asked if I could speak to Alex alone. They denied my request through their attorney, who said Alex did not want to “stir up additional difficulty with his father.” When I then sent a detailed list of statements and questions to the attorney to again give Beth and Alex the chance to respond, he told me that Alex was in the hospital. “Alex and Beth are busy dealing with the consequences of the physical damage Kevin did to Alex,” the attorney later wrote. “For that reason, they are not currently in a position, personally, to address the damage that Kevin did through the publication of the book and the mishandling of the money Kevin made from the book.” But more than a week later, Beth sent an email with brief responses to some statements through her attorney, disputing, for example, his assertion that she cut him off from Alex’s care: “False,” she wrote. “He removed himself.”
Aaron Malarkey, one of Alex’s brothers, is 18 years old now; he was 8 when the book was being written. He says he felt betrayed when his brother recanted the story. “There’s been a lot of false testimony and lies—flat-out lies—in the public eye about my dad,” Aaron said. He describes his older brother as a quick thinker, charismatic, and “one of the funniest people you’ll meet.” But it makes him sad that in large part thanks to Alex, his father is now viewed by so many as a charlatan.
Aaron and his two younger siblings chose to live with Kevin after their parents’ divorce. He struggles with bitterness over the way his father was “thrown to the wolves,” and abandoned by fellow Christians who had so eagerly consumed his family’s story. He sees his mother and brother once a week and emphasized that he loves them deeply.
Aaron says he was in the room while Kevin and Alex worked on the book. “I remember very clearly, my dad would ask Alex, ‘Are you absolutely sure you want me to put this in the book?’ There were times he’d say yes and times he’d say no, and my dad would follow.” It was obvious his mother was unhappy with the project, he said. But at the time, what made a bigger impression on Aaron was his brother’s apparent communication with the spirit realm; in the middle of conversations, he would stop and announce there were angels in the room. Of course, our memories of what happened when we were 8 years old are hazy, and young children are hardly impartial observers of complicated parental dynamics. But Aaron believed his brother’s story completely, and still does. “Even when my faith has been iffy,” he said, “I never doubted it was true.”
It was always easy, perhaps too easy, for secular skeptics to mock The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven. But criticism from conservative Christians was more searing, because it implied the book had done real harm. “The idea that someone could go to heaven and come back with visions and dreams and we should take that seriously is as far from historic evangelicalism as it’s possible to get,” Phil Johnson, the executive director of the ministry headed by MacArthur, the California pastor and author whose ministry Beth reached out to in 2012. “To me, one of the real signifiers that modern evangelical Christianity is badly astray and in serious jeopardy of even existing 50 years from now is the ease with which evangelicals buy into stories like this.” To Christians of Johnson’s theological bent, it’s a problem that books like the Malarkeys’ claim to be new, specific revelations from God, and they contradict the Bible in obvious ways. (The Bible says God the Father cannot be seen by humans; Alex describes his body.) Other problems should be obvious to anyone: The various books’ descriptions of heaven are inconsistent with each other.
The Malarkeys’ stories are inconsistent, too. Kevin and Beth are so antagonistic now that they can’t even agree on how exactly their antagonism developed. In the middle of it all is Alex, the boy—now a man—whose story about a trip to heaven disintegrated into a very specific kind of family hell: a series of lawsuits, an ugly divorce, physical suffering, anger, loneliness, imperfect memories, mistakes, money struggles, lingering resentments and heartbreak in all directions. This is painful, decidedly earthly stuff.
Yet Alex’s story—the one he says never happened—gave thousands of people hope. It promised that God is real, that we will see our lost ones again, and that later we will live forever in peace, somehow. His disavowal of that account may have squashed the market for those particular kinds of stories, but it’s hardly surprising that there are still plenty of successful books with a distinct echo of the same genre. There was the 2017 memoir The Impossible, which tells the story of a mother’s desperate prayer for her son’s “resurrection” after an accident; the movie version of this “miraculous true story” took in more than $40 million in theaters this spring. Jesus Calling, a 15-year-old devotional written in the voice of Jesus by a woman who said she received “personal messages from God,” is one of the most successful Christian books of the millennium and remains a bestseller. There will always be an appetite for stories that are not just too good to check, but literally impossible to verify. The whole point of faith, after all, is that it requires believing in what one cannot entirely see—but what others may have been blessed enough, on occasion, to witness.
Prayforalex.com, the site where Alex’s supporters gathered to receive updates and share stories, has been offline for years. Still, those posts now read like a powerful exhibition of why so many millions of readers are so eager to buy books about living people who claim they have seen heaven with their own eyes. “This gives me so much personal strength,” an early reader wrote, in response to a post from Beth about meeting someone else who had a visit to heaven similar to Alex’s. “My dad built the most beautiful things out of wood, I just wonder if he has a hand building our mansions [in heaven]. I now wonder about the music and everything he is experiencing. When Alex tells what he saw, it brings such peace to this sad time.” Another reader added that she got goosebumps reading Beth’s post. “Home,” she wrote. “It will be so nice to one day be there.”
Ruth Graham is a Slate staff writer.