When my daughter was five, we were strolling alongside a Ukrainian Orthodox church in our neighborhood when we spied an icon of Christ that was leaning on an exterior wall, about to be carted off for restoration work, perhaps. It was one of the bloodier renditions of a crucified Jesus I’ve seen, featuring gothic amounts of wounding.
“Mum!” my daughter cried in concerned alarm, “What happened to that guy?”
My husband and I chuckled for days.
Children, of course, are wide open for creative collaboration on answering all manner of questions, and we really could have gone down Dr. Seuss’s Mulberry Street with Clara, instead of suggesting, wryly, that “it’s kind of a long story.” So, it doesn’t surprise me that a once-six-year-old boy named Alex Malarkey, now 13 or so and freshly, humiliatingly in the news, would have riffed back and forth with his coaxing father about Heaven.
He may well have had some core perceptual Near Death Experience (NDE) after his calamitous childhood car accident, such as going out of body, or moving toward brilliant light. But by the time the father-son collaboration was completed, there was a book’s worth of Christian eventfulness in the tale, including virtually all the Christmas crèche characters and a devil “with no flesh on his body, only some moldy stuff.”
Alex was in perfectly ordinary imaginative company for his peer group at the time; the problem lay with the grown-ups. And it still does. When Malarkey recanted the story behind his father’s bestselling book, The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven, last week, he did so under what sounds to me like the stern duress of church doctrine:
“When I made the claims that I did,” he wrote in an open letter, “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.” Cannot what? That’s a complex phrase for a young teen. I ran it by my 14-year-old son just now and he was all, ‘WTF does unfallible mean?’ Fair to assume that it’s coming from certain church Elders?
Malarkey continues: “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.”
Okay, well here we have, in a pretty tidy summary, the reason why Evangelical Christians have tended to be suspicious of the rich, mysterious experiences that people describe in NDEs. Heaven either cannot be (according to materialists)—or it cannot be depicted by outliers beyond the ken of biblical authority according to those with biblical authority.
I don’t know where the great Christian mystics fit into this calculus. Maybe the likes of Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross were describing their shattering encounters with God’s divine majesty as taking place in a park, not Heaven. They had visions, merely, which kept them safely outside verboten territorial bounds. They didn’t die and go anywhere. God visited them, somewhere. In the woods, or at dinner.
Ironically, both the Christian literalists and the scientific materialists are more preoccupied with this idea of physical transit from life to death in NDEs than are the average folk who suddenly have such radically transcendent experiences. It turns out that the core features of what we call the Near Death Experience can occur in a variety of settings.
A heightened sense of reality, profound feelings of peace, and immersion in a sentient (loving, wise) light is the common experiential thread across different scenarios. Research published in 2014 at the University of Liege in Belgium (PDF) compared coma patients reporting NDEs with people who report the same experience during meditation, while fainting, after drug or alcohol consumption, or in the midst of frightening but non-life threatening situations (ducking an explosive device that doesn’t wind up detonating, for instance).
More than 75 percent of this latter group reported key NDE features, including encountering the “brilliant light.” Here, for example, is a description of entering the light given to me by retired physician Yvonne Kason, who survived, without serious injury, a small plane’s crash landing on ice: “I was like a drop of water which had now merged into the sea of light. I still existed, it was still me, but I was in this incredible ocean of light and love. The strongest aspect for me was the love. Perfect love. It’s impossible to describe.” The quality of ineffability—being unable to adequately convey the depth and intensity of the experience, its unsayable nature—is common.
What is not common is Christian iconography featuring devils with moldy skin, or any kind of doctrine of exclusivity, wherein belief in Jesus provides some sort of access key to paradise.
I don’t know if that spells relief for the Evangelicals hugging their Bibles and demanding a halt to all the impertinent “heaven tourism.” But, it would certainly come as no surprise to Buddhist meditators, Jewish mystics, indigenous shamans, and Hindu yogis, for whom cosmic consciousness is accessible right here on earth.
The University of Liege research by the Coma Science Group is actually pretty important. What they are quietly chipping away at is the dying brain theory as an explanatory frame for transcendent human experience. They are not offering an alternative explanation, they are simply pointing out that NDEs do not, in fact, have much to do with a physiology of cell death. This view is shared, increasingly, by others in the NDE research community, who see transcendent experiences as occurring along a continuum. Whether you’ve flat-lined or not is irrelevant.
Who knows what, if anything, happened to young Alex Malarkey seven years ago. His tale and its recanting need have little impact on the persisting mystery of our collective experience.