In 2010, the Christian publishing company Tyndale House published a book entitled The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven: A Remarkable Account of Miracles, Angels, and Life beyond This World. Written by a Christian therapist named Kevin Malarkey and his son Alex, the book is billed as “A True Story” on the front cover and quickly became a bestseller. To date, over one million copies have been sold, and a made-for-TV documentary based on the book was aired in March 2010.
The Malarkeys’ book received highly favorable reviews from several media venues at the time of publication. “The afterlife is a fascinating topic and Alex’s story of meeting God and interacting with angles [sic] is inspirational and amazing,” writes the Princeton Book Review, which goes on to assert matter-of-factly, “The story is true” .
Tyndale House’s own description of the book, printed on its back cover, provides a brief backstory of how the book came to be written:
In 2004, Kevin Malarkey and his six-year-old son, Alex, suffered a terrible car wreck. The impact from the crash paralyzed Alex—and it seemed impossible that he could survive.
“I think that Alex has gone to be with Jesus,” a friend told the stricken dad.
When Alex awoke from a coma two months later, he had an incredible story to share. Of events at the accident scene and in the hospital while he was unconscious. Of the unearthly music that sounded just terrible to a six-year-old. Of the angels who took him through the gates of Heaven itself. And, most amazing of all … of meeting and talking with Jesus .
However, reality has thrown all the praise and acclaim surrounding the Malarkey book back into the faces of those who were so quick to accept its claims as true. It has recently come to light that the boy fabricated the whole elaborate story. On January 13, 2015, Alex Malarkey, now a teenager, released an open letter to Christian publishers and bookstores in which he admitted to embellishing at best, lying at worst. The entire account of his heavenly afterlife journey, he confessed, was a fiction he created. Alex has also implored publishers and sellers of Christian books to remove the book from their shelves. His letter, which was published online by the Christian website Pulpit and Pen, reads as follows:
Please forgive the brevity, but because of my limitations I have to keep this short.
I did not die. I did not go to Heaven.
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 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…not by reading a work of man. I want the whole world to know that the Bible is sufficient. Those who market these materials must be called to repent and hold the Bible as enough .
Despite clearly and unambiguously recanting his afterlife story, it is obvious from Alex’s letter that his religious faith has not in any way been diminished. As it turns out, Alex’s mother has been objecting on the same religious grounds to the whole premise of her husband’s book ever since it hit bookstore shelves. For at least the past two years, Beth Malarkey has been trying to tell Christian publishers, bookstores, and readers that her family knew the book’s claims were false at the time it was being prepared for publication. Beth personally contacted Phil Johnson, executive director of John MacArthur’s fundamentalist Christian ministry Grace to You, to confirm the ministry’s suspicions that the claim put forth in her husband’s book was untrue. “My son and I have been trying to get the word out that this book is an exaggeration and an embellishment and is not true,” she told Johnson . As reported by Ron Charles of the Washington Post, “Johnson wrote to Tyndale House himself and says he has seen ‘reams of correspondence between Beth and Tyndale,’ but he never received a satisfying answer to his objections”. Apparently, the book was selling so well that Tyndale House simply did not want to acknowledge the mother’s damning statements.
Interestingly, the religious faith of Alex and Beth Malarkey was the major factor contributing to Beth’s disavowal of the book’s contents and to Alex’s recanting. Both still believe strongly in an afterlife in general and in the existence of the Christian heaven in particular. Far from basing her disagreement with her husband’s and son’s book on evidence-based scientific skepticism or any other rational basis, Beth Malarkey objects that the details of the story told by Alex when he was six years old are not “Biblically sound” and complains that the book “leads people away from the [B]ible not to it” . As we have seen from his revealing open letter, this is a verdict that the highly impressionable Alex himself now agrees with. He and his mother are concerned first and foremost with maintaining what they believe to be biblical orthodoxy, a subjective standard that The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven fails in their eyes to adequately meet.
This is what I have termed “fantasy-based skepticism,” in which the religiously orthodox are critical of highly sensational stories of humans interacting with the supernatural realm for ultimately idiosyncratic reasons that turn out to have nothing to do with the actual problem, namely a lack of independent evidence that can be evaluated on its own merits. Rather, they are critical of such stories because they are interpreted as straying from what the orthodox believe to be the pure canon of their theological system, a system they feel they must tightly maintain without alteration and over which they must have complete control. In this sense, Alex and Beth Malarkey, along with John MacArthur and his group, are more fanatically religious than the millions of the religious readers who read and believed Alex’s story. And ironically, it is this biblical fanaticism that catalyzed the confirmation of what those of us in the atheist and skeptical community already suspected based on the Malarkeys’ failure to present sufficient evidence.
“Those of us in the reality-based community already knew the book was a work of fiction when it first appeared,” writes Hemant Mehta on his Friendly Atheist blog. “No one has ever actually died and come back to life. Certainly, no one has gone to Heaven and come back to tell us about it” . The Malarkeys’ story failed from the start to convince anybody who did not already believe in divine miracles, angels, and an afterlife.
When true believers in these things are called upon by skeptics to justify their belief in the new wave of “heaven tourism” books that have become popular in the last five years, believers often express the naïve assumption that young children have no reason to lie and/or that a six year-old child would be incapable of making up a story as detailed and elaborate as the one Alex Malarkey told. Kevin Malarkey himself presents this argument in his book:
The details he [Alex] gives are often surprising and unpredictable – the devil’s having three heads when manifesting directly to Alex, for example, or angels’ wings that look like “masks.” Such things don’t come from picture books, movies, or video games. . . .
Naturally, Beth and I know exactly what Alex has and hasn’t learned about the Bible, since we’re the ones who have taught him from birth. And Alex has described countless details about Heaven that we know he had not previously learned from the Bible. For example, we never taught him the Book of Revelation. We spent our time with Alex in the Gospel of John .
Skeptics understand the fallacy inherent in this kind of reasoning. This is a textbook case of confirmation bias. Human memory is notoriously unreliable as a means of distinguishing fact from fiction, especially when highly subjective factors such as interpretation of religious texts are in play. Kevin Malarkey’s argument also grossly underestimates the imaginative and creative capabilities of young children, especially when they are given indications that their storytelling is putting them in the spotlight of public attention. This is exactly what happened in the case of Alex Malarkey; a six year-old concocted a very elaborate and detailed fiction for the simple reason that, in his words ten years later, “I thought it would get me attention.” This and many other cases give the lie to the popular notion that young children have no motive and/or no ability to lie to a great extent.
True Believers Are Gonna Believe
Although Alex Malarkey himself has clearly and emphatically denounced the story he made up about going to and returning from heaven, many of those who believed in the Malarkey tale from the beginning continue to support the Boy Who Came Back from Heaven fiction. For example, on an online Facebook community page titled, “Pray Every Day for Alex Malarkey,” the following comment appeared shortly after Alex’s confession made news:
The sentiment expressed in this comment is a statement of complete relativism, something that a great many Christians usually attack when they see real or imagined relativism coming from those who object to their religion. But for many True Believers, faith trumps facts every time. In the world of the True Believers, reality simply does not matter and there are no consequences to faith that is maintained strongly enough.
 Review of The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven by Kevin Malarkey and Alex Malarkey, Princeton Book Review, http://www.princetonbookreview.com/book_pages/discussion/boy-who-came-back-from-heaven.php (accessed February 1, 2015).
 Kevin and Alex Malarkey, The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven: A Remarkable Account of Miracles, Angels, and Life beyond This World (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2010), publisher’s description.
 Alex Malarkey, quoted in Dustin Germain, “’The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven’ Recants Story, Rebukes Christian Retailers,” Pulpit and Pen, January 13, 2015, http://pulpitandpen.org/2015/01/13/the-boy-who-came-back-from-heaven-recants-story-rebukes-christian-retailers/ (accessed February 1, 2015).
 Quoted in Ron Charles, “‘Boy Who Came Back from Heaven’ Actually Didn’t; Books Recalled,” The Washington Post, January 16, 2015, http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/style-blog/wp/2015/01/15/boy-who-came-back-from-heaven-going-back-to-publisher/ (accessed February 1, 2015).
 Beth Malarkey, “The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven … Not Quite,” Life’s a Journey, April 20, 2014, http://amomonamission.blogspot.com/2014/04/the-boy-who-came-back-from-heavennot.html (accessed February 1, 2015).
 Hemant Mehta, “Christian Author of The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven Recants Story, Saying ‘I Thought It Would Get Me Attention’,” Friendly Atheist, January 15, 2015, http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/2015/01/15/christian-author-of-the-boy-who-came-back-from-heaven-recants-story-saying-i-thought-it-would-get-me-attention/ (accessed February 1, 2015).
 Malarkey, The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven, pp. 177, 179.