“Even faithful Christians doubt that there really is a kingdom of heaven. I want all of My doubting children to believe My kingdom is real. This will lead them to be more faithful, obedient and pure of heart so that they can enter My kingdom.”
— Jesus Christ, as quoted by Choo Thomas in Heaven is So Real!
In 1943, a 20-year old Army private named George G. Ritchie Jr. died of pneumonia in a military hospital. “No evidence of respiration or cardiac impulse,” declared a medical officer in his notarized statement, unaware that Ritchie’s befuddled spirit was wandering the hospital that very moment. To Ritchie’s confusion, no one could see or hear him, he passed through everything he tried to touch, and then he saw his own body with a sheet pulled over its lifeless head.
A man made of light entered the room and introduced himself as the son of God, though he needed no introduction. Jesus took Ritchie on a tour through various realms of the afterlife: a hell on Earth in which alcoholic souls possessed the bodies of passed-out drunks for a quick fix, where guilt-ridden souls of suicides were trapped in a loop of apologizing to the ones they hurt, and crowds of spirits vainly attempted to satisfy endless, torturous cravings; a moderately happy purgatory for scientists who were blind to Jesus because they had their noses too deep in science books; and finally, the glorious city of heaven where only those who were filled with love called home. Then Ritchie awoke to find himself under a sheet – alive and with a mission to tell the world what he had seen.
Ritchie’s peek into the afterlife first entered the public record in 1963. In her introduction to Ritchie’s heaven memoir Return from Tomorrow, Elizabeth Sherrill recounts interviewing Ritchie for a series in Guideposts magazine called “Life After Death.” “By then the whole subject of threshold experiences – people who, near death, believed they’d had a glimpse of another world – was very much in the air,” she wrote. In 1978, she turned Ritchie’s spiritual adventure into a book called Return from Tomorrow. A 30th anniversary edition followed in 2007.
For the past decade, perhaps in unintentional homage to George G. Ritchie Jr., more and more people have been dying, visiting heaven, and returning to write about it. Christian author Tim Challies dismisses this relatively new genre as “heaven tourism” and derides the stories as “paganism in the guise of Christianity,” because true Christians shouldn’t need first-hand testimony to believe in heaven. Many Christians agree – a few to the point of writing unpopular ebooks criticizing specific heavenlogues for contradicting scripture, like Heaven Is For Real: The Book Isn’t (2011) by D. Eric Williams and A Christian Rebuttal to Marvin J. Besteman’s My Journey to Heaven (2012) by Robert Alan King. But these books are terribly rated and mostly garner comments like this: “Dear Mr. Eric Williams, I did not and I do not plan on reading your disgusting book. I hope you rot and burn in hell. That is all. Love, an angel.” Inevitably, then, there are rebuttals to the rebuttals, such as A (COMPREHENSIVE) CHRISTIAN REBUTTAL TO THE [CULT] “CHRISTIAN” REBUTTAL TO DR. EBEN ALEXANDER’S “PROOF OF HEAVEN” by Robert Alan King (2013), by “AHS”.
Then there are those (like myself) who don’t trust these heaven books because the existence of a blissful, supernatural plane of existence for dead people who played by the rules seems less plausible an explanation for flights through gold-plated cities than does trauma-induced hallucinations. Besides, a lot of people have near death experiences and see nothing, so why interpret visits into heaven as proof of an afterlife but not treat visits into nothing as proof of a post-life void?
Yet when I started hearing about people who had gone to heaven and looked around before coming back, and that one of them claimed to see Jesus astride a rainbow-colored horse, I was intrigued. It was Colton Burpo who made the audacious claim that Jesus’s ride resembles Starlite from Rainbow Brite, and he became my entry point into the heaven-and-back phenomenon. Now a teen, Colton’s tales of going to heaven during an appendectomy at the age of 3 years and 10 months formed the basis of the New York Times best seller Heaven is For Real (2010). His father Todd wrote the book with pro writer Lynn Vincent, and it was such a hit that a cinematic adaptation starring Greg Kinnear as Todd Burpo is set for release in 2014. This wild success is impressive but not anomalous. Eban Alexander’s Proof of Heaven (2012) and Don Piper’s 90 Minutes in Heaven (2004) have also spent time on the New York Times nonfiction best seller list. The Amazon reviews of such books are mostly raves from believers, and the authors have no trouble fielding softball questions from interviewers who seem eager to accept their stories. Strange as it may seem to the sectarian and secular skeptics, people read and enjoy these books as factual depictions of the afterlife, and it’s only when authors admit their heaven stories are fake (I Went to Heaven and I Saw God, 2012, by Ben Brocard) or offer a mere fleeting, mysterious glimpse of the afterlife (Waking up in Heaven, 2013, by Crystal McVea) that heaven-hungry readers turn on these tourguides to heaven.
Do you believe that George G. Ritchie and Colton Burpo went to heaven before returning to earth? And if so, would it surprise you to hear that Ritchie didn’t spot Jesus on a rainbow horse, and that Colton didn’t see alcoholic souls possessing passed-out drunks, or a purgatory for scientists? One of the major problems with the heaven-and-back literature, at least for those looking to it for inspiration and hope, is that none of the people who have been there agree about what it’s like. These authors aren’t publicly disputing each other’s testimonials – which is too bad, because that would make for great daytime talk show fodder – but if you read more than one of the books, the discrepancies are hard to miss. Of course if heaven is as vast and magical as it would have to be to entertain an ever-growing immortal population, you can’t expect every post-life travelogue to look identical. But when these reports contradict each other in fundamental ways, it raises obvious questions about their veracity. For those who want to believe that any of these authors went to heaven, you pretty much have to read only one of the books and swear by that one, or be highly skilled at ignoring inconsistencies.
To be fair, there is some overlap between the 10 or so heaven-and-back books I’ve read or skimmed (most of the books contain a lot of earthbound filler that I didn’t mind missing). All of them said that heaven is an exceptionally bright place, and that this is mostly due to the luminescence of God and Jesus. This is why most testimonials agree that there is no real night in heaven, though even here there is some discord. Oden Hetrick (Inside the Gates of Heaven) says that he saw sunsets in heaven and a “gloaming period” when heaven dims and the hustle and bustle slows, while the other authors described a constant brightness reminiscent of Winston’s prison cell in 1984 or Christmas in Antarctica forever.
Most of these books do make one thing pretty clear: if you plan on going to heaven, you better be prepared to worship God and Jesus all the time, because that’s the main pastime there. One book breaks ranks on this point, thank God – Proof of Heaven by Eben Alexander. Alexander wasn’t religious before going to heaven, and perhaps that’s why his heaven avoided most of the Sunday school clichés that devout Christian authors encounter in the great beyond. Alexander didn’t see Jesus or any other Biblical figures, no angels hassled him to join a choir, and he could only talk to his non-personified God through an orb of light serving as interpreter – all of which seems to rule out dutiful worship as an expected activity for frittering away the afterlife. Technically you could sing glorious praise to that orb, but you’d probably feel a little weird about it.
Just about every visitor to heaven says that the time they spent there was more real than anything they ever experienced on earth. Typically they illustrate this through an analogy. In Waking up in Heaven, Crystal McVea wrote, “What I experienced in heaven was so real and so lucid and so utterly intense, it made my experiences on Earth seem hazy and out of focus — as if heaven is the reality and life as we know it is just a dream.” Eben Alexander compares life on earth to a decent enough movie, and heaven to the moment when you step outside the theater into a wondrous summer afternoon and wonder why you squandered those hours inside. Mary Neal (To Heaven And Back, 2012) calls earth the analog cathode-ray-tube television to heaven’s digital HDTV. And the title of Choo Thomas’s heaven travelogue, Heaven is So Real! (2006), tells us where she stands.
And these books do at least help to resolve a paradox at the heart of Christian attitudes about the afterlife: if heaven is so great, why don’t all believers want to die as soon as possible? Well, the authors who have been to heaven do want to die – they all practically beg for death to save them from this mediocre dump that God threw together in a week, which puts them in the awkward position of having to explain to their friends and family that yes, they wish they weren’t here with them anymore. It seems then that religious people who cling to life either don’t believe in heaven as much as these authors do, or don’t fully appreciate just how wonderful heaven is. As Choo Thomas writes, “[The Lord] has shown me that many believers are, in reality, functional atheists — they don’t really believe there is a heaven.” This could explain the incredible popularity of these books amongst the God fearing, whom you might have thought needed no convincing.
Indeed, the premise behind this burgeoning genre is that religious faith is withering and God and Jesus must take drastic measures to bring us back into the fold. Everyone who comes back from heaven does so reluctantly, sometimes as an answer to prayers, but usually with divine orders to tell the world what they saw, so that we might truly believe again. Curiously, though, this marketing strategy is all over the place. For instance, Jesus asked Choo Thomas to tell the world everything she witnessed in heaven, but God asked Alex Malarkey (The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven, 2010) to withhold most of the details. Worse, God supposedly wants heaven’s visitors to bolster our collective faith, but manages to send everyone back with totally conflicting stories, which makes them easier to dismiss as intricate fantasies, wishful thinking or even just lies.
Let’s consider just a few of the major disagreements.
Is it true about Saint Peter and the pearly gates?
The stereotypical image of heaven’s entrance is of pearly gates, with Saint Peter as the bouncer checking names off a list, but none of the heaven testimonials I read found this to be entirely true.
Not that they could agree on what was true.
Of heaven’s gate, Marvin Besteman (My Journey to Heaven, 2012), wrote, “And no, I don’t remember it as being ‘pearly.’” Instead, it was a mahogany wood gate. Beyond that was a glass gate that kept Marvin from entering heaven proper, while allowing him a glimpse inside as Saint Peter parlayed with God over whether it was Besteman’s time or not – making half of the stereotype correct. The testimony of Oden Hetrick, however, suggests the reverse is true. That Saint Peter greets new arrivals “is not quite right” Hetrick says, because it’s angels who call us in, but the gates to heaven are in fact pearly: “The gates are like pearl because they are concentrated white light.”
Colton Burpo told his father Todd that heaven’s gates were made of gold but had pearls on them. Alex Malarkey said the gate was white and “looks like it has scales like a fish.” And Ian McCormack (A Glimpse of Eternity, 2008) didn’t notice a gate at all. For him, God acted as a physical door to heaven, stepping aside to reveal a tunnel into a garden-like kingdom.
What colors are in heaven?
Everyone who goes to heaven agrees that it’s colorful enough to rival an acid trip. Marvin Besteman summed it up best:
The thing about the colors in heaven is that they are all shot through with a brightness, a luster that seems to incorporate the sun’s rays, the moon’s beams, a fire’s flicker, and a star’s glitter, stirred together by a master lighting director and splashed out over the canopy we will spend eternity watching.
In general, whenever heaven incorporates some familiar aspect of life on earth, it’s safe to say that heaven’s version will crank it up to 11. So when an interviewer asked Colton Burpo if heaven was in color or in black and white, his response – “It’s all the colors we have here on earth. And then some more” – hardly seemed controversial.
But Colton’s view has a critic. While Oden Hetrick also enjoyed heaven’s dazzling color scheme, he didn’t notice new colors. In fact, in an interview, he claimed heaven is even missing a color. The color you won’t find in heaven? Orange:
So there are five major colors in heaven; gold, red, purple…blue and green. You might say well, where’s orange? I don’t know except orange is the color of some flesh, maybe that’s why that color is omitted. But then gold is very close to that. …The sky color is usually [gold].
Well, actually, heaven has a blue-black sky with pinkish clouds – at least according to Eben Alexander.
What are we like in heaven?
It thrills Fox News and 700 Club interviewers when Colton Burpo informs them that in heaven, everyone is in their late 20s or early 30s. “I gotta say I love that part!” is the sort of comment this inspires. And not to worry if you fall off a cliff during your most awkward pimply teenage phase: Colton says that if you die young, you will age until you reach your late 20s or 30s – and this is true even if you die as a fetus. (Why some people age a little more than others is not clear.)
But not everyone returned with such crowd-pleasing news. Marvin Besteman saw “children and grown-ups of all ages.” Saint Peter, for instance, was around 55. And in 90 Minutes in Heaven, Don Piper notes that when he first got to heaven, he saw people of a “wide variety of ages — old and young and every age in between.” In later interviews, however, Piper referred to everyone in heaven as “ageless,” which concurs with Mary Neal, who prefers “timeless.”
No humans have wings in heaven, according to Oden Hetrick, but we can float, move by the power of thought or hitch a ride in a flying chariot that God’s will powers and controls.
Unless Colton Burpo is right, and everyone in heaven has wings except for Jesus.
How do we learn in heaven?
Heaven returnees are split over how we absorb new information in the great beyond. Most of the authors I’ve read say we communicate telepathically and learn everything in heaven through osmosis, but a few say that rote learning is enforced. Eben Alexander speaks for the osmosis side:
Thoughts entered me directly…and as I received them I was able to instantly and effortlessly understand concepts that would have taken me years to fully grasp in my earthly life…The knowledge given me was not “taught” in the way that a history lesson or math theorem would be. Insights happened directly, rather than needing to be coaxed and absorbed. Knowledge was stored without memorization, instantly and for good.
By “for good,” he meant while you’re in heaven – Alexander forgot much of what he learned when he returned to earth, just as so many of us forget math and chemistry the second we graduate high school. Crystal McVea, Don Piper, and Marvin Besteman corroborate this Lawnmower Man–esqe approach to learning, but Oden Hetrick and Colton Burpo argue that learning in heaven harkens back to the 19th century Prussian model. Hetrick said there are angel-led education sessions in the Temple of Instruction, and Colton said Jesus taught classes and assigned homework.
How many evil heads does Satan have?
Even though neither went to hell, Colton Burpo and Alexander Malarkey both saw Satan. In Heaven is For Real, Colton wouldn’t describe Satan, either because the memory paralyzed him with fear or he hadn’t concocted a convincing description at that point. But in an interview with 100 Huntley Street, Todd Burpo said Colton eventually claimed Satan had “seven heads and ten crowns,” which would make him identical to “the beast from the sea” in Revelations. This gave Todd’s scripture-literate interviewer a perplexed pause, and it doesn’t jibe with the three-headed, moldy-bodied, screechy-voiced Satan that Malarkey saw, so who is the real “Great Deceiver” here?
Is there sex in heaven?
Of all the afterlife observations to reach a perfect consensus, of course it would be this one: there is no sex in heaven. Now it’s not that most of the visitors to heaven specifically denied the existence of sex there – they just failed to mention sex at all. So let’s be optimistic for a moment. Absence of evidence of sex in heaven is not evidence of the absence of sex in heaven. It may simply be that you don’t get to see or have sex in heaven your first few hours there. Or maybe you do, and heaven’s returned visitors are smart enough to leave that part out, given that most of them are married or below the age of consent.
Unfortunately, Oden Hetrick does directly deny us sex as spirits, explaining that we don’t have reproductive organs because there is no flesh and blood in heaven. Hey, that doesn’t stop food consumption in heaven – Jesus even kills and cooks a fish for Choo Thomas. Nevertheless, the lack of sex in heaven makes some sense. If we could reproduce in heaven, everyone born there would get to skip the pains and disappointments of life on earth all together, which hardly seems fair. Beyond that, sex is arguably an awkward redundancy in a place where everyone already experiences eternal bliss and supernatural interconnectedness.
So there may not be sex in heaven, but according to Hetrick, there is videotape – one of our pastimes in heaven will be watching a video recording of our lives. “Now that’s enough to make somebody behave isn’t it?” Hetrick winked, before clarifying that when Jesus forgives our sins, he edits those sins from our life’s videotape. So be sure to have a lot of Jesus-sanctioned sex within the bonds of marriage while you can, since re-watching hardcore scenes from your honeymoon over and over is the closest you’ll get to sex in the afterlife.
Can you see God’s face in heaven?
To briefly paraphrase everyone…
Alexander Malarkey: No, you can only see up to God’s neck.
Oden Hetrick: Yes, he looks like a handsome young man with a bright, shiny face.
Ian McCormack: No. You’ll die if you do.
Don Piper: Perhaps, but you can’t return to earth if you do.
Choo Thomas: If by God you mean Jesus, then no. You can however see that Jesus has a large frame and wavy hair parted in the middle.
Crystal McVea: No, and God doesn’t have a human form either.
Colton Burpo: Yes. God looks like a larger version of the angel Gabriel. The Holy Spirit is “kind of blue,” by the way.
Eben Alexander: Not unless you count the orb of light.
So where do all of these contradictions leave us?
One possible conclusion is that none of these people actually went to heaven. Call this the Hitchens/Harris/Challies view. It certainly has an intuitive appeal. For one thing, if they’re all sure they went to heaven, and they know that for instance you can or cannot see God’s face, why aren’t they criticizing the obvious frauds who either couldn’t or could? That they don’t all ferociously debate each other implies insecurities about their own visions.
Another possibility is that only one of them went to heaven, but then who to believe? My money would be on either Eben Alexander or Crystal McVea. Both of them were skeptics before going to heaven, which makes them somehow more credible than a professional reverend like Oden Hetrick or the pastor’s son Colton Burpo who recounts his trip to heaven with the cold affectless demeanor of a psychopath. Plus, of all the heavens described in these books, Alexander’s is the only one that doesn’t sound like a climate-controlled version of hell. And McVea’s life story of childhood abuse, unhappy relationships, familial loss, and feeling worthless is so tragic and compelling – and her attitude through it all so admirably upbeat – that I like think of a divine being reminding her that she is loved.
Or it may be that there is no one definitive heaven because heaven is what each of us wants it to be. If the thought of singing praise until you’re hoarse in an blindingly bright, antiseptic gold-paved city for eternity makes you feel a little sick, maybe you’ll end up somewhere more dreamy and conceptual, like Eban Alexander’s afterlife.
But there is another possible explanation for these inconsistencies that would answer the skeptical Christian’s concern that these books undercut the primacy of faith. Maybe God shows every visitor different heavens and tells them to write about these conflicting characters, activities, and landscapes because he’s up to his old mysteriousness business. Does God want to hint to us that heaven is really real, while teasing our craving for evidence by sending us garbled, contradictory messages about what’s actually there – forcing us to rely on faith again after all?
Oh God, you sneaky devil you.