by Patrick Angiolillo
Earlier in January, the story broke that the popular book, The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven, written by Alex Malarkey and his father, is a hoax. The book, which details Alex’s journeys to and from heaven while suffering a coma after an unfortunate car accident as a child, was all fabricated by the boy in order to garner attention. He publicly admitted to this fact in an open letter.
This story finds itself as one of the latest installments in a somewhat new (although, actually quite old) phenomenon known as “heavenly tourism.” This sub-genre of Christian literature (perhaps equally to be called a sub-culture of Christian culture) is probably not as familiar to Catholics as it is to some Protestants. But either way, it is a movement within the Christian faith in which people claim to have experienced a journey to and back from heaven in their lives. Another example than Alex Malarkey’s is Todd Burpo’s. His is a similar story, in which Burpo experienced heaven while undergoing an emergency surgery as a young boy. The details are recounted in his co-authored book, Heaven is for Real, the veracity of which has been maintained by author and publisher.
Whether or not we believe folks today who say they have had visions, or out-of-body experiences, or other kinds of journeys to heaven is not really a doctrinal matter. Nothing in their stories makes absolute claims on the Christian faith. We can, if we please, ignore their tales and go on professing the Creed in perfect peace…
But we are curious, aren’t we? We’d just like to know, wouldn’t we?
Fascination with heaven is not a new thing. In my world of graduate studies, the idea of going to heaven is all too familiar—and not because I study religion! I have, in my work, dealt with various ancient accounts of what we call “heavenly ascent literature,” ancient texts that record an individual’s experience of some kind of ascent to heaven. Some of the most tantalizing of these are found in the bible. Genesis 5:21-24 is an enigmatic little passage in which we learn that the patriarch Enoch “walked with God; then we was no more, because God took him.” Well, where’d he go? In 2 Kings 2:11, things are (maybe?) a little clearer: “a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them [Elijah and Elisha], and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven.” The means of transport is perhaps clearer, and maybe the destination is as well, but still, what are we supposed to do with that? Other passages in the bible suggest visions of the heavenly throne-room—the place where God is traditionally said to reside in heaven—but the actual ascent to this place is not described (see, e.g., 1 Kgs 22:19-22; Isa 6:1-13; Ezek 1:1-28; 10:1-22).
If you think I forgot Revelation, you should know John is perhaps the most famous of the heavenly travelers in the Christian tradition (along with Paul; see 2 Cor 12). The Revelation to John is so characteristic of this kind of heavenly vision in which divine secrets are mediated to a human recipient through angelic interpreters that the the term the book uses for itself (apocálypsis) has become an umbrella term for similar kind of literature. But, just as we have said of the short passages noted in the Old Testament, we can similarly ask what is going on in the New Testament!
Other famous apocalyptic and heavenly ascent literature can be found outside the Christian (as well as the Jewish) canon. Second Temple period literature like 1 Enoch, the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs (especially the Testament of Levi), and the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice (found only among the Dead Sea Scrolls) all describe some kind of vision of, if not outright travel to, the heavenly realm. And among the rabbinic Jewish tradition, which like the Christian apocalypses had its origin in Second Temple practices and literature, there is an abundance of hekhalot (from the word for “temples”) and merkavah (from the word for chariot, in the sense of God’s chariot) mystical texts that recount and describe ascents to God’s heavenly throne-room.
This fascination with heavenly roadtrips is obviously not unique to today; rather it is actually quite ancient. What, then, are we to make of this fact, and the observations we draw from these texts?
On one level, the ancient texts which describe such heavenly visions, whether scripture (like Revelation) or not (like 1 Enoch), usually have an underlying program. No author, never mind scribe-copier, would spend time, money, and energy on composing and copying these pieces of literature if they did not serve some sort of purpose within their lives. John Collins, a prolific scholar on the issue of Second Temple literature, explains that for the strictly apocalyptic literature, at least, the heavenly account described by the author not only confers authority on his text, but also seeks to explain how divine wisdom can be attained. That is to say, these pieces of literature, which are usually composed in response to some sort of social, political, or religious crisis or change, seeks answers that are revealed in the form of these visionary tales, whether or not we accept the veracity of the ascent stories themselves. The crisis, for instance, which John’s apocalypse addresses is first and foremost about an ideological conflict involving John’s rejection of the claims of the Roman Empire to power and his acceptance of Jesus as the only source of true authority.
However, we do not need a crisis to stimulate a desire to experience heaven. In much of the literature cited, the heavenly vision is a means for expression, not an ends in of itself. In something like the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice, however, the ascent itself might be much more at the forefront of the matter. This text, for example, has been described by its principal editor, Carol Newsom, as a means for mystical praxis, not unlike the Jewish mystical literature already noted. Such literature concerns itself more with the practice of achieving a heavenly ascent than with stories of how a famous individual achieved an ascent and in turn learned divine secrets related to a contemporary human crisis.
So we can continue our questioning, and ask what it means to engage in or describe mystical, heavenly ascent practices at all. Why do some attempt to ascend to heaven, and see the heavenly throne-room, or witness the merkavah of God, or talk to Jesus?
While I have no credentials to psychoanalyze, I do have the experience of spending much time with the ancient versions of these heavenly tourism stories, and the common thread I can tease out of everything I have read is an earnest desire for communion with the divine. Whether an apocalyptic visionary attempting to ascertain answers to the ongoing crisis surrounding him, or a group of Jewish sectarians attempting to glorify God with the angels, or, indeed, a boy making up a story about seeing Jesus when he was in a coma. It is not my job to judge the veracity of each story, never mind the canonical status of those texts that have been accepted as scripture, but I can discern this commonality in each case. There is throughout a sort of inherent human desire to seek the divine, to go beyond the natural and commune with the supernatural, whether for the sake of adoring God, getting answers to questions, or feeling as though we humans matter at all in the grand scheme of the cosmic, heavenly and earthly, creation.
One can judge for herself whether or not these tales of heaven are true history. All I know is that they are true humanity. Nothing says human quite like chasing the divine. I just pray the divine is chasing us as well.