The went-to-heaven-and-back genre is more popular than ever, but Biblical scholar N.T. Wright's recent book argues that this cultural conception of heaven has little basis in scripture.

Earlier this year, it was announced that a young boy named Alex Malarkey had not gone to heaven. Such an announcement may not seem like news, and yet, it was news to the million or so people who had read his memoir The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven: A Remarkable Account of Miracles, Angels, and Life Beyond This World. The book was published in 2010, six years after the accident that put the six-year-old Malarkey into a coma during which he claimed to have gone to heaven and back.

Angels and miracles are popular enough, but so is heaven. Last fall, LifeWay Research, which is affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, conducted an online survey of 3,000 adults and found that 67 percent believed heaven to be a real place. Almost half of them said there are many ways to get there. A more significant, though older survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life in 2007 found that, of the 35,000 adults surveyed, a full 74 percent believed in heaven, while only 59 percent believed in hell.

Earlier this year, it was announced that a young boy named Alex Malarkey had not gone to heaven.

In January, right around the time that Malarkey retracted his story—something his mother claims he had been trying to do for years over the objections of his father, who was co-author of the memoir and seems to have enjoyed most of its financial rewards—I was reading N.T. Wright’s new book, Simply Good News: Why the Gospel Is News and What Makes It Good. It was impossible not to wonder what Wright would make of Malarkey’s story and the Christian publisher that sold it as non-fiction.

Wright, who was ordained a priest in the Anglican Church in 1976 and served from 2003 until 2010 as the Bishop of Durham, has spent the last few decades writing substantial works of exegesis alongside clear, concise works of theology. Simply Good News joins two earlier, similar titles: Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense and Simply Jesus: A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did, and Why He Matters. Such titles complement his scholarly work, which includes the nearly 2,000-page-long Paul and the Faithfulness of God.

Wright is one of the rare theologians whose books are every bit as likely to appear on a seminary reading list as a parish book study. Refusing to choose between the academy and the church, he writes prolifically for and is read eagerly by both.

In this new book, Wright begins with a simple distinction between advice and news. Most churches, he observes, are peddling advice, offering a kind of self-help gospel rather than the gospel itself. Their advice is designed for a cultural understanding of faith as a kind of insurance against hell, an assurance of heaven. The problem, though, is that, while such a faith might feel comfortable culturally, it has little to do with Christian scripture and tradition.

books_shortstops.png

That’s why the popularity of books like The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven is so unexpected, even perplexing. Lately, Alex Malarkey isn’t the only one who has claimed to travel to heaven for a few days. There are too many of these memoirs to name them all, but the most successful feature children, including three-year-old Colton Burpo, who almost died from a ruptured appendix and whose father Todd Burpo wrote Heaven Is for Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back. There is, of course, a long lineage of these sorts of travelogues, not only to heaven but also to hell—only, for centuries, they were read as fictions, allegories, and parables, not memoirs.

The reason, of course, is that such books are fictions, often heretical ones. “Jesus himself didn’t actually say much about heaven in the sense we normally mean it,” N.T. Wright explains in his opening chapter. “When he spoke of heaven’s kingdom, he wasn’t talking about a place called heaven to which people might or might not go after they die.”

The good news isn’t meant as a gambler’s guide to gaming heaven. As Wright argues: “The resurrection of Jesus, then, is not first and foremost about going to heaven. Neither Matthew, Mark, Luke, nor John even mention heaven in their accounts of Jesus’s resurrection.” This is quite shocking to those whose knowledge of Christianity comes from outside its key texts, but also disconcerting for believers whose faith has been shaped more by culture than canon. It's hard as ever to square what the Bible says and what the early church believed with what’s said in sermons about pearly gates and golden streets. The Bible’s last chapters, Wright reminds us, end not with souls migrating upward, but with the new Jerusalem coming down to Earth. In Revelation, heaven isn’t up there, but down here, which Wright explained in more detail in his earlier book, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church.

When I wondered what Wright might say about Alex Malarkey, I realized he had already said a great deal. Much of his work can be read as a corrective for the so-called heavenly tourists and the culture that craves such easy, saccharine stories of salvation. Simply Good News is Wright’s newest book, but it joins the others in its reproach and re-direction of readers.

Lead photo: Heaven? (Photo: theo_reth/Flickr)

Related