Ben Fields: Of heaven above and hell on earth (Opinion)

Ben Fields

Ben Fields

A few years ago, I was sitting in the small waiting area at a Walgreens in Huntington, marveling at how in-store music had been recalibrated to my generation, because, like it or not, I was approaching middle age.

I didn’t have much on my phone to occupy me, so my eyes roamed around, and settled on a circular book rack that contained some random literature — most likely best-selling paperbacks, if they were being hawked as an impulse buy in a pharmacy. One book in particular drew my attention. It was called “The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven.” The juxtaposition of the title and the authors struck me as humorous (their names were Kevin and Alex Malarkey).

I snapped a quick photo of the cover, briefly considered a snarky social media post, and then decided against it — partly because it seemed below the belt to joke about what I assumed was a child’s traumatic injury. But another part of me didn’t want to do it because, although not necessarily fitting into a specific box, I adhere to a Christian doctrine and felt it’s not my place to say a child didn’t see what he said he did.

In other words, I thought the last name was funny but realized it wasn’t worth it.

Of course, once I saw the book, I couldn’t stop seeing it. I learned some of the details through osmosis. Alex, a 6-year-old, was a passenger in his father’s car in 2004, when the father (co-author Kevin) was apparently distracted by his phone, causing a wreck that left Alex a quadriplegic, and in a coma. As he regained consciousness and began to be able to speak, Alex recalled remarkable, specific details of how he had died, gone to heaven and met Jesus and several angels.

The book, published in 2010 and marketed as an honest memoir, was everywhere for a long time. Then, one day, it wasn’t. That’s the life of a best-seller, I presumed.

Turns out, the book was pulled out of circulation entirely, almost overnight, in 2015 by publishing company Tyndale House, after Alex Malarkey, then 18, came out with a statement that included the definitive line, “I did not die. I did not go to heaven.”

There was a brief media frenzy about it when it actually happened, but I had completely missed it. If you’ll recall, someone decidedly unholy was domineering the news cycle at the time.

But more reports began surfacing last year about the Malarkey family, including a particularly detailed piece from Slate.

As Alex put it, he remembers opening his eyes in the hospital and seeing his father talking to someone. The light around his father seemed very bright, and Alex assumed he was seeing an angel, because he thought he had died. When he realized he was alive and related the story, he began to make up other details, because he simply wanted the attention, he now claims.

He also has claimed he didn’t know his father was compiling these false recollections for a book. Keep in mind all of this happened when Alex was a 6-year-old emerging from a seven-week coma.

Everything that has come since the book’s publication has been all too much of this world. Alex’s parents divorced. He and his mother have sued his father (the reason for more recent news stories on the entire thing). There are multiple disputes as to who has claim to reported millions made by the book, including, according to the Slate story, a $500,000 advance from the publishing company to Kevin. Kevin claims there’s no money. It was all spent on Alex’s medical needs. Meanwhile, Alex and his mother claim they are penniless. Kevin told Slate he still believes Alex’s original stories, but added “Alex either lied when he was 6 or when he was 18.”

Another bit of fallout, according to Slate, is that many Christian publishing companies have stopped putting out books depicting afterlife experiences from those who claim to have died and returned. As it happens, the success of the Malarkeys’ book had a ripple effect, with other publishers trying to get their hands on similar “true stories” from those who said they witnessed the world after this one.

Sadly, or, perhaps, not so, proof of the afterlife remains evasive.

There are a few people who returned from the dead in the pages of the Bible, of which the central focus turns to one particular person in the New Testament. For those who would follow the philosophies of Jesus in modern times, faith remains the central tenet and ultimate test — as it does for any religion, or lack thereof. It would cheapen the whole thing greatly if people could regularly come and go, and tell us what awaits, once the mortal shell shuts down. It’s either nothing, as increasing numbers believe, or, according to multiple faiths, really something. We have to decide what we believe and do our best from there.

We’ll only really ever know once.

Ben Fields is the Gazette-Mail opinion editor. Reach him at 304-348-5129, or follow

@BenFieldsWV on Twitter.

Funerals for Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Blume, James - 2 p.m., Wallace & Wallace, Rainelle.

Gunnoe, Freda - Noon, Cunningham-Parker-Johnson Funeral Home, Charleston.

Hunt, Lloyd - 1 p.m., Fidler & Frame Funeral Home, Belle.

Rogers, Christopher - 1 p.m., Raynes Funeral Home, Buffalo.

Shepherd, Camella - 1 p.m., Leonard Johnson Funeral Home, Marmet.

Smith, James - 2 p.m., Fox Hill Cemetery, South Charleston.

Turley, Imogene - 1 p.m., Keller Funeral Home, Dunbar.

Webb, Barbara - 11 a.m., Ellyson Mortuary, Glenville.