You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Falling Asleep in the Afterlife

Why are books about visiting heaven so boring—and popular?

Giving Films

It’s more than 90 minutes into the new film 90 Minutes In Heaven—after he’s declared dead in a car accident, only to survive and endure a tedious recovery—before the protagonist, Don Piper (Hayden Christensen), finally tells someone that he has been to heaven. His friend’s response, quite reasonably, is, “Why didn’t you mention this before?”

There’s an earthly reason why heaven is underplayed in this movie that’s ostensibly about heaven. The movie is coming out at a time when some church authorities have cautioned against exactly this kind of story as theologically suspect: The exact specifications of heaven are not supposed to be mapped out by ordinary people, or even by pastors. But the deeper problem with heaven travelogues is not that they’re ridiculous or unauthorized; it’s that they are generic and boring. In today’s mainstream Christian culture, it pays to play it safe. And that’s a shame. If these are supposed to be true stories of people who have been to heaven and back, shouldn't they know more about heaven than I could find in any Michelangelo painting or Simpsons episode?

The idea of “heaven tourism” has always sounded like a bad joke to nonbelievers. First, heaven is not a real place, so how can you go there? And even if it were real, and presumably glorious, why would you return to boring old Earth? Yet 90 Minutes in Heaven, Baptist preacher Don Piper’s bestselling 2004 memoir, is one of the first of a recent spate of books where people do just that, visit heaven in a near-death experience and return to tell the tale: Heaven Is For Real, Miracles From Heaven, Proof of Heaven: A Neuroscientist’s Near-Death Experience, the list goes on.

But recently, even believers are starting to have reasons to distrust tales of heaven. The Southern Baptist Convention officially disavowed the genre in 2014, saying that many of these books “are not unified and contain details that are antithetical to Scripture,” and resolving instead to “reaffirm the sufficiency of biblical revelation over subjective experiential explanations to guide one’s understanding of the truth about heaven and hell.” And in January, the teenage co-author of 2010’s bestselling, supposedly nonfiction The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven, recanted his story. “I did not die,” Alex Malarkey admitted. “I did not go to Heaven.” That revelation was the last straw for Lifeways Christian bookstores, the country’s second-largest Christian retail chain; they pulled all of what they call “heaven visitation resources” from their shelves.

Meanwhile, the largest Christian retail chain in the country, Family Christian Stores, was busy producing the 90 Minutes in Heaven adaptation. Out Friday, the film is the first from the chain’s new non-profit sister company, Giving Films. They are betting on the audience’s hunger for this kind of bland comfort food, and they may have a safe bet. Publishers Weekly keeps reporting that sales of heaven books have not slowed, and neither has the movie pipeline; next year sees Jennifer Garner and Queen Latifah starring in Miracles From Heaven. To be even safer, and to avoid charges of profiting off a story that is supposed to be about humility and faith, Giving Films has announced that it will be donating all proceeds from the movie to charities that help widows and orphans.

What’s striking about the heaven movies and the books they are based on, discredited or not, is just how similar they are to each other, and to every other description of heaven you have ever heard or seen. The Southern Baptist Convention may worry that the accounts are not “unified” enough. But taken together, the heaven travelogues are a bland, whitewashed collage of today’s mass-market Christianity.

The goal of these authors is not originality, but to comfort the reader with the familiarity of heaven. That’s why they take pains to “prove” they are describing the same heaven as anyone else who describes heaven.

In the movie adaptation of 2010’s Heaven Is For Real, Todd Burpo is reading a news story about a young girl in Europe who paints pictures of her visions of Jesus. Burpo’s son Colton, the one who allegedly visited heaven, points to one of her paintings and identifies its Biblical subject as the same man he saw in heaven. In Piper’s book, nearly every person who played a role in his admittedly remarkable back-from-the-brink survival tale is mentioned by name and church affiliation, thanked, and discussed in great detail, as if to build credibility. Malarkey’s The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven explicitly references Piper’s own vision, and even has an account for the differences between them. Piper’s heaven, which had music, pearly gates, and generic loved ones, did not have the physical presence of God or Jesus. That’s because, writes Malarkey, Piper was outside those pearlescent gates. “[Piper] didn’t get to see much of the good stuff,” according to Malarkey. After all, he was only there for 90 minutes; Malarkey stayed for much longer. “All of the heavenly beings are inside the gate,” he writes. “God must have wanted [Piper] back to earth right away.” But even so, it’s important for Malarkey to show that he was in the same heaven as Piper: “The other man who spent time in heaven was right: the music is beautiful.”

Why such a similar vision? Given that these books are most often written by pastors, pastors’ family members, or others whose Christian identity was well established before their heavenly experience, the stories have no interest in espousing any beliefs that would not be welcome in their respective churches. And they generally avoid heavy-handed morality: Heaven is not explicitly compared to hell, nor is it discussed who can and cannot get into heaven. Piper does state that he was able to go to heaven because he believed in Jesus. “The only choice in all of this is that one day I turned to Jesus Christ and accepted him as my Savior. Unworthy as I am, he allowed me to go to heaven.” He also tells the story of coming to the aid of another badly injured young man and later hearing that he had turned to Jesus; Piper was proud to have been “an instrument in his salvation.” But the conversion narrative of these books is a soft sell, and the movie is clearly also directed mostly at believers or fans of the book.  

Piper, somewhat tautologically, believes he has returned to Earth from heaven in order to tell the story of returning to Earth from heaven. Like other heaven authors, he gives inspirational talks to people who've recently suffered losses, or who have terminally ill family members, reassuring them of the "reality" of heaven. The story is meant to encourage optimism in the face of suffering in this life, because you will eventually go to a heavenly home. You would want that heaven to be the same heaven your audience has always heard about, so they recognize, accept, and indeed buy it. Heaven is a product, and the more consistent the product, the broader its mass consumer appeal.

There is, of course, nothing new about the existence of heaven narratives. Loren Pankratz, clinical psychiatrist and fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, is also an amateur bibliographer of near-death-experience stories from the nineteenth century and early twentieth centuries, a golden age of sorts for heaven tourism. (Piper and Malarkey have nothing on the author of the 1911 book Two Years In Heaven.) He says that many of these books reflect utopian concerns of their day. Like today’s heaven writers, authors used their descriptions of the afterlife to forward their earthly concerns. Many of these books were likewise popular. The third best-selling book of the nineteenth century (after Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Bible) was a novel about visiting heaven called The Gates Ajar by Elizabeth Phelps, published in 1859, just before Americans would need a lot of comfort during the Civil War.

But the landscape these earlier heaven travelogues reflect is hardly uniform or theologically monotone. Alphonse Cahagnet’s 1851 The Celestial Telegraph did purport to be a scientific study, showing how similar people’s visions of the afterlife were, with a sample size of “eight ecstatic somnambulists, who had eighty perceptions of thirty-six deceased persons of various conditions.” The author was a follower of the mystic Swedenborg, and the book also riled religious fundamentalists of his day, as did the Gates Ajar, which was condemned as heresy. And the stories themselves contain completely unverifiable details about the afterlife: One author claimed to have received spiritual transmissions from John Quincy Adams in heaven, including a description of a magical electricity-producing machine operated by Ben Franklin and Isaac Newton.

Sure, the dreamers and novelists and spiritualists who published their narratives in the nineteenth century did so in order to convince others that what they experienced was real. But generally speaking, most of their theories remained personal and idiosyncratic, which is what gives them their literary charm. If every era gets the heaven it deserves, then today’s heaven looks suspiciously like a corporate entity. Modern Christianity has every reason to play it safe; fire and brimstone don’t play to wide audiences. Churches have long been threatened by the inevitable popularity of non-Biblical heaven stories. But I don’t think the Southern Baptist Convention has anything to worry about. Today’s heaven testimonials aren’t out to challenge anyone’s authority—they’re just out to jump on the bandwagon.

And that bandwagon isn’t going anywhere. Whether or not 90 Minutes In Heaven makes money for widows and orphans, you can be sure that we will be seeing more movies like it. Explicitly Christian film companies like Giving Films are on the rise, and their goals go beyond the box office. After his presidential bid failed, fundamentalist Rick Santorum became CEO of faith-based Echo Light Studios. He thought of this as a move up: “I often say that culture is upstream from politics, and I know entertainment also can be strength and light for people who want to be uplifted and reinforced in their values.” Heaven tourism is a perfect way to reinforce those generic “values,” without looking like you are doing so. But for those of us who want entertainment to genuinely entertain, stay far away from heaven.