Dan and I have a running joke that if A Year of Biblical Womanhood flops, I can always revert to Plan B: “fall” off the treadmill, claim to go to Purgatory for the duration of my blackout, and then write a guaranteed bestseller entitled 7 Minutes in Purgatory. (Cause no one has done Purgatory yet, right?)
It’s a joke of course, but beneath it is a twinge of concern regarding the increasing popularity of books in which authors claim to have died, gone to heaven or hell, and returned to tell us about it.
Tim Challies wrote a rather scathing assessment of the phenomenon earlier this week in a post entitled “Heaven Tourism":
“Don Piper spent ninety minutes there and sold four million copies of his account. Colton Burpo doesn’t know how long he was there, but his travel diary has surpassed 6 million copies sold, with a kids’ edition accounting for another half million. Bill Wiese obviously booked his trip on the wrong web site and found himself in hell, which did, well, hellish things to his sales figures. Still, 23 Minutes in Hell sold better than if he had described a journey to, say, Detroit, and he even saw his book hit the bestseller lists for a few weeks. There have been others as well, and together they have established afterlife travel journals as a whole new genre in Christian publishing—a genre that is selling like hotcakes, or Amish fiction, for that...”
“...I do not believe that Don Piper or Colton Burpo or Mary Neal or Bill Wiese visited the afterlife. They can tell me all the stories they want, and then can tell those stories in a sincere tone, but I do not believe them (even when they send me very angry and condescending emails that accuse me of character assassination). I am not necessarily saying that these people are liars—just that I am under no obligation to believe another person’s experience."
I confess that I too am skeptical.
I wouldn’t go so far as to categorically reject each of these experiences as false, but like Tim, I don’t feel obligated to believe every word of them either.
And I can’t help but wonder what the success of these books says about how many Christians view their faith—namely, that being a Christian is about securing that ticket to heaven and fire insurance from hell, that the gift of salvation is something that kicks in after death with little relevance to day-to-day life. How easy it is to forget that the Kingdom of Heaven is for real...and it is here, among us!
Or perhaps the popularity of afterlife memoirs has more to do with that deep longing within each one of us to know for sure that death is not the end, that we will see our loved ones again. I feel this ache profoundly each time I think about my grandparents, and especially my beloved Uncle Gary.
One of the biggest questions I’ve had to confront in my years of wrestling with doubts about my faith is what it means to live without the absolute, unfailing certainty that I will go to heaven when I die. Working through that question has been both terrifying and challenging.
What do you think?
Are you skeptical about afterlife memoirs?
Do you ever doubt the existence of an afterlife?
(Please be kind, even if your comments are critical.)