Mark Woods: What Alex Malarkey, The Boy Who Didn't Come Back From Heaven, tells us about the afterlife

The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven, it turns out, didn't.

Alex Malarkey has retracted his story about going to heaven and returning.Tyndale

Alex Malarkey co-wrote his famous memoir with his father Kevin at the age of 12, six years after surviving – badly disabled – a car accident. He recalls meeting both Jesus and Satan, who appears in through a "hole in heaven", before returning to consciousness. The book became a publishing phenomenon and was taken up by US evangelicals in a big way.

Now Alex has retracted his testimony and the fallout is likely to be huge, not least for other representatives of the 'heaven tourism' genre – for a genre is what it has become.

Little Colton Burpo, for instance, survived a life-threatening burst appendix at the age of four. His father Todd, a Methodist minister, wrote Heaven Is For Real about Colton's experiences in heaven, which included patting Jesus' multi-coloured striped horse and being serenaded by winged angels. Colton, too, saw Satan, though he was always too upset to describe him.

Another of this ilk is 90 Minutes in Heaven, by Don Piper, recounting his experiences after an accident; and then there's Flight to Heaven, by Captain Dale Black, or My Journey to Heaven by Marvin Besteman. There's also 23 Minutes in Hell, by Bill Wiese; it is a memoir of his visit to the infernal regions, not of the experience of reading the other titles. Some of these have been made into films. They've all made money.

Now, it's fair to say that this sort of thing gets much more traction on one side of the Atlantic than it does on the other, though the impeccably evangelical Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) has come down pretty hard on the whole phenomenon: it passed a resolution at its conference last year "on the sufficiency of Scripture regarding the afterlife" which warned that "Many of these books and movies have sought to describe heaven from a subjective, experiential source, mainly via personal testimonies that cannot be corroborated" and stressed that "Many devout and well-meaning people allow these to become their source and basis for an understanding of the afterlife rather than scriptural truth."

But what is really going on? Are these authors out to make a fast buck from gullible Christians? Or are they seriously deluded, on a par with people who claim to have been abducted by aliens? Or are they telling the unvarnished truth?

As to the first question: we should not be so cynical as to believe that all of these authors – or their parents – are driven by the profit motive. Whether any of them at all are, we wouldn't know – though pointing out the scale of the rewards from films and speaking tours is fair enough.

Are they deluded? Here we enter a grey area. The SBC is quite right when it says that though people are raised from death in the Bible, God "has not given us any report of their individual experience in the afterlife". Modern heaven tourists are suspiciously explicit about what they see and do, and their accounts appear to owe much more to conventional Western spiritual iconography than to the Bible.

However, there is a middle way. There is a vast literature on Near Death Experiences (NDE), from both the scientific and the spiritual/religious points of view. There is no real consensus about what they actually are: neuroscientists speak of physiological and psychological factors, while others regard them as indications of transcendence. There are very many features, such as seeing bright lights, moving through a tunnel, a sense of love and acceptance, and a sense of removal from the world, which are common to people of all religions and none. It's quite likely that people from a strongly Christian background who are steeped in the Christian story and Christian imagery, when they return to consciousness and after a period of months or years, will interpret their experiences in the light of what they know. Are they deceiving us? No. Would I hire them to guide me round heaven? Again, no.

Some of these books are probably more helpful than others, and if they help establish people more firmly in their faith and in the hope of God's future, cynics should not complain. However, they are not a secure foundation, as Alex Malarkey's retraction has shown, and a little more healthy scepticism about these accounts – not least on the part of the publishers who commission and promote them – would be no bad thing.

Human testimony is fallible. Instead of seeking proof of the small things – like heaven and hell – a mature faith will rest on the revelation of God in Christ, who "fills everything in every way" (Ephesians 1:23). Christ himself, after all, was a reverse 'heaven tourist'. He has been planting outposts of heaven ever since, as Paul reminded the Philippians (3:20). So counter-intuitive as it might be – and far less bankable – if we want to know what heaven is like we shouldn't go to a bookshop, we should go to church.