There's a hot new literary genre being formed. The skeptical are calling it "Heaven Tourism" but for millions of readers it's proving a very real lure. Suddenly, accounts of near-death trips to heaven are all over the literary bestseller lists.
As USA Today notes, current bestsellers “Heaven Is For Real” by Todd Burpo with Lynn Vincent, “Proof of Heaven” by Eben Alexander, and “To Heaven and Back” by Mary Neal all detail their authors’ alleged experiences of heaven and what they saw there and all have drawn large and enthusiastic audiences.
No matter readers' religious views, it appears many are curious about the authors' accounts.
While they have similarities, each of the stories is unique.
In "Heaven is For Real," Burpo writes about the experiences of his son Colton who says that – during an emergency appendectomy while he was 3 – he went to heaven and met Jesus, John the Baptist, his great-grandfather, and his sister who died when his mother suffered a miscarriage, an event his parents say they never told Colton about.
Burpo said in an hour-long program about the book that he is telling the truth about his son's journey.
"As a pastor and as a dad, I want my son to know I tell the truth,” Burpo said during the program. “He can read the book. He knows if I exaggerated or if I didn't."
Alexander, a neurosurgeon, went into a coma after being diagnosed with meningitis and says that while he was unconscious he met a beautiful woman whom he describes as a guide who brought him into another world. Alexander says he saw God and that he doesn’t believe God has a gender.
“I would've said no,” Alexander said in an interview with Oprah Winfrey when she asked him if he believed in God before his near-death experience. “There was no way to explain it based on my neuroscientific career.”
Neal, who is an orthopedic surgeon, became unconscious while trapped underwater and says that she went to heaven and met angels who eventually told her she had to go back to her life.
There have been earlier books, of course, by writers who claim they traveled to heaven. These include the 2004 title “90 Minutes in Heaven” by Don Piper, which also cracked the New York Times bestseller list, and “Flight to Heaven,” a 2010 book by pilot Dale Black.
Barnes & Noble vice president for marketing Patricia Bostelman says she thinks some readers have been convinced by the fact that Neal and Alexander are doctors.
“When you have people from science backgrounds, it adds a certain credibility," Bostelman told USA Today. "They provide an authority from a scientific perspective. It's not a popular point of view in their world."
Phyllis Tickle, religious editor for Publishers Weekly, says the appeal of the stories is simple: people want to believe there is a heaven.
“We want to hear from someone who has gone there, done that, seen it,” she said in an interview with USA Today. “That there is something beyond this life.”