With the popularity of books about near-death experiences, what can Catholic parents tell their kids about the afterlife? Here’s a quick primer.
by Jerry Windley-Daoust
I’ve had to field a lot of strange religious questions from my kids over the years, but probably the winner was a theological debate between my eight-year-old son and his six-year-old sister about whether sticks went to heaven.
I kid you not. And the debate actually devolved into a shouting match worthy of the Council of Nicea.
These days I’m waiting for the day my five-year-old son starts asking about heaven. He is just beginning to ask religious questions (the latest: “Why is Jesus special?”), so I know it’s inevitable.
Kids have lots of questions about heaven—and so do the rest of us, it seems, judging by sales of “heavenly tourism” books. The authors of these books (Heaven Is for Real, Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife, To Heaven and Back: A Doctor’s Extraordinary Account of Her Death, Heaven, Angels, and Life Again, My Journey to Heaven: What I Saw and How It Changed My Life) attract large readerships with detailed accounts of their near-death experiences.
Now, the subject of one of those books has recanted his story. Alex Malarkey was six when he was in a serious car accident with his father; during his recovery, he told people he had visited heaven during his two-month coma. His father wrote a book about his story, The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven, which became a bestseller. But Malarkey, now a teen, recently wrote an open letter to book distributor LifeWay, recanting the story.
“I did not die. I did not go to Heaven,” Alex wrote in a letter published on the Pulpit and Pen website. “I said I went to heaven because I thought it would get me attention.”
Whether other accounts of near-death experiences are true or not, the revelation underscores that, at least for Catholic families, such stories are not the best source for answering our kids’ questions about the afterlife. Tellingly, the Church has not weighed in on the topic of near-death experiences.
Fortunately for us parents, though, it has lots to say about heaven. Here are five major points to draw on the next time your child raises the subject:
- In heaven, we are like God. Those who die in God’s grace and friendship are like God forever, for they “see him as he is,” face to face. (Catechism 1023) Interesting, isn’t it, that in heaven we are given as a gift the very thing (being like God) that led to our Fall when we tried to take it forcefully in the Garden of Eden? Notice that we are not “like angels,” who are different creatures entirely, but “like God.”
- Heaven is a perfect relationship with God and all the saints. Heaven is a “communion of life and love with the Trinity, with the Virgin Mary, the angels and all the blessed” (Catechism 1024); elsewhere, the Catechism says that “God himself is an eternal exchange of love, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and he has destined us to share in that exchange.” (221) Pope John Paul II described heaven in terms of a relationship: “The “heaven” or “happiness” in which we will find ourselves is neither an abstraction nor a physical place in the clouds, but a living, personal relationship with the Holy Trinity.”
- In heaven, we find our true identity. In the popular imagination, heaven’s inhabitants are often blandly homogenous, but the opposite is actually true; although heaven is a communion of life and love with the Trinity and all the blessed, in that communion we not only retain, but find, our true identity, our own name (Catechism 1025).
- Heaven: It’s not just for after we die. As Pope John Paul II explains, heaven “can be anticipated in some way today in sacramental life, whose centre is the Eucharist, and in the gift of self through fraternal charity. If we are able to enjoy properly the good things that the Lord showers upon us every day, we will already have begun to experience that joy and peace which one day will be completely ours.”
- Heaven defies description. “It is always necessary to maintain a certain restraint in describing these ‘ultimate realities’ since their depiction is always unsatisfactory,” the pope says. And that makes sense, given what we believe about heaven. It is difficult enough to describe the experience of being in love with another human, much less being caught up in the love of the Holy Trinity! Bad news for book publishers, but good news for the rest of us.
The Church has a lot more to say about heaven, of course, and you can read more at the links below.
Unfortunately for me, it says nothing about the ultimate destiny of sticks.
- Catechism of the Catholic Church
- General Audience of Pope John Paul II, 21 July 1999
- 35 FAQs about the Afterlife by Peter Kreeft
Jerry Windley-Daoust is publisher and general show-runner at Peanut Butter & Grace, and lives with his wife and five kids in Minnesota.