The theology of child resurrection

In 2019, American Christians were fascinated with this subject

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It seems fair to say that America has long been fascinated by scenes of children dying and communicating visions of the Afterlife. It’s right there in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the 1852 novel with a famous scene of Little Eva hovering on the edge of life and death.

“O, Eva, tell us what you see! What is it?” said her father.

A bright, a glorious smile passed over her face, and she said, brokenly, — “O! love, — joy, — peace!” gave one sigh and passed from death unto life!

Ah, she goes too soon to communicate what she sees.

Here in 2019, the interest is in children who come back from the dead. At the same time, ironically, Christian theologians, even very conservative ones, are dismantling the traditional idea of Heaven — on Biblical grounds! Note N.T. Wright’s recent essay in Time:

What then was the personal hope for Jesus’ followers? Ultimately, resurrection — a new and immortal physical body in God’s new creation. But, after death and before that final reality, a period of blissful rest.

But the Christian faithful seem convinced: their chidren go to Heaven, and when they’re resurrected, they may have memories of it.

As a report in Slate discussed, Christians are utterly fascinated by this subject, and Hollywood has tried to help out. There’s been a boom in “heaven tourism,” from Heaven is for Real (2010; movie 2014) to 90 Minutes in Heaven (2004; movie 2015), Flight to Heaven (2010), To Heaven and Back (2012), and Miracles From Heaven (2015; movie 2016).

This year, the movie Breakthrough was a monster hit. Released on April 17th, it went on to make over $50 million. It re-tells an event reported in 2015 when 14-year-old John Smith fell into the icy waters of Lake Saint Louise in Missouri and died. His mother led the effort to pray him back to life — as related in a 2017 book, The Impossible.

A 2015 report by the 700 Club summarizes:

Joyce burst into the ER as doctors feverishly worked to bring life back to John’s lifeless body. Sensing little hope, Dr. Stutterer finally told her, “You can go up and talk to your son.” “In that moment I knew I had to get desperate with my Lord. I had to get a hold of God and get a hold of him fast,” she says.

The L.A. Times reported on an actress who plays Joyce rehearsing her scenes. “She cried, she wailed, she pleaded with God. She wept over her onscreen son’s unresponsive body 10 times in a row, and brought tears to the eyes of her fellow cast and crew members.”

I wonder: if a woman was faking it, would I be able to tell?

Then, of course, on December 15th, a 2-year-old named Olive Heiligenthal, of Redding, California, stopped breathing in her sleep. Her mom, Kalley, a worship leader at Bethel Church, a megachurch, put out a call to pray to bring her daughter back into life.

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The story lit up social media and went global, as Christians everywhere went to work. It seems like a fascinating test of the ability of earnest humans applying their focus to an appeal to the Christian God for resurrection. Could it have been done any better than Bethel did?

“Here is where we are: Olive hasn’t been raised,” the church now announces. “The breakthrough we have sought hasn’t come.”

This might be viewed as embarrassing to the church, which has an active ministry in praying people back to life with “dead-raising teams.”

Christians everywhere were discussing the theology of Resurrection. Craig S. Keener, a regular Evangelical spokesman on the issue, again suggested this was possible, that parents can ‘hope’ for its event when their children die, and volunteered his stories of hearing of people brought back to life.

As he’d reported in a 2011 book, Miracles, his sister-in-law was resurrected from the dead according to family reports. “Most important, this extraordinary recovery is reported by someone whom we know well and serves to illustrate a much larger number of stories.”

All this might serve as a reminder of the ongoing fallout from Alex Malarkey, the subject of a mega-bestselling 2010 book, The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven, recanting his story. The descriptions of his death and postmortem spirit journeys, he says, were false. “I said I went to heaven because I thought it would get me attention,” he declared in 2015 to a conservative Christian website. But the legal fallout continues.

But it might have been Alex’s story that focused attention on the specific theme of children dying. Slate reports:

After the Malarkeys’ success, “all Christian publishers were looking for the next heaven book,” said Sandy Vander Zicht, a former editor at Zondervan, a large evangelical publisher based in Michigan.

It’s troubling to track the strange effort by Alex and his mother to dismantle the book’s appeal—without exactly making a forthright appeal to the publisher to stop its publication. But they seem to have difficulty being heard.

In August 2011, Alex left a comment on a Facebook fan page for the book, calling it “1 of the most deceptive books ever.” The comment was deleted, according to a 2015 report in the Guardian. Beth started writing to Tyndale the next year to complain about the book, though it’s not clear she raised specific objections about the truth of Alex’s supernatural encounters. Tyndale offered to meet with her, but she declined, citing Alex’s health. She left comments on Christian blogs, and she told a radio show that Alex was opposed to the book. She also reached out to conservative writers who were publicly skeptical of the heaven genre on theological grounds.

It seems not to be clear, at this point, who wrote the book, or what Alex actually said at the time. His disavowals now are certainly tinged with his “corrected” theology acquired since from other Christian clerics. His parents are also now divorced. The evidentiary situation is murky.

What does seem clear is that many Christian people live in an ongoing confrontation with spirit powers which makes resurrection and contact with ‘Heaven’ a very real possibility.

The family’s pastor at the time, Gary Brown, told me that he and a friend once felt inspired to drive to the Malarkey family home and walk a circle around the house praying for the family’s immediate spiritual protection from some kind of demonic force. “The war was very real,” he said of that time in the Malarkeys’ lives. “The spiritual warfare was very real.”

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The realization that ‘Heaven’ as traditionally understood is not a biblical teaching—but was cooked up from parts of Greek and other ideas of the Afterlife—has been brewing for awhile.

In A New Heaven and a New Earth, a 2014 book studying the theme, J. Richard Middleton recalls his own “startling realization that the Bible nowhere claims that ‘heaven’ is the final home of the redeemed.

Although there are many New Testament texts that Christians often read as if they teach a heavenly destiny, the texts do not actually say this. Rather, the Bible consistently anticipates the redemption of the entire created order, a motif that fits very well with the Christian hope of the resurrection, which Paul calls “the redemption of our bodies” (Rom. 8:23).

He adds: “Most contemporary Christians tend to live with an unresolved tension between a belief in the resurrection of the body and an immaterial heaven as final destiny.”

Where do these visions of Heaven come from? If they are not actually derived from Christian theology, what religious system is active in America?

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