(RNS) Do people really see a light at the end of a tunnel when they have a near-death experience? And could that be heaven up ahead?
That light is shining brighter than ever these days. Heaven is hot. Hotter even than that other place. Just ask any bookseller in America.
Folks have been going to heaven with amazing regularity lately. They look around â one even sat on JesusâÂ lap â then come back to report on the trip. Itâs a lucrative journey.
Three of these tales have ascended to heavenly heights on USA Todayâs best-seller list recently, and more are on the way:
â Colton Burpo, then almost 4 years old, âdiesâ during an emergency appendectomy, travels to heaven and reports back how âreally, really big God is.â âHeaven Is for Real: A Little Boyâs Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back,â the Rev. Todd Burpoâs 2010 tale of his sonâs round trip to the Pearly Gates, has sold more than 7.5 million copies after 22 printings. It has been on USA Todayâs best-seller list for 111 weeks and reached No. 1 eight times in 2011. Itâs now No. 94.
â Eben Alexander, a Harvard neurosurgeon who was in a coma for seven days in 2008, encounters an âangelic beingâ who guides him into the âdeepest realms of super-physical existence.â His âProof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeonâs Journey Into the Afterlife,â published last fall, peaked at No. 4 in December and is now No. 10.
â Mary Nealâs âTo Heaven and Back: A Doctorâs Extraordinary Account of Her Death, Heaven, Angels, and Life Again: A True Story,â published in May, tells of the orthopedic surgeonâs celestial journey after a kayak accident in Chile in which she was pulled underwater for so long that even she thought she was dead. It has been in the top 150 for 33 weeks and reached as high as No. 14 in July.
Can you hear the publishing angels singing?
âOnce word-of-mouth took over, there was no stoppingâ the âHeaven Is for Realâ phenomenon, said Matt Baugher, senior vice president and publisher at Thomas Nelson, Burpoâs publisher. âThat got people talking about heaven and their own experiences and opened up the door to other stories as well.â
Seems everyone is talking about the trend, and just how ârealâ it is.
Christianity Today editor Mark Galli gave the phenomenon a serious look in December as the magazineâs cover asked the question on everyoneâs mind: âThere and Back Again: What are we to make of all those stories of visits to heaven?â
Neal, who says she was not particularly religious before her journey, says even she didnât have an answer to what happened at first.
âI didnât seek out people to talk to,â she said. âI put everything on the back burner until the day that God threw me out of bed and said, âOK, now is the time you are going to write this.â And from that point on, this has been an incredible lesson in obedience, because I said, âOK. Iâm doing it.ââ
Alexander confesses to a similar tug to tell.
âOnce I realized the truth behind my journey, I knew I had to tell it,â he writes in his bookâs prologue. âDoing so properly has become the chief task of my life.â
Alexander was a skeptic of such near-death experiences until he came out of his own coma in 2008 with a story to tell, which he shared with Oprah Winfrey at the end of last year. The trip, which he calls âa great and beautiful revelation,â changed his life.
âWhatâs most shocking is that I spent all these years not getting it,â he said. âI had all the clues about the reality of this kind of thing, but science is mute on this issue. â¦ What I bring to the table now is that I can help people with the (dying) process. That death is not the end, itâs just a transition.â
Phyllis Tickle is, well, tickled pink by all this talk. The founding editor of the religion department of Publishers Weekly, she is now a freelance authority on religion in America, author of numerous books â and energized by such discussions.
Not to be left behind, she even owns up to her own near-death experience 50 years ago. âBut 50 years ago, you didnât talk about such a thing,â she said. She acknowledges that now, at age 79, she may have missed her opportunity, although her doctor husband wasnât buying any of it at the time. Still doesnât.
âThereâs got to be an element of hope here,â she said. âWe want to hear from someone who has gone there, done that, seen it. That there is something beyond this life, which is miserable, even for those of us who are happy.â
More than hope, she believes buyers of these heaven-and-back books are just seeking âsomething reassuring.â
Carol Fitzgerald, president of the online Book Report Network, agrees.
âIn uncertain times, which is what weâre experiencing now, people look for comfort,â Fitzgerald said. âThe concept that people have seen âwhatâs nextâ and shared what itâs like gives hope and a feeling that life on earth is part of a journey with a greater reward.â
(Craig Wilson writes for USA Today).