After a decade of terror attacks, wars, and economic disasters, publishers have a hunch that weary readers are looking ahead—far ahead—to better times and wondering what the afterlife might hold.
At least seven new books this year probe the mysteries of the afterlife, including heaven and accounts of near-death experiences. Among the provocative theses: consciousness doesn't end when the brain shuts down. These new texts build on the experiences of real people more than they argue from religious beliefs, yet their approaches to formulating credible cases vary widely.
Interest in the afterlife is hardly new. The idea of heaven has captivated people across faith lines for thousands of years, according to Lisa Miller, Newsweek's religion editor and author of Heaven: Our Enduring Fascination with the Afterlife (Harper, Mar.). But interest tends to surge in tough times, Miller says, and these days of drawn-out economic hardship and anxiety are no exception.
"Heaven is a very useful idea when things on this earth feel dire," Miller says. "Heaven really is a radical hope for the future. It allows people to see their future in a positive way. And there's a great comfort in that."
To explore the afterlife, one type of book features the experiences of children who reportedly died and visited heaven, and now share their stories with the help of devout Christian loved ones. Heaven Is for Real: A Little Boy's Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back (Thomas Nelson, Nov.) relates the tale of Colton Burpo, a Nebraska four-year-old who says that during surgery he went to heaven, where he met his great-grandfather and his previously unknown sister, who'd died in miscarriage. The story is told by Colton's father, evangelical pastor Todd Burpo, writing with Lynn Vincent, whose collaborative credits include such runaway successes as Same Kind of Different as Me (Thomas Nelson, 2006) and Going Rogue (HarperCollins, 2009) with Sarah Palin.
In this vein, Tyndale in July released The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven. Christian therapist Kevin Malarkey coauthors the book with his son Alex, whose skull was detached from his spinal column in a car accident. In a coma, the boy says, he experienced heaven's gates, its unearthly music, and God's voice.
Other authors are finding themes as they survey and relate collections of personal accounts. Pastor James L. Garlow and collaborator Keith Wall are following up their 2009 book, Heaven and the Afterlife (Bethany House), with a new collection of stories, including one man's brush with hell's demons, in Encountering Heaven and the Afterlife (Bethany House, Aug.). A less doctrine-based book in a similar format comes from David Kessler, a nurse and grief expert who sees patterns in things people experience in their final moments of life. He relates the observations of health care and ministry practitioners in Visions, Trips, and Crowded Rooms: Who and What You See Before You Die (Hay House, May).
Some authors are bringing scientific credentials and methods to the analysis of what people tend to undergo when life as they've known it has ended. HarperOne, according to senior v-p and publisher Mark Tauber, publishes medical authorities who write on this topic in part because their credentials are apt to impress news editors and producers.
"Because so much of our publishing model is media based, that [credibility] is critical for us," Tauber says. He sees the category trend as building on the 2004 success of Revell's 90 Minutes in Heaven, which has sold more than four million copies. HarperOne's Evidence of the Afterlife: The Science of Near-Death Experiences by Jeffrey Long with Paul Perry (Jan. 2010) finds patterns in an oncologist's database of more than 1,300 patients.
The near-death/afterlife trend is driven not only by hard times, Miller says, but also by desires to reconcile spiritual beliefs with attitudes that value scientific thinking. She sees new titles such as Dying with Confidence: A Tibetan Buddhist Guide to Preparing for Death (Wisdom, Oct.) as likely fodder for aging baby boomers eager to take control of life's final frontier.
"I can't control the oil spill or the stock market or the war in Afghanistan. So what can I control?" asks Stuart Matlins, publisher and editor-in-chief at Jewish Lights and Skylight Paths. "In the end, I can only control my own behavior, my response to these crises, and my relationships with other people and with the divine, however I define that."