Could that be heaven up ahead?
Well, it could be. And 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 - one even sat on Jesus' lap - then come back to report on the trip. It's a lucrative journey.
Three of these tales have ascended to heavenly heights on USA TODAY's Best-Selling Books list recently, and more are on the way.
- Colton Burpo, then almost 4 years old, "dies" during an emergency appendectomy, travels to heaven and reports back how "really, really big God is."Heaven Is for Real: A Little Boy's Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back, Rev. Todd Burpo's 2010 tale of his son's round-trip to the Pearly Gates, has sold more than 7.5 million copies after 22 printings. It's been on USA TODAY's Best-Selling Books list for 111 weeks and reached No. 1 eight times in 2011. It's currently No. 94.
- Eben Alexander, a Harvard neurosurgeon who was in a coma for seven days in 2008, encounters an "angelic being" who guides him into the "deepest realms of super-physical existence." HisProof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon's Journey Into the Afterlife, published last fall, peaked at No. 4 in December and is currently No. 10.
- Mary Neal'sTo Heaven and Back: A Doctor's Extraordinary Account of Her Death, Heaven, Angels, and Life Again: A True Story, published in May, tells of the orthopedic surgeon's celestial journey following a kayak accident in Chile in which she was pulled underwater for so long that even she thought she was dead. It's been in the top 150 for 33 weeks, reaching as high as No. 14 in July.
Can you hear the publishing angels singing?
"Once word-of-mouth took over, there was no stopping" theHeaven Is for Real phenomenon, says Matt Baugher, senior vice president and publisher at Thomas Nelson, Burpo's publisher. "That got people talking about heaven and their own experiences, and opened up the door to other stories as well."
Seems everyone is talking about the trend, and just how "real" it is.
Christianity Today editor Mark Galli gave the phenomenon a serious look in December, with the magazine's cover asking the question on everyone's mind: "There and Back Again: What are we to make of all those stories of visits to heaven?"
Neal, who admits she was not particularly religious before her journey, says even she didn't have an answer to what happened at first.
"I didn't seek out people to talk to," she says of her near-death experience. "I put everything on the back burner until the day that God threw me out of bed and said, 'OK, now is the time you are going to write this.' And from that point on, this has been an incredible lesson in obedience, because I said, 'OK. I'm doing it.'"
Alexander confesses to a similar tug to tell.
"Once I realized the truth behind my journey, I knew I had to tell it," he writes in his book's prologue. "Doing so properly has become the chief task of my life."
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 "a great and beautiful revelation," changed his life.
"What's most shocking is that I spent all these years not getting it," he tells USA TODAY. "I had all the clues about the reality of this kind of thing, but science is mute on this issue ... What I bring to the table now is that I can help people with the (dying) process. That death is not the end, it's just a transition."
Phyllis Tickle is, well, tickled pink by all this talk. The founding editor of the religion department ofPublishers Weekly, the trade journal of the book industry, she is now a freelance authority on religion in America, author of numerous books - and energized by such discussions.
Not to be left behind, she even confesses to her own near-death experience 50 years ago. "But 50 years ago, you didn't talk about such a thing," she says, admitting now, at age 79, that she may have missed her opportunity, although her doctor husband wasn't buying any of it at the time. Still doesn't.
"There's got to be an element of hope here," she says. "We 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!"
More than hope, she believes buyers of these heaven-and-back books are just seeking "something reassuring."
Carol Fitzgerald, president of the Book Report Network, six websites that connect readers with books, agrees.
"In uncertain times, which is what we're experiencing now, people look for comfort," Fitzgerald says. "The concept that people have seen 'what's next' and shared what it's like gives hope and a feeling that life on earth is part of a journey with a greater reward."
So who's buying? Mostly the niche market of evangelicals and born-again Christians? Tickle says no, citing the 2007 best sellerThe Complete Idiot's Guide to Life After Deathas an example. "There's a broad mainstream audience here. You're way beyond a specific segment of religion."
Fran Quinn of Danbury, Conn., has read several of the heaven books and finds them "very comforting."
"After reading them, I do believe there is a 'heaven,' " says Quinn who manages retail stores. "They all have similarities regarding heaven, which leads me to believe these are real accounts. The bright lights. Seeing loved ones that have passed. Speaking with the angels and Jesus about things that are happening on earth."
But not everyone is buying this story of seeing the light and coming back to tell about it. These books have given birth to dozens of new blogs, many debunking the two-way trips to visit St. Peter.
Blogger Tim Challies, a Toronto pastor, calls the new genre "Heaven Tourism" and dubs one of the current best sellers - Neal'sTo Heaven and Back -"pure junk, fiction in the guise of biography, paganism in the guise of Christianity."
And author Anne Graham Lotz, daughter of evangelist Billy Graham, suspects readers are "looking for hope" but wonders if it's really to be found in these pages.
"I'm not sure they find it there. I'm not sure they all speak the truth. People who say they can die and get to heaven without Jesus, it's not true. It doesn't work if you just show up at the gate. People want heaven on their own terms," says Lotz, author of 2005'sHeaven, My Father's House, in which she tells believers not to fear death.
Even so, expect more heaven books coming down the publishing pike next year, including Cecil Murphey'sI Believe in Heaven: Real Stories From the Bible, History, and Today in May. And yes, the book will include stories from those who say they have died and gone to heaven.
"The development of these books has taken an interesting path," says Patricia Bostelman, vice president for marketing at Barnes & Noble, who notes there have been notable books about heaven for the past decade, beginning with Randy Alcorn's 2004 best seller,Heaven, a scholarly look at heaven using the Scriptures. Also published that year was Don Piper's 90 Minutes in Heaven, the best-selling (5 million copies) account of his trip after a car crash, which was co-written with Murphey.
"Then, all of a sudden, there were a lot of these books, many from the viewpoint of children," she says, namely the tale of the Burpo boy in 2010. Jumping on the bandwagon were the 2010 best sellerThe Boy Who Came Back From Heaven by Kevin and Alex Malarkey and this year'sMy Journey to Heaven by Marvin Besteman and Lorilee Cracker.
But the most "interesting" turn now, according to Bostelman, is that no-nonsense and once-non-religious doctors such as Alexander and Neal say they have taken the journey.
"When you have people from science backgrounds, it adds a certain credibility," she says. "They provide an authority from a scientific perspective. It's not a popular point of view in their world."
But no matter who is telling a heavenly story, it's all good for the book business. "We never complain when people want to know more about a topic," Bostelman says.
James Martin, a Jesuit priest and contributing editor toAmerica magazine, wrote this fall'sBetween Heaven and Mirth, in which he describes heaven as a joyful place. He has some theories of his own about what's going on.
It may just be coincidence that there are recent books by both children and doctors about their experiences of heaven, but the popularity of such books is understandable, he says.
"As more people drift away from churches, traditional answers they relied on in the past have been forgotten, so they seek answers in these books," says Martin, who also points to America's aging population. "Heaven is naturally going to be on more people's minds."
As for these trips, the only thing new about them is that people are actually writing about their experiences and producing best sellers.
"To me, what's interesting is that after-death experiences have been around for a long time and tend to take on the assumptions of the time," says Phillip Yancey, author ofWhat's So Amazing About Grace?
"In the Middle Ages, people would talk about a knight meeting them and helping them across a river. Now it's all about a tunnel of light and bright, angel-like figures," he says.
"Let's hope we don't find out for ourselves anytime soon."