Roberts Liardon loves talking about the sofa he sat on in Heaven.
“It was alive,” he tells the congregation at Kensington Temple church in London. His voice is gravelly and confident, a bit Lewis Black’s but less grouchy and more Southern. “It was alive with comfort. When you sat on that sofa, comfort reached up and cuddled you while you were sitting there.”
This may seem like an odd detail to remember from a vision of Heaven, let alone to recount much later in a 2010 sermon. Liardon is a Pentecostal Christian minister, but nothing in the Bible suggests that there are sofas in Heaven. (Aside from the fact that biblical authors were vague on the heavenly details, sofas were not invented until the 17th century.)
As Liardon points out, though, he was no biblical scholar at the time. He was an eight-year-old child, who moments earlier had been reading the Bible in his family’s home in Tulsa in 1974. All at once, according to Liardon, a “supernatural pull came out of Heaven and swallowed me,” whisking him away to the gates of Heaven. There, he was met by Jesus and given a day pass of sorts—a chance to tour the place without having to commit.
Heaven, as experienced by the eight-year-old Liardon, resembled an American suburb, or perhaps a Disney World resort. There were golden curbs adorned with humming flowers. The streets were clean and made of something like crystal. The single-family homes were well tended and furnished. Everyone was very, very polite. As he meandered around the heavenly streets and cul-de-sacs, residents would cordially wish him a good day and tell him how much they hoped he enjoyed his tour.
Young Liardon was particularly impressed that the residents of Heaven addressed him by his proper name: “Roberts,” with an “s.” Named in honor of Oral Roberts—whose fledgling university his mother had moved to Tulsa to attend in 1965—Liardon had often corrected those who shortened his first name to the more typical “Robert.” Not so in Heaven, where everyone recognized exactly who he was and why he was there.
The citizens of Liardon’s Heaven were also beautiful. “The way you look here on Earth, you’re gonna look in Heaven,” Liardon assures his London audience, “but you’re gonna look perfect and not fat.” Liardon found Jesus particularly handsome. His messiah stood at a cool six feet tall, with hair down to his shoulders. (New Testament scholar John Dominic Crossan surmises that Jesus of Nazareth was around five feet tall and 110 pounds, the average for a Palestinian male in Jesus’ day. So presumably Heaven can correct weight in either direction.) And Jesus had biceps and a big belly laugh. Of this, Liardon is sure. “I remember the biceps, and I remember the laugh.”
Liardon’s first book, I Saw Heaven, was published in 1983 when he was 17. It has done well, selling 1.5 million copies since its publication. More to the point, it helped launch Liardon’s career as a celebrity Pentecostal minister, complete with a large church and school in California. (And, later, a scandal. In 2002, Liardon temporarily stepped away from ministry after admitting to an affair with his church’s male youth minister.)
In hindsight, it’s easy to admire the nerve of Liardon, just as it’s easy to see the poignancy of his description of Heaven. Depictions of Heaven’s bliss have tended to reflect the longings of a particular group. Starving medieval peasants imagined a place of feasting, while Gilded Age bourgeoisie imagined a Heaven where their favorite earthly activities could continue, and alienated post-modern Westerners imagine a place of belonging and acceptance. One can appreciate why a teenage Liardon—whose father had left when he was a toddler—might have imagined Heaven as a tidy, polite, comfortable place where everyone welcomed him (including his six-foot-tall muscly tour guide).
It’s also impressive that a teenager should happen upon a pattern of success that would soon become so well established: visit Heaven, write a book, get famous.
Compare Liardon to another Tulsa Pentecostal, Kenneth Hagin. Hagin’s own hereafter story, I Went to Hell, had come out the year before Liardon’s I Saw Heaven. In it, Hagin recounts an experience he had had when he was 15 and bedridden with a serious illness. He felt himself pulled into Hell several times before he finally prayed the sinner’s prayer and was released. Four months later, he experienced “the glory cloud”: not Heaven, not exactly, but a divine visitation that filled his sick room with a glowing cloud of God’s presence. Hagin had not been transported “up,” but God’s splendor had come “down”—a religious law of physics that would shape the rest of his career. Hagin later earned fame as the grandfather of the “prosperity gospel” movement; its adherents believe that the truly faithful can expect to be showered with material blessings, including money, in this life.
But all that had happened in 1933, nearly 50 years before I Went to Hell was published. In the interim, Hagin had had to become famous the hard way: by preaching on the radio, then appearing on television, then starting a magazine, and then founding Rhema Bible Training College and its associate programs.
Not Liardon. He wrote the book first, and then the fame came. The American reading public of the early 1980s was primed for heavenly visions. By then, parapsychologist Raymond Moody’s best-selling Life After Life had introduced the idea of near-death experiences into the popular imagination—thereby affording legitimacy to first-person accounts of Heaven, like Liardon’s, that involved no brush with death. Meanwhile, 1960s counterculture had sparked widespread interest in altered states of consciousness. The phrase “out-of-body experience” entered everyday conversation. Intrepid readers bought books like Robert A. Monroe’s Far Journeys and tried to have their own.
Charismatic Christianity was also gaining wider acceptance. In the early 20th century, when the first Pentecostals had preached “baptism of the Holy Ghost,” other North American Christians tended to view charismatics with suspicion. But by the early 1980s, Oral Roberts’ organization was pulling in $120 million a year. The charismatic movement had gotten a foothold in non-Pentecostal denominations, with worshipers in formerly buttoned-up congregations—Episcopalians, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Catholics—becoming holy rollers. They spoke in tongues, received miraculous healings, and prophesied. And the influence ran the other way, too: by the early ‘80s, Oral Roberts had joined Boston Avenue United Methodist Church. The Pentecostals, he felt, cramped his style too much for television. Curious about the otherworldly, yet concerned to be respectable: this is the world to which the teenage Liardon proclaimed his good news of a clean, polite, attractive, neighborly Heaven.
The past 30 years have not been the best for American Christianity’s membership numbers. They have, however, been fantastic for selling there-and-back stories about visiting Heaven. A sampling from the past decade or so includes such titles as: The Day I Died, My Time in Heaven, My Journey to Heaven, To Heaven and Back, A Glimpse of Heaven, Heaven Is for Real, A Vision from Heaven, Waking Up in Heaven, and Face to Face with Jesus, among others. (There is also 23 Minutes in Hell, in which author Bill Wiese recounts the time God sent him to Hell so that he could come back and warn others of its ghastly heat, cramped cells, and flesh-devouring beasts. Unlike Dante, Wiese is not treated to a tour led by the poet Virgil. Perhaps Hell’s event planners figured that Wiese, then a real estate broker, would be able to manage a solo tour.)
Like many lucrative gigs, “Heaven tourism” may have attracted a few double-dealers. A recent Esquire piece by Luke Dittrich uncovers glaring inconsistencies in Proof of Heaven, the 2012 near-death memoir by Harvard-trained neurosurgeon Eben Alexander. Key elements of his account—like his claim that he had no brain activity during his vision of Heaven—do not square with evidence or other eyewitness accounts. Still, Alexander stands by his story. Kevin Malarkey, the boy behind The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven, has entirely retracted his.
“I said I went to Heaven because I thought it would get me attention,” he wrote on his blog. “I did not die. I did not go to Heaven.” According to a piece in The Guardian by Michelle Dean, Kevin’s mother, Beth, had been trying to get the book pulled for two years, with no luck. The book was selling so well, she claims, no one in the evangelical publishing industry wanted to recall it.
The scandals, coupled with criticisms from more biblically minded Christians, have recently prompted LifeWay Christian Stores to pull the entire genre from its shelves. That purge could be a real blow to prospective celestial memoirists. LifeWay, affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, is one of the largest Christian retailers. They operate more than 1,200 retail stores and conduct a robust online business. But perhaps such a purge was inevitable, given that LifeWay is a Southern Baptist organization. For a church whose faith stands on the unchanging words of the B-I-B-L-E, such fanciful descriptions of Heaven can be hard to swing. Why go to all the trouble of asserting the primacy of scripture if, at the end of the day, you’re inviting people to be edified by a four-year-old’s story about Jesus riding a rainbow-colored horse? (That image comes courtesy of Colton Burpo, and is recounted in Heaven Is for Real.)
The ones buying the books (and the movies and the associated merchandise) do not seem to be much bothered, though. Sales are still strong, with more titles planned for the coming year. Given American consumers’ love of novelty, the next heavenly memoirs may well offer even more fanciful descriptions, out of the mouths of even more guileless visionaries. Hagin’s cloud of glory and Liardon’s comfortable sofa might seem unbearably quaint now, but give them credit. They saw Heaven before it was cool.
Originally published in This Land: Summer 2015.