For champions of human rights, January was not a good month, particularly since one-time media darling, Shin Dong-Hyuk admitted that he lied about his incarceration in North Korea’s notorious Camp 14 and his subsequent escape to freedom. His personal testimony has long been cited as evidence of the horrific abuses under the Communist system of the Hermit Kingdom. With his admission that he had been imprisoned in a different camp and fabricated the rest of his story, there are those who would argue that North Korea is not the hell that its detractors have made it out to be.
January has not been kind to Christian fundamentalists either. Alex Malarkey’s near-fatal injury in a 2004 car crash became the subject of a best-selling memoir The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven which spawned a spate of other books on the same subject, including Proof of Heaven and Heaven Is For Real. Now, Malarkey claims he neither died nor went to heaven. He made up the whole story for the attention. Without the eyewitness testimony on which to rely, heaven has again become a matter of belief rather than a matter of fact.
In both cases, the tendency is to conclude that if the testimony is discredited then the entire claim is mistaken. But this is surely not the case.
The fact that there are no surviving witnesses to the mistreatment of prisoners in one particular prison camp does not mean that there are no prison camps at all or that life in North Korea is tolerable for dissidents or for anyone. And the fact that there is no six-year-old boy who actually returned from heaven does not make the existence of heaven any less plausible.
Jews will continue to believe in an afterlife for good reason. First, an afterlife assures us that the inequities we see in this plane of existence, like the suffering of the innocent or the prospering of the wicked, will be remediated in the next plane of existence. Second, there are individuals whose lives we see as so guided by goodness and so exemplary that if heaven did not exist, it would have to be invented just to honor them. The concept of heaven is compelling whether or not we ever receive any personal confirmation.
Similarly, North Korea’s status as an oppressive police-state will not be rehabilitated simply because one former prisoner told a lie about where he was imprisoned. Forced labor, dire poverty, extensive famine, perpetual monitoring, arbitrary imprisonment are not erased because of Shin’s deception. The testimony is tainted but the truth still abides.