Posted by: gmscan | February 14, 2013

Proof of Heaven?

I recently read a fascinating book by Eben Alexander, MD, called “Proof of Heaven.”

The book is about Dr. Alexander’s near-death experience when he was stricken with a virulent form of bacterial meningitis.  He mixes three different stories into the book.

The first is an autobiography. Alexander is a very accomplished neurosurgeon, a father, and an adopted son who struggles to find his birth parents. He also has a passion for sky-diving, and is a nominal Christian, attending church on Christmas and Easter, but like many scientists he doesn’t have much patience for the spiritual. This is the least important part of the book.

Far more interesting is the medical mystery of what happened to him. He suddenly came down with a virulent form of bacterial meningitis that put him in a coma for seven days. The physicians who treated him could not figure out where this came from. In the medical literature they couldn’t find a single case of an adult contracting this kind of meningitis without first having neurosurgery. As his coma continued the prognosis became dire. The physicians expected him to die or, if he recovered, to live in a permanent vegetative state.

Since this is Alexander’s specialty, he has a lot to say about it. He says his neocortex was shut down completely during this coma, which makes his experience all the more amazing. He should have had no consciousness whatsoever on any level. I asked a neurosurgeon friend about this case (a man who is a devout Catholic), and he tells me it is flatly impossible – period.

After seven days of coma, he woke up. It took a while for him to get his brain reoriented, but he suffered no permanent damage of any kind and is now as lucid and functioning as ever.

But the real heart of this book is what happened to him internally during that seven-day coma. Curiously, he says it started raining the day he went into a coma and stopped the day he came out, which is very unusual where he lives in Virginia in November.

He says he went to heaven during that time. I won’t try to describe it here, other than to say it was very much like what other people have experienced, either in revelation or in near-death experiences. It was not just a disembodied spiritual experience. There were waterfalls and flowering trees and children playing. But there were also angels flying and the presence of God everywhere. Colors and sounds were all far richer than we have here. But the overwhelming sensation was love, pure, unconditional, and total.  He writes—

“Love is, without a doubt the basis of everything. Not some kind of abstract, hard-to-fathom kind of love, but the day-to-day kind of love that everyone knows – the kind of love we feel when we look at our spouse and our children, or even our animals. In its purest and most powerful form, this love is not jealous or selfish, but unconditional….” (p 71)

Yet Alexander acknowledges evil as well. He says –

 “Evil was necessary because without it free will was impossible, and without free will there could be no growth – no forward movement, no chance for us to become what God longed for us to be.” (P.48)

So what do I make of this? First, Alexander is missing a fourth aspect to the experience – theology. And here he gets very close to what Ross Douthat warned us about in “Bad Religion” – a kind of feel-good heresy. And sure enough one of the first places Alexander appeared was on the Oprah Winfrey show.

He mentions Jesus only twice in the entire book, once when relating the near-death experience of another man who claims to have seen Jesus, and again when he visits an Episcopal church after his experience. The stained glass windows and music evoke his experience. But this is the shortest chapter of the entire book, and he never considers that Christians have known about the wonders of Heaven for two thousand years. Much of Jesus’ teachings were to tell us what the Kingdom of God is like.  Nothing in Dr. Alexander’s experience contradicts what we already know.

But he feels no need to reconcile his experience with the Word of God. Instead he labors mightily to reconcile it with what he knows well – the medical/scientific world from which he comes.  He includes a fascinating chapter on this, including brief descriptions of quantum mechanics, current thinking about consciousness, and the realization that we are able to perceive only a tiny fraction of our universe, the rest (96%) being attributed to dark matter and dark energy of which we have no understanding.  Uniting all this, he argues, is a consciousness that is independent of our physical brains.

This resonates with what I have been thinking for a long time – the trouble with the scientific/atheistic understanding is a childish conceit that what we can perceive with our senses is all that exists. But that is clearly not true. My dog can hear and smell things that are far beyond my abilities. I will never understand what it is like to be a dog, to have the abilities of a dog. If that is true of common dogs and men, how much more is out there that we cannot detect in our current bodies?

Many people are likely to dismiss Alexander as a fraud or a heretic. I don’t think he’s a fraud. I think he is relating his experience as faithfully as he can – no doubt at great cost to his reputation as a neuroscientist. What happened to him may be, as my neurosurgeon friend said, “flatly impossible.”  But isn’t that the definition of a miracle? Do we believe miracles no longer happen? I don’t.

As for heresy, yes that is a danger, but I think the worry is simply that he is unschooled in theology. If he digs into theology as deeply as he does science, he may discover how his experience simply confirms what Christians already know – that God loves us so much that He himself became a man to teach us about His Kingdom.

 

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Responses

  1. I’m so glad you wrote this. I was excited to read the book, but when I did, I kept waiting for the author to explain how he incorporated this experience in his Christianity, but the story drifted off into a vague New Age “scientism.” Your connection of his book with the potential for heresy of which Russ Douthat speaks is very helpful.

  2. I don’t know why a vision or a dream one has, going into, or coming out of a coma, should count more than all the hard knocks life has to offer when you are awake and engaged and in relationship with real people.

    But modern physics and its mysteries, with its Schrodinger’s cats and Twin Paradoxes, and its particle/wave theory of light, its quantum state communication and mathematical explanations for things that have absolutely no dual or metaphor in every day life does seem to intrigue the new age fans. And what’s not to intrigue? It is completely incomprehensible even for those who fully understand it.

    I think it’s amazing that Greek/Christian philosopher/theologians were able to articulate the doctrine of the Trinity almost Two Thousand years before science found a metaphor in nature that resembled their views. Usually we need the metaphor first.

    The insight of modern physics is precisely that you cannot count on your senses to tell you what there is. Nor can you dispassionately observe what is there without interacting with it, and changing it, simply by trying to observe it. All that there is really is in relationship with, and is defined by, everything else that there is.

    And that insight is on the first pages of the book of Genesis and on the last pages of the book of Revelation and on every page in between.


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