Guy P. Harrison is the author of the popular books 50 Reasons People Give for Believing in a God — an excellent primer for new atheists trying to figure out how to respond to popular Christian arguments — and 50 Popular Beliefs That People Think Are True.
This week marks the release of his latest book: 50 Simple Questions for Every Christian (Prometheus Books, 2013). As with his previous books, this one is easy to read and a great ice-breaker for anyone who wants to start a debate
An exclusive excerpt from the book is below:
HOW DO WE KNOW THAT HEAVEN IS REAL?
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.
— John 3:16
Heaven is the most appealing promise Christianity makes. It is central to the religion, the reason Jesus came to Earth and died for us. His gory blood sacrifice gave us the opportunity to defeat death and live forever in a better place. Undoubtedly, this post-death paradise is the primary motivation for many people to become or remain Christian. But slow down! Why would anyone think this place really exists in the first place? It’s one of the most amazing and spectacular claims ever made. How can we trust it? Where is the proof? Some think heaven is real because they trust the Bible and the Bible says it is. But that’s not good enough for people who are also skeptical of the Bible’s accuracy. More than written words, they need compelling evidence, if not conclusive proof, in order to take seriously a claim this big. Keep in mind, heaven is supposed to be a perfect place where one dwells with God for eternity after dying. Few claims in the history of humankind are larger than this one. How can we be expected to just believe that it exists without some very good reasons to? Skeptics might agree with Christians that a heaven in some form or another is worth hoping for, but that’s very different from “knowing” that it really exists.
Many Christians say they have that proof. They point to near-death experiences and out-of-body experiences that involve a person “dying,” perhaps even visiting heaven, and then returning to Earth alive. Across cultures a few key descriptions of this experience have been reported. People feel a profound sense of peace and calm. Many see a tunnel and a bright light. They feel a sense of detachment from their bodies. Some see dead friends, family members, or religious figures such as angels, Jesus, or Mohammed. Interestingly, it seems that virtually all those who have the latter experience see only prominent figures who are associated with their religion. Hindus do not report seeing Zeus, Christians do not report meeting Mohammed, and Muslims never seem to encounter Joseph Smith. And no one ever gets greeted by a long-forgotten god from an extinct prehistoric religion. Despite some contradictory details, the argument often made is that so many people in so many different places cannot all be wrong about this similar experience. Heaven, therefore, must be real. As we shall see, however, there are reasonable explanations for all these things that require neither an afterlife nor the existence of heaven.
Near-death experiences are fascinating and well worth investigating, no doubt, but do they qualify as proof that an afterlife and heaven are real? I’ve read about many cases and interviewed two people who say they left their bodies for a brief period after dying. One says she visited heaven. A preacher named Don Piper “died” on January 18, 1989, and wrote about his afterlife experience in the bestselling book 90 Minutes in Heaven. I read it and found nothing that comes close to qualifying as serious evidence for his claim. He describes the “pearlescent” gates of heaven, seeing a close friend who had died in a traffic accident years before, and hearing glorious music before being whisked back to Earth to live again.
Modern brain biology and psychology can provide reasonable and likely explanations for all these things, however. Maybe Piper went to heaven, but isn’t it more likely that he and others in similar circumstances remember images and feelings that were created by their oxygen-deprived and severely stressed brains? Piper seems uninter¬ested in doubting the accuracy of his recollections—even though it is well known that our brains can fool us into believing sights, sounds, and even complex experiences that do not match with reality. “I have no intention of trying to solve this debate,” he writes. “I can only relate what happened to me. No matter what researchers may or may not try to tell me, I know I went to heaven.”
Many people say they know they were experimented on by aliens, too. Many people also say they know a horoscope accurately foretold their future. Many people know they saw a ghost. Clearly an individual’s confidence is not enough. If it is, then we would have to believe every story ever told with conviction as if no human can be honestly mistaken or innocently deluded. Claims of seeing heaven may be true, but without evidence they are all just stories.
I interviewed a man who told me about the day his soul left his body. He was dying of septic shock. His heart rate was down to four to six beats per minute. Devastated by infection, full of drugs, and empty of hope, he began to slip away. He drifted from his body and found himself looking down at the room from somewhere near the ceiling. He remembers seeing his doctor praying for him at his bedside. It was weird but all very real, he said. But he didn’t die. After regaining consciousness, he told the doctor that he saw him praying. The doctor, he said, was shocked. He was stunned that his patient “saw” him praying despite being dead or near dead. This out-of-body experience, though dramatic, was brief and did not include a visit to heaven. Loretta Blasingame, however, went all the way.
An “anointed evangelist,” Blasingame has traveled the world, telling people the news about Jesus’s promise of the afterlife. She also loves to share the story of her amazing visit to heaven. I met Blasingame in the Cayman Islands, where she performed a faith-healing service. That night, she claimed to “dissolve tumors” and heal a wide variety of serious illnesses. Nothing topped the story of heaven that she told me, however.
Blasingame said she “died” of a heart attack and then rose out of her body. She saw her physical body lying beneath her as she hovered above. Then she found herself at the literal gates of heaven. The gates were bedazzled with blinding pearls and diamonds, and the streets were paved with gold, she said. She saw angels teaching newcomers how to properly worship God. People ate fruit, and when they were finished, another piece would magically appear. No one goes hungry in heaven, she explained. And then she saw him. Jesus approached Blasingame and took her hand. She said he had beautiful wavy hair and “the most beautiful crystal blue eyes.” Jesus “anointed” her and sent her back to Earth so that she could tell people about him and heal people in his name.
STORIES ARE NOT PROOF
This was easily one of the best stories I have ever had the privilege to hear. I watched her closely as she spoke. I saw her lip tremble, the tears build in her eyes before streaking her cheeks. Skeptical though I may be, if I had to guess, I would say that she was telling me the truth that night. Maybe she fooled me, but I think she was sincere. No, I’m not convinced that she actually went to the place we know as heaven. Maybe she did, but I doubt it. However, I do think she probably went there in her mind. She felt it, experienced it, and now she remembers it, probably more clearly, in greater detail, and with more confidence than I remember some of the real places I have actually been to. I think this explanation is more likely to be accurate because I know enough about the human brain to know that it can take us to places that do not exist and leave us with unshakeable memories of having really been there. The fact that we know the brain can do this means we need to have much more than a story to be sure.
While researching alien abduction claims for another book, I was surprised to find out how common sleep paralysis is. This likely explanation for stories of extraterrestrials invading bedrooms and molesting people involves the brain’s failure to fully awaken from a dream state coupled with false memories. At least 20 percent of the population is thought to have had at least one episode of sleep paralysis with hallucinations. I was amazed to discover that I had friends and family members who experienced sleep paralysis. The tacking on of elaborately constructed memories of alien mischief is less common, of course, but apparently it does happen to many people. Science has revealed much about the brain’s ability to fool us into thinking we have physically experienced things that never really happened. This knowledge must not be forgotten or diminished when people tell extraordinary stories without supporting evidence.
This knowledge should fuel our skepticism when we hear extraordinary stories, such as the one Blasingame told me. The good skeptic, even if he likes the person and is impressed with her story, recognizes that, without proof, it’s only a story. Don’t forget, we have stories of just about everything imaginable. There are stories out there about people being kidnapped by Bigfoot, time traveling, talking to ghosts, and so on. But they all have one thing in common — no proof. How can we sensibly decide which ones are true and which ones are probably not true? This is where the scientific process comes in. If we really want to get to the bottom of things, all we have to do is feed the story into the machinery of science. If it survives to emerge from the other end somewhat intact, then we might have something to be excited about. But without submitting to the scientific process, extraordinary stories wither and die, or at least they should. They still could be true, but how can we know? A story may stir us emotionally and may appeal to us in ways that make us want it to be true. It might even be believed enthusiastically by most of the people we know. But without evidence and testing, it’s just a story and nothing more.
Heaven is an irresistible hope for most people. Why wouldn’t it be? Our extraordinarily intelligent brains burden us with an awareness of our ultimate fate. Unless the singularitarians and transhumanists turn out to be right, we all will die. It’s the big finish, the ultimate end. The ever-present shadow of that realization is probably one reason most people seem so determined to keep themselves busy with either productive work or nonsense distractions. Sit still too long, and you might actually contemplate your own existence — and eventual nonexistence. One doesn’t need to be Freud to suspect that the extraordinary appeal of heaven is tied to a universal concern with death and our desire to avoid it. Many religions offer an answer that is very soothing to this concern. Christians should understand that skeptics are not necessarily opposed to an afterlife. We would love to get some more time on the clock (although eternity seems a bit much and leaving most of humankind behind would feel very wrong). We can hope too. Who wouldn’t want to be reunited with loved ones and exist in a place without want or suffering? The difference is that skeptics aren’t willing to pretend to know something that we don’t. The skeptics’ problem with heaven is not that we wouldn’t be willing to jump through the appropriate theological hoops to get there. Within reason, most of us probably would. The problem is that we are unconvinced. Stories about heaven, whether they are found in the written words of anonymous authors from thousands of years ago or in the spoken words of people who claim to have been there, fall short.
Michael Shermer, founding publisher of Skeptic, says that the absence of proof leaves us with no choice but to withhold belief in heaven at this time: “Here is the reality. It has been estimated that in the last fifty thousand years about 107 billion humans were born. Of the hundred billion people born before the seven billion living today, every one of them has died and not one has returned to confirm for us beyond a reasonable doubt that there is life after death. This data set does not bode well for promises of immortality and claims for an afterlife.”
The first thing nonbelievers wonder about regarding dramatic stories of near-death and out-of-body experiences is whether or not there are natural explanations that might explain them. If there are no afterlife and no heaven, then what is going on? It seems unlikely that all these people are lying. Once again, science comes to the rescue and leads us to possible answers that are far more likely to be true because they rely on testable human biology and psychology rather than on gods and supernatural forces that are so elusive to testing and confirmation. Not all is understood, of course, but enough is to make it clear that the dying or oxygen-deprived brain is probably behind these events. For example, the tunnel of light that many dying or distressed people have reported seeing is likely nothing more than the tunnel vision that occurs when the eyes don’t get enough blood and oxygen. Researchers have also found that some drugs can trigger hallucinations and out-of-body experiences. Other researchers have induced the same sensation in people by stimulating specific parts of the brain with mild electrical currents. Let’s think about this: we are not gods. We do not send people to heaven. Yet we are able to induce the near-death and out-of-body experience. None of this disproves heaven, of course. But it does strongly suggest that there is a physical, biological cause and not necessarily a supernatural one.
A key factor in many of these experiences is likely the influence of prior beliefs. Those who deeply believe that death is the gateway to heaven may already be halfway there. Psychologists know very well that expectations can color perceptions of reality. If one thinks Jesus is real and frequently prays to Jesus, then it is not surprising that an image of Jesus may be conjured up by the brain during one of these near-death events. The person doesn’t even necessarily have to be religious. Simply being exposed to religious beliefs in his or her culture might trigger one’s brain to place or interpret the psychological experience into a religious context. For example, I am not religious, but if I had one of these near-death psychological events and “saw” a religious figure in my mind, it would most likely be Jesus or “God the Father.” This is because I have lived among so many Christians and been exposed to Christianity for so many years. The Christian god likely would be first in the queue for such an experience. It is much less likely that I would encounter Khepri, an ancient Egyptian god, for example.
Being skeptical of heaven does not necessarily diminish its importance. Just as fears of death have haunted us, dreams of heaven and other escapes have driven us in profound ways. Philosopher Stephen Cave believes a deep wanting to avoid death is behind much of what we do: “All living things seek to perpetuate themselves into the future, but humans seek to perpetuate themselves forever. This seeking — this will to immortality — is the foundation of human achievement; it is the wellspring of religion, the muse of philosophy, the architect of our cities and the impulse behind the arts. It is embedded in our very nature, and its results are what we know as civilization.”
As a skeptic of heaven, I tell people to consider both the absence of evidence and the very reasonable scientific explanations for the dramatic near-death-experience stories about it. I tell no one, however, that they should not hope for an afterlife and a heaven. Hope, if you wish, so long as doing so does not reduce your passion for this life or diminish your desire to make it the best it can be. I see nothing wrong with hoping, so long as we do not confuse it with knowing.
 Don Piper, 90 Minutes in Heaven (Grand Rapids, MI: Revell, 2004), p. 201.
 Guy P. Harrison, “God Is in This Place,” Caymanian Compass, November 19, 1993.
 Susan A. Clancy, Abducted: How People Come to Believe They Were Kidnapped by Aliens (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005), p. 35.
 Michael Shermer, “Hope Springs Eternal: Science, the Afterlife and the Meaning of Life,” Skeptic (accessed March 22, 2012).
 Charles Q. Choi, “Peace of Mind: Near-Death Experiences Now Found to Have Scientific Explanations,” Scientific American, September 12, 2011 (accessed May 7, 2012).
 Kevin Nelson, The Spiritual Doorway in the Brain (New York: Dutton, 2010), pp. 142−43.
 Stephen Cave, Immortality (New York: Crown, 2012), p. 2.
If you’d like to win a copy of Harrison’s new book, just leave your own question for Christians in the comments below and place the hashtag #AnswerThat at the end of it! I’ll contact the winner next week.
From 50 Simple Questions for Every Christian (Prometheus Books, 2013). Reprinted by permission of the publisher.