Proof of Heaven?

Proof of Heaven?

Recently I read the new book Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the
by Eben Alexander, M.D. (Simon & Schuster, 2012). Alexander’s story was told in Newsweek magazine and also on the television show 20/20.

A spate of books purporting to provide “eyewitness” accounts of heaven have been published lately. One extremely popular one was Heaven Is for Real—the story of a small boy’s journey to heaven during an illness in which he apparently died.

These are, of course, called NDEs or “near death experiences”—a misnomer because what they really are supposed to be are death experiences. From a naturalistic, materialistic point of view, the reigning plausibility structure for most scientists and journalists (at least for their public work), people like Alexander and the little boy (Colton Burpo) did not actually die. They only came near to death. As Alexander explains it, before he had his own trip to heaven while brain dead, he thought people who claimed such experiences were suffering delusions brought about by chemical interactions in their brains under traumatic stress. So “Near Death Experience” is the term, but, according to people who have experienced them, that’s not quite accurate. They believe they were actually dead; their souls left their bodies.

What’s especially intriguing about Alexander’s experience is that he is a medical doctor who specializes in the brain and has scientific evidence that his brain was not functioning at all during the time he remembers going to heaven. He was on a respirator and his brain was totally shut down. He was not even capable of dreaming. So his experience was not a dream or anything going on in his brain (at least that can be detected by machines).

Alexander’s account is detailed and not (so it seems) what someone would make up to impress people. For example, he was not “greeted” by anyone he knew. (Often NDEs include being greeted into heaven by acquaintances or loved ones.) He was guided by a soul or spirit he describes in some detail. Only later, after telling many people about her, did he discover he had a sister who died and when he saw her photo he recognized her as the soul who guided him in heaven. (Alexander was adopted and only found out about his deceased biological sister after his NDE.)

Alexander’s experience of heaven was not distinctly Christian. He says he met God (who he refers to as “the Core”) and learned many things from him. He doesn’t say what most of that is except that (his guide told him) he is loved and can do nothing wrong. He didn’t see Jesus or anyone like Jesus. But he does describe the “afterlife” in vivid detail and it is supposed to be beautiful, peaceful and almost indescribable.

As a Christian theologian I find these NDEs interesting, but I put no stock in them in terms of basing any of my belief about life after death on them. I agree with Reinhold Niebuhr who said we should not want to know too much about the furniture of heaven or the temperature of hell. Why? Because very little is revealed about them in authoritative revelation. And descriptions of them by NDE survivors vary greatly. (Colton Burpo’s description of heaven or paradise contrasts starkly with Alexander’s.)

I do believe in an “afterlife”—a disembodied “soulish” existence after bodily death. I find much biblical evidence for it. (I’ve blogged about that before. It’s in the archives.) My friend Stan Grenz and I used to argue about it. We would stay up until the wee hours of the morning at professional society meetings (we always roomed together at them) arguing about the “intermediate state”—whether “paradise” is a conscious existence “with Christ” before the resurrection or another word for heaven—the new heaven and new earth promised by Christ. He denied any intermediate state and claimed that people who die in a state of grace find themselves immediately in the resurrection—in heaven—together with all the saints of all the ages forever. Stan died very suddenly and unexpectedly at age 55 about seven years ago. I believe he is now enjoying the bliss of being with Christ in paradise (and therefore knows I was right) awaiting the resurrection. But I don’t know very much about that state.

Is Proof of Heaven proof of heaven? Hardly. It’s intriguing. That’s all. But what I fear is that many Christians, to say nothing of non-Christians, will use books like Alexander’s to develop their picture of afterlife (better called afterdeath). Rather than go to Scripture, they will believe based on books and movies (such as What Dreams May Come starring Robin Williams).

This is folk religion, not Christian belief. Churches need to pay attention to Christians’ tendency to base their beliefs on popular culture, stories of private experiences, rumors, urban legends (“evangelegends”), novels, etc. And they need to counter this tendency with strong biblical and theological teaching about what the Bible and Christian tradition really say about, for example, life after death.

My response to books like Proof of Heaven is to be somewhat intrigued while in the main skeptical. Not skeptical in a negative sense—such as totally discounting Alexander’s experience as unreal and not cynical such as claiming he just invented the story to make money. I don’t feel the need to have an explanation for every such personal experience told by someone. What really happened is so far removed from my own experience that I can’t possibly pass judgment on it except to say some of it doesn’t seem to fit with what Scripture says and therefore, to that extent, I think it needs to be balanced with sound biblical belief and teaching such as one finds in, for example, N. T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope.

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  • I agree – you’re not dead until you’re dead. Being gravely ill is not going to tell you much about that. When the brain is under the stress of shock or disease, it often generates hallucinations, including tunnels and bright lights. I’m not saying that as an unbeliever — just that wouldn’t place my faith in it.

    I heard a line a while back that seems to apply here. “Speculating on what God has not revealed is like pressing on your eyelids with your fingertips. The light you think you see comes only from your own imagination.”

    • To Lois (the 1st comment at the top, for me anyway) and to any other commenters who deny that these common events can occur, then you’re misinformed. You should not speculate on something like this until you educate yourself about this topic. Dr. Alexander WAS dead. Although NDEs can happen to those who are ‘close to death’ is has been shown (Van Lommel, Lancet, 2007) that hospitalized cardiac arrest patients, regardless of treatment modalities and drugs administered and about 20 other controlled variables, will experience NDEs to the tune of about 13%. Some of these are veridical. Various peer-reviewed studies show that consciousness is not generated by the brain nor is it local to it. The field of Near-Death studies is 31 years old. Peruse

  • Prof. Olson, thank you for this insightful critique. I became quite interested in NDEs when my father (who died at only 44-years-old after an extended illness) started experiencing strange visions and encounters, which I later learned is quite common among people approaching death (which, I realize is not at all the same thing as a NDE, but it got me reading about NDEs). I found helpful Gary Habermas and J.P. Moreland’s book “Beyond Death: Exploring the Evidence for Immortality” quite fascinating and it was my first introduction to the idea of NDEs. I’ve since read a few other books, including the (unfortunately, in my view) incredibly popular “Heaven is Real”, which you mentioned in your post. As a pastor I’ve found you are absolutely correct that unfortunately too many Christians base their beliefs on the afterlife, heaven, and hell on books such as these, rather than going to Scripture. I suppose that’s natural given that Scripture speaks so little about the specifics that pique our curiousity. But it is unfortunate as it’s bound to lead people to mis-information, mis-guided thinking, and even flat our heresy. My question for you though is this: As Christians, how do we explain NDEs which are “heavenly” (as opposed to “hellish” which are out there, but far less prevalent) and yet seem not to be distinctly Christian at all? An easy example is this doctor’s experience that he wrote about. In my own reading of NDEs from what I would consider more credible sources like medical doctors and the research they’ve compiled, there are often very similar components to the NDE, and interestingly, they are not typically overtly Christian or what we might expect from a Christian perspective. This doesn’t rock my theological world or anything (as I fundamentally assume that there’s a LOT I don’t know and many things I think I know are probably wrong), but it does make me wonder about the implications of say the nuances of a more inclusvist position on salvation, or even religous pluralism or universalism.

    • rogereolson

      Like you, it makes me wonder. That’s all. I don’t base any firm belief on other peoples’ experiences. Among Pentecostals, for example, there are many who claim to have had their teeth filled with gold (upon being prayed for by some evangelist). This is a recurring experience; it’s been around among Pentecostals for many years and keeps popping up. I put no faith in it. It just makes me wonder.

      • Percival

        I’d rather God filled my teeth with toothy stuff. Gold looks so tacky.

  • Matt

    It is very interesting to me how an obscure theme of scripture, which is then fuelled by inference and/or personal experience, can very easily turn into “biblical” dogma. It happens with afterlife beliefs, but also especially in theological warfare beliefs. The whole concept of “needing” to discover sins of parents and grandparents in order that one can be freed (completely) from bondage strikes me as belonging in the same category. As one person has suggested, we might amend the Lord’s prayer: “Deliver us from deliverance ministries.”

    • rogereolson

      Amen to that!

    • Percival

      Yeah, a lady in our church freaked my adopted daughter out by telling her she needed freedom from the bondage of rejection from her birth mother. She is into Theophostics.

  • “So his experience was not a dream or anything going on in his brain”

    We always need to remember that what is described in these cases is not what was “experienced” by the person but their reconstruction of an experience or non-experience. The brain will fill in the gaps in an attempt to create a seamless, coherent memory that can be filed away and used to make future decisions. In the extreme like those gone through by dying (and dead?) patients, the task is herculean and is likely to result in pretty far out tales.

  • E.G.

    It’s worth noting that even if there is no brain activity at all, it does not mean that the perceived experience was implanted into the brain in some mysterious way at that time.

    Rather, it seems that brains will often work AFTER the fact to fill details into gaps. I’m not a psychologist, but there is a term for this process.

    So, the mere fact that his brain was presumably “off” is not proof of any sort that some part of him experienced this.

    It’s also worth noting that Christians have Christian NDEs, Muslims have Muslim NDEs, and Jews have Jewish NDEs (etc.). And by Christian/Jew/Muslim I don’t mean devout, I simply mean that that’s the afterlife framework that they were taught or have heard about in some way.

    My main point… it’s hard to completely divorce the discussion from naturalism because there is a good possibility that naturalistic explanations can cover this one off as well as they can explain a falling apple. It just happens that this phenomenon is a bit more complex.

  • FWIW — I heard Alexander on an “early morning” talk show (as usual couldn’t sleep!#@!) and what I also found interesting is that he was totally skeptical of NEDs before this experience and that he followed the advise of his son and wrote down his experience BEFORE he consulted any other descriptions of NEDs.

  • Norman


    You have mentioned your good friend before in regard to your differences concerning the afterlife. I’ll be glad to pick up for him regarding that discussion if you are ready to entertain it again. 🙂

    I’ll posit that Christ led captives out of Hades and that it was emptied and cast into the lake of fire as those captive to the Old Covenant were freed to enter into the New Covenant. The Hadean realm was an attribute of the Old Covenant of Death and was dissolved nearly 2000 years ago IMHO. Otherwise if the Hadean realm is still in vogue juridically then the Dead in Christ are no better off than the Old Covenant faithful Dead and still remain as captives in the Hadean realm.

    YLT Act 2:31 having foreseen, he did speak concerning the rising again of the Christ, that his soul was not left to hades, nor did his flesh see corruption.
    YLT Eph 4:8-10 wherefore, he saith, `Having gone up on high HE LED CAPTIVE CAPTIVITY, AND GAVE GIFTS TO MEN,’ — and that, he went up, what is it except that he also went down first to the lower parts of the earth? he who went down is the same also who went up far above all the heavens, that He may fill all things—
    YLT 1Co 15:55 where, O Death, thy sting? where, O Hades, thy victory?’ and the sting of the death is the sin, and the power of the sin the law; and to God–thanks, to Him who is giving us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ;
    YLT Rev 20:13-14 and the sea did give up those dead in it, and the death and the hades did give up the dead in them, and they were judged, each one according to their works; and the death and the hades were cast to the lake of the fire–this is the second death;

    I believe that this was the consummated time of the New Covenant with judgment upon the Old Covenant occurring at the desolation of Jerusalem by Titus as prophesied by Christ. It appears to be the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies expected of the coming Messiah.

    So I believe your Friend is with Christ and in God’s presence and not in a disembodied existence in Sheol or hadean realm that signified the First Adams lack of eternal life (I believe we are given gifts by the last Adam and wait no longer). Of course this all depends upon whether the 40 year New Exodus from Pentecost to AD70 holds or the NT is projecting the New Exodus to last for thousands of years before consummation. The devil is in the details. 😉


    • rogereolson

      I believe my friend is in paradise with Christ and the thief who was crucified beside him and all who have died in a state of grace–awaiting the final resurrection of their bodies. My mother is there, too.

      • Dr. Olson:

        You said, “I believe my friend is in paradise with Christ and the thief who was crucified beside him and all who have died in a state of grace–awaiting the final resurrection of their bodies. My mother is there, too.”

        It’s difficult for us mortals to list those who are in heaven; we just might leave someone out. However, I would like you to carefully consider the following statement from my book:

        “Let us consider two things: (1) Christ submitted to a “baptism of repentance for the remission of sins,” not for himself, but for others like these two criminals. (2) Some have speculated that the unrepentant criminal was not forgiven inasmuch as he spoke abusive words against Christ and failed to ask forgiveness. Yet, let us hear the words of Christ himself: ‘Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven…’ (Mt 12:32). NOTE: The repentant thief selfishly prayed only for himself, saying, ‘Jesus, remember me…’ (Lk 23:42), but Jesus inclusively prayed for both thieves, saying, ‘Father, forgive THEM, for they do not know what they are doing…’ LK 23:34). Jesus vicariously sacrificed himself for all souls that sin — especially for those who sin in ignorance (see Num 15:28 KJV with Heb 5:1-2 KJV).'”

        NOTE: If it is true that Christ was baptized with a “baptism of REPENTANCE for the remission of SINS,” we must ask ourselves a few serious questions: (1) For whose repentance? (2) For whose sins? Surely not his own repentance. Surely not his own sins. Whose? He answers these questions by sayng to John the Baptist, “…it is proper for us to do this to fulfill ALL righteousness” (Mt 3:14-15). QUESTION: If Christ could vicariously be baptized for SINNERS (and thus fulfill the law) why then, could he not fulfill ALL the demands of the law for sinners vicariously — with or without their knowledge or permission?

        • rogereolson

          He could and did. But God also respects our freedom (which is not true freedom) to refuse his fellowship.

  • yeldan

    I should share:

    Death is either eternal annihilation, a gallows on which will be hanged both man and all his friends and relations; or it comprises the release papers to depart for another, eternal, realm, and to enter, with the document of belief, the palace of bliss. The grave is either a bottomless pit and dark place of solitary confinement, or it is a door opening from the prison of this world onto an eternal, light-filled garden and place of feasting.

  • B Brown

    The resurrection is indeed yet future, but I believe Paul taught that believers remain in a state of unconsciousness until the resurrection. That is why Paul used the term ‘sleep’. I find his argument in 1Cor. 15 deals with this matter of an immortal soul believed by the Greeks. It is why he starts off the chapter by reminding them of the gospel he preached that “Christ died and was buried….and then rose.” Christ did not go to paradise when He died and neither did the thief. Christ Himself said to Mary in John 20 that He had not yet ascended to Heaven. His statement to the thief was a declaration, “Truly truly I tell you today, you will be with me in Paradise.” Paridise most definitely is another word for the beautiful state of Heaven. Whoever put the ‘comma’ before “today” has misled many to the truth of Christ’s words imho.

    In 1Cor 15, Paul writes, “20 But now Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. 21 For since by man came death, by Man also came the resurrection of the dead. 22 For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive. 23 But each one in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, afterward those who are Christ’s at His coming. 24 Then comes the end, when He delivers the kingdom to God the Father, when He puts an end to all rule and all authority and power. 25 For He must reign till He has put all enemies under His feet. 26 The last enemy that will be destroyed is death.”

    For me, this is the strongest text on the afterlife and Paul’s refutation of an ‘immortal soul’. If someone can explain to me Paul’s clear teaching that a believer sleeps and is only “MADE ALIVE…AT CHRIST’S COMING.”
    “Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed— 52 in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. 53 For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. 54 So when this corruptible has put on incorruption, and this mortal has put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory.”
    God only has immortality and we only put it on at the resurrection of the dead when Christ returns. I agree on this with Edward Fudge “The Fire that Consumes”. There is a robust forum of scholars also teaching and writing about this:


    • rogereolson

      When I was growing up among evangelicals they all called this “soul sleep” and rejected it as heresy. Later, some came to accept it as a legitimate evangelical option. I guess I consider it that, but I also think it’s very wrong. First of all, the Great Tradition of Christian teaching, from the earliest church fathers to the twentieth century and into the twenty-first century includes belief in an immaterial soul that survives bodily death and is reunited with a body in the resurrection. Second, and more importantly, the overwhelming testimony of Scripture is that those who died in a state of being reconciled with God by grace are conscious and await the resurrection with him. “Immortality” is not the issue. The issue is whether, in spite of creatures’ mortality, God keeps those created in his image and saved by his grace, in his gracious presence until their full redemption in bodily resurrection. He does.

      • B Brown

        Thanks for your response Roger. I want to believe what you say so badly but can’t because of Scripture.

        “The overwhelming testimony of Scripture is that those who died in a state of being reconciled with God by grace are conscious and await the resurrection with him.”

        We will have to disagree on this. Where is this overwhelming Scripture? Paul is clear I think when writing to the Thessalonians and specifically comforted them concerning ‘those who sleep‘. No where in 1Thess. 4 does he comfort believers that their loved ones are in a conscious state with God. Rather it’s the opposite. He states there as he did to the Greek Corinthians (15), that as Christ died, was buried and was raised to then ascend to Heaven, so are believers. “The dead in Christ shall rise first…at His coming”. Paul would never have used that phrase “the dead in Christ” if he believed they were at that time, alive and conscious with God.

        LeRoy Froom’s “Conditionalist Faith of our Fathers” is the classic history on how the Greek immateriality of the soul crept into Christian teaching.

        I thank God that Clark Pinnock saw the case for the conditional state of the soul. Btw, there is a good testimony to Clark Pinnock by Edward Fudge you might enjoy reading here:

        • rogereolson

          I have posted the overwhelming biblical evidence for a conscious intermediate state here before. Look into the archives.

  • Tim Reisdorf

    Hi Roger,

    If we were to give each chapter of the Bible a different color, then use the Bible to present a coherent argument about what exactly happens after death, we would have rainbows everywhere. My point is that if we can only make a presentation on this by isolating and snipping a bit here from this gospel, a bit here from that letter or prophet, then we can only rightly conclude that authors (and God) did not deem it worthwhile to make the argument in a clear and straightforward way. In 1 Corinthians, full chapters are devoted to the topic of using spiritual gifts properly; entire Psalms are devoted to the praise and exultation of the true and living God; the whole book of Lamentations is poetry of mourning at the punishment of God. But this topic, and many others like it, are given clarity only by “creatively” piecing Scriptures together that originally did not go together. This method of illumination seems to have more in common with magic or codebreaking and less with reading and understanding.

    Concerning the NDE, they too are inconsistent and too open to manipulation. And what dreams/visions written about in the Bible were actually meant to be taken literally? (I can’t think of any.) They were meant to be interpreted (with the interpretation given by God). I’m with you, Roger, in my skepticism of NDE.


  • Peter

    I have read1000s of accounts and heard a few direct from patients since I first read dr Raymond Moody’s book “life after life” as a medical student in1978 . These accounts are gradually building a coherent picture of the afterlife. The religious differences are real in the sense that reality is partly constructed by mind. Hellish realms are created by the mental state of the souls who go there. But the more profound and deeper experiences like eben Alexander’s where the soul asks God/Christ/a great Being of love and light -questions about the meaning and theology of all – have a very strong consistency. I suggest read the “exceptional accounts” at And nde stories at Betty Eaddie makes a fairly good synthesis in her book “the ripple effect”. The picture that emerges isn’t consistent with much Christian theology but it does link in with scripture in a new light, more consistent with Christian mystics over the centuries.

    • rogereolson

      Fine, but my question, as a Christian theologian, is how much “stock” we should put in these accounts in terms of Christian belief (teaching, preaching, counseling). I don’t think they should influence that at all. But perhaps many of the differences come from Christians reading too much into the Bible in terms of “the furniture of heaven and the temperature of hell.” The Bible says very little about the intermediate state.

  • Great article. This pretty much articulates how I’ve always felt about NDE. I don’t think they are all bogus. Paul describes a similar experience he had in 2 Cor 12. I find nothing wrong with the personal motivation to have a change in life a NDE may bring someone, but to try to descriptively nail down particulars of heaven that are not revealed in the Bible either 1) don’t help at all in our present Christian experience or 2) distract from what really matters now. Don’t these elaborate and detailed accounts infringe, at least in principle, on 1 Cor 2:9?

  • DH

    It would appear that the body of evidence, people’s shared experiences, conflicts with Biblical teachings. Unless you have experienced this personally, don’t expect to grasp, let alone understand, the phenomenon.

    My experience was via dreaming. My late mother had the gift. About a month after she passed I was going into depression when I dreamt about visiting a beautiful garden. An angel sat next to me and asked me why I was crying. I told her that I knew where I was and wanted to see my parents. She said that I had to learn to live without them but that we would all be a family again someday. I told her that I missed them and resumed crying. She knelt before me, took my hands, and said “Look at me. You can’t do this to yourself. Your finest hour is still before you.”

    When I woke up I had what I needed to go forward. That was almost eight years ago.

    You must experience it yourself to understand it.

  • Stacey

    I appreciate what you’ve said here. It was hard to find anything about this book from a true christian perspective. Thank you. 🙂

  • Sam

    Well, I believe that God made all of us for a purpose. When people recount their NDEs, particularly children, it makes the non-believer question his or her beliefs.

  • Thinker

    It doesn’t matter whether it is true or not, you still have to decide what to do with your life.

  • Victor

    Just a though for the more learned than I.
    It seems to me that when Dr. Alexander’s brain stopped functioning, and noone seems to dispute that, it was his soul that temperarily departed his body and had the experiences. He says I think that the things that were revealed could not be described or fully experienced by our physical being. Why do we talk of his experience as a mental activity when it seems that this is a totally spiritual experience quite apart from the physical.
    Paul, Lord bless him talks endlessly about heavenly matters but he didn’t go there. You learned foliks talk about what happens to the soul when we die (whether “in Christ” or not) whether we sleep or not and you are clearly all well read in biblical teaching but cannot agree. Why not accept that the good doctor has had a true spiritual experience that you have not had and your speculation is just that. Maybe, and I think fairly clearlym, we do not fully understand what paul maens or what Jesus himself actually meant by some of his teachings. Perhaps you should try a bit harder to accept his experience as truly spiritual and real.

    • Brad