Proof of Heaven?
Recently I read the new book Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the
Afterlife 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.