Neurosurgeon Goes to Heaven

London’s Daily Telegraph reports an article from a top neurosurgeon who says he went to heaven during and near death experience. Heaven was full of pink fluffy clouds and shimmering winged beings and lovely music and there was a pretty lady too who went with him on his out of body journey. The Telegraph also reports Professor Colin Blakemore’s skeptical response. You can read that one here.

What are we to make of NDEs? For the believer they confirm his beliefs. For the skeptic they confirm his belief that believers are gullible mugs.

What interests me therefore about the experiences is that they would seem not to prove anything to anybody. Or do they? What they do prove is that there’s something to prove. What I mean to say is that there is something not nothing. The curious thing is that an NDE is an experience of something. It is a positive happening. No matter what it means or how it happened–it took place. Therefore it has the potential to have a positive effect. It just might convince some people of an afterlife whereas it will never convince someone that the afterlife does not exist. Those who disbelieve in an afterlife are therefore banking on a negation. They’re putting their beliefs in a non belief. They’re investing their time in denial and their efforts in de-bunking something. They therefore end up with nothing, and they have no way to prove their nothing except to continue to deny the something. Their position is what darkness is to light or cold is to warmth. It’s the absence of something not the presence of anything.

This is why the position of faith is so much more attractive and interesting than the position of atheism and doubt. The believer is always proposing something positive and real and possible–even if it is far-fetched and turns out to be fake. At least he’s investing in an experience and banking on a belief. The non believer can only ever deny, negate and affirm an emptiness. The believer has something he can get his teeth into. He’s got dogma and gospels and hypocrites and popes and saints and sinners and heaven and hell. The non believer has….nothing except his denial.

Here’s my point: I’m in favor of the fellow who had an NDE and went to heaven and saw pink fluffy clouds, angels and a beautiful lady. I like Dante and the circles of hell and the visions of hell that the Fatima visionaries had and the dying experience of my grandfather who saw the angels before his died and told my grandmother so. This is so much more interesting and well, FUN than the sour old spoil sport who says, “Nah, that didn’t happen. It was just a pop and fizzle in the guys brain.”

Me? I’ve got an interesting heaven to think about and some puzzles about what comes next and a certain amount of anticipation and trepidation. What does the non-believer have? Nada. Zilch. Only himself and his disbelief and denial.


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  • john cronin

    Blakely’s retort is to the point: near death, the brain does funny things: especially when the endomorphins kick in to relieve the pain (psychological and physical) when we know we are gonna kick the bucket in the next five mins. I have frequently thought that this is one of the reasons why we HAVE religion. Back in the day when there were no hospitals, hospices, morphine, saline drips, doctors, nurses etc, most people died very unpleasantly, and those few who did come back from the near death experience -say recovered after a heart attack, or were rescued from the plague pit at the last moment – frequently reported this type of experience. So a credulous public thought, well this is what happened.

  • Kiwi Catholic

    Interesting topic and one that has made me reflect on my life’s journey so far
    I returned to the church 4 years ago after 30 years of non-beleif, I could never quite make the move from agnostic to atheist because I couldn’t completely ignore some experiences I’d had!
    One in particular stuck in my mind,
    I was doing a deep diving scuba course at over 80 metres depth in an alpine lake!
    At such a depth you experience ‘nitrogen narcosis’ or ‘raptures of the deep’ a potentially fatal sense of euphoria!
    I was ready to stay there!,
    I experienced the light at the end of the tunnel and a sense of bliss!
    But then I was in the presence of a brilliant ‘other’ who calmly told me ‘everything is going to be alright’
    My senses cleared and I began a safe ascent, on the way up (as a decompression dive it took over 90 minutes)
    I had a really strong that Jesus had just spoken to me!
    However by the time i reached the surface I convinced myself it was just a result of being ‘Narced’
    I spent more years wondering in the darkness but that wee spark remained, my return wasn’t the result of a deep theological search, but rather a smack on the side of the head when I was at a low point in my life, I was walking past a church I passed nearly every day and I was called to knock on the door and ask for a priest to tell me how to come home!
    FrBarry Scannell from St Mary of the Angels saw me and showed me the way, I went to mass that sunday and I truly heard the mass for the first time in my life, I found myself weeping uncontrollably up until the prayer just before communion ‘Lord I am not worthy to receive you, but just say the word and my soul shall be healed’ I felt the bliss I felt under Lake Taupo and everything was OK
    That was 4 years ago and my journey continues every day, your blog is one thing that keeps me pointed in the right direction, My two boys have been baptised and I’m trying hard to help them nurture an enduring faith.
    One feature of my journey has been a number of amazing priests who bring the faith alive, I’ve had some amazing experiences (often Masses) that range from Latin chanting at St Mary of the Angels, a maori mass in the Hokianga on the anniversary of the first mass said in New Zealand said by Bp Pompallier followed by the exposition of his casket! and then in France this year being part of a mass at Taize that I think used at least 17 languages!
    To me God is real, Jesus and the Holy Spirit have acted in my life and I give thanks every day.
    One strange habit I’ve developed is that I now pray in the shower every morning (but thats a story for another day)
    Thank you for your online ministry Father
    God Bless You

    Chris O’Connell

  • Korou

    Hmmm. It seems some dissenting comments are not being allowed here.

  • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

    Your long, rambling comment was simply a boring rant. This is my blog, not your pulpit, and this is a combox not your soapbox.

  • Korou

    Hmmm. You’re right, it was a bit long. There was such a lot of nonsense to point out.

  • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

    Or you could have decided to be polite…

  • Julie

    Chris, Thank you for sharing that. I can never read enough stories like that. I had an experience myself that I rarely tell people about but makes be be able to relate to yours, also led me back to the church and I know it was Jesus.

  • Paul Rodden

    Here’s an interesting post on this from a Reformed Protestant perspective/blog I follow:
    They seem not to notice how their problem with Dr Alexander’s ‘eschatology’ is a good argument against their subjective judgement (‘religious convictions’, as they term them) in hermeneutics. That is, Dr Alexander’s subjective – and ‘real’ – experience of heaven are discounted because they are not ‘Biblical’, whilst they would argue that their ‘real’ experience of certainly from their reading of scripture, is totally authoritative…
    In essence, both seem to be trapped in similar subjective loops in terms of your question of whether experiences prove anything to anybody, and why we need a ‘third position’, a ‘Magisterium’ whether in science, or religion.

  • SeraphicFather

    The place at which some of this man’s experience loses me is the generic nature of it. “The Light” is simply a warm, feel good thing that just sort of cuddles us in its niceness. My question is what does it mean? I mean Christianity itself is not something any single mind could have constructed. It has some deep, far reaching meaning that is founded in a particular revelation of Truth. What truth was revealed to this neurosurgeon and how does it play out in his life now that he is back on his feet grounded in the mortal existence? As Fr. Longnecker states his experience also exists in a poem by Dante. The current or modern movement of making the divine a simple, generic experience that is expressed in different ways is present here.

  • FW Ken

    It’s entirely possible that NDE is the bio-chemical reactions of a dying brain. But we don’t know that, do we?

  • Tom in South Jersey

    Yes there is the well known theory that the NDE is simply the brain firing off just before death. However in this particular article the Harvard educated neurosurgeon is claiming that his experience occurred during a time in which the brain should not have had the ability for conscious thought and memory. I’ve read other similar reports of people experiencing something during a period of time when their brain had no measurable activity. These people were thought to be brain dead, yet they were able to produce memories of things going on around them during this time.

  • Elizabeth K.

    What I find interesting is that Dr. Blakely’s response is the same one Dr. Alexander says he would have given himself had he not had this experience. After his experience (he was in a coma for a week, and his experiences were much more extensive than a few fluffy clouds as Dr. Blakely suggests) he spent about a year researching the neurological possibilities of someone in his state having such an experience–this is why his neurology background matters. He is also adopted and found out that the woman in the dream was a biological sister whom he had never known, and who had died several years earlier. Dr. Blakely’s reponse, then, strikes me as inadequate and condescending. Whatever happened to Dr. Alexander, it wasn;t some vague, a few neurons firing kind of thing–he describes it as hyper reality. Plus, there’s the added problem of the fact that he should be brain-damaged now, and isn’t.

  • FW Ken

    I should have added that its also possible that the bio-chemical reactions of the brain to death can also be a sign of what is to come. There’s no reason to assume the two possibilities are mutually exclusive.

  • MarylandBill

    Near Death Experiences are fascinating but also frustrating. While they are often similar, there are enough differences to make one wonder if those who claim a biological origin might be on to something. That being said, while scientists have been able to induce some aspects of the NDE in the lab, they have, to my knowledge, never induced a full fledged NDE. Until they do, their biological hypothesis is just that, an hypothesis. To insist it is reality is as much an exercise in faith as those of us who believe in God.

    Here is my final thought. As a Catholic I truly believe that Heaven will be beyond anything we can currently comprehend in our limited fallen bodies. Prior to our death or maybe even the resurrection, we will be unable to fully grasp heaven. Therefore, for some of us, we get an image of heaven, but dim and distorted, and others get nothing at all. Well that is my thought anyway.

  • Alice Seidel

    This was truly interesting. How can anyone dispute what this man says? After the deaths of a few of my family members, there were incidences which could not be explained. That is not due to “endomorphins kicking in”.

    Where Fatima is concerned, how does one dispute the miracle of the sun? There were 70,000 people who experienced this, and why has the Church not turned to this over and over again? Why are they so concerned with their liberal agenda (them, too).

  • Reluctant Liberal

    As someone who believes in God and an afterlife, I completely disagree that people who don’t believe the same have “Nada, Zilch.” I would point to God’s creation, for one thing.

    And seriously, the default should be disbelief. Disbelief does not have to be established. You disbelieve that I am a horse, you disbelieve that I am an astronaut, and you disbelieve that I am currently tickling you. You disbelieve almost all possible propositions. And if you don’t, you should.

    And since near death experiences can be explained as chemical reactions in the brain that we have observed and KNOW take place (unlike the existence of an afterlife, which we have not observed and do not know) they are not evidence for God or an afterlife in any way, shape, or form.

    Say some money goes missing from my wallet. And I know my wife took some money earlier in the day, but not how much. I also know my brother had the oppurtunity to take some money. I can’t prove anything, but I suspect he has been taking money from my wallet. The fact that money is missing from my wallet is not evidence that my brother took it. Treating the hypothesis that my brother took it the same as the hypothesis that my wife took the money is incredibly biased. And it is not enough to say that something happens in NDE’s. What happens is certainly chemical. It might also be spiritual. But the fact that something happens tautologically necessary and admitted by all.

    I enjoy these posts. They help me work things out. Good chance I’ll make a post about this on my own blog (someday).

  • John

    I also read this story and 2 things struck me: first was the rather pungent nature of the “anti” comments of Telegraph readers. Why the anger and hatred? Why the fear that there might be “something”? Are you so anxious to face total oblivion that you scorn the hope of an afterlife? The second thing was some commentators mention that NDEs happen before death – they don’t: at the point the NDE happens, the person is technically dead. These things SHOULD NOT be happening! Furthermore, many commentors are quick to point out HOW they think NDEs happen but, as ever, they don’t explain why. An NDE before dying would be very comforting but what is the point of an NDE AFTER you’re toast if it just the synapses playing around – unless of course it’s all genuine and the doorway to the afterlife. God Bless!

  • Elijah

    What is the Church position on this particular issue Father ?? Please help me understand.There is a lot of story where, at least in youtube, where really atheist and other who are not in line with faith have in contact with the pure Being. I really want to hear your comment and Church position.
    Thank you.

  • KiwiLou22

    Hi Kiwi Catholic,
    I’m another Kiwi Catholic, though I live in California. I was very happy to read your post, especially when you mentioned Lake Taupo. You wrote a beautiful testimony, which I see Father made into another post. I am a convert…..baptized five years ago. I regularly get emotional and teary during Mass. Mostly in thankfulness for the richness and meaning that Christ and His Church have given my life. I recently read somewhere that Catholicism is growing quite steadily in New Zealand thanks to it’s deverse population. I’d love to go to a Maori Mass sometime when I’m back in the homeland.

    Thanks again for your comment. God Bless.


  • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

    The church has no clear teaching on NDEs. She remains open minded.

  • Elijah

    Thank you Father. I am big fun of your writing. keep up the blessing and using the gift God gave you to preach us the whole truth nothing but the truth.
    God Bless you !

  • Mary

    Fr. Longenecker: Will you share more of the story about your grandparents? Now I know how the doubtful explain away NDEs, but I wonder what their explanation for this would be: When I was young, my father was taking me and my three brothers on an outing for the day, while my mother tended to housework. Our car was broadsided by a speeding dump truck which was loaded with all kinds of steel scrap. The accident was beyond description. My brother was impaled by a long pipe, right through his heart. We were all horribly injured. A friend was driving behind us and as soon as the ambulances arrived, he headed back to our house to tell my mother what had happened. Meanwhile my mother was back at home, hanging laundry outside, when her Guardian Angel appeared to her and told her that everything was in God’s hands and she must accept whatever happened. My mother said she instantly understood that my brother Andy was dead. Our friend pulled into the driveway and headed towards my mother. As he approached her she said “I know. You don’t have to tell me….Andy is dead.” And then she saw five ambulances drive by on the way to the hospital, knowing they carried her husband and four children. She never would have been able to handle all that was to come were it not for the strength she was given by that visit from her Guardian Angel.

  • Mal

    Brain does funny things? Hey, we are talking about the mind – whatever it is or wherever. Some poeple have been conscious of what was being done to the bodies or have seen objects and places far away or above the resting body. Just face the facts – do make up fancy stories.

  • TaylorKH

    Very interesting. I believe the NDE is true. I believe that you are right in your analysis, by the way.

  • john cronin

    Why does no one in an ND\e ever report going to the other place?

  • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

    They do. There are a couple of books collecting stories of those who have unpleasant experiences. One of the most notable examples was the atheist A.J.Ayer. Here’s an account:

  • Korou

    Maybe it’s more exasperation than hatred.

    Also, apparently NDEs don’t happen during “brain death.” They happen afterwards and the memories are created within the unconscious mind.

  • Proteios1

    You don’t have proof that endorphins cause funny thoughts, but you BELIEVE it does. Much of unprovable science’s declarations have a component of faith to it. This used to bother me when I was an undergraduate in chemistry. Now as a researcher and professor myself, I just don’t see the conflict of science and religion. Bottom line. You don’t know. You have faith in the science of it.

  • John Clote, OFM Conv

    Powerful discussion! This very topic of NDE’s and the eschatological questions they raise is part of a new documentary called, “Purgatory – The Forgotten Church” to be released in Spring of 2013. Cardinal George from Chicago is in the film. The website will be launched in a few weeks to coincide with an LIVE interview on EWTN with the film makers. Here’s the synopsis: Is Purgatory real? Could the Afterlife require suffering? Can the living help alleviate the anguish of the dead? This fascinating documentary investigates these compelling questions and the spiritual, scientific, and theological dimensions they present. Drawing on this centuries-old article of faith professed by Catholics This comprehensive expose reveals the formidable spiritual alliance Catholics once shared with the departed souls. The Award winning producers of (Ocean of Mercy, Audrey’s Life, Fourteen Flowers of Pardon) uncover groundbreaking research offering new insights unavailable just a generation ago. Now for the first time top scholars, scientists, historians, and church leaders revisit age-old questions and embark on a spiritual quest to unlock the controversy and consolation of Purgatory: The Lost Church. (HDTV- Running Time 80 minutes)

  • FW Ken

    Purgatory raises an interesting aspect of NDE, since it doesn’t seem to have a place in them. Personally, I find Purgatory to be a doctrine of great comfort: no matter how badly I do in this life, God will not leave me in my sins.