Proof of Heaven?

Can the existence of heaven be proved? Dr Eben Alexander thinks so. His book Proof of Heaven is an extraordinary story about a most extraordinary experience. Dr Alexander is a neurosurgeon, so he knows how the brain works. He explains that most doctors dismiss NDEs (Near Death Experiences) as the final flickerings of a dying brain. Death, he explains, is not when the heart stops, but when the brain stops.

But Dr Alexander himself contracted a most rare form of bacterial meningitis and his brain went into shut down. He was in a coma for seven days. His body worked, but his brain was dead. After six days his condition was so critical that his family was told that there was a 97% mortality rate, and those few who survived would be in a persistent vegetative state for the rest of their lives. But he bounced back and eventually recovered. While he was in the coma he had a most vivid and memorable NDE. That story is remarkable in itself, but the book is worth reading simply to go through the amazingly rare illness and miraculous recovery that he experienced.

Dr Alexander argues quite effectively that his NDE was unique. He was, after all, not heart dead, but brain dead. His brain had ceased functioning because of the illness, so the NDE he experienced could not have been the last desperate flickering of a dying brain.

However, his experiences on ‘the other side’ have not produced confirmation of orthodox Catholic theology–and this has some people worried. To be positive, there was much in Dr Alexander’s NDE which did confirm traditional Catholic theology and spirituality: that the ‘other side’ is more real and vivid than this realm, that there are two places on the other side–one frightening and terrible and one full on light and life and love. He understood that God not only existed, but was Existence. He experienced what he believed were angels. He met loved ones on the other side and he experienced a great and overwhelming Love that he says is the motor and driving force of the universe.

He did not, however, meet Jesus or Mary. He did not experience the particular judgement. He did not affirm the reality of the Holy Trinity. Furthermore, he is on record elsewhere as saying he now believes in re-incarnation as a result of his experience.

What are we to make of Dr Alexander’s NDE? Is it proof of heaven? Does it confirm Catholic doctrine or not?

There are several things to consider. First of all, even though Dr Alexander was “dead” far longer than most people who experience NDEs–he was still not totally and finally dead. That’s why the experiences like this are called “Near” death experiences. Dr Alexander may have had a week’s holiday in heaven and hell, but he didn’t have the full experience. He did not experience the particular judgement and he seemed to go back and forth from heaven to hell. However, had he really died completely it is arguable that the next step would have been the particular judgement.  Therefore the absence of it does not disprove Catholic doctrine that one goes to the particular judgement immediately after death.

What about Dr Alexander’s conviction that re-incarnation is true? Just because someone has a powerful and vivid NDE does not mean that all their memories of the experience and all their interpretations of the experience are valid or accurate. If the ‘other side’ is anything it is mysterious and beyond our normal capabilities of interpretation and understanding. A brief visit could not enable a person to understand the fullness of the other side completely  any more than a chimpanzee having a seven day visit to New York City would enable him to understand and interpret the complexities of that vast city. Dr Alexander might have good personal reasons for believing in re-incarnation as a result of his NDE, but that doesn’t mean this is a true doctrine.

At the end of the day, as impressive and inspiring as we find NDE’s to be, they are not iron clad proof either of the existence of heaven or the truth of Christian doctrine. They are, on the other hand, very powerful evidence along with other powerful evidence of the truth of the Christian faith, and the existence of life after death. There are (and always will be) too many ambiguities, unanswered questions and mysterious lacunae.

We must treat NDEs as we do all types of paranormal experiences. Down through the ages there have been all sorts of human experiences of the other side. We have the experiences  of the mystics and visionaries who were shown heaven and hell. We have the extraordinary experiences of people like Emanuel Swedenborg. We treat such things with the usual mixture of open mindedness and skepticism that we treat all paranormal experiences.

This is why the Catholic approach to such things is such common sense: We allow that such things may happen. A person may be given a glimpse of heaven or hell through an NDE or a mystical experience or a dream. What the experience may be a true experience of the other side. Then again it might not. It could be just a dream or the hiccups of a dying brain or the ravings of a lunatic or the bizarre hallucinations of a drug addled mind. We allow that such a thing might be so, and we examine it accordingly.

What we do not do is generalized from the personal experience. We do not decide doctrine based on such experiences–not matter how seemingly convincing and realistic they claim to be. We may be inspired by them. We may be enlightened by them. We may be in awe of them, but we do not base our lives or our beliefs on such experiences.

We treat them rather like St Thomas Aquinas did when a group of excited novices insisted that he come to see a nun who was levitating.

The crowd of awe struck bystanders were gazing up at the ceiling where the nun was floating. They were filled with wonder and thrilled that such a miracle proved their faith.

When the novices asked what he thought, St Thomas simply commented, “I didn’t know nuns wore such big boots.”

 

  • MDepie

    I really feel I must comment on this, as I am surprised Dr. Alexander is making anything out of his NDE, as a neurosurgeon he should know better. I am a Catholic pulmonary critical care physician, also trained in neurologic critical care. There is some confusion about what brain death is. Brain Death is the complete and permanent loss of function of the entire brain including the brain stem. It represents the death of the organism. In fact loss of heart beat and breathing only causes death because the ensuing loss of blood flow to the brain causes brain death. In an of itself you can be perfectly alive with no heart and no breathing, as is someone who is operated on under conditions of total circulatory arrest and hypothermia) There are operations in which the heart is stopped and the patient cooled with a heart lung machine and circulation temporarily arrested to accomplish certain complex operations. Such patients are not dead because the cooling protects the brain. Similarly patients who have near drowing, and CPR are not dead. So all death is brain death.
    The problem with the NDE is that they are then not death, the brain is dysfunctional but not dead. Since these folks are not dead there is no more reason to believe what they see is representative of the afterlife than any other hallucinatory experiences with religious overtones that brain injury is associated. Similar kinds of experiences have been described by patients with temporal lobe epilepsy.

    Beyond this I would agree the experiences are not consistent with what we would expect from Catholic theology. The overt sensory experiences are not consistent with the kind of intuitive non sensory mediated one must experience in the afterlife, as we will no longer have eyes to see, and ears to hear. The kind of subjective experience we will have then until the resurrection of the dead is very different than what we know experience. It would be more akin to what is described in John Henry Newman’s “Dream of Gerontius”. There is never any mention of a state like purgatory. IT seems most people are free of any attachment to even venal sin. It is the immediate blessed realm for all. All of this makes the NDE suspect.

    In Dr. Alexanders case the story is medically incohrent. He may have been in deep coma from meningitis but this is not the typical state associated with NDE ( most of the time they are associated with cardiac arrest) The prognosis associated with meningitis even in the setting of deep coma is not terribly accurate unless there is structural brain damage. The entire story sounds suspect to me.

    The Church when it has explored medical “miracles” has a long history of rigorous analysis and healthy skepticism. Of the many countless miracles claimed at Lourdes for example only a relative handful have been recognized officially by the Church. This protects the Church from charges of superstition, and hucksterism. Many of us at times need a sign to reassure us that God is there. There are many well documented truly inexplicable phenomena that meet this criteria,and have withstood detailed scientific scrutiny . The Shroud of Turin, the Cures at Lourdes, Padre Pios Stigmata, and do forth. We do not need to buy into the NDE which have much less rigorous scrutiny, and often non Catholic and even non Christian imagery.

    • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

      My whole post discusses the need for such skepticism. Dr Alexander does discuss the difference between his condition with acute bacterial meningitis and his brain not functioning and the usual NDEs associated with heart stoppage. It is a very interesting and most unusual case and worth reading.

      • Will

        “They are, on the other hand, very powerful evidence along with other powerful evidence of the truth of the Christian faith, and the existence of life after death.”

        Acknowledging what the poster above said regarding NDEs, please defend what you’ve written here. How do NDEs in any way work as evidence regarding the existence of life after death or the validity of the Christian faith?

    • Karla

      How do you explain that a boy said he met his sister in Heaven, but that was the first time he had heard of her or met her. She died without his parents telling him about her . It is in the book ‘Heaven is for real’ by Tood Burpo

      • Will

        Todd Burpo wrote a book for profit, ostensibly detailing his young son’s visions of heaven. The easy answer seems to be that he invented uncheckable “miraculous” touches like this one. He, like everyone else who purports to spill the secrets of the universe for profit, is a con man.

  • Paul Rodden

    In Christ: The Life of the Soul, Blessed Columba Marmion uses the phrase ‘super-natural’, as opposed to ‘supernatural’, and I think it makes a significant point because the latter, supernatural, has just too much baggage in the modern era…

    I’m sure I’m not adding anything to what you’d be likely to say if you were saying it Fr, but, it seems to me, however good the argument or ‘proof’, it often fails to ‘cut the mustard’ because the unbeliever simply seems to have another agenda running ‘behind’ their protestations – which is the real reason for their unbelief – because the arguments put up in defence of their unbelief seem, well, incredibly poor.
    They’re riddled with informal fallacies and Scientism, and, for a ‘thinking person’ (which they are, and we’re not, of course), it looks – despite all the bluster – like what we’d call ‘bloody mindedness’ here, in England, and not reasoning at all.

    Like the famous ‘Reductio ad Hitlerum’ of Leo Strauss, everything gets reduced to ‘The Crusades’, the ‘Galileo Affair’, the burning of witches, Giordano Bruno, blah, blah, with the atheist, and statues, calling priests father, ‘worshipping Mary, etc., with Protestant. That is, it always goes off-topic and is derailed early on if a reasonable defence or argument is proffered in defence.

    The reason I say this is that I frequently ask myself, What’s the point? I know what Jesus says about being given the words of defence when necessary, and St Peter says about having a ready defence, but I have to presume whatever was given clearly wasn’t what we’d call ‘knock-down’ arguments, or else the Martyrs wouldn’t have been martyred.

    As a result, I actually feel aggrieved when I have to defend Catholicism to a Protestant, as if I have to play by his rules (frame of reference), that I have have to justify myself through his narrow criterion which he shares with his secularist counterparts – reason – because neither has a fixed place of departure apart from their skepticism about everything which doesn’t agree with them. They are both Cartesians (‘either/or’, and therefore deny, de facto, the hypostatic union).

    In other words, it feels rather like I have to make an apology (in its modern sense) for being Catholic, when it seems the burden of proof is just as much on their shoulders. I believe they are children of Ockham and Scotus, and their epistemological viewpoint (as opposed to our ‘Thomist’ metaphysical one) can’t be justified simply on the basis that it’s the prevalent one. it is based in the fallacy of Progressivism: the newer an idea, the truer the idea. It IS just a frame of reference, but they’ll insist it isn’t (in fact, don’t know what you’re talking about) because they’re unprepared to step outside their Epistemological straight-jacket. The fear of modern man, it seems, is losing his security blanket of Epistemology if he embraces Mystery. in other words, he thinks he’s broadened his horizons when the opposite is the case: he’s narrowed them.

    Therefore, I find arguments fail to convince the skeptic however powerful the evidence, and instead, it seems to me, if anything does convince, it’s usually an encounter and not a proof which wins the day: and that’s Metaphysics, not Epistemology.

  • Michael Mills

    Interesting post and comments.

    I suspect NDE have multiple reasons for happening. Some are probably brought on by Satan. A false experience. Some are delusions brought on for other reasons. And some, are very real.

    I’ve had a NDE…though my experience would be more accurately described as an OBE (out of body experience). Mine happened when I was a young pilot in the Army flying up a dark valley with heavy rain and clouds. It was absolutely amazing. I had never experienced such peace in all my life. But the most amazing part was not the experience itself. The most amazing part is what happened moments before I left my body.

    In my terror, I suddenly heard a voice. It was not an audible voice. Rather, a voice in my brain. But it was unlike any voice I’d ever heard before. I knew, beyond any doubt that it was God’s voice. He asked, “What are you afraid of?” Incredulously, I replied, “I’m about to die!” He calmly went on to say, “So what? If you truly believe what you profess to believe, won’t you soon be in a better place?” In that moment my whole being slumped. I felt shame and despair. I answered His question as best as I could. I said, “My life gives no evidence that I truly believe in and live out the Christian life.” He acknowledged what I had just said as true, but then said, “Be that as it may, could you not, even in this moment, YIELD? I slumped even more, and then answered: “Yes.”

    And with that answer I suddenly found myself about 3 feet behind my body watching myself fly the airplane. All that happened in what seemed to be the next hour was and remains incredible. But that’s not the point here. The point is that God does speak to us. Most often he speaks through Scripture and tradition…and through the lives of saints–both living and dead.

    My OBE may have been real or it may have been a mental breakdown, which might have brought on the delusion. Now, many years later, at the age of 61, I believe it really happened. But I admit I could be wrong. What I am certain of, however, is that I heard God speak, drawing me into a deeper relationship with Him. He reached down and saved my life.

  • Rachel

    Absolutely agree with your final advice. Allowing ourselves to be captivated by these NDE’s would result in one going through life as if they were on the waves of the ocean, never fully rooted. When I hear these stories (this one you posted, heaven is for real, 90 seconds in heaven, same kind of different as me) I’m very much interested but I stop myself from becoming too captivated by them. These are personal experiences of others, and it may take these people awhile to fully understand the purpose of their experience and what it meant. I find myself being happy for these people who have had a supernatural experience, insofar as it leads people to God rather than away. But to have these serve as your spiritual foundation would be a grave mistake, especially if you should know better or have the opportunity to know better. After all, it’s someone else’s personal experience (that may or may not be real); I’ve got plenty of work to do on building my own personal relationship with God.

    • Paul Rodden

      I sympathise with your position, Rachel.
      The Church is very careful about Personal Revelations. I found Fr Benedict Groeschel’s, A Still Small Voice: A Practical Guide on Reported Revelations, useful on this score as, in a sense, I would put this topic under that category.

  • michael

    “His brain had ceased functioning because of the illness, so the NDE he experienced could not have been the last desperate flickering of a dying brain.” Unless his brain instantly shut down and instantly started up, how does he know these experiences didn’t happen during that period?

    Also I think your comment on no particular judgement is relevant to Christian theology. NDE experiences have many plausible explanations form the actions of the brain in extreme conditions bBut they are an affront to Christiian teaching. It makes God look like the incompetent characters in “Heaven Can Wait” (or the original “Here Comes Mr. Jordan”) not really knowing when a person is truly dead.

  • John Janaro

    This is an interesting topic, and I think you make the right distinctions to put it in perspective. Above all, the anecdote at the end about St. Thomas is *priceless* (and must be true, because its entirely like him). Where did you find it?

  • Isabella

    My father had an NDE as a child and spoke of it only to my mother as an adult. He thought it was unique to him until he saw one of the first books about NDEs many years ago. He always attributed it to his questioning the faith. His father and brothers were very devout (one brother is currently a priest). He, being the oldest entering his teen years was beginning to doubt. He thinks he was “graced” with the NDE to solidify his faith. And what grace it was. He has passed down his faith to me and it’s is the best gift I could have ever received. God bless my dad!

  • Kerberos

    Why would any one want proof of Heaven ? A god for whom there is proof – which is what we’re discussing – is not worth worshipping; such a “god” would no better than a giant in the sky; which would be no different from paganism. Have we really travelled the best part of 3,000 years from the OT in order to make again the theological howlers that the Prophets spent so much trouble preaching against ? It looks like it. The US may be a technological giant, but if it swallows this rubbish its knowledge of God is infinitesimal – a witchdoctor shaking his juju to ward off evil spirits is less ignorant :( The Church used to be vehemently & vocally opposed to spiritualism – this trash is no different, except in not being found through a seance. The content is no different. The CC used also to reject superstition (which this is) – why is it now hospitable to stuff like this ?

    Proof is entirely appropriate for the sciences – but for the Christian relation to God ? “Blessed are those who have…” what ? Seen ? No – “Blessed are those who have not seen, yet believe.” A religion that needs proof, is a religion without faith, or hope or love. It’s a different game entirely from Christianity. This NDE stuff is not Christian – it is a greater danger to Christian faith than any amount of atheism, because it is a poisoned form of what some might think is religious. The Church denounces other attitudes now current – when will it reject & warn against this kind of thing ? A priest could do a lot of good by using the pulpit to warn against this, and to set forth the faith of Christians. It could be a teaching moment.

    • Sagrav

      Proof would give people a real reason to believe. The characters in the bible believe because they have direct contact with the supernatural. Modern Christians of all stripes put their faith in in empty promises, rigid dogma, and a paradise that they can only hope to see once they are dead and rotting. The same goes for all of the other major faiths. All of the prophets, apostles, and messiahs only believed because they were given evidence; does that make their belief wanting?

      The church is empty pageantry constructed around dead, “unchangeable” texts. The more that people realize this, the more that people will drift away from old men in silly dresses.

      • Kerberos

        “The characters in the bible believe because they have direct contact with the supernatural. ”

        ## Contact of itself proves nothing. Such experience has religious force only if the person experiencing it admits that it (1) has weight as religiousexperience (whatever that may mean); & (2) has weight for him. “[D]irect contact with the supernatural” has no authority as “direct contact with the supernatural” for those without the eyes to see it , so to speak – that would not make the entity experienced unsupernatural, but it would mean there was no way for such people to perceive it as supernatural. Besides, AFAICS, such “direct contact” has authority only for the person actually involved in experiencing it – it cannot be proved to supernatural, in part because it is not controllable. The reality of an apparition of the great goddess Isis, or of Baal or Ganesha or Christ, cannot be proved – proof is for theorems in mathematics, or logical demonstrations. These are controllable – divine beings are not.

        “All of the prophets, apostles, and messiahs only believed because they were given evidence; does that make their belief wanting?”

        ## First, TY for the comment. Evidence, is not proof. Evidence can be needed, by some, or on some occasions. But evidence is not proof. Proof – supposing it to be possible – leaves no room for faith. Evidence, by contrast, does. STM this is much better for human beings than a religion based on proof. A religion based on proof feeds self-righteousness and pride. Faith, by being needed because what one believes in cannot be proved to the satisfaction of a sceptic, allows one to be dependent on God for everything.

  • Skay

    I found the story about Dr. Alexander’s sister compelling. It is similar to the story about the young boy’sister that Karla mentioned.

  • FW Ken

    Reading these “proof” threads has set me to thinking. What proves things to you seem to depend on where you stand. I stand within the Catholic Church, and I doubt you could “prove” to me that God doesn’t exist since I encounter Him everywhere. That’s not an objective statement and isn’t meant to be.

  • FW Ken

    Except, Zagrav, they aren’t. In the decayed west? Sure, but worldwide Faith is growing. As far as I know the only atheist states are North Korea, Vietnam, and Cuba.

    Actually, I put my faith in Jesus Christ, in whom I have found only happiness. And only in him. When I stray from him, happiness drains away. a heaven is only the consummation is the joy I already have.

  • FW Ken

    I guess China remains officially atheist, but Christianity is exploding there, add are other religions

  • donna rubino

    The doctor did not go to heaven and did not meet God as he says he did on Oprah Winfrey show – the fact that he said God has no gender and that you don’t have to belong to any particular religion to get to heaven is proof enough as christians that his was a demonic experience meant to confuse and lead people down the wrong path – God spoke to me audibly, of this I do not brag or boast, God forbid that I should boast about such an experience as I am greatly humbled and honored to know he loves me soo much he would reveal himself to me this way to save me, in any event, he has a male voice and he is OUR FATHER – no ifs ands or buts about it – this was the reason he spoke to me audibly to assure me that he was a male god and is our father as i was heading down the wrong path of goddess worship and studying old pagan ways or wicca which is witchcraft and demonic -

    • Messenger of Light

      ANYTHING without love is the ‘evil’ of which you seek. Ask Your god about the truth of Love and Fear and you will know. Yet, ‘Judge not lest ye be Judged’ i.e. leave your prejudice at home.


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