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.”