Did Roger Ebert glimpse heaven days before his death?

An avowed “non-believer”, something strange happened to the movie critic Roger Ebert a week before his death: According to his wife Chaz, he visited heaven.

Did you read the recent best-seller Proof of Heaven? I did and while Dr. Eban Alexander spun a good tale of his journey into a heaven-like world while lying in a coma, there was just one problem: the author had credibility issues. As detailed in a long profile and follow-up in Esquire magazine, one couldn’t walk away from his story without the nagging feeling the author may have been fudging some of the details.

Which brings me to another story in the pages of Esquire where someone again claims they’ve glimpsed heaven. It’s buried within a short piece titled “The Death of Roger Ebert” and was written by Ebert’s wife and constant companion Chaz. It recounts the critic’s final moments and tells us how he left the world in total peace: “He was sitting almost like Buddha, and then he just put his head down.”

But most compelling to me were the events that happened in the days before Roger died. His wife, Chaz Ebert, tells us that her husband “didn’t know if he could believe in God. He had his doubts. But toward the end, something really interesting happened.” Continuing with her words:

That week before Roger passed away, I would see him and he would talk about having visited this other place. I thought he was hallucinating. I thought they were giving him too much medication. But the day before he passed away, he wrote me a note:

According to Chaz, she asked Roger, “What’s a hoax?” looking for some clarification. He then made it clear to her that “he was talking about this world, this place. He said it was all an illusion. I thought he was confused. But he was not confused.”

The idea that this world is an illusion is one held by many ancient cultures and faiths. Hindus believe that the world is “maya”, an illusion that is hiding something “different, deeper, invisible or unknown”. The Buddha, as well as the modern-day Course in Miracles, also declare that “the world is an illusion”, suggesting that we are all living in a kind of collective dream state. Which begs the question:

If it’s all an illusion, what is reality?

To get past the illusion, do we need to venture to what Roger Ebert called “this other place”? Was Ebert glimpsing the afterlife? His wife Chaz seems to believe it was heaven, but “not the way we think of heaven”. No puffy clouds or St. Peter at the pearly gates. Again in her words:

He described it as a vastness you can’t even imagine. It was a place where the past, present, and future were happening all at once.

This description veers into quantum physics territory, where the belief is that all time exists but that we are only aware of the present moment. As Albert Einstein once said, “the distinctions between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.”  Perhaps, Ebert was able to get a sneak peek at what was next, a place where the illusion could finally be shed, revealing life in its purest state. Could this be heaven? Nirvana?

Did Ebert, knowing the end was near, simply use his imagination to dream up an afterlife?

After doing a little digging, I think it’s highly doubtful. In 2009, Ebert wrote a blog post titled “How I believe in God” in which he discussed his Catholic upbringing. While the former alter boy declared he did not want to be labeled an “atheist or agnostic”, he made it crystal clear that he was “not a believer”—and stated that believing in “an existence not limited to the physical duration of the body” doesn’t make it true.

Yet, this doesn’t jibe with the message he shared before his passing. While I question the veracity of Eban Alexander’s account of heaven, I have a different feeling about Roger Ebert’s departing words. When belief suddenly springs forth from a non-believer, with absolutely nothing to gain, I’m inclined to believe that belief is heartfelt and true.

A final note from the story: Chaz Ebert says she still hears Roger’s voice and that her time with him is not over. She adds, “I’m still waiting for things to unfold. I have this feeling we’re not finished.”

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  • Ambaa

    Not entirely related, but your last note at the end reminds me of it: my best friend died four years ago and I have dreams where she comes and visits me and we spend time together. Right after her death I dreamed that she emailed me from heaven and I was so surprised she was allowed computer time there!

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/wakeupcall/ Tom Rapsas

      Cool story, Ambaa. I also get the occasional visit from those who have passed in my dreams. I find it’s a real treat. Worth a blog post one day!

    • bkrharold

      My Father also visited me in a dream after he passed away. Usually I can never remember my dreams, but this was unlike any other dream, and I still remember it after over 20 years.

  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Censorship Censored

    > “not the way we think of heaven”

    Let’s hope not; I’d be trying to escape that Tammy Faye edition of ostentatious glitz inside two hours.

    • http://twitter.com/TomRapsasTweets Tom Rapsas

      That brought a smile to my face, Brian! I can relate to that sentiment. ~Tom

  • Tess Elliott

    The modern concept of Heaven turns me off because it is a gated community, cut off from the “bad” that I think is just another way our Western philosophy can’t deal with negative things like death, murder, disease, etc. Whatever “we” are, if it does persist will be a reality that a person inside a body can hardly comprehend. Our memories are chemically part of our animated flesh which can’t easily experience the kind of breakthrough many of the Easter philosophies describe–where there is all time, and all one reality. If we persist, and become sentient in a form of pure energy (which is certainly possible), we could actually experience that level of reality. I think it’s all beautiful, and persistence/immortality is not relevant to our existence now unless we really crave a deeper spiritual experience. What matters is what we do here, in this life. I will say, that I do not know for certain, and do not require that knowledge to be happy and love this life.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/wakeupcall/ Tom Rapsas

      Well said, Tess, and your closing thought is vitally important–while it’s interesting to think of the afterlife and hear about the experiences of others, ultimately what matters most is how we live this life. Thanks. ~Tom

    • Tess Elliott

      Thanks! Isn’t it ironic that so many faiths spend all this time drawing lines in the sand to accentuate differences rather than sameness? Now there is a new pope saying things that Ghandi and Buddha would approve of, blowing a lot of minds. He heads one of the biggest religions in the Western Hemisphere that is defined by it’s many lines in the sand, and he himself has got his broom sweeping them away with simple acts of charity. I always felt a little sad hearing people talk about an awakening, but never thought it possible in my lifetime. Maybe I was wrong!

    • bkrharold

      I wholeheartedly agree with you. The question of what may have come before, or what might happen after life, is truly irrelevant to our current human condition. When life is difficult and our hearts are heavy, the possibility that this is not all in vain is a comfort. Unfortunately there can be no certainty, unless you surrender your critical thinking abilities, and become a wide eyed believer.

  • bkrharold

    I read the book by Dr Eban Alexander. He makes it very clear very early on in the book that he was a neurosurgeon, who only believed in science , and discounted any any reported other worldly experiences by his dying patients.
    His description of his own experiences is quite unique, and difficult to comprehend or to believe. It is not necessary to say we can accept Roger Eberts experience but not Dr Alexanders. All too soon our own time will come, then we will find out for ourselves.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/wakeupcall/ Tom Rapsas

      You are so right, we will not know for ourselves until our time comes. And while I believe Eban Alexander may be an imperfect messenger, his message rang true. ~Tom

  • Thin-ice

    First, the headline is totally misleading: “heaven” was not the word to describe what Ebert may have “seen”.

    After being a missionary, and an evangelical for 46 years, I’ve decided the biblical concept of heaven (and hell) is 100% a human construct.

    IF, and this is a BIG IF, something survives our physical death, the one thing that you can guarantee is that this “something” won’t encounter a gatekeeper, weighing whether the “something” met the bullet-point doctrinal belief requirements in order to enter one state or another.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/wakeupcall/ Tom Rapsas

      Well, I whole-heartedly agree there will be no pearly gates waiting for us, but I do believe there will be something. Call it “heaven” or whatever you like, the name is less important than the idea that there is an afterlife–and the more I read anecdotes like the one told by Ebert’s wife, the more I’m convinced this place exists. Thanks for your comment. ~Tom

  • Sdavis

    Is the above a copy of Roger Ebert’s hand written ink on
    paper note to his wife?

    I wonder how Esquire would exclude from their story such a monument..

    And then to read from a low traffic spirituality blog and see what could be the original note, Oh my God.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/wakeupcall/ Tom Rapsas

      Steve,
      Did not mean to mislead you–that is not Roger’s actual note, just an artistic recreation! But every word in the story is true. ~Tom

  • JohnE_o

    “There is no conclusive evidence of life after death, but there is
    no evidence of any sort against it. Soon enough you will know, so why
    fret about it?”


    Robert A. Heinlein,

    Time Enough for Love

  • NJHope

    There are likely thousands, if not millions who’ve had personal experiences in meditation or in near death experiences, evidence to us that not only proves (to us) that there is an ongoing of the consciousness, from this life to another plane. The joy of such experiences is, they don’t need to be shown to others, proven to others, or even believed by others. Once an experience of that nature has happened, no one can take it from you. It is yours forever. The proof, of life existing in another plane of consciousness, for others, will come to them when the time is “their” correct time to “know.” Each of us is on a singular path unto our own self. No one else can take that path for us. I don’t suppose anyone would argue with that “theory”. Huh? So why argue with the other? Not everything can be seen by the naked human eye in this plane we walk and exist upon here on earth. Yet we do not doubt the existence of many, many things we don’t “see.” The proof of our own existence lies in the actual experiencing of it. It has nothing to do with what others believe, accept, or don’t. It’s just about one’s own path, one’s own life, and how it unfolds and how we see it, experience it, now and forever. AUM.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/wakeupcall/ Tom Rapsas

      Thanks for your well thought-out comments. I believe that you are correct in that it is our personal experience that matters most, it’s all about what happens on our own path. We must ultimately walk on this path by ourselves and develop our own one-to-one relationship with the divine. Best, ~Tom

  • Dmitch

    Dear Tom, I come a little late to the comments, but I’d like to counter your disparging remarks about Dr Eben Alexander, which do not serve the higher truth. All of the claims made by the author in the Atlantic article have been refuted and proven to be false.

    http://ncu9nc.blogspot.com/2013/08/dr-eben-alexander-vindicated-why-you.html

    http://www.skeptiko.com/220-esquire-proof-of-heaven-expose-debunked/

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/wakeupcall/ Tom Rapsas

      Thanks for providing the links and another side to the Eben Alexander story. My net takeaway, regardless of who provides the message, is there there is some sort of afterlife. It remains for me a fascinating subject and one I will write about again in the coming months. Best wishes. ~Tom

      • Dmitch

        Thank you for the response Tom. One way to discern a person’s veracity with such claims is how have they conducted their life since the experience. Dr. Alexander has become transformed. He continues to give talks and does not change his story. Does retreats, has appeared at spiritual seminars with prominent spiritual leaders such as the Dalai Lama and has conducted himself with dignity and deference. Recounted NDE experiences vary greatly in specific detail though they share some common themes. Why is a mystery. People should not bias themselves because some NDE doesn’t conform to preconceived beliefs. Your point is well taken. There is survival of consciousness. I wonder if Roger is still doing movie reviews?