Over the Thanksgiving weekend I read Eben Alexander’s popular Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife (Simon & Schuster, 2012). The book, which once topped the New York Times best-seller list, adds to a growing corpus of volumes detailing “near death experiences,” with the difference being that Alexander is an academic neurosurgeon who knows as much about how the brain works as anyone on the planet.
Alexander is a North Carolina native whose father was chief of staff at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center for 20 years. His book takes the reader on an intriguing journey through an amazing sequence of personal experiences as the highly-trained neurosurgeon examines what it’s like to be brain dead from the perspective of the patient.
Alexander was stricken with an extremely rare form of gram-negative bacterial meningitis in 2008 and spent seven days in a coma while the neocortex of his brain — where what we recognize as consciousness and higher thinking functions reside — was effectively non-functional.
Yet, he describes a series of very conscious out-of-body experiences in which he traveled through a murky “Realm of the Earthworm’s-Eye View” and a “Gateway” of spinning, melodious light to a beautiful green land of waterfalls and happy people in peasant clothes. There he traveled on butterfly wings in the company of an angelic woman who turned out to be (he learned later) a birth sister he had never met, who had died some years before.
The angelic escort led him to an “infinite void” (which he calls “the Core,”) that was both “pitch black” and “brimming over with light,” and transfused with the unmistakeable and comforting presence of God (whom he calls “Om”). There, he writes, a pulsating “Orb” (a transformed version of the “Girl on the Butterfly Wing”) interpreted divine knowledge and revealed to him (without words) deep truths about multiple universes and the secrets of dark energy and dark matter.
After a statistically improbable recovery that Alexander describes as medically miraculous, he is convinced that he still harbors those truths, but the constraints of human limitations prevent him from explaining or undertanding them fully.
Alexander’s account is a fascinating story, all the more so in that he had been a full-blown skeptic who had given up on any belief in God, and had previously pooh-poohed similar accounts of near-death visits to the heavenly realms.
He’s a full-blown believer in heaven now — but surely he knows that his experience does not provide a proof of heaven. I have to believe the publisher must have chosen the title.
No matter how much Alexander knows about brain function and how many theories he tries and dismisses (there’s an appendix of them) to explain what happened in terms of neuronal activity — thus arguing that his conscious encounters with the divine must have originated outside of the brain — his own memories of the experience are clearly resident in his brain. How they got there is certainly a mystery — but it is not proof that he traveled to heaven.
When it comes to dealing with the divine, mystery rules.
We’d all like to have proof of heaven, I suppose. We’d like to have someone tell us, as the “Girl on the Butterfly Wing” told him: “You are loved and cherished, dearly, forever. You have nothing to fear. There is nothing you can do wrong.”
And we can certainly believe, as Alexander says he learned, that the heart of God (and hence the universe) is love. We can hope in a beautiful, soulfull life that extends beyond the bodies we currently inhabit.
But we can’t prove it.
The writer of Hebrews reminds us “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1).
As we trust in the revelation of God through scripture, we can feel a confident conviction about heaven, but we can’t subject it to scientific proof.
That’s what faith is for.
Professor of Old Testament at Campbell University Divinity School in Buies Creek, North Carolina, and the Contributing Editor and Curriculum Writer at Good Faith Media.