“Heaven is Real,” a Newsweek cover proclaimed last week. Renowned neurosurgeon Eben Alexander’s scientific worldview had previously led him to view near-death experiences as having plausible scientific explanations. However, spending seven days in a coma convinced him that the afterlife truly exists.
Accounts of out-of-body encounters with the spiritual world have a long history. Swedish mystic Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772) wrote 25 books about his trips to heaven and hell. However, public fascination with the subject exploded after the 1975 publication of physician Raymond Moody’s “Life After Life”and cardiologist Maurice Rawlings’s “Beyond Death’s Door,” both of which featured dozens of accounts of near-death experiences (NDEs). These NDEs commonly involved feelings of being out of one’s body and of peace and quiet, meeting one or more “Beings of Light,” a life review, and a new perspective on life and death.
Numerous investigators stress the positive benefits of NDEs. Moody claimed that every subject he interviewed “had a very deep and positive transformation.” People lost the fear of dying and going to hell and love dominated their lives. They gained an intense appreciation for life, developed a deeper spirituality, and took more personal responsibility.
Mally Cox-Chapman maintains that NDEs produce an enhanced self-image, improved relationships, greater purpose in work, and a richer spiritual life. Moreover, many visions of heaven include joyful reunions with deceased loved ones, which help console those who long to see family and friends again. NDEs, she adds, send “the message we most need to hear” today: “forgiveness and unconditional love.”
In a runaway best seller—“Heaven Is for Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back”—a four-year-old gives an account of his trip to the other side. Nevertheless, the age and background of the boy who recounted his journey to his pastor, father and the circumstances under which his near-death experience occurred led many to offer alternative explanations for his story. Numerous scientists contend that NDEs are “caused by a lack of oxygen to the brain, or drugs, or psychological stresses evoked by the fear of dying.” Skeptics insist that “drugs, oxygen deprivation … disassociation, temporal lobe stimulation, endorphin surge, anesthesia” or “even memories of birth” cause these experiences.
Eben Alexander argues that his account is more credible because his trip to the other side occurred while he was in a deep coma during which the human part of his brain, the neocortex, was inactivated. His higher-order brain functions were “totally offline.” Science cannot explain, Alexander asserts, how his “brain-free consciousness journeyed to another, larger dimension of the universe.” Previously, he would have explained what he experienced as impossible.
He encountered the same dimension “described by countless subjects of near-death experiences and other mystical states.” No one else, however, had traveled to this celestial realm while his cortex was completely inoperative and his body was under meticulous medical observation, as Alexander’s was during his coma.
Alternative explanations of NDEs posit that they “are the results of minimal, transient, or partial malfunctioning of the cortex.” However, Alexander’s near-death experience occurred while his cortex shut down as documented by his CT scans and neurological examinations.
During most of his journey, a woman accompanied Alexander. She communicated three major points to him: “You are loved and cherished, dearly, forever;” “you have nothing to fear;” and “there is nothing you can do wrong.” This message filled the neurosurgeon with great relief. He concluded that he had been given “rules to a game I’d been playing all my life without ever fully understanding it.”
The universe he experienced during his coma, the same one described in different ways by Jesus and Albert Einstein, was dominated by God’s unconditional love. The one place where people embraced his story, Alexander reports, is the church. Christians celebrated his conclusion that “we are loved and accepted unconditionally” by a “grand and unfathomably glorious” God.
Alexander emphasizes that he is still a neurosurgeon and a man of science, but he has been fundamentally changed. His life goal is now to help explain a new picture of reality which will show that the universe is “evolving, multi-dimensional, and completely known by a God who cares for us … deeply and fiercely.” Alexander has written “Proof of Heaven,” which Simon & Schuster will publish next month, to advance this quest.
Although Alexander’s account has been warmly received in his church, Christians have been among the most vocal critics of NDEs. They complain that many NDEs (like Alexander’s) portray a “magnanimous, understanding, all-loving,” “compassionate being,” who finds no fault with anyone, which clashes with biblical teachings about the nature of God and heaven. Christians also observe that people’s interpretation of their NDEs depended heavily on the concepts of the afterlife that are popular in different eras and cultures. Nevertheless, given the pervasive belief in the afterlife and most people’s desire to go to heaven, many will find Alexander’s account and argument both reassuring and inspiring.
Dr. Gary Scott Smith chairs the history department at Grove City College and is a fellow for faith and the presidency with The Center for Vision & Values. He is the author of “Heaven in the American Imagination” (Oxford University Press).