Reports of heaven: Do we need proof?

August 2, 2013

Although faith is “the conviction of things not seen,” millions of faithful Christians yearn for eyewitness corroboration of the invisible. Eben Alexander’s Proof of Heaven, a first-hand account of paradise, has captivated readers and was for months on the best-seller lists. The author, now a popular speaker and commentator, presented his views on the resurrection in the Huffington Post online news blog.

With some reluctance, I decided to read Proof of Heaven after many friends recommended it. Until then I had avoided life-after-death best sellers. It’s not that I doubt heaven; it’s that I doubt the reports of heaven. Why should we presume to request human eyewitness testimony if “no eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him”?

So I was surprised when my first reaction to the book was positive. I believed it. I accepted the author’s story of a near-death illness during which he traveled to and from heaven, learning the secrets of existence from loving celestial beings. After making a scientifically impossible recovery, Alexander shared his tantalizing peek into God’s mysteries. His descriptions of heaven even refer to one of my favorite images of God: the “deep but dazzling darkness” articulated by 17th-century poet Henry Vaughan. I spent a week envisioning the author’s experiences during my own prayers.

But as I ruminated on the book its appeal faded. Or more accurately, my enthusiasm dissipated and I realized that little else remained. In the end, Alexander’s heaven does not compel me.

For one thing, I don’t really want the surprise spoiled in advance. For another, I realized that if his heaven is the heaven, I’ll be disappointed. One person’s report of paradise, no matter how blissful, seems rather generic to another person. Given assurances of an eternity of peace, for example, some of us worry that heaven might become boring after a while.

Even more unsettling, these static descriptions of heaven bear alarmingly little resemblance to the unique and dynamic nature of a relationship with God in the here and now, when one finds God through many different doorways: sensory experience such as dancing, painting, singing; meditation on scripture; being in nature; loving other people; caring for the poor and downtrodden; corporate prayer; wordless prayer. After death, does that variety cease? What changes? What stays the same?

I imagine a different heaven, one in which our relationship with God becomes perfected—not homogenized, but perfected. Not finished, but completed. For the sensory person, maybe perfection means she finds herself in a dance with God, swept off her feet with delight. For the person who spent life bone-tired, overworked and poor, maybe perfection means falling into the arms of God, finally at ease. The mystics speak of the perfection of the unitive experience, a wordless unity of person and God which does not erase personhood but completes it.

It’s not that I doubt Alexander’s experience of heaven or discount the message of unconditional love. Scripture and our own experiences confirm that a personal encounter with God often ignites a spiritual transformation. For Christians, however, the message of the book is simply not necessary; it doesn’t add anything to the witness of the Gospels. In any case, no human testimony can actually prove the reality of heaven. As Jesus says to Martha, “Only one thing is necessary”: to sit at his feet as Mary did, listening in rapt attention.

Considering that unambiguous advice, I wonder at the enthusiasm with which Christians embrace the genre of afterlife literature. What do we gain that we do not already have?

Consider the extraordinary amount of effort Alexander expends to convince his fellow doctors of the very lowest common denominator of most faith traditions: that human consciousness is more than neural activity and that we exist in an unseen and eternal spiritual realm. While secular medical practitioners and wistful atheists may insist on exhaustive empirical gymnastics as a prerequisite for belief, our faith does not require such proofs. Why search for proof when we have the assurance of the unseen?

Comments

"Reports of Heaven" - How shallow...

I thought the reviewer's article and response was so shallow.  After initial excitement, she fell back into her previous - I consider it - lethargy regarding such things. She was back to preaching eloquently to the choir.

These accounts should be shouted from the rooftops.  An astonishing number of Americans are dubious about the existence of God, the reality of life after death, the efficacy of prayer, and the reality of miracles.  Everyone of these accounts is a miracle, attesting to the above. In my various roles over 48 years as parish priest, Army Chaplain (COL), hospital chaplain, I've now visited with 240 "returnees" and listen intently to what they relate.

I wrote a book Harper's published this year on the effect these accounts had on my ministry and the implications I see.  First off is the emphatic realization that God is. I told 2 seminary profs about the effect of sharing these accounts with a dying parishioner who was very morose about his impending death.  I shared that the accounts turned his attitude around immediately.  I asked what they thought. The quick response from these 2 Episcopal priests was, "Didn't happen. There's no such thing as life after death."  Some clergy, trying to be so modern, doubt or even disbelieve the fact of life after death.  They are no pastoral help to those in grief.

These accounts lay all that doubt and disbelief to rest.  They are not a new Gospel. The same Gospel applies, but more emphatically: God is, God loves us, God forgives and redeems us in Jesus Christ. And God saves us for eternal life, which is real. Read Revealing Heaven:  The Eyewitness Accounts That Changed How a Pastor Thinks About the Afterlife. Harper's, 2013. It's all there.

Proof of heaven

Thanks to Sarah Lischer for her thoughts on Alexander's book. I wish that I could be so kind. I am disappointed to see this and others like it so well received by church going folks. Perhaps  this genre fills a gap in the teaching and preaching of the church.

This book stands as a monument to a masterful editor and publisher. Dr. Alexander offers "proof" that he has had a near death experince (NDE) that has profoundly affected his life. He offers nothoing more. He spends a good deal of time extolling his own accomplishments as a neurosurgeon ( and they are significant). He makes the bold claim, "I was encountering the reality of a world of conciousness that existed completely free of the limitation of my physical brain." But he was there and so was his brain. He would not be with us now if his brain had truly ceased ALL function.  Dr. Alexander ignores a large body of work on near death experieces that goes back centuries.  Finally he says, "What I have to tell you is a important as anything anyone will ever tell you, and it's true." Bold! Arrogant? So what is truth and do we know it? 

What if this book were written by Joe the plumber? How well would it be received?

As a retired neuorologist, now a pastor and chaplain, I am frankly saddened by this book's popularity among people who self-identify as Chrsitian. I am also concerned that we as the church have done a poor job addressing the questions and needs this book seems to be meeting. 

Bill Holmes M.D., M. Div.

Louisville, Ky

Misses the point of his own experience

That Alexander's book connected with a widespread preoccupation is evidenced by its bestseller status and the long waiting list at my public library. His efforts, however, fell short, not because they were unconvincing but because they missed the point.

As he recounted the events while he was in coma, he experienced in a profound way that:

  • He was loved and cherished, dearly and forever
  • He was never unloved
  • There’s nothing he can do wrong that would jeopardize that love
  • He has nothing to fear
  • He was not alone and knew he never had to feel alone ever again
  • We are all connected with one another through our divine link with God
  • God is present in us at all times, therefore prayer is the most natural, as well as the most extraordinary experience imaginable.

He wrote that the most important thing he wanted to share from his experiences was the reality of unconditional love and acceptance. Yet throughout the book it seemed that it was actually more important that he prove the scientific fact of his experience. It was as though the spiritual truth is dependent on its scientific fact.

The truth of a spiritual experience isn’t found in its scientific proof. Just like the stories in the bible don’t (for me) need to be historically accurate to be spiritually true, neither do spiritual experiences need to be scientifically provable.

And, as wise spiritual directors through the centuries have recognized and taught that truth is demonstrated by the fruit it bears in a person’s life.

His book would have been more convincing to me if he had focused on his experiences and how they transformed and empowered his life.