Heaven Exists. Or Does it?

One of the most popular books of the 12th century — what might be called medieval infotainment — was “The … Continued

One of the most popular books of the 12th century — what might be called medieval infotainment — was “The Vision of Tundale.” Written by a man who claimed to have had a stroke and then, unconscious, to have been taken on a tour of heaven and hell, it was widely read not just for Christian edification but for pleasure. It described an ascension through layer upon layer of hell and then heaven, and thus through ever-increasing miraculous pleasures. Tundale sees orbs and goblets strung from gold chains in the sky, and when the angels fly through them, they make a sound like heavenly wind chimes.

Tundale yearns to stay, but his angelic guide leads him back to his body. When he wakes up from his coma, he is changed forever. He gives all his money and possessions to the poor and becomes a monk.

Sound familiar? This, in its broadest outlines, is the “plot” of “Proof of Heaven,” the runaway bestseller by Eben Alexander III, a Duke- and Harvard-educated neurosurgeon who claims to have seen heaven in 2008 during a coma induced by bacterial meningitis. (The excerpt in Newsweek last month presaged the book’s sensationalist debut.) Alexander’s experience convinced him beyond doubt of the existence not just of heaven, but of a loving God. He now hopes, as he says in his book, to “serve the greater good by helping to create the best possible future for earth and its inhabitants.”

Such visionaries have been visiting heaven for thousands of years, as I learned in the research for my book on the subject, and the outlines of their travels are remarkably similar. After a prelude in which the heavenly tourist endeavors to convince his listeners of his credibility as a narrator, he describes wonders — all the while claiming that the wonders pass description. “Words cannot express” and “language fails” are common refrains in such accounts, as they are in Alexander’s. Uniting these accounts is a sense of a conviction that the reality of the next world supersedes this one. When in heaven, Alexander receives a message from God: “I instantly understood that it was true. I knew so in the same way that I knew the world around us was real — was not some fantasy, passing and insubstantial.”

An insistence on the realness of heaven underlies all the recent bestsellers on the topic, including “90 Minutes in Heaven,” the 2004 account by an evangelical pastor of his trip to the next life after a serious car accident, and “Heaven Is for Real,” about a 4-year-old boy who travels to heaven and sees Jesus during a surgical procedure.

The disingenuous thing about Alexander’s claims is not, as neuroscientist and rationalist Sam Harris argued in a hilarious and vitriolic critique on his blog, that the doctor’s upbringing in watered-down, mainline Christianity led him inevitably to proclaim, like Tundale, the “good news” (Alexander uses the phrase) of Jesus Christ. It’s that Alexander — or his editors at Simon & Schuster — cravenly believes that his fancy degrees, his bow tie and the numerals after his name somehow lend his account more authority. The subtext of his story is something like, “Because I’m a Harvard-educated doctor, you can believe me more than those Bible Belt Christians who’ve told this story before.” As if going to Harvard inoculated a person against believing fantastical things. As if medical doctors never found their way, except through near-death experiences, to deep religious faith.

Let me be clear. I believe that Alexander “saw” what he says he saw and felt what he says he felt, and that, further, his experience was profound and life-changing for him. But no matter how many times he says the word “neurosurgeon” — 16 times in my Kindle edition — his authority on the afterlife is exactly the same as Tundale’s and every other visionary’s. To have experienced something and to have believed it to be true doesn’t make it true for Alexander or any of us. You don’t have to be a brain surgeon to know that.

But it doesn’t make it untrue, either. Even Harris, the rationalist, agrees that there are things about the universe and consciousness that are mysterious.

“I remain agnostic on the question of how consciousness is related to the physical world,” Harris wrote. “So although I am an atheist who can be expected to be unforgiving of religious dogma, I am not reflexively hostile to claims of the sort Alexander has made. In principle, my mind is open. (It really is.)”

The way I see it, heaven claims crumble when you subject them to empirical tests, which is all right, because heaven, for me, is not a matter of proof. It’s exactly the opposite: a matter of faith. For me, belief in heaven (or an afterlife, or however you want to put it) is an embrace of the mysterious, unknown nature of things; a reverence for transcendent experience; and a radical hope in eternity as well as in the possibility of ultimate justice, love and truth. That heaven is possible but not provable is sufficient.

Lisa Miller
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  • choose_reason

    Magical thinking continues to exist even though modern, civilized countries such as Sweden are now 85% atheist. These are good moral people. And America along with every other country including Mexico and Brazil (bastions of the Roman Catholic Church) have consistently higher percentages of atheists every year.

    Religion and gods were created by men because we are afraid of dying. We can’t stand the thought of this life being all there is. Yet I like it that way. For then I can make the most out of this life.

    That this neurosurgeon all of a sudden feels great philanthropy after his visions I wish to say “What took you so long, brother?” Being religious doesn’t guide our morality. I and many other atheists quietly go through life not pushing our beliefs or non-beleifs if you will on others as Evangelicals wish to do in America. We work with Doctors without Borders, we establish clinics in the poorest areas of the USA. I have never asked for more than $10/hr for caring for my brothers and sisters. We do not write books saying how wonderful we are. We just work to make mankind better.

    I say all of this under a screen name…because why boast when tis should just be part of who we are.

    Elisabeth Kubler-Ross famously wrote the five stages of grief that is standard practice for sociology, psychology, and medicine. Dr. Ross was an atheist. But she also knew that some people need to hold onto a specific philosophy of ordered religious rites. As my grandchildren hold on to their “blankies” to feel secure, many humans cling to religious ceremony. Throughout the world a Roman Catholic can walk into any mass and “feel at home.” Same rituals of standing, genuflecting, kneeling, oral responses to the priest’s exhortations, receiving communion of the “body and blood of Christ.”

    Live your life morally. We are intelligent enough creatures that we are actually born moral and with correct nurturing continue to help others throughout our life. I believe that if Jesus Christ didn’t live in the middle east 2,000 years ago, at least the parables and stories from that time present a model of a person who exemplified moral living. If you want to call that “Christian living”… fine. For then I “walk the walk” each day in caring for others. Thanksgiving and Black Friday will be days of more giving. Our clinic will not close. And we always make sure to have warm clothing and hot food available to those who need it…and no it is NOT a government grant. We use our own salaries as small as they might be to help others.

    And I am thankful that I am able to give to others.

    Happy Thanksgiving everyone! And don’t forget to give to Toys for Tots and Salvation Army this season!

  • Pharmercist

    We Christians “push our beliefs” out of a concern for others. If you only truly knew what you were missing. Those who do accept will be changed forever. The way people live after accepting is evidence of the power that cannot be explained. I pity you and others who do not yet know this relationship with their creator.

  • JCArzts

    All due respect, Pharmer, but Religion has done so much evil in the world — and still is doing so — that atheists and philosophers and all the many degrees and particles of God that the blind cling to and profess to KNOW the truth is not evidence. Unfortunately — centuries of division over whose version of god is the one that MUST be accepted or the Other is doomed to an eternity of suffering is not very enlightened. I like to BELIEVE we are each a cell in the ever changing Life of the universal order — and that when I die as this cell my “I” still has something to contribute — even if it is only the ashes full of minerals and compounds that will replenish the earth.