Guest post: Considering “Proof of Heaven”

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Posted on November 13th, 2012 | Filed under Challenges, Community, Interfaith, Intra-Faith, Learning, Philosophy, Theology

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This is a guest post by Chris Highland, a professor at Cherry Hill Seminary.

A former manager at Forbes magazine gave me a copy of the October 15, 2012 issue of Newsweek (via The Daily Beast) with the startling cover story "Heaven is Real." She said, "You might find this interesting." I did.

Amazing; simply amazing.  That yet another book, Proof of Heaven, is hitting the charts by a person who claims to have been to a place called "heaven" and lived to tell the amazing, unbelievable story. Unbelievable. People buy, and believe, these books. Incredible.

As a former Christian Minister I completely understand why it is that so many want to "prove" their supernatural claims are "real." I really do. And, to be honest, those of us who are Freethinkers are always telling our supernaturalist friends to "show us the proof; give us a little evidence." So, I get it. I also remember those days, especially as a Jesus Freak Evangelical in the 70's, when we craved any sign of a presence or intervention "from above." Speaking in tongues was powerful, so was prophesying and preaching and proselytizing the world (so desperate we were to have every last soul believe as we did). It felt so REAL. And the heaven we longed for, that we cried and prayed for, was a breath away.

Now, when I see these bestsellers grabbing the headlines for God, I sigh, smile, shake my head and start to ask the questions I wish someone would ask the author. Normally I wouldn't write some kind, any kind, of review or comment on a book I have not read, so here I simply wish to offer some comments on the article given frontcover status.

The author, Eben Alexander, is a doctor, a neurosurgeon who taught at Harvard Medical School. Impressive. Now we're paying attention. He falls into a coma in 2008 and for seven days (one might note this was seven days), in his words, "the neurons of my cortex were stunned to complete inactivity by the bacteria that had attacked them..."

Okay. This was serious. Then, in his interpretation, "...my brain-free consciousness journeyed to another, larger dimension of the universe." Wow. Since I read this on Halloween (seriously) I was already beginning to feel that chill, that eerie sense, that here lies the terrifying leap off the cliff of reason often called faith or...the Twilight Zone. I was spooked (not seriously).

You see, Alexander explains that he grew up Christian, went to Sunday School, and then became a scientist.  In his near death experience he found a "scientific reason to believe." Not that it matters a great deal I suppose, but his experience of "heaven" happened at Lynchburg General Hospital. I wonder if anyone was praying over him while he was in that coma? Could he have heard anything? Any suggestion of God or Jesus or Heaven in that environment?  The article doesn't say. He just says he was "quite literally in a new world."

If I could be so bold to ask the doctor a few questions I might ask:

1)  How do you "know" this was "real" and "true"?  And, perhaps more importantly, why should we believe you?

2)  What is the basis of your statement that "there is no scientific explanation" of what happened to you?  (We'll wait for a full review by other medical professionals.)

3)  Are you aware that your description of being "high in the clouds" fits the ancient three-story universe belief that divine things were "up," above and beyond the clouds in the sky ("The Kingdom of the Heavens/Sky" as Christian scriptures say)?

4)  You say you are certain this other dimension exists, that it is real. Is Nirvana real? Becoming one with Brahma, is that real? How about Shangri-La, or Santa's workshop at the North Pole? Sorry, but you've got me wondering!

5)  Here's the question I'm always puzzling over:  How do we know that you, or Moses, or Jesus, or Muhammad, or Joseph Smith, or Ramakrishna or anyone actually saw or heard anything on a mountain, or in a cave, or in a field, or temple, or hospital bed?  And, hold on, if you or they did see or hear something from Someone, isn't that just hearsay (Thomas Paine first raised this irritating question) since we have not personally experienced that?

6)  I apologize for another troubling query:  How, in this world or any other world, does your traumatic medical "experience" prove anything? Granted, no one will ever be able to disprove your story, any more than anyone could disprove it if I said I was spiritually transported to Santa's (secret and hidden) workshop at the North Pole to meet the elves and talking reindeer.

7)  You say "What happened to me demands explanation." Okay. But what if your explanation is not accurate; are you willing to accept an alternative explanation? That would be Science.

8)  Speaking of Science, I'm having trouble understanding your view of Science. You say you are a scientist but does the scientific method follow this process: a) This happened to me; it's real;  b) I'll prove it to you by telling you the whole dramatic story so you will believe it is true;  c) I'm going to devote my life to making sure everyone believes my story is true and real and comes to the same conclusion that I have;  d) That proves it! Excuse me, but how is that "science"?

I'm sure I would have many more questions to ask the good doctor and maybe you have a few yourself. It seems clear to me that some people so badly need to prove their belief system that they will repeat, even shout, over and over "It's Real!  It's Real! It's Real!" As if they are clicking the heels of the ruby red slippers, they need to be assured their "truth" is really "true" and their understanding of their personal experience is, or should be, everyone else's.

The excerpt from Proof of Heaven concludes with Alexander saying he will be spending the rest of his life "investigating" and "making the fact" as clear as he can. That sounds hopeful. Investigation is good, healthy, and wise. Yet, I'm afraid he's already damaged his credibility by assuming conclusions before he even investigates. No doubt he will gather mountains of "evidence."

One result of his dramatic story isn't so surprising. It led him back to church, to the "luminous beauty" of the stained glass windows, the "deep bass notes of the organ," and "most important," a painting of Jesus. He now sees that faith, not science, "...is the road to truth."  "You can believe me," he says. Whether we do or not, he will be working to get the "emerging picture of reality...right." I guess we just have to wait for his next book.

To me, from the looks of it, Proof of Heaven proves nothing, except the gullibility of those who desperately need to believe proof of completely subjective experiences exists, those who simply choose to take someone at their face-value word as "true facts" (one may wonder when "Proof of Hell" will be published).

In my opinion, the author's "new picture of reality" seems old and faded, yet another "vision" and call to faith. Fine.  But if this kind of glossy, cloudy, unscientific "proof" is all we are being sold, I would rather take a journey to Narnia, enter other dimensions in old episodes of The Twilight Zone or go back to Santa's workshop...believe me, those elves were so real!

Author's blog can be found here.

Image via Wikimedia Commons.

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3 Responses to “Guest post: Considering “Proof of Heaven””

  1. [...] essay in response to Dr. Alexander’s book has been published on State of Formation, the website for the Journal of Interreligious [...]

  2. Michael says:

    I have just finished the book. I find it very well written and I liked reading it very much. It also made me feel better about my personal beliefs and is in line with many of my own experiences. I think being a skeptic is a good role to take on for most things, but perhaps it is not the only way to be. I ask myself, what does it profit me to shut the doors and pronounce this book as self promoting garbage? What does the author have to gain? Are they type of person who would or has done things like this before? I’ll choose to take the author at his word that he saw what he saw and that he is trying to convey to us (in his won words he says he cannot fully explain) what he experienced. If you assume that the NDE is possible, how would you explain the hereafter to the rest of us? What do I lose by opening my mind to the possibility that he does a fair job of describing what comes after death? Please take a moment and think about what you are doing. Perhaps your motive is less about helping those who are gullible and ‘desperately need to believe proof of completely subjective experiences exists, those who simply choose to take someone at their face-value word as “true facts’ and more to do with smashing something that others find beautiful. Like those that believed the world to be flat and the moon made of cheese, you may find yourself wrong in the end. Be open to the possibility that you and all our collective understanding is not the final answer. How can we find the arrogance of the great minds from the past so amusing yet dismiss the very idea that we don’t know everything. You simply make me feel sorry for you.

  3. [...] have written elsewhere (State of Formation) about POH and the claims for flying off to the neverneverland beyond the brain–or deeper [...]

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