In 2008, neurosurgeon Eben Alexander III had an out-of-body experience (maybe). He claims that a rare illness put him into a seven-day coma, during which time his “entire neo-cortex – the outer surface of the brain, the part that makes us human – was shut down. Inoperative. In essence, absent” — but that he nevertheless returned with revelations from the afterlife. Responses to his account of the experience, the inaccurately titled Proof of Heaven, usually fall into two camps: the first camp eager to gobble up his feel-good message, and the second camp brimming with animosity and skepticism. I don’t find that I fit into either category. While I don’t believe Alexander’s story, I still think the book is worth a glance.
Alexander is adopted. The book details how, as an adult, he attempted to contact his biological parents. He learned that they had married and had three more children, whom they had raised together. As if this was not reason enough for him to feel rejected, they declined his invitation to meet.
Alexander writes: “…I watched as this new sadness exposed, then swept away, something else: my last, half-acknowledged hope that there was some personal element in the universe – some force beyond the scientific ones I’d spent years studying. In less clinical terms, it swept away my last belief that there might be a Being of some kind out there who truly loved and cared about me – and that my prayers might be heard, and even answered. After that phone call [about his bio parents] … the notion of a loving, personal God – my birthright, to some degree, as a churchgoing member of a culture that took that God with genuine seriousness – vanished completely.”
It is fascinating to read about Alexander’s journey to atheism and the then-unacknowledged feelings which drowned his existential questions: “Was there a force or intelligence watching out for all of us? Who cared about humans in a truly loving way? It was a surprise to have to finally admit that in spite of all my medical training and experience, I was clearly still keenly, if secretly, interested in this question, just as I’d been much more interested in the question of my birth parents than I’d ever realized. Unfortunately, the answer to the question of whether there was such a Being was the same as the answer to the question of whether my birth parents would once again open their lives and their hearts to me. The answer was no.”
The reason this book has gotten under the skin of so many skeptics, I think, has little to do with Alexander’s claim that we will someday be able to scientifically prove that there is an afterlife (which is ridiculous, because the question of heaven lies outside the realm of science and testing). What skeptics hate about this book is its honesty about the emotional motivations that pervert science into scientism.
Unfortunately, Alexander now seems to be careening toward the opposite extreme. There is a lot in Proof of Heaven to be skeptical about. Alexander claims he is in a “better-than-average” position “to judge not only the reality but also the implications of what happened” because of his training and experience in neuroscience. He’s forgetting that no one can objectively judge himself. The most likely explanation for his story, according to Oliver Sacks, is that he experienced his vision not while his brain was “offline” but while he was returning to consciousness.
Honestly, all that I hate about Proof of Heaven is people’s blind willingness to accept what Alexander says at face value. We are really only reading about his interpretation of what he saw and felt, once, years ago. He speaks Christianese, but his conclusions are pantheistic. His spirit guide’s message is comforting, but flies in the face of other things which Alexander half-acknowledges: “You are loved and cherished, dearly, forever; you have nothing to fear; there is nothing you can do wrong” seems contradicted by the fact that Alexander had been "terminated or suspended from multiple hospital positions, and had been the subject of several malpractice lawsuits." Alexander only acknowledges this in his book with a brief, off-hand mention that his existential crisis caused his career to suffer.
He knows he’s done wrong, but he believes he can do no wrong. That is cognitive dissonance.
Maddeningly, Proof of Heaven ends with a shallow spiritual experience in which Alexander receives communion and weeps without ever answering the questions: Who, then, was Jesus? If we can do no wrong, why did He have to die? What does the Lord’s Supper even mean to Eben Alexander, who apparently needs no savior, because he can do no wrong? Though Alexander has been honest about his past state of denial, it seems he still has another one to work through.
My first thought is always that these books are written just for the money. I think Alexander may believe his message. He seems like a sweet person. But at best, his revelation is delusional. At worst, it’s Satanic.
If you’re interested in reading about out-of-body experiences, I would be much more likely to recommend Return from Tomorrow by George G. Ritchie. Not only a successful medical doctor but also a psychiatrist, he is far more willing than Alexander to come clean about his shortcomings, and when he began his psychiatry residency, the irreligious examining staff at the University of Virginia Hospital unanimously accepted that he was neither disturbed nor delusional. I’m not saying I necessarily believe Return from Tomorrow, either, but I am more inclined to.
Neither is George Ritchie all too sure of himself: “This was no round-trip to heaven… If I saw heaven at all, it was only at an enormous distance, unattainable by the person I then was, or could conceive of becoming. Nor did I believe that as a boy of twenty I had peered into the depths of hell…” What he is sure of is Jesus Christ, and the transformative influence of His presence.
In any event, I would caution against getting your paradigm-shaking theology from one person’s subjective experience.