Thousands of people have related their stories of near-death experiences, perhaps the most popular in recent years being told by a pastor, Don Piper, “90 Minutes in Heaven,” 2004, and by a child, Colton Burpo, “Heaven is for Real,” 2010, neither of which, though fascinating in their own right, is likely — given the occupation of the first and the age of the second — to convince those skeptical of such experiences.
But now we encounter the near-death experiences of Dr. Mary C. Neal (“To Heaven and Back: A Doctor’s Extraordinary Account of Her Death, Heaven, Angels, and Life Again,” 2011) and Dr. Eben Alexander (“Proof of Heaven, A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife,” 2012). Neal is a spinal surgeon; Alexander is a neurosurgeon who has taught at Harvard Medical School and other universities. Neal drowned while on a trip to Chile; Alexander spent seven days in a coma after being infected with rare E. coli bacteria that penetrated his cerebrospinal fluid and shut down the part of his brain, the neocortex, which controls thought and emotions.
Neal’s account of her actual encounter with death and entrance into heaven is brief. Most of her book is about how the experience affected her life, particularly the manner in which it enabled her to cope with the tragic death of her son years after her near death. Indeed, while in heaven, Neal is told she must return to earth to help her family deal with that loss. Although Neal was a professing Christian before her experience (she relates instances when she believes God intervened in her life), at the time of her near-death she had relegated God to the back seat of her life. But all that changed after she drowned. As she approached a great hall in heaven, she felt her soul being pulled toward an entry as she was “physically absorbed” in radiance, “feeling the pure, complete, and utterly unconditional absolute love that emanated from the hall.” Now she wants others to see it doesn’t take a near-death experience like hers to see that events are not coincidental, that God has a plan for each of us, and that there really is life after death.
Alexander, whose book is to be released this week, describes his spiritual life before the coma as that of a “faithful Christian,” who was more so “in name than in actual belief.” His skepticism of near-death experiences changed after he emerged from his seven day coma: “That dimension — in rough outline, the same one described by countless subjects of near-death experiences and other mystical states — is there. It exists, and what I saw and learned there has placed me quite literally in a new world — a world where we are much more than our brains and bodies, and where death is not the end of consciousness but rather a chapter in a vast, and incalculably positive, journey.” Like Neal, Alexander was told in heaven that he would have to return to earth.
Because he didn’t want his experience to be affected by prior research on such accounts, Alexander first detailed his own encounter with the afterlife before thoroughly studying the subject. Alexander is convinced that consciousness exists outside the brain, that the soul is not dependent on the brain, and that “the reductive materialistic model is inadequate to explain what we know about consciousness now.”
Both authors are passionate about sharing the reality they describe as heaven. Is it for real? Most definitely it is. But I say that with eyes of faith; I am a believer.
It’s for that very reason that I’m also skeptical. While I hope for the best, I doubt that either book will change the mind of the entrenched atheist or seasoned skeptic. Already one scientist has challenged Alexander. “Even if I granted that his brain had been shut down — it’s not shut down now. And there is absolutely no way for him to establish (or even to subjectively know) that he didn’t have his experience as his brain was coming back online. End of debate, as far as I’m concerned,” said Dr. Sam Harris, in Skeptiko.com.
We shouldn’t be surprised, should we? Didn’t Jesus himself warn his listeners, ‘“If they won’t listen to Moses and the prophets, they won’t listen even if someone rises from the dead”’ (Luke 16:31)?
Near-death experiences can be powerful pointers to another dimension, yet a dimension that in the final analysis must still be received by faith, a faith placed in the One who created that place, One who having risen from a real death experience, promised to return again so his followers can join him in that place.
That place is more real than this place.
After all, it’s heaven, I believe.