Newsweek’s October 8 cover story is by Dr. Eben Alexander, a noted neurosurgeon who had a near-death experience that he believes offers conclusive proof of the afterlife. (Not-so-coincidentally, his book Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey Into The Afterlife comes out October 23).
Dr. Alexander says that he “experienced something so profound that it gave me a scientific reason to believe in consciousness after death.” The “scientific” reason he offers is that while in a deep seven-day coma during which his cortex was completely shut down, he had a life-changing journey to what he thinks is heaven. Never mind that his version of heaven borrows heavily from popular folk-theology, indebted not only to Dante’s Paradiso but also at times a blatant rip-off of the 1998 Robin Williams film What Dreams May Come.
As Alexander himself says “It was no big surprise that people who had undergone severe trauma would return from their experiences with strange stories. But that didn’t mean they had journeyed anywhere real.” And after reading his account, I’m still left wondering why we should think he actually journeyed anywhere real. I do not doubt that he had an important experience, but why think he ever left his body? When I have a dream at night, I don’t assume I actually traveled through time and space in order to discover I’ve forgotten to do my high-school math homework. I understand that his dream/vision/journey/experience was incredibly vivid and seemed absolutely real. But why think that it truly occurred over the course of his seven-day coma? Couldn’t it just as easily have happened in the moments prior to the failure of his cortex, or during the moments right after it started working again? Perhaps he addresses these issues in his book, but in his Newsweek article Dr. Alexander is more concerned with the poetic beauty of the afterlife than a rigorous exploration of scientific possibilities.
Alexander seems to have a confused religious background, considering himself both a “faithful Christian” but yet “more so in name than in actual belief.” One wonders then what the “faithful” aspect of his belief actually was. His experience certainly doesn’t mesh well with Christian orthodoxy, but ironically, while his story gained little traction in the scientific and medical communities, he found that “One of the few places I didn’t have trouble getting my story across was a place I’d seen fairly little of before my experience: church.” That’s right, Christians have given him an essentially free pass when it comes to a critical examination of his experience, gladly accepting the vague platitudes that were entrusted to him during his heavenly vacation. “There is nothing you can do wrong” is not only an anti-Biblical sentiment, it’s an idea that has far more to do with postmodern relativism than true moral guidance.
In our desperate desire for knowledge of the afterlife we eat up stories like Dr. Alexander’s, deriving comfort and hope from peaceful visions, hanging on every word that promises us a future full of rainbows and butterflies and puffy white clouds. But from a Christian perspective, such a hope is deeply misguided, having more to do with a Gnostic desire to escape the troubles of the physical world in favor of an idealized spiritual existence, rather than a truly Biblical understanding of God’s redemptive plan for humanity and the world. Our future hope is rightly placed not in going to heaven when we die, but in the words of N.T. Wright, in “life after life after death,” with “heaven and earth joined together in a new reality.” The Bible has very little to say about what happens to us after death — instead the Biblical emphasis is upon living a life for God now, right here on earth (see Matt 22:36-40). As John Shore opined, “a moment spent worrying if you’ll be with God in the afterlife is an opportunity missed to be with God in this life.”