I have trouble with heaven.
It’s not that I don’t want to go there. I very much do. I just have a hard time envisioning where “there” is, and what we’ll be doing once we get there. Will there be football? Hamburgers? Hiking trails? Are the streets really paved in gold? Do we get to pick what age we’ll be? What if there are people I don’t like there? Do I have to hang out with them?
Yes, yes, I know. These are all horribly superficial questions. Folks who know loads more about such matters have tried to tell me that all those concerns are superfluous; that heaven is indescribably better than any joy or pleasure we might know down here.
But that’s part of the problem, isn’t it? There’s nothing to compare heaven to, which leaves its nature frustratingly unimaginable. The harp-and-halo trope seems a bit too cartoonish. The biblical version of heaven, taken literally, can read like a monotonous fever dream. (Let’s be honest: Does an eternity of singing praises with multi-winged, many-eyed angels sound like “heaven?” I feel awful for saying this … I’m sure there are those who feel that’s exactly how they’d like to spend eternity, and I truly respect them for that. But part of me thinks heaven should include a quiet nap on the couch.)
And then there are those moments—dark moments—when the very concept of heaven seems just too good to be true. Intellectually, we can piece together a case for an all-powerful, loving God. We’ve been given evidence to validate Jesus Christ and His claims. But my brain can’t wrap itself around the concept of eternity and everlasting joy. My mortal self can’t grasp it. When it comes to finding such eternal truths, our gray matter can take us only so far. To get the rest of the way requires faith and trust: We stop trying to feel our way through the dark and instead grasp the hand of the One who made us, counting on Him to lead us the rest of the way.
Still, my brain can’t help but flail around in the darkness every once in a while, clawing for some additional evidence. And as such, I’m always interested to hear the stories of people who say they’ve gone to heaven. And I was particularly interested in hearing what Dr. Eben Alexander had to say.
In his article for Newsweek (and his book Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife), Eben, a neuroscientist, chronicles his weeklong trip through the pearly gates when a critical part of his brain was, as he says, “inactivated.” In Newsweek, Eben writes:
There is no scientific explanation for the fact that while my body lay in coma, my mind—my conscious, inner self—was alive and well. While the neurons of my cortex were stunned to complete inactivity by the bacteria that had attacked them, my brain-free consciousness journeyed to another, larger dimension of the universe: a dimension I’d never dreamed existed and which the old, pre-coma me would have been more than happy to explain was a simple impossibility.
But 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.
Eben is a Christian, and was before he ever fell into his coma. But before his experience, he was a Christian largely in name, he says—professing envy for those who had stronger faith in God and the afterlife than he had. Now, he’s one of the envied. Because he knows a thing or two about the brain, Eben says there’s no way that he can chalk his experiences up to hallucination or some weird memory hiccup. The part of the brain that made him human was, he says, as good as dead. And yet, there he was—alive and observing a wonderful world full of strange creatures and indescribable beauty and love. Eternal love.
Eben’s so convinced of his experiences that he says he’s going to spend the rest of his natural life discussing, and finding better proof, of the one that comes after.
And that doesn’t sit well among those who believe this is all there is.
Daniel Engber of Slate dedicated a hefty article (“Heaven Help Us”) to critiquing and ridiculing Eben’s experience. He allows that Eben is a neuroscientist, but Engber tells us that Eben’s experience is as a surgeon: He knows how to fix the brain, but that doesn’t mean he knows how it works. (Which, to me, feels a bit like expecting a plumber to be able to fix your kitchen sink without knowing where the hot and cold water comes from). Eben’s faith makes his claims further suspect in Engber’s eyes. He rejects the notion that Eben might’ve been struggling with aspects of faith before the coma. “He was just like you and me, you see [Daniel presumes the “you” here is a skeptic], at least until he fell into a coma—and flew into the sky, and entered the mind of an earthworm, was forced to reconsider all his Harvard science skepticism about the loving Lord above.”
Engber suggests that Eber’s brain wasn’t really as damaged as he claimed, and that whatever experiences the neurosurgeon had were augmented by stray memory fragments, his belief system and some lingering, post-coma psychosis. It’s a rant with little real cohesion—something that true believers of any faith might write when they find a fondly held belief challenged.
But really, that’s all he can do. Engber, nor anyone else, cannot disprove what Eben experienced. Nor, in spite of the title of his book, is Eben’s experience absolute, incontrovertible proof that heaven exists. He could be lying. His brain could’ve been more functional than what he was led to believe. Engber, however frustrated his writing might appear, could be right.
But when you think about it, most of what we know (or think we know) is based on very similar evidences. There’s a great deal we take on trust.
Say John and Jane Malaprop invite you over so they can tell you all about their vacation to Key West. They show you their pictures and give you a cheap souvenir T-shirt and tell you about the time when Jane nearly fell off a pier (“Hoo boy, did the skipper laugh!”). Does any of that prove they went to Key West? Of course not: They could’ve made up the stories, photoshopped the pictures and bought the souvenir off eBay. Does the fact the Malaprops say they went to Key West even prove the place exists at all? Of course not. They could’ve just made the whole place up. The fact that it’s on maps and in history books and lots of people have said they’ve been there just means it could be some sort of global conspiracy or a bit of collective insanity (much as some atheists insist that religion itself is). Unless we’ve been there ourselves, we base our understanding of what Key West is through the evidence of others.
I can’t say that, after reading Eben’s account, I have a great understanding of what heaven will be like. It is still too glorious for words. But if he says that he’s been there and that it’s a great place—way better than Key West could ever be—I’m inclined to believe him.