March 14, 2013

Life and Health

Review

Eben’s Excellent Adventure

Dan Cloer

Does neurosurgeon Eben Alexander’s near-death experience provide proof of heaven?

Proof of Heaven?
Proof of Heaven

Eben Alexander, M.D. October 23, 2012. Simon & Schuster. New York. 196 pages

What’s in your future? Teen buddies and garage-band partners Bill and Ted of the cult movie classic Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure were destined to one day inspire global harmony through their music. But to reach that potential, they would need to meet a pressing challenge: finish their history report and avoid being separated to different schools—a potential consequence that would tragically break up the band and disrupt the future of humanity. Of course, they had no clue that any of this would matter.  

But does it really matter where we end up? Like Bill and Ted, we are often oblivious to what will happen next. Nevertheless, the question of human destinies is ripe for exploration on all levels because most of us do ponder the future from time to time. Because we have the capacity to invent tomorrow through the actions we take today, self-questioning helps us to chart our course and plan our future. Doors open and close as we make choices; it is a certainty that the paths we choose today have a bearing on where we will end up.  

I believe our adventure through time has taken a most serious turn.

Ted, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989)

Neurosurgeon Eben Alexander speaks to these questions of destiny in his best-selling book, Proof of Heaven. He believes that he found his destiny, and in fact human destiny at large, in a literal adventure to heaven. 

Unconscious Travels 

In November 2008, Alexander suffered an attack of bacterial meningitis that pushed him into a week-long coma. “During that time,” he writes, “my entire neocortex—the outer surface of the brain, the part that makes us human—was shut down. Inoperative. In essence, absent.” 

As a Duke- and Harvard-trained neurosurgeon, Alexander knows the mechanics of mind. He writes, “When your brain is absent, you are absent, too. . . . If you don’t have a working brain, you can’t be conscious.” Continuing, he explains what he thought he understood as a disciple of the scientific view of humanness, the view that all of us who have ever had a biology class were taught to believe. “This is because the brain is the machine that produces consciousness in the first place. When the machine breaks down, consciousness stops.”  

As he reports in the book, he believes now that there is more going on to create human consciousness than simply the electrochemical networks of neurons. He comes to this conclusion because, during this week of being neurologically “offline,” he had the vivid experience of traveling to heaven, meeting God (whom he calls, “Om”) and being escorted on the adventure by the angel of his deceased biological sister.    

As he told Newsweek, which featured a cover story of his book, “I am as deep a believer in science, and the truth-respecting values that created it, as I ever was. As such, I want to affirm again—not just to my fellow scientists but to everyone—that there is a larger, more real world out there. Those who have experienced it are neither deluded nor dishonest, but they are hampered by the limits of language to convey the sheer exponential vastness of what they encountered. This world of consciousness beyond the body is the true new frontier, not just of science but of humankind itself, and it is my profound hope that what happened to me will bring the world one step closer to accepting it.” 

Divine Comedy 

Dr. Alexander certainly believes that he has experienced something significant. And while his account doesn’t square with the Bible’s description of the spirit world, Alexander’s acceptance of an existence beyond the physical—that there is a spiritual aspect of human consciousness apart from the physical brain—does. In a biblical passage written millennia before the dawn of neuroscience, the Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians explaining that human mind is the product of more than interacting cells; there is a spiritual ingredient that endows humankind with thoughtful, willful consciousness. “For what man knows the things of a man except the spirit of the man which is in him?” Paul asks (1 Corinthians 2:11). (See “Material Facts From a Nonmaterialist Perspective.”)  

To some, the Proof of Heaven might credibly be called Evidence of a Spiritual Dimension, but its critics rightly point out the dearth of proof that Alexander’s vision was more than psychotropic. The picture it portrays of heaven is not scripturally supportable. Heaven may be real, but it is not the venue of human souls; one cannot visit the Godhead guided by an angelic being riding a colorful butterfly (John 1:18; 3:13; 1 John 4:12).  

Just as Dante’s Divine Comedy has poetically misinformed Western culture as to the attributes of an afterlife, Alexander’s adventure merely brings together an ad hoc mixture of near-death-experience (NDE) imagery upon which he layers his personal tale of psychological turmoil.  

Prior to his illness Alexander notes that he desired to know and understand his place in the larger scheme of things; he had an interest, as do most people, in the spiritual aspects of life and destiny. “Like an ocean wearing away a beach, over the years my scientific worldview gently but steadily undermined my ability to believe in something larger.” Nevertheless he did yearn for that something larger; this was especially true, Alexander writes, because of his experience as an adopted child. 

Heavenly Reunion 

Not knowing the biological side of his family, Alexander was troubled by thoughts of having been abandoned and unwanted, of being unloved. These came to a head when he learned that his birth parents had eventually married and had more children. This is really the psychological backstory to his heavenly adventure. “I’d always assumed,” he laments, “that once they’d given me up, their lives had taken separate directions.” But they did not. One can imagine the shattering disconnect that such news could have. He writes, “Instantly a picture appeared in my head. A picture of my birth parents, and of a home that they’d made somewhere. A home I had never known. A home where—I didn’t belong.”  

This was certainly difficult information to deal with. And for a time, before Alexander did finally have a happy reunion with his birth family, his life spiraled downward. “It just didn’t seem right that a piece of knowledge about my past—a piece I had no control over whatsoever—should be able to so completely derail me both emotionally and professionally.”  

But the upset went even deeper into that spiritual longing, upending his grander hope. “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 . . . a Being of some kind out there who truly loved and cared about me.” 

Clearly, like all of us, Alexander sought meaning and comfort. He believes that during his coma his spirit visited heaven and found the answers he had been seeking.  

Then, he believes, he came back to life. His neural function returned; he recovered from the infection when, medically, he should not have. His medical condition may have been unique, but his questions were not: we all want to know if our lives mean anything; we want to be loved; we want to be necessary. As an adoptee, he wondered about this maybe more than most. He found comfort in “discovering” the spirit of his deceased biological sister and the message of love that he believed he absorbed from what he called the “Core”—from God Himself.  

“My NDE had healed my fragmented soul,” he writes. “It had let me know that I had always been loved, and it also showed me that absolutely everyone else in the universe is loved, too. And it had done so while placing my physical body into a state that, by medical science’s current terms, should have made it impossible for me to have experienced anything.”  

Understanding medical science in “current terms” may not be the same as “proof,” but Eben’s story was certainly an excellent adventure. While it does not square with the gospel of the kingdom of God—the message of reconciliation that Christ delivered to humankind—elements of his journey are intriguing and call us all to consider the biblical account of what the future does have in store.