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—an outcome 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’re 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 some capacity to invent tomorrow through the actions we take today, self-questioning helps us chart our course and plan our future. Doors open and close as we make choices; it’s a certainty that the paths we choose today have a bearing on where we will end up.
Neurosurgeon Eben Alexander speaks to these questions of destiny in his best-selling book, Proof of Heaven. He believes he found his destiny—and, in fact, human destiny at large—in a literal adventure to heaven.
“I believe our adventure through time has taken a most serious turn.”
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.” He goes on to explain 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: “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 an angel—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.”
Alexander certainly believes that he experienced something significant. For those who look to the Bible for understanding such matters as the afterlife, however, it’s worth noting that his account doesn’t square with the Bible’s description of the spirit world; but his acceptance of an existence beyond the physical—that there is a spiritual aspect of human consciousness apart from the physical brain—does. In a passage written millennia before the dawn of neuroscience, the apostle Paul wrote to the church at Corinth explaining, in essence, that human mind is the product of more than interacting cells; there is a spiritual ingredient that endows us with thoughtful, willful consciousness: “For what man knows the things of a man except the spirit of the man which is in him?” (1 Corinthians 2:11).
To some, the Proof of Heaven might credibly be called Evidence of a Spiritual Dimension, but its critics point out the dearth of proof that Alexander’s vision was more than psychotropic. Like its depiction of the spirit world, the picture it portrays of heaven is scripturally insupportable. Heaven may be real, but it is not a gathering place for human souls after death. Nor does the Bible indicate that we can visit the Godhead, much less do so 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.
Alexander notes that prior to his illness he wanted 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, he writes, because of his experience as an adopted child.
Not knowing the biological side of his family, Alexander was troubled by thoughts of having been abandoned and unwanted, of being unloved—thoughts that 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 remarks, “that once they’d given me up, their lives had taken separate directions.” But they had not. One can imagine the shattering effect 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.”
For a time, before Alexander finally had 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 circumstances 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 needed. As an adoptee, he may have wondered about this more than most. He found comfort in thinking he’d met the spirit of his deceased biological sister and in the message of love that he believed he absorbed from what he called “the Core”—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 Alexander’s experience 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. At the very least, they invite us to consider the biblical account of what the future has in store.