One of the blessings of vacation for me is extra time for reading. Last week I read the Near Death Experience testimony of a neurosurgeon, Dr. Eben Alexander. “Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife.” Excerpts from this book formed a recent cover story for Newsweek. Dr. Alexander’s credentials as a neuroscientist make him a unique contributor to the genre of NDEs, because he can give firsthand scientific explanation for what his experience was and was not.
In short, unlike most NDEs, the parts of the author’s brain connected to higher-order processes were completely non-functioning during the seven day coma in which he experienced the afterlife. This flies in the face of the majority opinion of neuroscience that consciousness (spirituality, etc) is a function of the material workings of the brain – that there is no non-physical or spiritual dimension. That Dr. Alexander had such ongoing, vivid, and memorable experiences while brain dead caused this agnostic man to radically reconsider the spiritual depth of existence.
Where I found the book both interesting and frustrating was in the author’s slim knowledge of Christian theology, though he had been an occasional Christmas and Easter worshipper. He seemed to equate the afterlife with his experience of a non-physical reality. The biblical perspective on the afterlife focuses not so much on what happens immediately after you die, but what happens AFTER what happens after you die. Life after life after death. What happens when a faithful person dies? In semi-vague ways, the faithfully departed are described in scripture as “with Christ,” “fallen asleep,” “today with [Christ] in paradise.” However, the final hope of Christian faith includes “the resurrection of the body” at the last day, as we confess weekly in the creed or find in 1 Corinthians 15.
In the end, the new creation is a physical as well as a spiritual reality. Our ultimate hope is not for the permanent escape of the soul from the prison of the body, but for the new creation in which the mortal body “puts on” immortality (1 Corinthians 15:54).
Dr. Alexander’s story is intriguing, but I would say he at best describes proof of the threshold of heaven and that, in the end, heaven will be more magnificent and material than either he or I can imagine.