I was in an airport bookstore and saw “Proof of Heaven”, by Eben Alexander III, MD. Dr. Alexander is a brain surgeon who contracted meningitis and had a near death experience in a coma and wrote a book about it.
Many books have been written on this subject before, but this one is different because Alexander is a top-level neurosurgeon and brain scientist. The typical skeptical response to these experiences is that they are generated in the brain due to trauma, and before this experience Alexander says he would have thought the same. But he says the condition of his brain in the coma, the entire neocortex damaged by the meningitis, would have made this impossible. He uses explanations from quantum physics to explain that the material world is not all there is, and that consciousness creates the material world rather than the other way around.
He has since started an organization to bridge the gap between the spiritual and the scientific, Eternea. Believers will believe. Skeptics will not be convinced. I would like to believe, but I doubt.
The thing is, all said and done, what kind of God is it that Alexander met? All-knowing, all-loving, all-powerful, but we don’t see much of that on earth. Alexander all in all has had a pretty nice life- I mean, he’s a freaking Harvard brain surgeon, for crying out loud, nice family, distinguished career. His big sadness was that he was adopted, and a few years before his experience he tried to contact his birth mother, and she declined contact. This made him seriously depressed for a long time and threatened his functioning. Still, his experience somehow reminds of “Big Time”, by Peter Gabriel- “My heaven will be a big heaven too, and I will walk through the front door”.
He tells us that a common part of near death experiences, or end-of-life experiences, is that a departed loved one appears to welcome the person into the next world, often their mother. Well, I hate my mother, and if I see her in the afterlife it will be pretty awkward. Some people have no loved ones at all, so who welcomes them? Some people have no loved ones at all, so who welcomes them?
Alexander describes himself as “slight above C&E” member of his Episcopal church before his experience “C&E” meaning somebody who comes at Christmas and Easter, the most marginal sort of believer at the liturgical churches. Afterwards he goes again and is moved by the service and the art of the church and sees elements of his experience in it, but his experience does not have any obviously Christian elements and he does not report getting more involved with his church or Christianity.
He describes his NDE as first being in kind of a primordial ooze- not pleasant, but not particularly unpleasant- and the seeing and being drawn toward a light, then seeing a peaceful pastoral environment with people and a woman he later identifies as his never-before-seen biological sister, then a purely spiritual realm. No hell, not much of what you would describe as purgatory, just unconditional love. For a person who had few difficulties in life, maybe it would be like that, but what about the rest of us?
The idea of God as an all-encompassing but fundamentally kind of remote being is common to most religions. Christianity is different because it contains God as a man, not a high and powerful man but a common man, and not just as a common man but a common man who suffered terribly, the worst possible fate in both the cultures in which he lived- death by crucifixion as a rebel against the Roman state, and death by crucifixion as a blasphemer and rebel against Jewish religious authority, outside the gates and without descendents. Jesus had many experiences of the worst sort human beings can suffer- rejection by family and community, contempt and hatred, repeated attempts to kill him through mob violence, and finally the engineering of his false accusation, criminal conviction and extreme public execution by the leaders of his own people.
In a world of evil, the all-powerful, all-loving and remote God seems absent and irrelevant. But Jesus is irrelevant to none of this, in fact most kinds of human suffering, if not each and every one specifically, is something he experienced personally. I would say “unjustly” but all suffering is caused by sin and thus unjust.
So God is not far from us, and our suffering and victimization do not separate us from him, but are things that he shares with us and understands. The shame we feel in human society for these things is not something we should feel with him, but only love and compassion.
Alexander’s account is attacked by atheist skeptics who say it still can’t be scientifically accepted, or that it can be scientifically rejected. It is attacked by Christians who say it isn’t Biblical. I detect a bit of sourness in both parties who really want to be right. The Eternea site goes into reincarnation, which is something I’m not prepared to believe in. But I hope that Alexander’s experience points to something bigger and better than all this.