Proof that Heaven is Real?

Long atop the NY Times nonfiction best-seller list has been Todd Burpo’s Heaven Is For Real. Burpo is an evangelical pastor whose book tells of his four-year-old son emerging from unconsciousness during surgery with a tale of visiting Heaven, meeting deceased relatives, and seeing angels, Jesus and God, etc. (This is “nonfiction”?!)

Now Newsweek — yes, Newsweek! — similarly headlines “Heaven Is Real,” with no question mark, and the subtitle, “A Doctor’s Experience of the Afterlife.” Dr. Eben Alexander is a neurosurgeon, who spent a week in a coma, during which he says he too visited Heaven. He saw “transparent, shimmering beings arced across the sky,” trailing streamers, with whom he communicated by a method transcending language. They told him, “You are loved and cherished, you have nothing to fear,” and suchlike treacle. Then he traveled to an infinite dark void, infinitely comforting, which he believes is the home of God. All this he labels a glimpse of a “reality” which left him a different person. (This is “news”?!)

Of course, religious faith means belief regardless of evidence, yet believers eat up any seeming scrap of supportive “evidence,” especially for that all-important fantasy of life after death. And, like Burpo’s publisher, Newsweek shamelessly panders to that, to boost sales.  

As my wife put it, these people had near-death, not post-death experiences. It was not an “afterlife.” Reports from many who survived similar episodes are pretty consistent about how the brain hallucinates in a particular way when deprived of oxygen and in the throes of what it construes as demise. Often there is some sort of tunnel, and bright light.

We know how the mind can play tricks even during normal consciousness. It’s hardly news that it happens when the brain is undergoing the extreme trauma of the death process. There must be something in the brain’s wiring that, in such circumstances, defaults to hallucinations of the general type so often reported. And of course prior religious belief might cause one to fill in details consonant with that religion.

Thus, in the Burpo case, even if you charitably accept it’s really the kid’s story (unembellished by Dad), with a father like that he’d have been powerfully pre-programmed to imagine just what he imagined. Dr. Alexander says that before his coma, he was a Christian, but not “deeply religious.” Whatever – but it’s neither coincidental nor surprising that his dream or hallucination conformed generally to notions pumped into his brain all his life in church. What would be surprising is if he came back with, for example, a Hindu-like story.

If he wants to believe, like the four-year-old, that his Heavenly tour was reality and not a mere dream or coma-induced hallucination, fine, but the only thing it proves is that even a self-described “man of science” can be deluded. This is no indictment of science. The population of scientists is very large, they are human, and inevitably a few eccentric beliefs will occur. But grown-ups should not treat silly stories like Burpo’s and Alexander’s as though they merit serious attention, let alone Newsweek covers. We all experience wacky dreams, but most of us have the sense not to confuse them with reality.

POSTSCRIPT: I’ve just learned that Newsweek’s print edition will cease publication, going to web-only. They insist this is not the magazine’s demise. Apparently Newsweek really does believe in an afterlife!

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10 Responses to “Proof that Heaven is Real?”

  1. unsavorytruths Says:

    There is something to this because in some of these cases the part of the brain which has the capacity to produce these hallucinations is not functioning.

    However, to call it evidence is a bit of a stretch. It may be evidence for the person who experiences it personally but for the rest of us its still a story bordering on fantasy.

  2. rationaloptimist Says:

    Dear unsavorytruths: Thanks. Dr. Alexander actually claimed that during his coma, according to current medical understanding, he should not have been experiencing any consciousness. That supposedly gave his report a gloss of the supernatural. However, “supernatural” is a contradiction in terms; if something happens, it’s natural, and if Alexander had his Heaven dream, then he was capable of dreaming when he had it. Or else he’s just making the whole thing up. But anyway, calling his report “evidence” is more than a “bit of a stretch.” It’s an insult to intelligence.

  3. marksackler Says:

    Wow. I’m cancelling my subscription. Oh wait, I never had one. Oh wait again, it boosted their sales so much they CANCELLED their print edition and have gone online only. Sometimes there IS justice in this world!!

  4. Lee Says:

    Perhaps there is some value that can be salvaged from this. A cataloging of dreams that can occur with near-death experiences may prove useful for some sort of scientific research. Or perhaps it can inspire poetry and other forms of art.

    “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean it is not real[ly useful]?” — Albus Dumbledore, as modified by me.

  5. Anonymous Says:

    Well then! For once, I actually agree with you on something of a religious nature. In fact, the Bible makes it abundantly clear that no one is able to “return” from or otherwise report on the eternal habitations of the soul, so I would agree that these things are not plausible. [You must have figured I wouldn’t be able to resist this one for sure.] 🙂
    But I must say- for a guy who seems convinced of the tomfoolery of all things faith-based, you sure do seem to spend a lot of time pondering these matters. 🙂

  6. Kim Draiss Says:

    The aforementioned was incorrectly credited to an unnamed individual who would be myself. 🙂

  7. rationaloptimist Says:

    Lee: Must you always see the good in everything? And I thought *I* was an optimist! Poetry and art are certainly good things. But I don’t think that’s a saving grace for something, like Newsweek’s story, that encourages falsehood.
    Kim: I’m glad to see you are still subjecting yourself to my assaults upon your beliefs. It might indeed seem that for people who don’t believe in God, atheists are obsessed by him. But religious belief is such a prominent part of life for so many people that it commands attention for that reason. We can only look forward to the day when monotheistic religion is relegated to the status of an eccentric cult, ignored just like we pretty much ignore Wicca.

  8. Lee Says:

    On the topic of optimism, there is an article in tomorrow’s The New York Times arguing that the candidates for president are too optimistic about American exceptionalism. It is The Opiate of Exceptionalism.

  9. frank S. Robinson Says:

    Most of the points mentioned in the Times piece are ones I have discussed on this blog. Especially the debt issue. I have certainly advocated for Romney to be more blunt with the American people about this. But I consider Obama, already invested as our national leader, to be far the more disgraceful in his refusal to talk seriously about it.

  10. Proof That Heaven IS Real! | The Rational Optimist Says:

    […] I’ve written – quite critically – about people who claim to have seen Heaven. Well, lo, now I’ve had my own visit. And it IS real! […]

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