Many people will be talking about this week’s Newsweek cover story, “Heaven Is Real,” and for good reason: It’s a beautifully written first-person account of a near-death experience (NDE), written by a scientifically minded person—a well-respected neurosurgeon—who knows exactly how crazy it will sound to his skeptical colleagues.
His NDE is different from many others that we know of, simply because he experienced it during that time when the part of his brain that controls thoughts and emotions, the neocortex, had been disabled due to an attack of bacterial meningitis. He was, for all practical purposes, brain-dead.
I’m not the first person to have discovered evidence that consciousness exists beyond the body. Brief, wonderful glimpses of this realm are as old as human history. But as far as I know, no one before me has ever traveled to this dimension (a) while their cortex was completely shut down, and (b) while their body was under minute medical observation, as mine was for the full seven days of my coma.
All the chief arguments against near-death experiences suggest that these experiences are the results of minimal, transient, or partial malfunctioning of the cortex. My near-death experience, however, took place not while my cortex was malfunctioning, but while it was simply off. This is clear from the severity and duration of my meningitis, and from the global cortical involvement documented by CT scans and neurological examinations. According to current medical understanding of the brain and mind, there is absolutely no way that I could have experienced even a dim and limited consciousness during my time in the coma, much less the hyper-vivid and completely coherent odyssey I underwent.
He writes that during his journey in the heavenly realm, he was accompanied by an angelic being, a woman, whom he describes as follows:
The woman’s outfit was simple, like a peasant’s, but its colors—powder blue, indigo, and pastel orange-peach—had the same overwhelming, super-vivid aliveness that everything else had. She looked at me with a look that, if you saw it for five seconds, would make your whole life up to that point worth living, no matter what had happened in it so far. It was not a romantic look. It was not a look of friendship. It was a look that was somehow beyond all these, beyond all the different compartments of love we have down here on earth. It was something higher, holding all those other kinds of love within itself while at the same time being much bigger than all of them.
Without using any words, she spoke to me. The message went through me like a wind, and I instantly understood that it was true. I knew so in the same way that I knew that the world around us was real—was not some fantasy, passing and insubstantial.
If nothing else, let’s pause a moment to appreciate the author’s literary skill—the man knows how to write! Digging deeper, I find his account credible and consistent with scripture and the message of the gospel. NDEs, while hardly any kind of slam-dunk proof of God or the afterlife, are not nothing, as I’ve written before.
I’m willing to accept that, for whatever reason, God gave Dr. Alexander this experience. This is no big leap for me: when friends or parishioners tell me that God intervened in their life, or communicated something to them, or worked a miracle of some kind, I tend to believe them. God, I believe, does these sorts of things all the time!
I’m glad that other Christians have also embraced him and his story.
One of the few places I didn’t have trouble getting my story across was a place I’d seen fairly little of before my experience: church. The first time I entered a church after my coma, I saw everything with fresh eyes. The colors of the stained-glass windows recalled the luminous beauty of the landscapes I’d seen in the world above. The deep bass notes of the organ reminded me of how thoughts and emotions in that world are like waves that move through you. And, most important, a painting of Jesus breaking bread with his disciples evoked the message that lay at the very heart of my journey: that we are loved and accepted unconditionally by a God even more grand and unfathomably glorious than the one I’d learned of as a child in Sunday school.