“Heaven is real,” says this week’s Newsweek

October 15, 2012

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.

6 Responses to ““Heaven is real,” says this week’s Newsweek”

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    Okay, a bit of “rain on the parade.” First, nowhere in the Bible is an angel spoken of in the female gender. Second, I don’t recall any NDE’s in scripture. The accounts of seeing into heaven itself that I know of are by Paul (taken up into the third heaven where he saw things which were not to be spoken of), Stephen (in essence seeing heaven open to welcome him), and John (Revelation). Paul wasn’t sure if he was seeing a vision or actually there. John’s was a vision. None are “NDE’s” (or, Stephen’s was “near death,” but he wasn’t coming back). Third, the NDE here is kind of “psychodelic” or surreal. Not having read the article, but going from your excerpts here, this sounds to me very little of what I would expect heaven to be like. To the extent that the author is saying that he could still think while “brain dead,” I think that may well suggest our “thinker” is not totally tied to our “bodies,” so to that degree his “experience” could be helpful. Otherwise, I don’t get very much out of it of any “spiritual” value.

  2. Tom Harkins Says:

    Brent, I had the further thought that this “vision” reminded me more of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” than a “heavenly” experience. Also, I don’t put a lot of stock in NDE’s as a general matter in producing new saints. In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, Abraham says that if the brothers will not believe Moses and the prophets, neither will they believe if someone rose from the dead.

    • brentwhite Says:

      But there are no tangerine trees or marmalade skies anywhere in sight! Just kidding. I get what you’re saying, Tom. The description of the woman was just one small part of the experience. I’m not willing to die on the hill of NDEs or anything. I don’t think that they are theologically significant to the Church at large. They don’t add anything to the church’s understanding of the afterlife, as gleaned from scripture.

      I would say two things in their defense, however. First, they certainly have value, in many cases, to the people who experience them. In the case of this doctor, he went from skeptic to Christian again. So, in my view, this NDE played an important role in his conversion.

      Every testimony, after all, includes words about what God did to make himself known to someone before they came to faith. For this doctor, then, God used this NDE. I’ve personally known one person who had an NDE, and he grew closer to God as a result. See what I mean? I think the experience can be helpful. When someone tells me about a spiritual experience that helped them grow closer to the God of Christianity (versus some demonic experience that might lead them away from the God revealed to us in Jesus Christ) I tend to grant them maximal benefit of the doubt. It seems like this doctor’s NDE had that effect. So I’m happy for him!

      Secondly, these experiences put at least a small chink in the armor of our era’s philosophically materialistic worldview, which tells us that there’s nothing beyond our world. In my previous post, one prominent atheist agreed that some NDEs present a challenge to that worldview. Why shouldn’t I take him at his word? I already believe that there’s something beyond our world!

      Nevertheless, I don’t interpret NDEs to mean that the person “almost” dies and accidentally stumbles upon heaven, before being yanked back into consciousness here below. A God who is outside of time certainly knows when we’re going to die, and nothing that happens or doesn’t happen to us is going to alter that, at least from God’s perspective. (Contrary to that really bad Warren Beatty movie from the ’70s called “Heaven Can Wait.”) My point is, whatever NDEs are, they are potentially good experiences that God gives a person as a gift. They don’t happen outside of his sovereign will. I have a feeling you would agree with this last part, at least.

      • Tom Harkins Says:

        Well, I agree to an extent; specifically, that God can use a wide array of events to bring someone’s attention to Him, or closer to Him. This doesn’t necessarily make that event itself “valid” in the sense of “God-given.” What I mean is, for example, someone who goes to church simply because he wants the girl; but, once in Church, is struck by God. Or, slightly differently, when Samson wanted a foreign wife, his parents were distressed, but we are told that God was using it as an occasion against the Philistines. Doesn’t make what Samson was doing right, just that God could use even that “mistake” to accomplish some ultimate good end. Or, further, those who crucified Christ were accomplishing the ultimate of good things, our redemption, but they will face judgment in the end because their objective was quite the opposite. See what I mean? I don’t think God actually “gives” the NDE–just that God may sometimes USE the NDE, as he uses many other things, either “neutral” (or even bad) in themselves. “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good, to save many people alive, as it is this day.”

  3. brentwhite Says:

    Yes, but it’s not clear to me that an NDE that brings someone closer to God would ever be bad (or even neutral). It seems good without qualification. So why wouldn’t it be from God? By all means, “test the spirits.” I’m willing to say that some NDEs pass the test.

    And since we already believe that a heavenly realm exists, is it really such a stretch to believe that God lets some people catch a glimpse of it? There’s certainly a precedent for it in scripture.

    • Tom Harkins Says:

      Well, I’m not saying such a “glimpse” couldn’t happen “in theory.” But the ones I’ve heard of usually don’t seem to “match up” with what little of heaven we are told about in scripture. Such as meeting a woman who can “see right through you.” And I do think that something that brings a person closer to God does not have to be “good in itself.” The first “case in point” about getting the girl was me. I really don’t think my motive in that instance was a “God-given” one. But it got me in the Church doors. In other words, God knew that “at that time and place” my otherwise not-God-given desire would get me where I needed to be to actually have the “God-given” attention-getter. See what I mean? I just don’t think we can say that everything God uses to pull attention to himself is “good in itself,” even if God does “make use of it” for a good end (even coming to Him). Perhaps an analogy would be that Paul said about those who were preaching purely out of envy that he was not distressed about it because the word was getting preached.


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