Joining the company of recent titles “Heaven is For Real” (Thomas Nelson, 2010) and “To Heaven and Back” (WaterBrook Press, 2012), Eben Alexander’s “Proof of Heaven” reflects a trend in the realm of religion and spirituality publishing.
Still first on the New York Times Bestseller List after 15 weeks, Alexander’s gripping account of his near-death experience provokes lingering contemplation of possibilities for life after death.
A highly trained neurosurgeon, Alexander knew of the genuine feelings elicited by near-death experiences but reasoned scientifically that such experiences are produced by the brain under extreme stress. Then Alexander’s own brain was attacked by a sudden rare illness. In a weeklong coma, the part of his brain that controls thought and emotion shut down completely. Just as his physicians considered stopping treatment, Alexander’s eyes opened and he sprang back to consciousness. Hailed as the chronicle of a medical miracle, “Proof of Heaven” is remarkable for its blending of detailed scientific descriptions, reflections on human relationships, and intriguing vignettes of Alexander’s journey beyond this world, into the realms of super-physical existence.
Perhaps most compelling about “Proof of Heaven” is how Alexander’s experience fundamentally altered his perspectives on true health, as well as belief in heaven, God and the soul.
Alexander claims that his vivid descriptions of the journey to heaven are not the product of fantasy, but real glimpses into the world beyond life on earth. His account of meeting the Divine source of the universe itself is at once extraordinary and revolutionary, as scientists and persons of faith will both find fascination in Alexander’s reconciliation of neuroscience and belief in heaven.
Critical to his case for believing that the end of personal existence is only a transition, Alexander’s focus on providing detailed medical descriptions of his illness and coma supports his writing from a position of science. Chapters detailing the timeline of his illness and the reactions of loved ones alternate with an almost poetic narrative of what he experienced upon journeying into the afterlife. Juxtaposing the unfolding medical drama with glances into Alexander’s encounter with heaven, “Proof of Heaven” has the potential to revolutionize the relationship between science and religion.
Various audiences will naturally reach differing conclusions from Alexander’s book, with the more religiously-inclined wanting to believe that his account of heaven is true. Those focusing on Alexander’s reliance on hard science might demand more invasive dissection of the medical evidence and involvement of logical explanations for his return to life.
Regardless of where one stands on issues of science and religion, “Proof of Heaven” is hard to put down. The possibility that the world Alexander describes could exist remains a captivating thought long after reading the book. Despite the profundity of Alexander’s account, areas of weakness present themselves in his recurring insistence that his case is more than just a significant part of medical history, but is more powerful than any other near-death experience recorded, as he was “allowed to die harder, and travel deeper” than almost all subjects before (p. 78).
Redeeming Alexander’s ego-related impulses are his blissful descriptions of the afterlife. From moving through a “jellied, mucky darkness” to the tune of what Alexander calls a “Spinning Melody,” heaven is categorized into various realms: the “Earthworm’s-Eye View,” the “Gateway,” the primordial “Core” and the “Orb.” Alexander’s view of a world not limited by the constraints of life on earth and physical existence could be deemed exaggerated or implausible by skeptics.
Reading “Proof of Heaven” carefully, one might consider Alexander’s personal reflection on uniting science and spirituality, the meaning of unconditional love and the importance of family and friends. Likening his return to consciousness with the experience of a newborn longing for the comfort of the womb, Alexander writes that modernity has required living in the midst of constant busyness, and that when one is truly mindful, it will be easy to understand “the terrible burden it is to live with amnesia of the Divine for even a moment” (p. 86).
If one essential message may be distilled from “Proof of Heaven,” it is that whether or not Alexander’s experience of encountering heaven is true, his understanding of “what religion was really all about,” and recognition of “the bliss of infinite unconditional love” (p. 148) speak to the experience of being present in life, contemplating the meaning of existence and wrestling with questions over the supernatural.
Book information: “Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife” (Simon & Schuster, 2012), by Eben Alexander.