Not proof of heaven

You may have read recently of the latest account of a near-death experience. It is the latest in the long line of accounts from small boys going to heaven and others having visions of heaven or hell. These stories are all offered as proof of life after death. Frankly, I couldn’t care less.

These tales have been phenomenally popular often topping best-seller lists and that at least is proof of something. Proof, perhaps, that despite the decline in commitment to creeds or church there are many people not yet willing to accept that death really is the end for them or their loved ones.

What distinguishes this latest offering from the others is that it is written by a Harvard Medical School neurosurgeon. Dr Eben Alexander has spent his entire academic career working on the assumption that the brain is the source of our consciousness and when the brain suffers a trauma it’s no surprise that our reception goes a little fuzzy and we experience things out of the ordinary.

In Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife he recounts what happened to him after a bout of meningitis put him into a coma for seven days and his brain shut down. Previously Dr Alexander would have said in this case it would have been impossible to have experienced anything at all, his brain wasn’t just not working properly, it was ‘off’. How then can we account for his incredibly vivid, powerful and for him, life changing experience of heaven?

Dr Alexander now believes we account for it by accepting the reality of what he ‘saw’. A more sceptical mind might suggest that given that so much of how the brain functions is still a mystery, then the more likely explanation is that medical science was right in that the brain is still the source of our experiences but wrong about which part of the brain did what when others bit shut down.

Stories of heaven or hell and the testimonies that go with them are often stirring and powerfully told that leave an indelible mark on those that experienced it. They all fall short.

They fall short because despite their frequency it’s a non-testable, non-verifiable, ‘I just have to take your word for it’ experience. Maybe they did, maybe they didn’t. Doctors can verify that a patient was in a coma and woke up, was ‘clinically dead’ for however long and shouldn’t have come round but they did – but no one except the person who had the experience can say what happened while they were in a coma.

They fall short because invariably the reflection that takes place later on ends up reshaping what is said about that experience. Sometimes this happens in unhelpful ways as a story becomes ever more dramatic with the frequency of its retelling. As an audience we’re hungry for the dramatic and few things are more dramatic than a close brush with death and returning with evidence of the afterlife. Sometimes it’s because our conscious reflections and conclusions matter and that will steer how we make sense of an event that seems to make no sense. There’s nothing devious here, it’s just how humans work. The problem then is it becomes harder to use that experience as evidence for anything as increasingly a tale is filtered, sifted and subtly adjusted as we work to make sense of something.

Sadly, most modern-day Lazarus’ don’t follow his example and slip into obscurity but carve out careers and ministries off the back of doing nothing more than not dying. This is not nearly as impressive as we think it is, so far I’ve not died for over 13,000 days in a row and I have evidence for the afterlife and so far no publisher has come calling. These guys don’t die on just one day and they become bestsellers and their evidence is flaky at best. I’m not bitter.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying these people didn’t have the experiences they said they did. I’m not suggesting they’re fake (although I’m sure that there are fake stories around). I’m not saying that God didn’t speak to these people while they were in their coma or whatever. What I am saying is none of it gives me good reason to hope in the afterlife. I can do better and so can you.

Despite the fact that the event occurred two thousand years ago, the resurrection of Jesus offers far more compelling evidence of the afterlife and while it does require faith, the leap is neither as far nor into the dark. Instead of being the story of just one person, the resurrection was attested by hundreds of people. The grief-stricken do not go crazy in groups and see dead people walking, talking and eating, not even in Jerusalem. The more witnesses and corroborating stories you have the more compelling the testimony.

The stories of the resurrection (for the most part are remarkably ordinary) – he ate some fish, he walked and talked, did a spot of cooking and spent time in conversation with people. There are some extraordinary events too because after all rising from the dead is fairly extraordinary, but the presence of the day-to-day and mundane is striking against the human tendency to exaggerate to convince.

The opponents of Christianity have had two thousand years to pick apart and offer a viable, credible and compelling alternative to what happened a few days after Jesus was crucified. They failed when Peter and John proclaimed Jesus’ resurrection and have continued to fail ever since. This is surprising because it is well attested even by Christians themselves that if the resurrection isn’t real, didn’t happen in an actual physical, bodily way then we might as well give up now and find something better to do (1 Cor 15:15-19). If Richard Dawkins really wanted to do away with Christianity he should stop wasting time arguing with creationists and instead put some brain power into investigating the resurrection.

I am fully convinced of life-after-death not because of near death experiences of heaven (real or imagined) but because of the real and not imagined resurrection from the dead of Jesus. His resurrection is the ground on which to believe for your resurrection, to believe that even though you die, yet shall you live. Trust on the real death and the real resurrection of Christ and not a near death and a resuscitation.

Photo by perceptions / Sichtweisen

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