Since its publication in October 2012 Proof of Heaven has sold over two million copies in English alone. Consider as an example of its success the fact that it has amassed over five thousand reviews at Amazon.com in nine months. The success is striking, but it isn’t a miracle. Proof of Heaven has all the elements of a bestseller: a fast-paced, engaging read, a credible witness, and an extraordinary visit to the afterlife. If heaven is on trial, neurosurgeon Dr. Eben Alexander aims to be the star witness.
The day was November 10, 2008. Alexander was admitted to the hospital whilst suffering severe pain and convulsions. As he continued to decline rapidly the doctors eventually diagnosed an extremely rare case of E. Coli meningitis. Soon after arriving at the hospital, Alexander fell into a coma. After six days in the coma with his brain under continual assault from the E. Coli bacteria, it was all but assumed that Alexander would either die, or live the rest of his life comatose as a PVS patient. (In Appendix A one of the attending physicians, Scott Wade, states that the morality rate under those conditions exceeds 97%. (p. 184))
And yet, on the morning of the sixth day even as the family was attempting to prepare for the inevitability of death, a rainbow appeared in the sky and Alexander spontaneously revived. Even more incredibly, within two months he had recovered fully. As Alexander says, his case of illness and recovery is N of 1. That is, it is a case without precedent, in a category by itself. (See chapter 17, “N of 1”.)
This recovery is extraordinary enough. But it is not the recovery that drives the story. Rather, it is the claims Alexander makes about his journey during those days in a coma. According to Alexander, during this period he left his body, and his own sense of self, behind and journeyed into another world. The journey began in a dark, foreboding sphere of groans, threatening faces appearing from the gloom, and noxious smells. But then Alexander broke free into another world of ethereal beauty, flying over bucolic fields with angelic figures darting about in the skies above (this is the “Gateway”). Eventually he climbs into a higher sphere (which he calls the “Core”) where he communes with God himself. And from the setting of the fields to the Core Alexander is accompanied by a beautiful woman. It is easy to capture the echoes of Dante’s “Divine Comedy” here with the move from Inferno to Purgatorio and on to Paradiso, accompanied by the lovely Beatrice.
Needless to say, when Alexander regained consciousness his recovery was considered by many miraculous, but his passport stamp was even more so. And now he has shared this miraculous story with the world along with a (rather predictable) message from the creator of all things. As it turns out, the Beatles had it right: All you need is love.
So what should we think of this incredible story? I’m going to analyze the book in two steps. I’ll start with a theological analysis of the book in order to compare and contrast Alexander’s claims with those of orthodox Christianity. Of course, this section will be of especial significance to those folks who are orthodox Christians and count orthodox Christianity as a way to judge the truth or plausibility of various claims about the afterlife. Then we’ll turn in the final section to a broader means of evaluation that should interest everybody: is this story credible?
Is the story Christian?
So first off, the theology of the book. Before Alexander’s experience you could call him a very liberal Episcopalian. As he says “the fact was that for years I’d only been a step above a ‘C&Eer’ (one who only darkens the door of a church at Christmas and Easter).” (p. 34) After his experiences, however, he underwent a sort of spiritual renewal. The experience is powerfully described during his return to church during Advent. He writes:
“The stained glass windows with their clouds and angels brought to mind the celestial beauty of the Gateway. A painting of Jesus breaking bread with his disciples evoked the communion of the Core. I shuddered as I recalled the bliss of infinite unconditional love I had known there.
“At last, I understood what religion was really all about. Or at least was supposed to be about. I didn’t just believe in God; I knew God. As I hobbled to the altar to take Communion, tears streamed down my cheeks.” (pp. 147-48)
This sounds like a spiritual renewal, but of what kind, exactly? The casual reader would probably conclude that this was a Christian renewal. But that is far from clear. Note the telling phrase, “I understood what religion was really all about”. Alexander is clearly evangelistic about his experience: “I see it as my duty, my calling, to tell people about what I saw beyond the body and beyond this earth.” (p. 10) However, his message does not concern Christianity in particular, but rather a broad form of spirituality the main premises of which are summarized in “Seven Cornerstone Postulates”. (These postulates are listed at the website of Alexander’s newly founded Eternea organization here.)
Alexander’s gospel sounds like yet another Oprah spirituality book reminiscent of Neale Donald Walsch’s Conversations with God and Marianne Williamson’s Return to Love. The basic doctrines of this gospel are that love is all you need and this world is illusory or less real than a spiritual reality that lies beyond. Noticeably absent from this feel-good gospel is any reference to sin or the need for repentance. Here is how Alexander presents the gospel in a message he received from his Beatrice guide:
“You are loved and cherished, dearly, forever.”
“You have nothing to fear.”
“There is nothing you can do wrong.” (p. 41)
I don’t need to tell you that there is a whole lot we can do wrong. And a healthy recognition of our own penchant for evil and self-deception should create a healthy fear in all of us. So at best I’d count this misleading and dangerous instruction. That’s not an auspicious beginning.
Not surprisingly, Alexander’s description of God shares little with a Christian conception. Indeed, he eschews Christian names for God, opting instead to refer to God as “Om” (a Sanskrit mantra originating from Hinduism). This is in keeping with the Eastern, mystical tone of the book. Consider this passage:
“Just as my awareness was both individual yet at the same time completely unified with the universe, so also did the boundaries of what I experienced as my ‘self’ at times contract, and at other times expand to include all that exists throughout eternity. The blurring of the boundary between my awareness and the realm around me went so far at times that I became the entire universe.” (p. 160)
Passages like this call to mind the Hindu maxim “Atman is Brahman” which identifies the self with all that is. While Alexander doesn’t come out and embrace pantheism, his theology certainly appears more at home in mystical eastern traditions than orthodox Christianity.
Finally, let me note that the book is also very gnostic in tone. Gnosticism was an eclectic set of Greek / Platonic philosophical and doctrinal claims that flourished in the Mediterranean basin during the rise of Christianity. Gnosticism was inimical to Christian doctrine and yet given its ubiquity in the culture and syncretistic nature, it provided an ongoing threat to Christian belief. (Early forms of Gnosticism are explicitly refuted in 1 John, for example.)
The two most important gnostic claims were that salvation comes through the reception of secret knowledge and that salvation requires the abdication of the fallen material world and body for a spiritual non-material world and body. Both of these gnostic themes find echoes in Proof of Heaven. The reception of secret knowledge is a lesser theme. For example, Alexander writes: “Insights happened directly, rather than needing to be coaxed and absorbed. Knowledge was stored without memorization, instantly and for good. It didn’t fade, like ordinary information does, and to this day I still possess all of it….” (p. 49) Statements like this are not in themselves problematic. But they take on a more ominous tone when set against the backdrop of Alexander’s other teachings.
Incidentally, you might think testing some of Alexander’s newly found knowledge would provide a solid ground for verification of his striking claims. For example, he makes assertions about knowledge gained in the Empyrean realm of the nature of dark matter and dark energy:
“From the Core, my understanding of what we call ‘dark energy’ and ‘dark matter’ seemed to have clear explanations, as did far from advanced components of the makeup of the universe that humans won’t address for ages.” (p. 82)
So Alexander now has understanding of the physical universe that the rest of humanity won’t attain “for ages”. Perhaps he could share some of this scientific insight into the natural world to corroborate his claims and advance the cause of humanity? No such luck, for as Alexander then observes:
“This doesn’t mean, however, that I can explain them to you. That’s because–paradoxically–I am still in the process of understanding them myself.” (p. 82)
Gnostic knowledge is like that. You have it, but you can’t share it with others. Consider this famous excerpt from the gnostic Gospel of Thomas (c. AD 150) where Jesus allegedly shares secret knowledge with Thomas:
“When Thomas came back to his friends they asked him, ‘What did Jesus say to you?'”
“Thomas said to them, ‘If I tell you one of the sayings he spoke to me, you will pick up rocks and stone me, and fire will come from the rocks and devour you.'”
The gnostic nature of Alexander’s knowledge is a red flag. But more problematic from a Christian perspective is the denigration of the physical body and material world. For example, Alexander seems to hold the view that our soul is trammeled down by the material body which inhibits the power of our minds. By contrast, when we leave our bodies behind our souls are free to attain a new form of transcendence.
For example, he describes people as “spiritual beings currently inhabiting our evolutionarily developed mortal brains and bodies” (p. 84). But liberation comes when our minds are freed from their bodies and brains: “To experience thinking outside the brain is to enter a world of instantaneous connections that make ordinary thinking (i.e., those aspects limited by the physical brain and the speed of light) seem like some hopelessly sleepy and plodding event. Our truest, deepest self is completely free.” (p. 85) In context it is clear that Alexander means free from the physical body. “This,” he says, “is the true spiritual self that all of us are destined someday to recover.” (p. 85) Incidentally, notice two additional points that follow from this statement. First, Alexander identifies himself as a universalist since he believes all of us are destined to recover this state of being. Second, note that he describes this as a recovery, presumably of something possessed before. This implies that Alexander holds to the old Platonic idea of the soul’s existence prior to material embodiment.
Interestingly, Alexander makes much of the fact that he was unaware of his personal identity during his NDE. What is especially interesting is how he interprets this fact: “because I so completely forgot my mortal identity, I was granted full access to the true cosmic being I really am (and we all are).” (p. 78) In other words, he seems to be saying that by leaving our physical bodies and personal selves behind, we are enabled to become more truly one with the universe. Again, the maxim of “Atman is Brahman” appears to echo in the background.
Consequently, the communion experience is not a reliable guide to Alexander’s spiritual transformation. His gospel message is very different from orthodox Christianity. As a result, it looks like special pleading for Christians to accept Alexander’s experience as evidence for heaven whilst rejecting all the “gospel message” he brings on authority back from that heavenly world.
Is the story credible?
You might think by this point in the review that I started reading Proof of Heaven as a cynic. Not so. When I began reading the book I found it very credible, a fact supported by Alexander’s own impressive medical career as well (I suspect) as the contrast effect between Alexander as a witness and Todd Burpo, author of Heaven for Real. Heaven is for Real features the “recollections” of Todd’s 3 year old son Colton about his own visit to heaven. In my view, it seems overwhelmingly likely that Colton was unintentionally fed information and created false memories as a result. By contrast, Alexander seemed to be a very sophisticated, thoughtful and credible witness.
But the more I read — how should I say this — the hokier it all seemed. For example, Alexander describes incessant pouring rain the whole week he was in a coma (which, he says, is very unusual for Virginia at that time of year). But then on the morning he returned to life a beautiful rainbow appeared. Details like this sounded contrived to me. (And as it turns out, it was. More on that in a moment.) Likewise, Alexander’s revelation that his beautiful guide in the afterlife was in fact a deceased sister he’d never met struck this reader as a predictable “Chicken Soup for the Soul” plot device. As I read on the narrative seemed overly stylized, the story massaged for maximum impact. The familiar feel-good “all-you-need-is-love” gospel didn’t do anything to allay these concerns.
My skepticism stoked, I did a quick internet search and came across Luke Dittrich’s just-published article on Alexander in Esquire Magazine, appropriately called “The Prophet”. Dittrich conducted a series of interviews with Alexander and others associated with his case. And while it would be over-reaching to call the article an exposé, it strikes me as a devastating critique of Alexander’s credibility.
Dittrich observes how Alexander’s career as a surgeon was fraught with several alleged instances of malpractice. Of course, this in itself is not necessarily a problem for his credibility in this case. However, Alexander’s response to these cases is. In one instance a woman suffered partial facial paralysis following surgery. A lawsuit ensued predicated on the allegation that Alexander had not provided her with an informed consent form that this was a risk of surgery. Eventually Alexander produced a form from his records, but it was missing the second page and was damaged. Dittrich writes:
“The woman’s attorney argued that “it is reasonable to infer that this pattern of disappearance of probative evidence was not coincidental, but was in fact deliberate.” The attorney was arguing, in other words, that when Alexander found things that didn’t fit the story he wanted to tell, he changed them, or made them disappear altogether.
Even more disturbing is a case from 2007 where, Dittrich notes, Alexander fused the wrong two vertebrae during a surgery. When he realized the mistake in a post-op follow-up he opted not to tell the patient, instead choosing to edit the report, presumably to cover up his mistake: “After he finished editing the report, it read as though he hadn’t done anything wrong at all.” Malpractice is one thing, but altering evidence goes directly to one’s credibility as a witness. Dittrich concludes: “Once again, a lawyer was accusing Alexander of altering the historical record when the historical record didn’t fit the story he wanted to tell.” Ultimately, a close look at Alexander’s medical career would reveal a litany of failures:
“By the time all his pending cases are resolved, Alexander will have settled five malpractice cases in the last ten years. Only one other Virginia-licensed neurosurgeon has settled as many cases in that time period, and none have settled more.”
But what about Proof of Heaven itself? Does Dittrich point out holes in the book? Indeed he does. The narrative begins with Alexander recounting the time he was almost in a fatal parachuting accident with a man named “Chuck”. After Dittrich researched this case and found out that the Chuck in question had no recollection of the event, Alexander admitted to Dittrich that it wasn’t Chuck after all. When Dittrich asked him to reveal the true identity of the individual he replied cryptically: “I am under very strict advice from the Simon & Schuster attorneys [Simon and Schuster is the book’s publisher] not to divulge who that was.”
Next, as I noted above the book refers to pouring rain during the week of Alexander’s coma. Dittrich interviewed meteorologist Dave Wert and confirmed that there was not pouring rain during that week and there could not have been a rainbow on the day Alexander describes. Did Alexander add these details for dramatic effect? It would appear so. But then what else did he add?
The core of Alexander’s claim is that he lapsed into a coma during the week and lost all higher brain function. Thus, his dramatic heavenly experiences must be supernatural in nature. But these points are disputed by one of the attending physicians, Laura Potter. According to Dittrich, she reported that she put Alexander in a medically induced coma. This contrasts with Alexander’s suggestion that the coma was produced by the meningitis. So then Dittrich inquires about the degree of Alexander’s brain function during the week:
“I ask Potter whether the manic, agitated state that Alexander exhibited whenever they weaned him off his anesthetics during his first days of coma would meet her definition of conscious.
“‘Yes,’ she says. ‘Conscious but delirious.'”
In other words, the last basis for believing Alexander underwent a supernatural experience dissolves. Was Alexander’s recovery extraordinary? Perhaps. Is it a good story? Indeed.
But proof of heaven? Not so much.