In 2012, Eben Alexander published Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife. The credulous, who had been smitten by Colton Burpo’s Heaven Is For Real story in 2010, were of course overjoyed. It’s one thing for a four year old kid from Nebraska to claim heaven is real; it’s quite another for a prestigious neurosurgeon to say the same.
Here is what I know: going to heaven while you are in the hospital and then writing about it sure is profitable. Burpo’s book has sold nearly three million copies and a movie is being made. Alexander’s book has sold nearly two million copies and a movie is being made. Both are in demand as paid speakers. With heavenly profits like these, the devil is probably having a hard time purchasing souls.
For those not familiar with these stories, Burpo’s is that while he was undergoing surgery, he “died” (i.e., his heart briefly stopped beating) and went to heaven. While visiting, he met Jesus (who had blue eyes), John the Baptist, Samson, and his grandpa. Gramps, like everyone else in heaven, was young again and had wings. God was so big he could hold “the whole world in his hands.” This supposedly happened when Colton was four. Seven years later, Colton’s father (an evangelical pastor) and Sarah Palin’s ghostwriter coaxed a best-selling book out of him.
On the surface, Alexander’s story seemed to have more heft. On the fantastic particulars of Christian heaven, it certainly was more circumspect. Alexander claimed that he contracted bacterial meningitis and fell into a near-death coma for seven days. While in the coma, Alexander supposedly visited heaven. This was incredible, he asserted, because he had no brain function while in the coma. Thus, brain activity could not explain his trip to heaven. As Alexander imagines things, it must have been his non-brain based soul that flew there and back again.
Shortly after Alexander’s story appeared (and made the cover of Newsweek), several neuroscientists questioned it and I wrote about it. Our skepticism centered on Alexander’s assertion that he had no brain function while in the coma. Aside from being dubious (because living brains always have at least some function, however impaired), this could not be known. Without having the right kind of tests and medical records, it was unproven. I concluded by stating:
So where does this leave us? It’s hard to say. If Dr. Alexander is going to devote the remainder of his life to this new heavenly cause, then I think it incumbent on him as a scientist to make all of his medical records available to the public. His argument from credentials and authority won’t cut it. We will have to await the full disclosure that is required to evaluate Dr. Alexander’s extraordinary claims.
We now have some disclosure, but it is not what I expected when I wrote last year. There is, as this Esquire exposé explains, much more (or less) to Alexander’s story. While the author, Luke Dittrich, minces no words by calling Alexander a “prophet,” he minces them by not calling Alexander a liar.
Let’s start with some basics. Alexander refuses to release his medical records. Why? It’s not because, as I would have suspected, they show that: (a) he had some brain function or (b) the proper brain function tests were not done. It seems that Alexander won’t release medical records because: (1) he did not have bacterial meningitis, (2) his coma was medically induced, and (3) his doctors brought him out of the coma several times during that week.
This latter point (verified by Alexander’s treating physician) is especially relevant because, as Dr. Oliver Sacks observed last year, there is another explanation for Alexander’s alleged experience:
Alexander insists that his journey, which subjectively lasted for days, could not have occurred except while he was deep in coma. But we know from the experience of Tony Cicoria and many others, that a hallucinatory journey to the bright light and beyond, a full-blown near death experience (“NDE”), can occur in 20 or 30 seconds, even though it seems to last much longer. Subjectively, during such a crisis, the very concept of time may seem variable or meaningless. The one most plausible hypothesis in Dr. Alexander’s case, then, is that his NDE occurred not during his coma, but as he was surfacing from the coma and his cortex was returning to full function. It is curious that he does not allow this obvious and natural explanation, but instead insists on a supernatural one.
Why didn’t Alexander consider this possibility? It could have something to do with the fact that his career was in tatters, he was no longer authorized to perform surgery, and was facing two large malpractice lawsuits (in both cases, he had operated on the wrong vertebrae in his patients). In fact, it appears that when Alexander went to the hospital initially, he did not have meningitis: he seems to have been hysterical from a mental breakdown.
At this point, we simply don’t know what happened. Before the Esquire story, I was interested in Alexander’s medical records for scientific reasons. We cannot evaluate his claims without them. But after the Esquire story, it’s apparent that we need the records to verify the basics of his story. He has some serious credibility problems.
At this point, I can only conclude that Alexander is not releasing his records because he is lying. It would be bad for his profitable new business.
As for whether Alexander’s story has any more heft or credibility than Colton Burpo’s, I think not. On this point, Oliver Sacks said it best:
To deny the possibility of any natural explanation for an NDE, as Dr. Alexander does, is more than unscientific — it is antiscientific. It precludes the scientific investigation of such states.