Profitable Proof of Heaven

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.


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13 thoughts on “Profitable Proof of Heaven

  1. Onoosh

    That’s it. I recently had surgery, and when I came home, I had a vision of my husband standing at the end of my bed, fully clothed. When I sat up and asked “What’s happened?” Poof! He popped and disappeared. I also had a horrible dream I couldn’t get away from, or out of. (Pace, Winston Churchill and Lady Astor, about any grammatical failings, if you’re with the butterflies.) My probably-anesthesia-induced visions must prove either the existence of heaven, or hell, or at least Dante.

    So: I am setting up as a prophetess. My recent unverifiable personal gnosis and memories of friends’ LSD stories in the sixties should be plenty to get started. Let’s see: a book, speaking engagements, television appearances, maybe some coffee mugs with my picture…perhaps I have finally figured out what I want to be when I grow up: how about “rich?” (This leaves unasked and unanswered the ethical question of profits for prophets.)

    P.S.: I guess I really missed some fun when I looked at the cover of the infamous Newsweek issue on a table in my doctor’s waiting room, said “naaaaaaah…” and went back to watching the wallpaper peel. Thanks for this piece, though, and all the links. Remember, I’m just back from my version of the surgical beyond, myself, and my cortex is bored.

  2. jayarava

    The desire for continuing life, which all living things seem to share, is so strong that people will believe almost any story in which they survive death in some fashion. And there have ever been people who were willing to exploit this for profit.

  3. Bob Cranmer

    Cris, In reading your musings and erudite observations concerning the “primitive and archaic need” of humans to practice various forms on religion I can’t help but observe how narrow your analysis is. I would think that you would direct at least some of your analytical energy towards the belief system of Islam and its great prophet Muhammad. It has been almost fourteen centuries since his armies of missionaries burst upon the world to conquer and convert the infidels. Today the Islamic world from Africa to Pakistan is on fire as the faithful battle each other while the religion continues to grow its territorial control deeper into Africa and Europe. The latter prize eluded Islamic armies for a thousand years but now is threatened with a passive integration into the Islamic orbit through its own indigenous population decline and Islamic population growth. This religious turmoil threatens civilization and shows every sign of continuing to spread while its flames grow hotter. This is a belief system that merits your critical analysis. But take care in reviewing this self proclaimed “peaceful” religion, if you dig too deep you may lose you head in the process.

  4. Cris Post author

    Bob — I don’t have any particular interest in theological or political disputes. Those are best left to believers and Fox News viewers.

    If it were the case that a publicly visible Muslim doctor or “scientist” was making claims similar to those being made by Alexander Eben, I would perform the same kind of critical analysis.

    I’m an equal opportunist when it comes to exposing bullshit, whether it’s Atheist, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, New Age, etc.

  5. Bob Cranmer

    I’ve read his book Cris and I understand the skepticism, but if the 72 virgins thing doesn’t fall into the category of bullshit nothing does. My point is this Dr. Alexander’s story isn’t causing anyone to kill or be killed but that’s not the case with Islam. If I actually read something by you that I felt wasn’t tainted with your own personal bias I’d respect your work much more. The same goes for Bart Ehrman, I’ve sat and listened to his classes questioning Christianity for hours on end, but he’d never dare to aim his analytical gun at the Koran, as he probably wouldn’t live long. And when discussing his views he, like you, falls back on a contrived cloke of “intellectual neutrality”n that we both know is fraudulent, as bais and personal “agenda” is difficult to hide. Nothing persoanl, just my intelectual observation.

  6. Cris Post author

    Taking on fundamentalist Islam is like shooting fish in a barrel, so why bother? I’m not interested in critiquing bullshit that is happening somewhere else. I’m more interested in critiquing bullshit right here in the Homeland. I’m especially interested in critiquing those who claim to have scientific proof of their bullshit.

    In an odd sort of way, it’s to their credit that fundamentalist Muslims don’t seek to validate 72 virgins or anything else in their religion under the name or guise of science. They flatly reject science, so not much needs to be said about them.

    There are many Christians in America, on the other hand, who seek to validate or support their religion with science. This seems a more worthy target.

  7. Bob Cranmer

    I see Cris, that bullshit is too far away. Well within the next 100 years its smell will become up close and personal. I wonder why you have no counterparts in Iran, Egypt, Yemen, or even Turkey? No, Islam wouldn’t tolerate either of us, but would probably eliminate you much more speedily. Stick to Christianity (like Bart), it’s a lot safer, since you can hit both cheeks and not worry about retribution. Hope you are well, I think that we could be good friends.

  8. Cris Post author

    Bob — There is no singular “Islam” just like there is no singular form of “Christianity.” Indonesia is the largest “Islamic” country in the world and is quite tolerant. You’ve been watching too much Fox News, as far as I can tell. Fearing the “Islamic” boogey-man is no way to go through life.

    That issue aside, I’ve told you that I’m not interested in politics or foreign affairs. I just can’t get worked up about things I can’t impact or change.

    You shouldn’t be so hard on Bart for choosing to study Christian texts. There is only so much scholarship one can do in a lifetime, and experts must make choices about their field of study. He couldn’t do both the Koran and the Bible — the philological skills and languages required to do each are too different. One or the other of those is more than enough for a scholarly lifetime, and Bart is doing nothing more than following in the footsteps of previous scholars who have been doing the same thing with the Bible for 125 years.

    I hope you are well too, and that you invite me to Pittsburgh for a visit!

  9. Onoosh

    I think the two of you need to get together for a beer or two and a heavy discussion. Listen to mother. Just make sure the beer is German.

    Oh. And you’re so right about the multiplicities of Islams, Cris: I lived in Saudi Arabia for three years, and the biggest arguments I ever heard about what Islam REALLY was were in the family of a Saudi friend, between her father, brothers, and husband.

    Thanks to you both (all) for helping to keep my little grey cells alive.

  10. Bob Cranmer

    Jumping to conclusions Cris, I watch PBS news exclusively and generally listen to NPR, (even sponsoring “Marketplace” on my local station.) That being said, even in that most tolerant Muslim country it’s still a dangerous thing to be a non-muslim. As to Bart, I believe he has a chip on his shoulder being brought up in a fundalmentalist Christian home, I can understand to a degree.
    Thanks, I look forward to continued reading. Hopefully my book doesn’t stir up the response Alexander’s did.
    My best regards,
    Bob Cranmer

  11. Bob Cranmer

    Sorry, I missed your last line Cris, I’d love to have some beers with you here in Pittsburgh in the future -, and I drink Dos Equis, long before the guy on TV who does happen to look like me. :)

  12. Cris Post author

    Until Dr. Alexander releases all of his medical records (which he refuses to do), none of his fantastical and medically dubious claims can be adequately evaluated. There are many critiques of Alexander’s confabulation, not just the one in Esquire. Many of these other critiques are far more potent from a medical, empirical, and scientific perspective.

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