Proof of Heaven?

Title: Proof of Heaven?

Text: Ecclesiastes 3:21, John 14:2-3, Luke 16:22-23, 1 Thessalonians 5:21

Time: January 29th, 2013

 

I just got a copy of the New York Times best selling book, “Proof of Heaven” by Dr. Eban Alexander for Christmas, which I recently finished reading. If you aren’t familiar with this popular book, it’s about a doctor, a surgeon, who suddenly became ill, was rushed to the hospital, and actually died – was technically brain dead. Yet he survived this NDE (Near Death Experience) to live to tell about it in the book. The unique thing about this NDE is that he was hooked up on equipment that monitored his brainwave activity during the whole time, and while his brain was inactive he was still having his Near Death Experience. The book goes into detail about what Dr. Eban experienced while his brain was technically dead. Most people who report NDEs still have some brain wave activity, so then the easy explanation is that they are undergoing something within the brain due to some malfunction, such as lack of blood circulation or not enough oxygen, for example. Their experiences can be explained by abnormal brain activity that occurs during the process of death, only for some reason they are revived before they actually die. Their heart may stop beating but their brain still has some kind of activity, although some kind of abnormal activity – and this is usually the best explanation given why they report strange experiences, such as seeing a blinding like, and so forth. But in the case of Dr. Alexander, this typical NDE explanation doesn’t apply because as recorded by the equipment monitoring his brain, there was no brain wave activity; his brain was technically “dead.” So then some other explanation must account for the quality and the quantity of experiences he reports during this time. In the book, he claims he experienced traveling in and out of different other worldly places and encountered mysterious presences. He interprets these as encounters with God in heaven, among other things. Now as Christians, we welcome any conversations about the after life or life after death, because for so long our secular culture has dismissed such conversations as wishful thinking. Especially since Psychologist Sigmund Freud wrote about the workings of the mind, our culture has taken on a skeptical attitude towards serious discussions about life after death. With the rise of modern science, many people now feel that it’s impossible to talk about the continued existence of the soul after death in any factual way, although it’s possible to believe in it religiously or spiritually. But “Proof of Heaven” presents factual evidence by a respected medical researcher for life after death that cannot be easily dismissed by skeptics. The book does in fact present a powerful argument for the continued existence of the soul after death, although I’d like to point out some problems with the Dr.’s interpretation of his experiences of life after death. As Christians we must always go back to God’s Word, the Bible, and not rely on human testimony exclusively. Wherever these two sources of knowledge harmonize, then we are free to accept them both; but whenever human testimony departs from the biblical revelation, we must believe the Bible and dismiss the testimony. That’s the problem I have with parts of “Proof of Heaven” – some parts seem to contradict the Bible. Therefore, I would recommend that we be cautious about the author’s conclusions, especially the specific interpretations he brings to them; while at the same time I believe we can accept his general observations about life after death, because, of course, that’s what the Bible teaches also. Let me explain further what I mean.

 

First, there is powerful evidence for conscious life after death. Ecclesiastes 3:21, “Who knows if the spirit of man rises upward and if the spirit of animals goes down into the earth?” Humanity has always been fascinated about the question of the immortality of the soul or spirit. It’s a perennial question of philosophy and religion in every age. Of course, the Judeo-Christian tradition affirms life after death, the continued existence of the soul, and life everlasting. In fact, the case can be made that the primary purpose of any and all religion is to answer the question of life after death – is there or isn’t there? Christians affirm strongly that there is life after death, based most strongly on Jesus rising from the dead at the resurrection. But that doesn’t mean people don’t have doubts about it, especially in our skeptical, secular modern era. Actual hard-core scientific proof for life after death has been difficult to obtain, although that shouldn’t surprise anyone, nor should it particularly worry anyone who affirms the Christian faith. Why not? Because as Christians, we don’t look to science to tell us what to believe. We look to God, particularly, God’s Word, the Bible, as our source for truth about things we can’t gain access to through normal, natural means. But with Dr. Eban Alexander’s book, we all of a sudden have seemingly scientific proof that life goes on after death, at least, the soul’s existence continues on as an independent conscious entity. How else can we explain how the Dr. can report vivid experiences all the while his brain is dead – no brainwave activity recorded on the highly sensitive equipment. He was hooked up to the monitors the whole time and the data was being recorded for review, and nothing, no activity of the brain was reported. Yet, he was experiencing something during the same time he brain was shut down. That means nothing was happening in his brain, but something was happening to him elsewhere. Where was he experiencing what he later reported? It must have been as he existed consciously with his soul apart from his body. It must have been as a disembodied spirit that he experienced what he reported. Other patients who have underwent NDEs have reported leaving their bodies, floating in air, sometimes taking up positions high above their hospital room where they witness efforts to revive them by medical staff, and so forth. Other NDE patients report leaving their hospital rooms and traveling to other, unknown places, some interpret as heaven, others report going to what might be called hell, for example. But until now there have been no verified cases of people reporting NDEs while their brain was off. Now we have proof that it’s possible for someone to have conscious experiences even while they show no brain wave activity. This is powerful evidence that human consciousness can exist apart from the body, apart from the brain. The book makes a strong case for the continued existence of the soul or spirit after death. But there’s more.

 

Second, the interpretation the Dr. gives of his Near Death Experience is somewhat problematic. John 14:2-3, “In my Father’s house are many rooms: if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.”  Christians have the hope of eternal life with God through faith in Jesus Christ. The Bible, particularly the New Testament, covers the subject of life after death extensively – how to know about it, how to obtain it? The problem with the testimony of Dr. Eban Alexander is that what he reports about what he saw and heard don’t always line up with what the Bible teaches about the next life. In other words, some of what the Dr. says seems to contradict what the Bible says about life after death. Now for some people who don’t trust the Bible, or don’t view it as the Word of God, this isn’t a problem, because they would be inclined to believe the testimony of the Dr. over the clear teachings of the Bible. After all, they might reason that the Bible is unreliable, but eyewitness testimony like the Dr.’s is irrefutable. They would go with his report rather than the teachings found in the Bible. But for Christians this isn’t really an option. The Bible is our source of truth, not human opinion, not even human testimony. Besides, people can experience something and then give their own human interpretation about what they experienced. So what they report may be more their interpretation about what they saw or heard, rather than an accurate factual report. In the case of Dr. Alexander, I can accept that he experienced something outside of his body, apart from his brain, but everything he reports I do not accept as truth because I think he could be misinterpreting what he experienced. For example, he summarizes what he believes the message he received from the spiritual world as three basic points: one, you are loved unconditionally forever; two, you have nothing to fear; three, there’s nothing you can do wrong. But my question is, to whom are these truths addressed – to him specifically or for everyone, the general public? The book seems to imply that these truths are for everyone in general. But according to the Bible, that can’t be, because for instance, the Bible teaches that for the unsaved or unconverted or non-believer, there is something to fear: “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell,” Matthew 10:28. To tell people in general that there’s nothing to fear after death is wrong. The Dr. might have understood this message to him because he believed or was saved or had faith, but perhaps the message was never intended to be a general truth for everyone in whatever state they are in. To give the general impression that people have nothing to fear or that there’s nothing they can do wrong is not a biblical message. The Dr. needs to be careful that in reporting his experiences that he doesn’t give the wrong impression by applying the message to him as something that applies to all people. The Bible doesn’t teach this.

 

Third, the real “proof of heaven” is found in the Bible, not in any human testimony. John 14:2-3, “In my Father’s house are many rooms: if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.”  Jesus is our primary source for life after death. He experienced death and rose from the dead. He is our authority on all things related to life after death. He teaches that if we put our faith in him, if we confess our sins and trust in his atoning death on the cross on our behalf that we are forgiven our sins and given unearned righteousness in order to stand before God the Father in heaven. Only through trusting the gospel is anyone saved. We find nothing in the New Testament, either in the teachings of Jesus himself or in the teachings of the Apostles after him, that summarize life after death as – “You are unconditionally loved forever, you have nothing to fear, and there’s nothing you can do wrong.” The truest thing that can be said about Dr. Alexander’s summary is the first point, “You are unconditionally loved forever,” but while true generally it still shouldn’t imply that a guilty, unsaved soul won’t still be judged and condemned eternally apart from God. The Bible teaches that some people do in fact go to hell. For example, in the story of the Lazarus and the rich man, it says, “. . . The rich man also died and was buried. In hell, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side,” Luke 16:22-23. While it is true that God loves his children unconditionally, that doesn’t negate the existence of judgment or hell. Yet, the implications of Dr. Alexander’s book are that God’s unconditional love would never judge anyone or send anyone to hell, because “there’s nothing you can do wrong” and so “there’s nothing to fear.” But the Bible teaches something entirely different. It teaches that there are things that we can do wrong; these things are called sin. And there are things we need to fear, namely, things like judgment and eternal punishment. Now once we are saved by the blood of Jesus, through his atoning death on the cross in our place, once we find forgiveness, true, we don’t have to fear judgment or hell anymore. But there are still things we can do wrong, even though we are unconditionally loved by God. The point I’m trying to make is that we should look to the Bible to teach us about life after death, not the testimony of someone like Dr. Eban Alexander who has had a NDE. While we can see their experience as a possible proof for the immortality of the soul, while we can appreciate the evidence they supply for continued consciousness after physical death, we cannot trust their interpretation of even their own experience over the plain teaching of God’s Word the Bible. It’s simply a matter of trust. What do we trust as Christians? Do we trust the Bible supremely or do we trust human teaching? It’s obvious that we should trust the Bible first.

 

Now as for “proof of heaven,” we need look no further than the Bible generally, and to Jesus specifically. We don’t need eyewitness testimony by the Dr. to “prove” heaven for us. Recently there have been a number of books about life after death and heaven. I’m in the process of reading a couple of books right now on these subjects that I got for Christmas. For example, there’s a book about heaven written about the experiences of a little boy who died and reported what heaven is like. I’m interested in what this book has to say, although I’m not looking for any new information to rely on because I’ve got all the information I need in the pages of the Bible. But it’s interesting nonetheless. There’s also a book written by another person who died and experienced heaven entitled, “90 Minutes in Heaven.” That sounds interesting as well, although again, I’m not going to base my theology of heaven on someone’s, anyone’s, experience about it. I’m going to base my hope of heaven on what the Bible teaches on the subject, which contains a lot of what Jesus teaches on the heaven. This is the only trustworthy and reliable guide to heaven. The fact is as Christians we don’t need the Dr.’s “proof for heaven” although we are still interested in what he has to report, as we are interested in what others report also. I’ve read about NDE before in books by researchers Elisabeth-Kubler Ross and Raymond Moody, to name a few. I’ve read rational arguments for life after death, most recently by author Dinesh D’Souza. Again, I find this stuff very interesting, as others do also; Eban Alexander’s book is currently on the best selling list still after months. So there is a lot of interest in the subject, as we’d expect. My only reservation is that these kinds of books give people false impressions. It’s good that people are interested in the topic. It’s good that people are persuaded there really is life after death. It’s good that people are talking about it and thinking about it, but I’m worried that they’ll believe the subjective and personal interpretations of these NDE by authors such as the Dr. and believe this information over and above what the Bible teaches. I’m worried that Christians also might get drawn into believing what they hear someone report, like the Dr., rather than simply believe what they read in their Bible. That would be bad. As Christians we are taught to, “Test all things, hold on to that which is true,” 1 Thessalonians 5:21. We are to test all things by the Word of God. Much of what the Dr. says is compatible with the Bible; these things we should accept. But the things that aren’t compatible, we should reject. We can still get excited about books such as “Proof of Heaven,” but we should exercise a cautious excitement about these things. We can appreciate the good we see in them, without buying into the whole thing. I encourage you all to read the book and see what you think. But above all, read the Bible, and believe it. Amen.

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