(Is There) Proof of Heaven?

Future Hope column, May 6, 2013

By Ted Glick

“The assumption of a shadowy existence after death was, we repeat, a naïve hypothesis required for the explanation of certain dream phenomena, and not the result of a real need of the spirit.” Karl Kautsky, Foundations of Christianity, p. 118

“These [religious] qualities became reactionary and constituted only a means of retarding progress, when the religious mode of thought was superseded by the methods of modern science, with the result that it is cherished only by backward classes and strata of the population, or backward regions, and may not in any manner continue to serve as an envelope for new social goals.” Ibid, p. 171 (emphasis by Glick)

Foundations of Christianity, by Karl Kautsky, is one of the classics of Marxist literature. It was published originally in 1908 in Germany and then in the US by International Publishers and, later, Monthly Review Press. Karl Kautsky was one of the top leaders and theoreticians of Marxism in the late 1800’s and the first 15 or so years of the 20th century, up until the outbreak of World War I.

These critiques of religion are indicative of how Marxism and scientific socialism, in general, have seen religion for much of the 165 years since the Communist Manifesto. Religion has been seen as the “opiate of the people,” something which takes the minds of oppressed people off their oppression, weakening organized resistance against injustice, suffering and repression.

This rigid position has softened over the last several decades, however, particularly in South and Central America with the rise of liberation theology and the involvement of priests, nuns and religious lay people within revolutionary and socialist movements. Fidel Castro himself was outspoken and a leader in efforts to connect the struggle for socialism with Christian teachings and the example of Jesus of Nazareth. Without question, these developments have had positive impacts upon both organized Marxism and organized religion.

However, primarily because of the publication six months ago of the book Proof of Heaven, by Eben Alexander, M.D., I believe it is time to go more deeply into this issue of the relationship between a spiritually-based worldview and the worldview of modern science, not just scientific socialism but a scientific approach generally.

Alexander has some views on this question:

“For all of the successes of Western civilization, the world has paid a dear price in terms of the most crucial component of existence—our human spirit. The shadow side of high technology—modern warfare and thoughtless homicide and suicide, urban blight, ecological mayhem, cataclysmic climate change, polarization of economic resources—is bad enough. Much worse, our focus on exponential progress in science and technology has left many of us relatively bereft in the realm of meaning and joy, and of knowing how our lives fit into the grand scheme of existence for all eternity.’ (p. 152)

Prior to his coma, Alexander would not have written these words. As an associate professor of surgery at Harvard Medical School for 15 years, he operated on patients with “severe, life-threatening brain conditions” and researched “advanced technical procedures like stereotactic radiosurgery.” He “helped develop magnetic resonance image (MRI)-guided neurosurgical procedures instrumental in repairing hard-to-treat brain conditions like tumors and vascular disorders.” And he “authored or co-authored more than 150 chapters and papers for peer-reviewed medical journals and presented my findings at more than two hundred medical conferences around the world.

“In short, I devoted myself to science.” (pps. 7-8)

Alexander’s book, a top New York Times best seller for the last 25 weeks, is nothing less than what the title says: his proof that there is a “heaven,” an incredible world of the spirit beyond physical death. The proof is Alexander’s near-death experience in the fall of 2008.

Prior to this experience Alexander was in no way a religious person. “For years I’d only been a step above a ‘C & E’er’ (one who only darkens the door of a church at Christmas and Easter). I was no spiritual leader in our home. I’d never escaped my feelings of doubt at how any of it could really be. As much as I’d grown up wanting to believe in God and Heaven and an afterlife, my decades in the rigorous scientific world of academic neurosurgery had profoundly called into question how such things could exist.” (p 34)

He knew about near death experiences, NDE’s, but believed that they “are simply fantasies produced by brains under extreme stress. Then, Dr. Alexander’s own brain was attacked by a rare illness. The part of the brain that controls thought and emotion [and dreams]—and in essence makes us human—shut down completely. For seven days he lay in a coma. Then, as his doctors considered stopping treatment, Alexander’s eyes popped open. He had come back.” (back cover)

Alexander fully recovered from the severe form of meningitis that had attacked his body, a near-miraculous development. But what was much more amazing was the story that he had to tell about what some part of him experienced while in the coma: “My experience showed me that the death of the body and the brain are not the end of consciousness, that human experience continues beyond the grave. More important, it continues under the gaze of a God who loves and cares about each one of us and about where the universe itself and all the beings within it are ultimately going.”

Keep in mind that when Alexander was in this coma the part of the brain responsible for dreams, the neo-cortex, was disabled, not functioning because of the virility of the meningitis virus,

What, specifically, did Alexander experience while in coma?

After some time in darkness, “like being submerged in mud yet also being able to see through it (p. 29)”, he became aware of a new, “most beautiful” sound and a “pure white light” descending. He began to move up, went through an opening “and found myself in a completely new world. The strangest, most beautiful world I’d ever seen.” (p. 38).

“I was absolutely sure of one thing: this place I’d suddenly found myself in was completely real.” (p. 39) He kept moving, flying with an angelic-like companion at his side, going higher. “I could hear the visual beauty of the silvery bodies of scintillating beings above.” (p 45) When he thought of questions, like “Where is this place?, Who am I? Why am I here?” (p. 46), “the answer came instantly in an explosion of light, color, love and beauty that blew through me like a crashing wave.” (p. 46)

Continuing forward, he “found myself entering an immense void, completely dark, infinite in size, yet also infinitely comforting. Pitch black as it was, it was also brimming over with light: a light that seemed to come from a brilliant orb that I now sensed near me. An orb that was living and almost solid, as the songs of the angel beings had been.” (pps. 46-47)

Alexander described it as being like a fetus in a womb; “in this case, the ‘mother’ was God, the Creator, the Source who is responsible for making the universe and all in it. . . It was as if I were being born into a larger world, and the universe itself was like a giant cosmic womb and the Orb was guiding me through this process.” (p. 47)

He learned that there are many universes and “that love lay at the center of them all. Evil was present in all the other universes as well, but only in the tiniest trace amounts. Horrible and all-powerful as evil sometimes seemed to be in a world like ours, in the larger picture love was overwhelmingly dominant, and it would ultimately be triumphant.” (p. 48).

This, in summary, is what Dr. Eben Alexander, a non-religious, prominent neurosurgeon, writes that he experienced while in a seven day coma.

Was his case an exception, something rarely experienced by others? Apparently not. After his recovery, Alexander began serious research into the field of near-death experiences, NDE’s. “It didn’t take me long to realize that countless other people had experienced the things I had, both in recent years and centuries past. NDE’s are not all the same, each one is unique—but the same elements show up again and again. Narratives of passing through a dark tunnel or valley into a bright and vivid landscape—ultra-real—were as old as ancient Greece and Egypt.”

I found one such story while reading Kautsky’s Foundations of Christianity. He refers to Plato’s Republic, chapter 13 of Book 10: “Plato tells us of a Pamphylian (a region of Turkey) who had fallen in war, and who, when he was about to be incinerated on the twelfth day after his death, suddenly came to life again and reported that his soul, after leaving his body, had been in wondrous places, with great clefts extending into the sky above and downward into the bowels of the earth.” (p. 119)

Alexander says that self-described “near-death experiences” became widely known only over the last 50 or so years, when “new techniques were developed that allowed doctors to resuscitate patients who had suffered a cardiac arrest. . . These physicians were, through their rescue efforts, producing a breed of trans-earthly voyagers: people who had glimpsed beyond the veil and returned to tell about it. Today they number in the millions.”

Are these realities, these facts, these concrete experiences that large numbers of people have had, to be discounted by those who want to understand the world in order to change it? Aren’t Eben Alexander’s experience and the experiences of large numbers of others—George Gallup has estimated that 5% of US Americans have had an NDE experience– a reality that has to be faced? Isn’t it consistent with science, with a belief in materialist analysis, to take all of this very seriously?

For myself, here are the thoughts I have had since reading Proof of Heaven several months ago.

I was raised as a Protestant Christian. My father was a minister and both of my grandfathers were ministers, and there is much about the moral values, teachings and life example of Jesus of Nazareth that I have taken to heart, but I’ve never been much of a believer in Christian theology. I’ve never believed that Jesus rose from the dead, and I’ve never believed that there are such things as Heaven and Hell, not in a physical, real sense. I’ve essentially been agnostic on that question. I have believed that the way a person’s spirit lives on after they die is through the hearts and minds of other people who remember the good deeds, the positive life example, that a person leaves after his or her death.

But since reading Proof of Heaven, I can’t help but see some things differently.

I find myself sometimes feeling more hopeful about my personal future. I feel that, no matter what trials and tribulations I have to go through in the years remaining for me, the odds look much better that, indeed, my death will end up being a great adventure, something to actually look forward to.

I find myself feeling more hopeful about the prospects for us here on earth. As Alexander himself reflects on, it is hard to see what happened to him as a coincidence. “If what I’d undergone had happened to someone—anyone—else, it would have been remarkable enough. But that it had happened to me [a prominent, religiously skeptical brain surgeon]. . . When I added up the sheer unlikelihood of all the details—and especially when I considered how precisely perfect a disease E. coli meningitis was for taking my cortex down, and my rapid and complete recovery from almost certain destruction—I simply had to take seriously the possibility that it really and truly had happened for a reason.” (p. 144)

The fact that Proof of Heaven has been right up at the top, or very close to it, of the New York Times bestseller list for 25 weeks is very hopeful, an indication that, perhaps, Alexander’s ideas are “ideas whose time has come.”

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I’ve been thinking a great deal about how the worldwide movement for progressive social change, for a world of justice, peace and connection to Nature, must positively affirm another lesson learned by Alexander, that “science doesn’t contradict what I learned up there. But far, far too many people believe it does, because certain members of the scientific community, who are pledged to the materialist worldview, have insisted again and again that science and spirituality cannot coexist. They are mistaken. Making this ancient but ultimately basic fact more widely known is why I have written this book, and it renders all the other aspects of my story. . . entirely secondary.” (p. 73)

The efforts over the past 165 years to build a qualitatively superior society to capitalism have yielded relatively meager results, with the planet and many of the life forms on it in deep crisis in so many ways. Based on my 45 years of work to build a better world, and based on what I have observed and experienced, I am convinced that these meager results are primarily because too many of the social change agents, the organizers and activists, have been unable to integrate a “scientific” and a “spiritual” worldview.

Perhaps more accurately, they have not seen that a truly scientific, materialist, fact-based analysis of the nature of our world must recognize that such an integration IS reality. More than that, this integration of science and spirituality is an essential, probably THE essential, aspect of a way forward in this world in deep crisis. It is the way towards the emergence of a political/social/cultural/spiritual movement with the breadth and depth needed to bring about genuine social transformation.

Such a movement must talk often and easily about love, a loving society, as our objective. If truth be told, this is not such a new idea. Che Guevera himself is famous for his statement about love half a century ago: “At the risk of seeming ridiculous, let me say that the true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love. It is impossible to think of a genuine revolutionary lacking this quality… We must strive every day so that this love of living humanity will be transformed into actual deeds, into acts that serve as examples, as a moving force.”

If we who believe in systemic change began writing and talking publicly about love on a wide scale, worked to make love a reality in our day-to-day life and the way we interact with each other and with others, what a wonderful world we could eventually create.

If we meant it, if we took it seriously, if we consciously manifested this most simple yet most profound way of being, to quote Teilhard de Chardin, “for a second time in the history of the world, humankind will have discovered fire.”

Ted Glick has been a progressive activist and organizer since 1968. Past writings and more information can be found at http://tedglick.com, and he can be followed on twitter at http://twitter.com/jtglick.