Visions of Heaven: Are They So Rare?
by the Rev. James Richardson
His audience packed an old downtown church that is now used for our community homeless shelter, The Haven. I rather liked that as the venue for a talk about Heaven. Quite a number of members from my parish were in the audience, as were a handful of pastors from Charlottesville.
You could have heard a pin drop for the next 90 minutes as Dr. Alexander spoke. The audience was that enthralled.
For those unfamiliar with Dr. Alexander and his book, he is a neurosurgeon who has taught medicine at Harvard and worked here at the University of Virginia. He lives in Lynchburg, south of here.
In 2008, Dr. Alexander contracted a rare form of bacterial meningitis and fell into a coma for seven days. For all intents and purposes, he was brain dead. Then he came to. He has spent the last several years trying to explain what happened to him while he was in a coma. Medicine has no explanation, as he painstakingly described for us.
During his time of being “out” he experienced what he calls “ultra-reality.” He saw golden orbs in the sky, and a beautiful young girl who guided him through a lush fertile valley filled with life and joy. I won’t spoil the book, but when he came to, he was a transformed to his core and he knew he had experienced an all-knowing and all loving God.
“You are loved and cherished forever,” he said he heard. “You have nothing to fear.”
As I listened to Dr. Alexander, I kept thinking of the prophet Ezekiel, whose vision sounds much the same. Ezekiel sees an orb in the sky, and then a lush valley springing to life all around him. “I saw a wheel on the earth beside the living creatures… (Ezekiel 1:15)…wherever the river goes, every living creature that swarms will live…” (Ezekiel 47:9).
Someone in the audience asked Dr. Alexander if his experience could best be explained by Buddhism. That made me quite sad that our culture has so lost touch with the Christian mystics through the ages.
I was especially struck with how Dr. Alexander’s descriptions sounded so similar to the mystics I’ve studied over the years, for example Julian of Norwich (1342-1416) and Teresa of Avila (1515-1582), who described their own near-death experiences with the same imagery and the same sense of love and well-being.
Julian, who hung near death and had visions of being with “Our savior who is our true mother,” spent the next 30 years writing about her vision. She wrote of how God and love are inseparable and “between God and the soul there is no between.” When she came back from near-death, she said she knew to the depth of her soul that despite appearances to the contrary, “all shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.”
And then, as I listened to Dr. Alexander, also thought of this: the tomb of Lazarus, which so happens to be the reading assigned for Morning Prayer today (John 11:1-44).
As I read the familiar story, I hear it with new ears. Although our scientific materialistic minds might hear the story of Lazarus being raised from the dead as merely a metaphor, might it really be a true story of a man who, like Dr. Alexander, really did come back from the dead?
We don’t hear from Lazarus, though, and that is unfortunate. We don’t hear what he experienced. But we do hear that his family and friends threw a dinner party for him (John 12:1-10). The story continues with Jesus walking to his own death and his reappearance among those who loved him – Easter.
I am struck by how many of the biblical stories might be descriptions of near death experiences, and how those experiences transformed those who had them. It may be that these experiences aren’t rare at all, but have happened to thousands – millions – of people over for the millennia back beyond the time of recorded history. They’ve told about their experiences in language that people of their own time and place could understand.
Perhaps Dr. Alexander is among them precisely because he is a scientist – a brain scientist – and could explain this experience to us in our own scientific way of thinking.
I am struck with one common thread: these experiences are filled with love and hope. I close with a quote from the end of Dr. Alexander’s book:
Not only was my journey about love, but it was also about who we are and how connected we all are – the very meaning of all existence. I learned who I was up there, and when I came back, I realized that the last broken strands of who I am down here were sewn up. You are loved.” (p. 170)
The Rev. James Richardson serves at St. Paul’s Memorial Church in Virginia. He is an avid hiker and downhill skier, and loves to fly fish when he gets a chance. A native of the Golden State, he is a graduate of UCLA, and has an M.Div. from the Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley. He was a journalist for 20-plus years, including as a political writer with The Sacramento Bee. As an Episcopal priest he has served as Associate Dean of Trinity Cathedral, Sacramento, and as Interim Rector at All Souls Parish, Berkeley. As a journalist, he wrote a highly acclaimed biography of California Democrat Willie Brown. This is cross posted from his blog Fiat Lux.