Visions of Heaven: Are they so Rare? (Guest Voice)

Visions of Heaven: Are They So Rare?
by the Rev. James Richardson

Dr. Eben Alexander

Dr. Eben Alexander

There has been a fair amount of buzz around my parish about Dr. Eben Alexander’s book, Proof of Heaven. So when he was featured this week at the Virginia Festival of the Book, I went to check him out and hear what he had to say.

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.”

300px-Raffael_099 (1)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.

  

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8 Comments

  1. I worked in a Neuro-surgical ICU for 6 years, and witnessed life and death on a regular basis. The human brain is an amazing organ, and given time, can recover from seemingly devastating injuries. Where do we go in the interim? I am not sure of the medical explanation, but as a person of faith, I find the doctor’s account very comforting. Medicine is not an exact science, and accounts such as Dr. Alexander’s illustrate this fact. As a nurse, I have worked with many neuro-surgeons, and surgeons are notoriously arrogant and in love with themselves. They believe in a medical
    explanation for everything- another reason Dr. Alexander’s account of what happened to him is so interesting and riveting to me. He could have just explained it all away as neurons mis-firing and such- but he didn’t.

  2. Reverend Richardson,

    I hear and appreciate the opinions you express, because I too have at times, felt close to death in a way that has led me to believe that the reality we know is not just the end of the story.

    A while ago, I was sent an offer for a subscription to FREE INQUIRY which was offered as a magazine for “free thinkers.” Although Richard Dawkins was listed among its contributing editors, and although I often had considered Mr. Dawkins
    a fairly tolerant person when dealing with many religious people, this subscription offer included a quote from him that actually pigeon-holed all people of faith as being gullible dummies who believed only in the silly stories and fictitious fairy tales offered in religious texts. He actually reduced the whole Christ story to being about God’s getting himself born to a virgin and having himself tortured to death to forgive the theft of an apple (or words to that effect).

    The implication was that ALL people of faith regarded the symbolic content of their religious faiths as being literally true—if a talking snake tempted Eve, then it literally happened that way. Although no doubt some christian fundamentalists may believe every word of the Bible to be literally true, it was both false and demeaning for Dawkins to reduce all of the deeply held beliefs in Christianity to silly stories about impossible things. I wrote to FREE INQUIRY and complained that, even though many of Dawkin’s observations about religions may have been true, it was demeaning both to the many fine people who try to improve the world by believing in a loving God, and to his own intellectual integrity when stooping so low to provide Sophomoric caricatures criticising all people of faith.

    What followed was an ongoing email philosophical debate with one of the magazines other Editors, Tom Flynn, about reported cases of NDE or Near Death Experiences. One particular point that this other editor made, Involved the fact that when human bodies are weighed shortly after death, they do not lose any measurable mass and therefore a dead body is nothing but a dead body. This particular approach is meaningless to my own idea of a “soul or spirit” that survives death, and I just replied that within the context of such an argument,physical experiments of this kind are irrelevant—being that, many religious people, believe that a soul is not a physical or material entity to begin with.

    I also remember him claiming that since Christians might have visions about Jesus, Muslims may see Mohammed and Hindu’s may see Krishna, that this was proof that none of these faiths refereed to the same God. I personally, believe that the symbolic content of NDEs is determined by the particular faith one is exposed to in life, but asserted my belief that all faiths refer to the same God, just under different names, and cultures symbols. An example I used to illustrate was this:

    Although a Muslim, a Hindu or a Christian may all wake up to the same beautiful sunny day, and are then asked to describe their feelings about that day, one of them would probably describe it in Arabic, one might in Hindi and another perhaps in English—thus they would all use different languages made up of different symbols, but, might all be expressing the same essentially enjoyable experience—only in different ways.

    I do believe that NDEs contain symbolic content from the mind of the person having the experience, but this doesn’t diminish the importance of such an experience. The people who describe them may be describing different scenes and vision, but, a large number of them all talk about experiencing complete love and complete calm as they walk towards a beautiful light, or perhaps greeted all of their friends and loved one’s with joy and serenity as they moved past them down a hallway leading to radient light. For sure, some will report differences, but almost all report the wonderful presence of complete love and beauty, so it is hard to categorize all these similar experiences from members of different cultures, faiths, and sometimes even atheists, as merely delusional states devoid of all meaning.

    I love the discoveries of science and our continual journey towards uncovering the nature of reality and the secrets of the universe. I also accept that readings that determine age, from among the many different methods for testing fossils and and/or deep levels of ice core samples, are accurate, and do not represent a temptation from the Devil. So, there is no way I can believe all the Biblical account of creation as factual. I am also convinced that many beliefs from different faith, often come out of superstition and dogma—in that regard I am also open to the knowledge gained by scientists and the opinions of atheists. However, when I read the many accounts of NDEs from people from all cultures, races and religion—some even from atheists—I can’t help but think that some of the answers given by scientists to explain these realms of experience, are more unbelievable than the spiritual explanations themselves. The idea that the light represents only an unusual reaction by the optic nerves when near death, does not explain the beauty and serenity felt by those moving towards a beautiful, all loving, and incredibly calming light! These people are not brain damaged remnants of the 60s–they are, rather, often intelligent and knowledgeable people from every walk of life! They are not just gazing at colorful hallucinations and saying “Wow! Colors Man!

    The more of these experiences I read about, the more I am convinced that they represent, feelings involving experiences which are so real and valid, that they can’t be explained away as wish-fulfilling fantasies, or as merely biological reactions. Some of the early scientists and psychologists who took drugs like LSD and Mescaline, reported experiences so transcendent, that they coined the phrase, “Those who have had the experience will immediately understand, but those who have not had the experience, will not understand.”

    I think if anything, the Universe will continue to present mind-blowing challenges to our present ways of thinking, and knowledge will ultimately evolve in a way that will confront us with validity from our deepest subjective experiences, as well as challenge the notion that complete objectivity is even possible. Lets just keep part of our minds grounded in reality, but always be open to the existences of things that we presently don’t understand!

  3. OF course all the popular talk about near death experiences involves goodness and light, we never hear about those experiences that involve terror and gloom, afterall, who want’s to hear them? They exist nonetheless. I’ve had my own spiritual experiences, but won’t talk about them because they are personal and not for general use (or exploitation). I fear to do so would somehow cheapen them, besides, there are no words to do them justice. As for the need on the part of anyone to interpret such experiences only through a Christian lens, to me that just de-legitimizes the whole thing in a hurry.

    “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” ~ Billy S.

  4. Rev JR, I really enjoyed your article. I will read Alexander’s book. Much appreciated.

  5. Just to add to PeteW’s analysis…

    Let me add something that a Tibetan teacher once told me: You don’t have a body when you’re “there.” You don’t have eyes or ears or nose. What you experience is states of consciousness, which you then CLOTHE with the imagery most appropriate to you. Thus, he said, when someone has a transcendental experience, they clothe it in their own, personal imagery, like dreams: a Catholic will see the Virgin Mary, where a Christian will see Jesus, a Muslim Gabriel, a Hindu Krishna, etc. etc.

    But while the experiences are epistemologically real, the obsession with “form” (of what he stated were ‘formless’ entities) ofttimes causes people to fixate on their own imagery without comprehending the experience.

    I had a near death experience in 1980 and this exactly gibes with my experience, minus the need to use Western imagery. Still, had I been so inclined, I might have seen Jacob’s Ladder, Ezekiel’s Wheel, Jesus and the Virgin Mary comforting me, or Ganesh handing me a thunderbolt.

  6. William,

    I agree, that the way we perceive spiritual experiences although possibly involving the same basic elements, would almost certainly be interpreted through our particular cultural backgrounds and heritages. And perhaps all of the great spiritual leaders have been trying to give us the same essential information, but must express their truths according to the cultures they live in.

    I am glad Zephyr brought up the fact that near death experiences can also become journeys through Hell, depending on our own psychic fears. So this may lead some to conclude that all of these NDEs are basically fantasies. However, according to some of the mystics I have read, the experience of moving towards a beautiful light representing all love and truth, as well as other experiences like it, is more often associated with nearing enlightenment, and while many who report these types of experiences, although dressing them in different images and symbols often come away with core feelings that are much the same. Many mystics claim that our higher experiences take place on the Astral plane—a mode of existence that we all experience during sleep. So, its understandable that NDEs may often involve many different, and sometimes frightening images, just like our dreams do. But, I imagine even Hellish episodes might sometimes be imbued with impressively meaningful content to the dreamer.

    Its hard to explain why, but I think it’s not really necessary for anyone who has these expediences, to follow a certain religion or even believe in a God. And, although personally chosen philosophical preferences embraced by many different types of people may remain essentially the same, some accounts from atheist who have had basically the same transcendent and positive experiences, have felt that “the light” represents a deep intuitive center within themselves. So all kinds of experiences can be viewed from different perspectives and have very different content, but, one thing that seems to remain true of all–that the person who experiences them, feels that he or she has had a profound experience, which often affects the course of their lives.

  7. The last two comments resonate for me in particular. I agree, these experiences are bigger than and go beyond any specific religious context or symbolism we might be tempted to attach to them, whether we do so consciously or unconsciously. This only adds to thier power and legitimacy imo. That said, I wouldn’t make any claims to understanding them, even after personal experience with the phenomenon. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with mystery and people shouldn’t be afraid to admit when something IS a mystery, even if that means we are a bit of a mystery to ourselves.

  8. Hart, please excuse me,

    For some reason I keep wanting to call you William, as if that is your first name. I really don’t know why.

    I want Zephyr to know that I also have no neat and handy answers when it comes to really understanding NDEs. I have read much about them and have even had some profound experiences myself, but I can’t really claim to understand all of the hows and whys of these experiences. What fascinates me is the profound effects many of them have on those who experience them.

    Here is a statement which might not seem valid to someone who tries to exclude all knowledge that isn’t completely and empirically provable. It is not an exact quote, and I am also not an extreme Harry Potter fan either, but, it concerns a conversation between Harry and and his teacher, in the last episode, which is portrayed as having been witnessed by Harry after dying. Harry cannot believe all of the things being revealed to him and he says something like, “But how do I know that this is not all in my imagination?” His teacher says, “Of course it’s in your imagination, but that doesn’t mean its not real!”

    I think that in the world of dreams and perhaps in NDEs we gain access to many experiences which, although colored with subconscious symbols, still impart to us a sense of great wisdom and beauty that leaves definite impressions even though not being completely understandable through rational analysis. All we can do is stand in awe and marvel at the things we sense are real, but are not able to to be objectively verified like a mathematical equation. I also think that there are many things under Heaven and earth that are not dreamt of in our philosophies! Rationality has its roll in eliminating many things that are actually false, but perhaps even complete objectivity will never explain all of the mysteries in this universe!

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