One of the most astonishing accounts in modern times is Dr. Eben Alexander’s Proof of Heaven. It made a splash when published in 2012, because this was a near-death experience (NDE) unlike any other. Beforehand, Alexander was a skeptic about the after-life and about NDEs. He was an unsentimental and successful neurosurgeon who believed, like many in the medical community, that NDEs were hallucinations created by neuro-transmitters continuing to fire in the brain when consciousness ceased. But his own illness seemed specifically designed to undermine that theory. He was suddenly overcome by a rare meningitis that not only placed him in a coma but shut down his brain. All the specialists involved told his family that if he ever recovered from his coma he would be a vegetable. After a week they were just about to “pull the plug” when he opened his eyes and began talking. He was completely cured and no one could understand how. But we might understand the why. I have not finished the book yet much less rendered a decision on how kosher its theology is. But Alexander’s life since then reminds me of Mark Helprin’s epigram to Winter’s Tale:
I have been to another world, and come back. Listen to me.
Near the beginning of his experience, Alexander finds himself flying without an aircraft over a paradisical land. Assuming it is true and not a hallucination it reminds us that mystic wonder has more to do with people than place. And it gives a rock solid glimpse of what “higher and holier” means.
Proof of Heaven
Someone was next to me: a beautiful girl with high cheekbones and deep blue eyes. She was wearing the same kind of peasant-like clothes that the people in the village down below wore. Golden-brown tresses framed her lovely face….
The girl’s outfit was simple, but its colors–powder blue, indigo, and pastel orange-peach–had the same overwhelming, super-vivid aliveness that everything else in the surroundings had. She looked at me with a look that, if you saw it for a few moments, would make your whole life up to that point worth living, no matter what had happened in it is so far. It was not a romantic look. It was not a look of friendship. It was a look that was somehow beyond all these…beyond all the different types of love we have down here on earth. It was something higher, holding all those other kinds of love within itself while at the same time being more genuine and pure than all of them.
In the end of the book, Dr. Alexander, who was adopted as a baby, is given an old photo and discovers this girl is his birth-sister whom he never knew.