In 1964 my wife had a near death experience following a tubal pregnancy that ruptured. She had coded upon arrival to the emergency room. After her recovery, she reported that during the time the medical team was working on reviving her, she experienced being in Heaven, and being held in the arms of God. It was clear to her that she had a choice between staying in a comforting embrace surrounded by light and loving warmth, or returning to her previous life. Her choice was to return. This is the first story of Heaven.
As a doctoral student in psychology, I remember being uncomfortable when my wife would talk about her experience with my associates. They would immediately offer explanations for her experience which were biologically based on brain processes or chemistry. They were dismissive of her mystical experience, considering it to be some sort of psychological issue. This is a version of the second story.
There is a universal truth about such conflicting stories. Neither can be proven. What counts for scientific proof is actually a belief system, just as a personal mystical experience understood through a religious faith, is a belief system. The choice is left to the observer, to determine which system will be used to understand.
My wife spoke less and less about this event as the years passed. She often remarked that people seemed either politely skeptical, or uncomfortable when hearing her story.
Over the years, there have been increasing accounts of personal mystical journeys to Heaven published in books and articles. I know of at least five books which document such journeys made by ordinary persons or even a child. There are remarkable similarities in all of these accounts.
One of the most recent of these books directly addresses the scientific conclusion that brain processes and chemistry account for the reported experiences of being in Heaven during a near death experience. The book was written by a neurosurgeon, Eban Alexander, MD, who has his medical degree from Harvard University. In his book “Proof of Heaven” he documents that his brain cortex was not functional for at least one week, due to a medical emergency. An infection had entered his brain and was destroying it. The sensors monitoring brain activity flat lined during his coma. There was therefore no biological basis for his experience of being with God, yet that was what he reported when he recovered. One can imagine that his scientifically minded colleagues would certainly be skeptical and dismissive.
This clash of two stories was explored in the wonderful novel “Life of Pi.” The author proposed that the reader will “find God” through this story. For those who have not had the opportunity to read the novel, or did not see the motion picture, the story is told of a teenager from Delhi, named Pi. The main story begins aboard a ship destined for Canada with Pi, his family, and the animals from their family zoo. The ship is disabled and sunk during a violent storm at sea, leaving Pi with four of the animals aboard a life boat as the only survivors. The predatory animal attacks the other two and is in turn killed by the Bengal Tiger. Pi is left alone in a small raft with a tiger for over 200 days of drifting at sea. He miraculously survives and is washed ashore along with the tiger, who then disappears into the jungle and is never seen again.
When the representatives from the shipping company come to interview Pi, he initially tells them the story of his survival with the tiger. The representatives are immediately skeptical. No one could survive such an ordeal, they say. They ask Pi to tell them an alternative story which is more believable. A story they can present to their home office and to the insurance adjusters.
Pi then tells a second story of three people, not animals, on the life boat who succumbed to starvation; injury sustained during the sinking of the ship; violence; and the threat of cannibalism. The reader is left to conclude that the tiger was actually a manifestation of Pi’s aggression and will to survive.
Pi then asks the representatives which story they believe. Neither can be proven. That is also the essence of the truth about near death experiences.
Two stories about Heaven will continue to be told. One is told by people who describe light, warmth, bliss, heavenly beings, or loved ones who have died. The other is told by skeptics and scientifically oriented persons who continue to look for more logical and physically based reasons for reported mystical experiences of heaven. Which story is true? It is up to the audience to choose.
These two stories of proof of heaven are still being told. Recent scientific research demonstrates that laboratory animals, when euthanized, exhibit a spike of brain activity as the point of death. The scientists conclude that this parallels human experiences of near death, and therefore is proof of brain chemistry as the basis of mystical experiences.
But those who hear this story with a religious faith system, come to a different conclusion. They suggest that scientists may have discovered that animals must be able to experience God too.