When it Comes to Heaven, Seeing Is Believing

Scientists examine proofs of heaven by studying accounts of people who claim to have put eyes on it — including one of their fellow scientists.

If you’ve seen heaven, does that mean it exists?

This question is more than a mind-bender. For thousands of years, certain people have claimed to have actually visited the place that, St. Paul promised, “no eye has seen . . . and no human mind has conceived,” and their stories very often follow the same narrative arc. A skeptic, a rogue, or an innocent suffers hardship or injury: he is hit on the head, he suffers a stroke, he sustains damage in a car crash or on the operating table. A feeling of disconnection comes over him, a sense of being “outside” himself. Perhaps he encounters an opening: a gate, a door, a tunnel. And then, all at once, he is being guided through other worlds which look and feel to him more “real” than the world in which he once existed. These realms are both familiar and strange, containing music that doesn’t sound like music and light brighter than any light and creatures that may or may not be angels and the familiar faces of loved ones lost as well as figures from history and sometimes — depending on the narrator — even Jesus himself.

The tourist is agape. Words fail. He leaves reluctantly to reoccupy his body and this earth. But the experience changes him forever. Convinced as he is of a wholly different reality, he is calmer, more self-assured, determined to persuade the world of heaven’s Truth. He tells his story to the masses. “Heaven is real!” he proclaims.

In recent years, neuroscientists have offered their own explanations of how — and why — people on the brink of death might see, hear and experience celestial things.

The Book of Enoch, written hundreds of years before the birth of Jesus, tells a version this story, and so does the Book of Revelation, Christianity’s most foundational description of the sights and sounds of heaven. So do the medieval visionaries whose accounts were to the Middle Ages what reality TV is to the twenty-first century: “real” events marketed as popular entertainment (with an edifying Christian message thrown in).

And this narrative genre continues to thrive today. Ninety Minutes in Heaven (2004), about a Christian pastor who ascended to God after a car wreck; Heaven is for Real, (2011) about a child who sees heaven during surgery; and Proof of Heaven, by the Duke-trained neurosurgeon Eben Alexander, who traveled to heaven in 2012 — all wild best sellers, all following the same storyline.

But testimony is not the same thing as empirical truth, and in recent years, neuroscientists have offered their own explanations of how — and why — people on the brink of death might see, hear and experience celestial things. (Theories are the best we have in this realm — first, because it’s impossible, not to mention unethical, to do brain experiments on dying people, and second, because most dying people do die, and their accounts of their experience are lost to us.)

Andrew Newberg is a neuroscientist and professor at Thomas Jefferson University and Hospital and has made his reputation studying the brain scans of religious people (nuns and monks) who have ecstatic experiences as they meditate. He believes the “tunnel” and the “light,” which visionaries so frequently describe, can be easily explained. As your eyesight fades, you lose the peripheral areas first, he hypothesizes. “That’s why you’d have a tunnel sensation.” If you see a bright light, that could be the central part of the visual system shutting down last.

It is possible . . . that visions of heaven are merely chemical and neurological events that occur during death.

Newberg puts forward the following scenario, which, he emphasizes, is guesswork. When people die, two parts of the brain, which usually work in opposition to each other, act cooperatively. The sympathetic nervous system — a web of nerves and neurons running through the spinal cord and spread to virtually every organ in the body — is responsible for arousal or excitement. It gets you ready for action. The parasympathetic system — with which the sympathetic system is entwined — calms you down and rejuvenates you. In life, the turning on of one system promotes the shutting down of the other. The sympathetic nervous system kicks in when a car cuts you off on the highway; the parasympathetic system is in charge as you’re falling asleep. But in the brains of people who have mystical experiences — and, perhaps, in death — both systems are fully “on,” giving a person a sensation both of slowing down, being “out of body,” and of seeing things vividly, including memories of important people and past events.

It is possible, Newberg asserts — though not at all certain — that visions of heaven are merely chemical and neurological events that occur during death.

Since at least the 1980s, scientists have theorized that near-death experiences (NDEs) occur as a kind of physiological defense mechanism. In order to guard against damage during trauma, the brain releases protective chemicals that also happen to trigger intense hallucinations. This theory gained traction after scientists realized that virtually all of the features of an NDE — a sense of moving through a tunnel, an “out of body” feeling, spiritual awe, visual hallucinations, intense memories — can be reproduced with a stiff dose of ketamine, a horse tranquilizer frequently used as a party drug.

In 2000, a psychiatrist named Karl Jansen wrote a book called Ketamine: Dreams and Realities, in which he interviewed a number of recreational users. One of them describes one of his drug trips in a way that might be familiar to Dante, or the author of Revelation:

I came out into a golden Light. I rose into the Light and found myself having an unspoken exchange with the Light, which I believed to be God. . . . I didn’t believe in God, which made the experience even more startling. Afterwards, I walked around the house for hours saying “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”

For some scientists, however, purely scientific explanations of heaven visions do not suffice. Emily Williams Kelly is a psychologist who works at the University of Virginia’s Division of Perceptual Studies, which treats the study of NDEs as legitimate science. Her resume is impressive: she has degrees from Duke, UVA, and the University of Edinburgh — not institutions one usually associates with the study of the supernatural or paranormal. Kelly has spent her career researching, as she puts it, “the interface between the brain and the mind.” Practically speaking, she interviews dying people and tries to find patterns among their similarities.

Kelly believes the experiences of people who have had near-death visions demonstrate that consciousness exists even after normal brain function ceases. (She corroborates Eben Alexander’s claim, in other words.) This theory, Kelly argues, could suggest explanations for the afterlife: “If our conscious experience totally depends on the brain, then there can’t be an afterlife  — when the brain is gone, the mind is gone. But it’s not that simple. Even when the brain seems to be virtually disabled, people are still having these experiences.”

What is she saying? That upon death people really go to another realm? And that science can prove it? Kelly shrugs. NDEs “tell us to open our minds and think there may be a great deal more to mind and consciousness — that’s as far as I’m willing to go.”

Eben Alexander: “I intend to spend the rest of my life investigating the true nature of consciousness and making the fact that we are more, much more than our physical brains as clear as I can.”

When Alexander published his book in 2012, drawing on the work of Kelly and her husband Edward, he drew derision — as he knew he would — from broad segments of the rationalist and scientific communities. Having fallen into a coma after contracting bacterial meningitis, he saw incredible things. “I was a speck on a beautiful butterfly wing,” he wrote, “millions of other butterflies around us. We were flying through blooming flowers, blossoms on trees, and they were all coming out as we flew through them . . . [there were] waterfalls, pools of water, indescribable colors, and above there were these arcs of silver and gold light and beautiful hymns coming down from them. Indescribably gorgeous hymns. I later came to call them ‘angels,’ those arcs of light in the sky.”

This experience convinced him without a doubt of the existence of a loving God and the ability of souls to travel to the realms where God lives. The idea of a godless universe “now lies broken at our feet,” he wrote. “What happened to me destroyed it, and I intend to spend the rest of my life investigating the true nature of consciousness and making the fact that we are more, much more than our physical brains as clear as I can.”

The rationalist author Sam Harris, who is also a neuroscientist, lobbed a fierce critique at Alexander’s account. On his blog, he wrote an evisceration of Alexander’s excerpt in Newsweek, saying that while he had no particular convictions about the essence or origins of consciousness, he was quite sure Alexander’s argument was specious. No one’s cerebral cortex shuts down entirely during coma, Harris points out. Additionally, the doctor showed no understanding of the kinds of neurotransmitters that can be released by the brain during trauma, including DMT — which produces hallucinations. “Let me suggest that, whether or not heaven exists, Alexander sounds precisely how a scientist should not sound when he doesn’t know what he is talking about,” Harris concluded.

My own concern is somewhat different. I believe Alexander (and all the others who testify to having visited heaven) saw what he says he saw, but one person’s vision, seen during trauma, does not add up to proof. Further, all the emphasis on Alexander’s scientific credentials that accompanied the marketing of his book is disingenuous and entirely beside the point. If heaven exists, then presumably anyone could see it, a brick-layer or a school-teacher as readily as a neurosurgeon. Jesus himself said the first would be last; by those lights, the veracity of a vision of heaven would have nothing to do with where one went to medical school.

Adapted from “Discovering Heaven: How Our Ideas About the Afterlife Shape How We Live Today,” published by Time Inc. 2014

Image by Kenny Louie.

Lisa Miller
Written by

  • Mary Thawley

    I expect an explanation of what you believe-if you do. Otherwise I have read both viewpoints.

  • Martin Hughes

    There may be some hype surrounding Dr. Alexander’s story but I wouldn’t think, from what you say, that his claim to be taken seriously is undermined by the presumed fact that experiences of heaven would, if they occur, be the same for neurosurgeons, janitors and bricklayers. The question is the credibility of the report and perhaps there is some reason to give a little more credit to someone who has had an education that has, or should have, made him or her sceptical and questioning than one who has not: I’m prepared to believe that people of scientific background fit this bill. On the other hand this sort of thing never amounts, as you say, to proof: hundreds of similar reports would not. They are all in the end reports of how someone interprets an experience, not a report of an experience which others can share (which is a feature of all normal or standard experience) with the aid of the senses which we can trust because we use them every day. And everyone knows that injury and sickness often lead to strange dreams and delusions, so there is always an alternative interpretation of the experience available.
    I would be interested to know if anyone has ever said ‘I had an intense experience which corresponded to what my culture thinks of as heaven but now I think it was pure delusion’. I am sure that some people have had fearful visions of being sucked down into a fiery pit but our culture would resist believing these.
    Still, it’s a story with some charm and we shouldn’t get too solemn in our judgements. We’ll all just have to wait and see or not see.