A Publication of The Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College
There’s no contesting that in the second decade of the 21st century books about heaven are hot, hot, hot. “Hotter even than the other place,” wrote Craig Wilson in USA Today on January 25. “Just ask any bookseller in America.”
And the trend shows no sign of cooling off, with the October 6 New York Times combined non-fiction best seller list showing Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey Into the Afterlife (49 weeks), and longtime favorites 90 Minutes in Heaven (149 weeks), and Heaven is For Real (150) weeks. As Wilson dryly observed, “It’s a lucrative business.”
The books also open a window on fascinating shifts in American religious belief. On one side of the aisle, Dr. Eben Alexander’s Proof of Heaven made a big splash in spite of drawing scathing reactions, from both religious and secular critics, for his combination of scientific insight and non-orthodox religious experiences.
On the other side of the aisle, two of the most popular of dozens of recent books pretty much toe the line when it comes to the Christian (and particularly evangelical Protestant) view on the afterlife. 90 Minutes in Heaven, written in 2009 by Baptist minister Don Piper, tells of his Ford Fiesta’s nasty run-in with an 18-wheeler in Texas, after which paramedics declared him dead. Piper describes a by-the-book Christian ascension to Heaven, where he met deceased relatives, saw the Pearly Gates of Revelation 21:21, and joined a heavenly choir, before being somewhat reluctantly brought back to this world.
Now a sought-after speaker with his book translated into multiple languages, Piper explains his take-away message on donpiperministries.com. While it is possible that Jews, as the Chosen People, have “a separate judgment” with God, “[t]he truth is we still believe you must profess Christ as your Lord and Savior in order to go to heaven.”
The cuteness factor of Heaven Is For Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back gave it crossover appeal beyond the Christian circuit. It only took three weeks to reach the New York Times best seller list, compared to the three years it took 90 Minutes in Heaven to get there. Todd Burpo (with Lynn Vincent, who assisted Sarah Palin with Going Rogue), wrote the book after his five-year-old son Colton shocked his parents in an Arby’s restaurant by telling them that while under anesthesia for an emergency appendectomy, he not only saw them praying in another room, but that “I was sitting in Jesus’ lap.”
The pastor of Crossroads Wesleyan Church in Imperial, Nebraska, Burpo wrote that he was at first unsure if Colton’s stories were dreams or reality, but became convinced when his son detailed meeting long-lost relatives and a miscarried sister who had been kept a secret. Burpo now makes a living speaking about Colton’s experience, and a movie deal with Columbia Pictures is in the works.
While Colton’s experiences reflect a child’s view of the afterlife, including rainbows, flying horses, and a kindly Jesus, it’s not all sweetness and light. There are descriptions of a final battle to come (complete with monsters) and a meeting with Satan. Again, though less in-your-face than 90 Minutes in Heaven, Heaven Is for Real fulfills the evangelical duty to save souls for Christ. One scene stands out: Colton attending a funeral and blurting out, “Did that man have Jesus? He had to! He had to!…He can’t get into heaven if he didn’t have Jesus in his heart!”
First published by Simon & Schuster in October 23 of last year, Proof of Heaven is an altogether different animal. Written by Eben Alexander, a not particularly religious Episcopalian and former Harvard neurosurgeon now based in Virginia, it tells of a bout of bacterial meningitis that sent him into a coma for seven days. Alexander related that while his brain’s neo-cortex completely stopped functioning, he was reborn into a formless substance, and then guided by a beautiful young woman on a blue butterfly to what he described as “an immense void” filled with light. Without speaking, she communicated to him a message of acceptance.
“You are loved and cherished, dearly, forever.”
“You have nothing to fear.”
“There is nothing you can do wrong.”
Alexander then describes being in the presence of a loving God or spirit of creation he called Om, and observing other people inhabiting the afterlife who were filled with joy and peace. After regaining consciousness and enduring a long recovery, he concluded that he was compelled to write his book and let the world know about his unique experience.
The book got huge and instant play in the media, which took his claims as a man of science very seriously. Newsweek’s October 8, 2012 cover story (“Heaven Is Real: A Doctor’s Experience With the Afterlife”) was given over to Alexander’s unchallenged account of his spiritual experience. Proof of Heaven debuted in the top spot on the New York Times paperback best seller list, and received a generally positive article by Leslie Kaufman in the November 25 Times.
After he described Alexander’s experience, the popularity of his book, and presented only one skeptical voice (Martin Samuels, chairman of the neurology department at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital), Kaufman ended with a quote from the author. “Our spirit is not dependent on the brain or body,” he said. “It is eternal, and no one has one sentence worth of hard evidence that it isn’t.”
With booming sales and a less hardline vision of who gets to enjoy the afterlife (“all of God’s children”), Alexander became a media figure in a way that others writing before him had not. In the fall of 2012, he appeared on “Nightline,” “Good Morning America,” “The Dr. Oz Show,” and Larry King’s live-streaming talk show on Hulu. On December 12, he sat for an hour-long interview with Oprah Winfrey. He called the faceless, genderless divine entity he encountered Om, he explained to Winfrey, because “‘God’ was too small…so limiting.”
This kind of talk did not endear Alexander to the Christians who lapped up the testimonies of Colton Burpo and Todd Piper. On December 21, Christianity Today ran “Incredible Journeys: What to Make of Visits to Heaven,” a lengthy cover story by editor Mark Galli. Although some Christians consider unorthodox books on heaven to be “mere hallucination or a deceptive work of the Devil,” Galli wrote, “it is apparent that many of these people have had a remarkable encounter with the living God revealed in Jesus Christ.”
Not everyone was so understanding of Alexander’s theology, with Rob Phillips getting down to brass tacks in an article in Baptist Press January 13. “Dr. Alexander states in his book that any religion making exclusive truth claims (think Christianity) is wrong,” wrote Phillips.
Catholic spokespeople were largely silent on the controversy, perhaps inspired by the tolerant attitude of their new pope. As Francis said in a May 21 homily, “The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! ‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists. Everyone!”
But denunciation by scientists and skeptics was swift and fierce. Incensed by the breathless Newsweek cover story, the atheist neuroscientist Sam Harris burned up his blog with indignation, suggesting that Alexander’s “undocumented claim… suggests that he doesn’t know anything about the relevant brain science.” Harris sought out the opinion of Mark Cohen, a UCLA neuroscientist and pioneer of brain imaging, who declared that what Alexander called “inactivation of the cerebral cortex” actually described “brain death, a one hundred percent lethal condition.”
Harris concluded that “whether or not heaven exists, Alexander sounds exactly how a scientist should not sound when he doesn’t know what he is talking about.”
Neurologist and author Oliver Sacks wrote an article in the December 12 Atlantic titled “Seeing God in the Third Millennium” that explained how the brain can produce both hallucinations and NDEs (near-death experiences) as the result of a number of medical conditions, including regaining consciousness after being in a coma. “To deny the possibility of any natural explanation for an NDE,” Sacks charged, “is more than unscientific—it is antiscientific.”
The April 13 issue of Scientific American chimed in with Skeptic magazine founder Michael Shermer’s article “Why a Near-Death Experience Isn’t Proof of Heaven.” It compared Alexander’s experience to the NDE phenomenon, and asked what was more likely: that he actually went to heaven, “Or that all such experiences are mediated by the brain but seem real to each experiencer?”
While the objections of Harris, Sacks, and other neuroscientists might be easily dismissed by loyal fans of the book, the next attack was aimed at Alexander himself.
In August, nearly a year after Proof of Heaven was published, Esquire ran “The Prophet,” a lengthy piece of investigative journalism by Luke Dittrich that exposed anomalies in the doctor’s medical episode, and especially in his biography. It revealed that Alexander had been fired from Brigham and Women’s Hospital in 2001, and then had his surgical privileges suspended by UMass Memorial in 2003 “on the basis or allegation of improper performance of surgery.”
Alexander’s spotty professional record continued when he moved home to the South and took a job at Lynchburg General Hospital, where he would also lose surgical privileges, eventually transitioning into a non-surgical career after having to settle 10 lawsuits. When confronted by Dittrich for skipping over his professional difficulties in a book that purports to be by a respected neurologist, Alexander responded “I just think that you’re doing a grave disservice to your readers to lead them down a pathway of thinking that any of this is relevant.”
But Esquire went ahead with the revelations, painting a picture of a spiritual guide who is loose with the truth and in it for the cash. “Dr. Alexander looks less like a messenger from heaven and more like a true son of America, a country where men have always found ways to escape the rubble of their old lives through invention.”
While the media picked up on Esquire’s revelations, Proof of Heaven’s continued popularity and position on the bestseller list suggests that the damage wasn’t permanent. Along with Heaven Is For Real and 90 Minutes in Heaven, it remains near the top of a still-expanding growth in books about visits to the hereafter.
It is easy to see why Christians might be interested in books presenting positive descriptions of heaven. In a long post on CNN’s Belief Blog May 19, John Blake put popular fascination with heaven into historical context. Uncertain times—ranging from the Civil War to today’s stalled economy—have often produced passionate interest in reassuring visions of the afterlife.
Alexander’s vision of the afterlife also fits comfortably into a vast but submerged stream of American religious tradition that historians call metaphysical or harmonial, which has been mostly non-institutional, but which has produced some significant movements, including Mormonism, Spiritualism, and Christian Science. Some aspects of Alexander’s tour of heaven sound a good deal like the 19th-century clairvoyant and spiritualist Andrew Jackson Davis’ 1878 account of his reassuring interplanetary tour of the heavens led by a spirit guide.
Blake suggested that the recent spate of books on the afterlife fill a special void, seeking to answer the question, “Why doesn’t the church talk about Heaven anymore?” Perhaps, he wrote, it was because “few big-name pastors devote much energy to preaching or writing about the subject, and many ordinary pastors avoid the topic altogether out of embarrassment, indifference, or fear.” Fear, that is, of laying down the law that heaven will not throw open its gates for anyone who hasn’t accepted Jesus as Savior.
If believers make up the audience for Christian books on heaven, and strict non-believers have no use for Proof of Heaven’s flights of fancy, then who are heaping the dollars into Alexander’s bank account, and accompanying him on healing tours to Greece?
A recent survey of college students may contain some clues.
The 2008 American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) found that 15 percent of American adults , said they had no religion—up 100 percent over two decades. These “Nones,” said principal investigator Ariela Keysar, were “the only group to have grown in every state of the Union.”
Five years later, the ARIS 2013 National College Student Survey explored the religious identity of young adults. Did they consider themselves to be religious, secular, or spiritual, not religious? Thirty-two percent chose religious, 28 percent chose secular, and 32 percent identified themselves as spiritual, not religious.
In answer to the question, “Do you believe in life after death?” fully 45 percent of the spiritual but not religious respondents answered in the affirmative. Many of these are interested in an eclectic array of healing practices, Eastern religious concepts of karma and reincarnation, and miracles. They are, in fact, more open to a range of metaphysical possibilities than both the religious and the secular.
Metaphysical religion is not new—its heyday was in the mid-19th century. But its current followers seem to be increasingly willing to take a public stand. Proof of Heaven may not convince the religious or the secular among us, but there are plenty of others who find a loving and inclusive afterlife to be just what the doctor ordered.