What happens to us when we die is a fundamental mystery of human experience, so it’s no wonder that stories about near-death experiences seem to be perennially popular. Recently, Dr. Eben Alexander, a neurosurgeon, wrote Proof of Heaven, a book about what he believes were visions he had during a coma. It has gotten a fair bit of publicity, both positive and negative, including skeptical debunking pieces in Scientific American and Esquire.
I do not wish to enter into a debate about whether or not Dr. Alexander really saw heaven. I’m not sure it’s possible to know. What I have noticed, though, is that the language of Proof of Heaven and the articles that criticize it all reveal how impoverished our understanding of faith, knowledge and evidence is.
It’s interesting to me that both Alexander and his critics rely firmly on the language of science to discuss his experiences. It’s strategic that Alexander’s vocation as a neurosurgeon is included in the subtitle of the book: A Neurosurgeon's Journey into the Afterlife. The claim seems to be that since he is a physician, he has a kind of special access to scientific knowledge that makes him more credible than someone else.
Make no mistake, I think scientists do good and important work. I love, respect and appreciate my colleagues who research and teach in the sciences. But I think they understand, as I do, that the scientific method is one way of learning a particular kind of information. We have other ways of knowing things as well: tradition, experience, argumentation and relationships are some examples. For instance, science is not a great way for me to know how to make a close friend laugh. Relationship and experience are. More to the point, knowledge about God and religious truth come from other sources than the scientific method. They rely on faith, not “proof” (a word, by the way, I don’t usually hear scientists use either).
The real problem is to assume that religious truth is something that can be proved at all
The real problem that both Alexander and his critics have, then, is to assume that religious truth is something that can be proved at all. When it comes down to it, when asked about why we believe our faith is true, I suspect most of us would turn to a story of our experience of a relationship with God. Indeed, that is one way to think of much of the Bible: the story of some people’s relationships with God. Those stories are meaningful, compelling and truthful, but they are not proof. Faith, the writer of Hebrews famously reminds us, is the assurance of what we do not see. Jesus spoke a special blessing after His resurrection for those of us who do not see and still believe.
Having faith in a man who claimed He was God, who died and then rose again 2,000 years ago, can be a tough pill to swallow, but that is what our faith is. God offers us signs of His presence and stories of His work in history and today, but those signs are not proof. They are moments in a relationship, one that requires, as all relationships do, risk and trust.