Arguing the legitimacy of a religious experience takes on an interesting twist when such an experience makes a believer out of a skeptic–especially one who operated on the brain. Dr. Eben Alexander, a neurosurgeon in Virginia, recently publicized his account of a miraculous experience he had while in a coma. So drastic and vivid was his experience that he went from being a lukewarm Christian to an enthusiastic spokesman for what lies beyond our lives on Earth.
In 2008, Eben Alexander awoke with a terrible headache. Hours later, his brain was shutting down. (Specifically his cortex, the part of his brain controlling higher functions such as emotion and thought.) E. coli bacteria had infected him. He soon fell into a coma. For seven days he lay unconscious at the very hospital he worked at. On the seventh day he opened his eyes. Here are his own words of what happened while his body lay:
Toward the beginning of my adventure, I was in a place of clouds. Big, puffy, pink-white ones that showed up sharply against the deep blue-black sky. Higher than the clouds—immeasurably higher—flocks of transparent, shimmering beings arced across the sky, leaving long, streamer-like lines behind them.
Birds? Angels? These words registered later, when I was writing down my recollections. But neither of these words do justice to the beings themselves, which were quite simply different from anything I have known on this planet. They were more advanced. Higher forms.
A sound, huge and booming like a glorious chant, came down from above, and I wondered if the winged beings were producing it. The sound was palpable and almost material, like a rain that you can feel on your skin but doesn’t get you wet. Seeing and hearing were not separate in this place where I now was. I could hear the visual beauty of the silvery bodies of those scintillating beings above, and I could see the surging, joyful perfection of what they sang.
For most of my journey, someone else was with me. A woman. She was young, and I remember what she looked like in complete detail. She had high cheekbones and deep-blue eyes. Golden brown tresses framed her lovely face. When first I saw her, we were riding along together on an intricately patterned surface, which after a moment I recognized as the wing of a butterfly. In fact, millions of butterflies were all around us—vast fluttering waves of them, dipping down into the woods and coming back up around us again. It was a river of life and color, moving through the air. The woman’s outfit was simple, like a peasant’s, but its colors—powder blue, indigo, and pastel orange-peach—had the same overwhelming, super-vivid aliveness that everything else had. She looked at me with a look that, if you saw it for five seconds, would make your whole life up to that point worth living, no matter what had happened in it 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 compartments 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 much bigger than all of them.
Without using any words, she spoke to me. The message went through me like a wind, and I instantly understood that it was true.
“You are loved and cherished, dearly, forever.”
“You have nothing to fear.”
“There is nothing you can do wrong.”
The message flooded me with a vast and crazy sensation of relief. It was like being handed the rules to a game I’d been playing all my life without ever fully understanding it.
I began wordlessly putting questions to this wind, and to the divine being that I sensed at work behind or within it.
“Where is this place?”
“Who am I?”
“Why am I here?”
Each time I silently put one of these questions out, the answer came instantly in an explosion of light, color, love, and beauty that blew through me like a crashing wave.
There’s more. But this is a blog, not a book. You can read more of his account on his article, and even more, I presume, from his book soon being released.
Upon awakening, Alexander was a changed man. A self-described “man of science”, not only did this experience shake the foundation of his understanding, but it challenges all the scientific minds out there as well as the division we assume between the scientific and the spiritual. He wrote:
All the chief arguments against near-death experiences suggest that these experiences are the results of minimal, transient, or partial malfunctioning of the cortex. My near-death experience, however, took place not while my cortex was malfunctioning, but while it was simply off. This is clear from the severity and duration of my meningitis, and from the global cortical involvement documented by CT scans and neurological examinations.
According to current medical understanding of the brain and mind, there is absolutely no way that I could have experienced even a dim and limited consciousness during my time in the coma, much less the hyper-vivid and completely coherent odyssey I underwent.
Nonetheless, such an extraordinary tale was received with polite disbelief from Alexander’s colleagues, who, I assume, thought that even if such an experience can’t be described conventionally due to Alexander’s cortex shutdown, then it was a product of a yet unknown brain mechanism. But then Alexander found a place where his story was accepted: church.
The first time I entered a church after my coma, I saw everything with fresh eyes. The colors of the stained-glass windows recalled the luminous beauty of the landscapes I’d seen in the world above. The deep bass notes of the organ reminded me of how thoughts and emotions in that world are like waves that move through you. And, most important, a painting of Jesus breaking bread with his disciples evoked the message that lay at the very heart of my journey: that we are loved and accepted unconditionally by a God even more grand and unfathomably glorious than the one I’d learned of as a child in Sunday school.
And more than the two millennia old institution of the Christian church, Alexander found support in literature, quotes describing his incredible experience. He, in fact, found support from perhaps the most famous scientist:
The universe as I experienced it in my coma is—I have come to see with both shock and joy—the same one that both Einstein and Jesus were speaking of in their (very) different ways.
Alexander is now a believer not just in an afterlife and God, but in the coming together of science and spirituality. His evidence was his experience. His proof is the connection his experience has to the church, literature, scholarly writings, and testimonies going back as far as one can document. His conviction allowed him to write a book with this title:
The problem people have with this is that his experience is also completely unverifiable. Also, there have been many claims of things as varied as alien abductions to Bigfoot to people claiming to be Jesus. So I don’t blame skeptics for their knee-jerk reaction to this. But I also think we can start to differentiate the false from the truth in the realm of the unverifiable. In the text of Alcoholic Anonymous, there is a chapter devoted to those who dispute the existence of “a Higher Power”. Back in the late 30′s when the book was written, these men and women made an articulate argument that to deny the results of countless individual examples of spiritual transformation was itself unscientific. How can one deny all the evidence?
There’s a natural duality in place in humanity: our aptness and excitement to believe in the supernatural and the unexplained vs. our need for evidence. Either urge can limit us. Is either side doing so in this case? These commentors of Dr. Alexander’s article had something to say about it:
drrobjohnston: I am amazed that a ‘neurosurgeon’ has never heard of the concept of ‘dreaming’!
response to drrobjohnston: Faith in science and rationality is no less pretentious when attempting to discern the spiritul nature of love.
another commentor: If you start out with an incorrect premise, you are most unlikely to come up with a correct conclusion. The idea that a human cortex can be truly shut down in a still living body is unmerited under existing science.
another commentor: If his neocortex was off, he could not have been hallucinating/dreaming, and he also presumably knows what a dream feels like. If the dream gave him senses it’s a hallucination which, without the neocortex IS NOT POSSIBLE. So there are really only two options for atheists with this story: 1. You can say he is a liar making up a hoax, despite this event having changed him radically from a skeptic to a believer. 2. You can accept it and start calling yourself an “agnostic” and admit you are unsure if there is or is not an afterlife.
Science is limited to that which we can measure. This axiom has grounded humanity and paved the trail through the technological and scientific advancements of the Renaissance, Industrial Revolution, and though today and beyond. But what about our ability to measure that which is also unverifiable? It’s an intriguing concept and one that may open our minds and bring together the two sides of us that wonder about the unknown while requiring proof.
What say you?
to new plateaus,
*The abridged portions of Alexander’s story are taken from his story online here: Heaven in Real His book about his experience and transformation is also soon being released.