I am the child of earth and starry heaven, but my real race is of heaven.
—FRAGMENT FROM AN ANCIENT GREEK TEXT GIVING INSTRUCTIONS FOR THE NEWLY DEAD SOUL ON HOW TO NAVIGATE THE AFTERLIFE
Imagine a young couple at their wedding. The ceremony is over, and everyone is crowding around on the church steps for a photo. But the couple, at this particular moment, doesn’t notice them. They’re too concerned with each other. They are looking deep into each other’s eyes—the windows of the soul, as Shakespeare called them.
Deep. A funny word to describe an action that we know can’t really be deep at all. Sight is a strictly physical affair. Photons of light strike the retinal wall at the rear of the eye, a mere inch or so behind the pupil, and the information they deliver is then translated into electrochemical impulses that travel along the optic nerve to the visual processing center in the rear of the brain. It’s an entirely mechanical process.
But of course, everyone knows just what you mean when you say you’re looking deep into someone’s eyes. You’re seeing that person’s soul—that part of the human being that the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus was talking about some 2,500 years ago when he wrote: “You would not find the limits of the soul even if you travelled forever, so deep and vast is it.” Illusion or not, it is a powerful thing to glimpse that depth when it presents itself.
We see this depth manifested most powerfully on two occasions: when we fall in love, and when we see someone die. Most people have experienced the first, while fewer, in our society where death is so shunted out of sight, have experienced the second. But medical people and hospice workers who see death regularly will know immediately what I’m talking about. Suddenly where there was depth there is now only surface. The living gaze—even if the person in question was very old and that gaze was vague and flickering—goes flat.
We see this when an animal dies, too. The direct avenue into what the twentieth-century scholar of religions Titus Burckhardt called “the inward realm of the soul” goes dead, and the body becomes, in essence, like an unplugged appliance.
So imagine that bride and groom looking into each other’s eyes, and seeing that bottomless depth. The shutter snaps. The image is captured. A perfect shot of a perfect pair of young newlyweds.
Now jump ahead half a dozen decades. Imagine that this couple had kids, and that those kids had kids of their own. The man in the picture has died, and the woman now lives alone in an assisted living facility. Her kids visit her, she has friends at the facility, but sometimes, like right now, she feels alone.
It’s a rainy afternoon, and the woman, sitting by her window, has picked up that photo from where it sits in a frame on a side table. In the gray light filtering in, she looks at it. The photo, like the woman herself, has taken a long journey to get there. It started out in a photo album that was passed on to one of their children, then went into a frame and came with her when she moved to the facility. Though it’s fragile, a little yellowed and bent at the edges, it has survived. She sees the young woman she was, looking into the eyes of her new husband, and remembers how at that moment he was more real to her than anything else in the world.
Where is he now? Does he still exist?
On good days, the woman knows he does. Surely the man she loved so much for all those many years could not have simply vanished when his body died. She knows—vaguely—what religion has to say on the matter. Her husband is off in heaven: a heaven that, through years of more or less steady church attendance, she has professed belief in. Though deep down she has never been all that sure.
So on other days—days like today—she doubts. For she also knows what science has to say on this matter. Yes, she loved her husband. But love is an emotion, an electrochemical reaction that goes on deep inside the brain, releasing hormones into the body, dictating our moods, telling us whether to be happy or sad, joyous or desolate.
In short, love is unreal.
What is real? Well, that’s obvious. The molecules of steel and chrome and aluminum and plastic in the chair she sits in; the carbon atoms that make up the paper of the photo she holds in her hand; the glass and wood of the frame that protects it. And of course the diamond on her engagement ring and the gold of which both it and her wedding ring are made: those are real, too.
But the perfect, whole, and everlasting bond of love between two immortal souls that these rings are meant to signify? Well, that’s all just pretty-sounding fluff. Solid, tangible matter: that’s what’s real. Science says so.
The inside is your true nature.
—AL-GHAZALI, ELEVENTH-CENTURY ISLAMIC MYSTIC
The root of the word reality is the Latin word res—“thing.” The things in our lives like car tires, skillets, soccer balls, and backyard swing sets are real to us because they possess a day-in, day-out consistency. We can touch them, weigh them in our hands, put them down, and come back later and find them unchanged, right where we left them.
We, of course, are made of matter as well. Our bodies are made of elements like hydrogen, the earliest and simplest element, and more complex ones like nitrogen, carbon, iron, and magnesium. All of these were cooked up—created—at inconceivable pressure and heat, in the hearts of ancient, now long-dead stars. Carbon nuclei have six protons and six neutrons. Of the eight positions in its outer shell where its electrons orbit, four are occupied by electrons, and four are vacant, so that electrons from other atoms or elements can link up with the carbon atom by binding their own electrons to those empty positions. This particular symmetry allows carbon atoms to link together with other carbon atoms, as well as other kinds of atoms and molecules, with fantastic efficiency. Both organic chemistry and biochemistry—massive subjects that dwarf chemistry’s other subsets—are exclusively devoted to studying chemical interactions involving carbon. The entire chemical structure of life on earth is based on carbon and its unique attributes. It is the lingua franca of the organic chemical world. Thanks to this same symmetry, carbon atoms, when submitted to tremendous pressure, lock together with a new tenacity, transforming from the black, earthy stuff we associate it with into that most powerful natural symbol of durability, the diamond.
But though the atoms of carbon and the handful of other elements that make up most of our bodies are all essentially immortal, our bodies themselves are transient in the extreme. New cells are born and old ones die. At every moment our bodies are taking matter from, and giving it back to, the physical world around us. Before long—the blink of an eye on a cosmic scale—our bodies will go back into the cycle entirely. They will rejoin the flux of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, calcium, and other primary substances that build up and disintegrate, again and again, here on earth.
This insight is nothing new, of course. The word human itself comes from the same root as humus, earth. So too does humble, which makes sense because the best way of staying humble is to realize what you’re made of. Long before science came along to explain the minute details of how it happens, cultures all around the world knew that our bodies are made from earth, and that when we die our bodies go back to it. As God says to Adam—a name itself derived from the Hebrew word adamah—“earth”—in Genesis: “Dust thou art, and to dust thou will return.”
Yet we humans have never been completely happy with this situation. The whole history of humanity can be seen as our response to this apparent earthiness of ours, and the feelings of pain and incompletion that it creates. We suspect that there is something more to the story.
Modern science—the latest and by far the most powerful of our responses to this ancient restlessness about our mortality—grew in large part out of an ancient technique of manipulating chemicals called alchemy. The origins of alchemy are lost in history. Some say it began in ancient Greece. Others say the first alchemists lived much earlier, perhaps in Egypt, and that the name itself derives from the Egyptian Al-Kemi or “black earth”—presumably a reference to the black, fertile soil on the banks of the Nile.
There were Christian alchemists, Jewish alchemists, Muslim alchemists, and Taoist or Confucian alchemists. It was simply everywhere. Wherever and whenever it did begin, alchemy grew into a fantastically complex and widespread series of practices. Most of these were concerned with turning “base” metals like copper and lead into gold. But the prime goal of alchemy was recovering the state of immortality that the alchemists believed humankind originally possessed, but lost long ago.
Many of the tools and methods of modern chemistry were invented by alchemists, often at considerable risk. Messing around with physical matter can be dangerous, and in addition to poisoning or blowing themselves up, alchemists risked getting in trouble with the local religious powers. Like the science it gave rise to, alchemy was, especially in Europe in the years leading up to the Scientific Revolution, a heresy.
One of the major discoveries of the alchemists in the course of their quest for immortality was that when you submit a chemical or element to what alchemists called a “trying” process—if you heat it, say, or combine it with some other chemical with which it is reactive—it will turn into something else. Like so many other gifts from the past, this knowledge sounds obvious to us now, but this is only because we didn’t do the work to discover it to begin with.
The first age was golden.
Why were the alchemists so interested in gold? One reason is obvious. The lesser alchemists—those who didn’t understand the deeper, underlying spiritual element at work in it—were simply trying to become rich. But the real alchemists were interested in gold for another reason.
Gold, like carbon, is an unusual element. The nucleus of the gold atom is very large. With seventy-nine protons, only four other stable elements are heavier. This big positive electrical charge causes the electrons that circle the nucleus of the gold atom to move at exceptional speed—approximately half the speed of light. If a photon comes to earth from the sun, the heavenly body most associated with gold in the alchemical texts, and bounces off an atom of gold, and that photon then happens to enter into one of our eyes and strikes the retinal wall, the message this delivers to the brain creates a curiously pleasant sensation in our consciousness. We humans react strongly to gold, and always have.
Gold powers much of the economic activity on our planet. It is beautiful and it is relatively rare, yet it has no great utilitarian value—nothing like the one we have placed on it, in any case. We have, as a species, decided it has value; that’s all. That’s why alchemists, both through their material experiments and the inner, meditative practices that often accompanied those experiments, sought it so desperately. Gold, for them, was the solidified, tangible representation of the heavenly part of the human being—the immortal soul. They sought to recover that other side of the human being—the golden side that joins with the earthy side to make us the people we are.
We are one part earth and one part heaven, and the alchemists knew this.
We need to know it, too.
Qualities, like the “beauty” of gold, and even its very color, are, we have been taught, not real. Emotions, we have been taught, are even less real. They’re just reactive patterns generated by our brains in response to hormonal messages sent by our bodies in response to situations of danger or desire.
Love. Beauty. Goodness. Friendship. In the worldview of materialist science, there is no room for treating these things as realities. When we believe this, just as when we believe it when we are told that meaning isn’t real, we lose our connection to heaven—what writers in the ancient world sometimes called the “golden thread.”
We get weak.
Love, beauty, goodness, and friendship are real. They’re as real as rain. They’re as real as butter, as real as wood, or stone, or plutonium, or the rings of Saturn, or sodium nitrate. On the earthly level of existence, it’s easy to lose sight of that.
But what you lose, you can get back.
Unlettered peoples are ignorant of many things, but they are seldom stupid because, having to rely on their memories, they are more likely to remember what is important. Literate peoples, by contrast, are apt to get lost in their vast libraries of recorded information.I
—HUSTON SMITH, RELIGION SCHOLAR
Human beings have been around in our modern form for about one hundred thousand years. For most of this time, three questions have been intensely important to us:
Who are we?
Where did we come from?
Where are we going?
For the vast majority of our time on this planet, human beings didn’t doubt for a moment that the spiritual world was real. We believed that it was the place each of us came from when we were born, and that it was the place we would return to when we died.
Many scientists today think we are right on the verge of knowing just about everything there is to know about the universe. There is much talk these days, among certain of these scientists, of a “Theory of Everything.” A theory that will account for every last bit of data about the universe that we currently possess: a theory that, as the name suggests, will explain it all.
But there’s something rather curious about this theory. It doesn’t include answers to a single one of those three questions listed above: the questions that, for 99.9 percent of our time on earth, were the three most important ones to answer. This Theory of Everything makes no mention of heaven.
The word heaven originally meant, simply, “sky.” That is what the word that translates as “heaven” in the New Testament means. The Spanish word for heaven, cielo, also means “sky,” and comes from the same root that our word ceiling does as well. Though we now know that heaven isn’t literally up there, many of us continue to sense that there is a dimension or dimensions that are “above” the earthly world in the sense that they are “higher” in a spiritual sense. When I use “heaven” in this book, and talk about it being “above” us, I am doing so with the understanding that no one today thinks heaven is simply up there in the sky, or that it is the simple place of clouds and eternal sunshine that the word has come to conjure up. I am speaking in terms of another kind of geography: one that is very real, but also very different from the earthly one we are familiar with, and in comparison to which the entire observable physical dimension is as a grain of sand on a beach.
There is another group out there today—a group that also includes many scientists—that also believes we might indeed be on the verge of discovering a Theory of Everything. But the Theory of Everything that this group is talking about is quite different from the one that materialist science thinks it’s on the verge of discovering.
This other theory will be different from the first one in two major ways.
The first is that it will posit that we can’t ever really have a Theory of Everything, if by that we mean an aggressive, materialist, data-oriented one.
The second difference is that, in this other Theory of Everything, all three of those original, all-important primordial questions about the human condition will be addressed. Heaven will be included in it.
I regard consciousness as fundamental. I regard matter as derivative from consciousness. We cannot get behind consciousness. Everything that we talk about, everything that we regard as existing, postulates consciousness.
—MAX PLANCK (1858–1947), QUANTUM PHYSICIST
In the twentieth century, after three fantastically successful centuries, science—in particular, the branch of science known as physics—got a surprise. Deep down, at the very heart of matter, it found something it couldn’t explain. It turned out that “matter,” that stuff that science thought it understood so well, wasn’t what science had thought it was at all. Atoms—those unbreakable, rock-solid little objects that science had thought were the ultimate building blocks of the world—turned out to be not so solid, or so unbreakable, after all. Matter turned out to be a dazzlingly intricate matrix of super-powerful but nonmaterial forces. There was nothing material to it.
It got even weirder. If there was one thing that science thought it knew as well as matter, it was space—the area that matter moved around in, nice and simple. But space wasn’t really “there,” either. At least not in the simple, straightforward, easy-to-understand way that scientists had thought it was. It bent. It stretched. It was inextricably linked with time. It was anything but simple.
Then, as if that weren’t enough, another factor entered into the picture: a factor that science had long known about, but had up until then displayed no interest in. In fact, science had only coined a word for this phenomenon in the seventeenth century, even though the world’s prescientific peoples all placed it at the center of their view of reality and had dozens of words for it.
This new factor was consciousness—that simple, yet supremely unsimple fact of being aware—of knowing oneself and the world around one.
No one in the scientific community had the remotest idea what consciousness was, but this hadn’t been a problem before. Scientists just left it out of the picture—because, they said, being unmeasurable, consciousness wasn’t real. But in the 1920s, quantum mechanical experiments revealed not only that you could detect consciousness, but that, at a subatomic level, there was no way of not doing so, because the consciousness of the observer actually bound the observer to all he or she observed. It was an irremovable part of any scientific experiment.
This was a staggering revelation—despite the fact that most scientists still chose, by and large, to ignore it. Much to the chagrin of the many scientists who believed they were right on the edge of explaining everything in the universe from a completely materialistic perspective, consciousness now moved right to the center of the stage and refused to be pushed aside. As the years went on and scientific experimentation at the subatomic level—a domain known, in general, as quantum mechanics—became ever more sophisticated, the key role that consciousness played in every experiment became ever clearer, if still impossible to explain. As the Hungarian-American theoretical physicist Eugene Wigner wrote: “It was not possible to formulate the laws of quantum mechanics in a fully consistent way without reference to consciousness.” The Spanish mathematical physicist Ernst Pascual Jordan put the matter even more forcefully: “Observations,” he wrote, “not only disturb what is to be measured, they produce it.” This doesn’t necessarily mean that we make reality with our imaginations; but it does mean that consciousness is so tied up with reality that there is no way of conceiving reality without it. Consciousness is the true bedrock of existence.
The physics community has yet to interpret what the results of experiments in quantum mechanics reveal about the workings of the universe. The brilliant founding fathers of the field, including Werner Heisenberg, Louis de Broglie, Sir James Jeans, Erwin Schrödinger, Wolfgang Pauli, and Max Planck, were driven into mysticism in their efforts to fully comprehend the results of their experiments about the workings of the subatomic world. According to the “measurement problem,” consciousness plays a crucial role in determining the nature of evolving reality. There is no way to separate the observer from the observed. The reality portrayed by experiments in quantum mechanics is completely counterintuitive from what one might expect based on our daily lives in the earthly realm. A deeper understanding and interpretation will require a thorough reworking of our concepts of consciousness, causality, space, and time. In fact, a robust enhancement of physics that fully embraces the reality of consciousness (soul or spirit) as the basis of all that is will be necessary to transcend the profound enigma at the heart of quantum physics.
I maintain that the human mystery is incredibly demeaned by scientific reductionism, with its claim in promissory materialism to account eventually for all of the spiritual world in terms of patterns of neuronal activity. This belief must be classed as a superstition. . . . we have to recognize that we are spiritual beings with souls existing in a spiritual world as well as material beings with bodies and brains existing in a material world.
— SIR JOHN C. ECCLES (1903–1997), NEUROPHYSIOLOGIST
No description of the nature of reality can even begin before we have a much clearer view of the true nature of consciousness, and its relationship to emerging reality in the physical realm. We could make greater progress if those trained in physics would also jump headlong into the study of what some scientists have called the “hard problem of consciousness.” The essence of the hard problem is that modern neuroscience assumes that the brain creates consciousness out of its sheer complexity. However, there is absolutely no explanation that suggests any mechanism by which this occurs. In fact, the more research we do on the brain, the more we realize that consciousness exists independently of it. Roger Penrose, Henry Stapp, Amit Goswami, and Brian Josephson are notable examples of physicists who have pursued an incorporation of consciousness into physics models, but most of the physics community remains oblivious to the more esoteric levels of inquiry required.
The day science begins to study nonphysical phenomena, it will make more progress in one decade than in all the previous centuries of its existence.
—NIKOLA TESLA (1856–1943)
The new theory—the new “Map of Everything” that I am so in favor of—will include all the revolutionary discoveries that science has made in the last century, most especially the new discoveries about the nature of matter and space and the revolutionary discoveries of the centrality of consciousness that threw materialistic science into such chaos at the beginning of the twentieth century. It will address discoveries like that of the physicist Werner Heisenberg that subatomic particles are never actually in one place, but occupy a constant state of statistical probability—so that they might be here, or they might be there, but they can never be totally nailed down to a single, no-doubt-about-it spot. Or that a photon—a unit of light—will appear as a wave if we measure it in one way, and as a particle if we measure it in another way, even while remaining exactly the same photon. Or discoveries like Erwin Schrödinger’s that the outcome of certain subatomic experiments will be determined by the consciousness of the observer recording them in such a way that they can actually “reverse” time, so that an atomic reaction set off inside a box that was sealed three days previously will not actually complete itself until the box is opened and the results of the action are noted by a conscious observer. The atomic reaction stays in a suspended state of both happening and not happening until consciousness enters the picture and cements it into reality.
This new Map of Everything will also include the vast quantities of data that are coming in from a whole other area of research, one that materialist science paid even less attention to in the past than it did to consciousness, and that dogmatic religion resolutely ignored as well: Near-death experiences. Deathbed visions. Moments of apparent contact with departed loved ones. The whole world of strange but totally real encounters with the spiritual world that people experience all the time, but that neither dogmatic science nor dogmatic religion has allowed us to talk about.
The kind of events that people talk to me about all the time.
Dear Dr. Alexander,
I loved reading about your experience. It reminded me of my father’s near death experience four years before he passed away. My dad had a PhD in astrophysics and was absolutely 100% “scientifically minded” before his near death experience.
He was in a pretty bad way in intensive care. He had trodden an emotionally hard path in life and fallen prey to alcoholism, until many of his body organs packed up and he caught double pneumonia. He was in intensive care for three months. During that time, he spent a while in an induced coma. When he started to recover he began to relay his experience of being with angel-like beings who were communicating to him not to worry and that everything was going to be fine. They said he would get better and continue his life. He said they were helping him and that he was no longer afraid of dying. He used to tell me, after he recovered, not to worry when he did die and to know that he would be fine.
. . . [H]e changed massively after his experience. He didn’t drink anymore, but . . . speaking about it was too much for him . . . he was a very private man. . . . He died of a tear in his aorta very suddenly at home in his sleep, four years after his stay in hospital. We kept finding Post-It notes around his house after he died—“GaHf.” In the end, we deduced it to mean “Guardian angels. Have faith.” Maybe this had helped him in his abstinence. It maybe helped him to remember the comfort he had felt while out of his body.
Soon before he died I remember asking him what he thought happens when we actually die. He said he didn’t really know, and that it was just something that we as humans haven’t found out yet, but we will. I guess he had experienced the place where science and spirituality meet. It was a real comfort to read your experience and it reaffirmed to me my dad’s experience too.
Why do people tell me stories like this? The answer is simple. I’m a doctor who had an NDE—a solid member of the “dogmatic science” side of the room, who had an experience that sent him over to the other side. Not the “dogmatic religion” side, but a third side of the room, if you will: a side that believes science and religion both have things to teach us, but that neither has, or ever will, have all the answers. This side of the room believes that we are on the edge of something genuinely new: a marriage of spirituality and science that will change the way we understand and experience ourselves forever.
In Proof of Heaven, I described how the sudden onset of a very rare strain of bacterial meningitis put me in a hospital, and a deep coma, for seven days. During that time, I underwent an experience that I am still in the process of absorbing and comprehending. I journeyed through a series of supra-physical realms, each one more extraordinary than the last.
In the first, which I call the Realm of the Earthworm’s-Eye View, I was immersed in a primitive, primordial state of consciousness that felt, while I was in it, something like being buried in earth. It was, however, not ordinary earth, for all around me I sensed—and sometimes heard and saw—other forms, other entities. It was part horrific, part comforting (I felt like I was, and always had been, a part of this primitive murk). I am often asked, “Was this hell?” I would expect hell to be at least a little bit interactive, and this was nothing of the sort. Even though I didn’t remember earth, or even what a human was, I at least had a sense of curiosity. I would ask, “Who? What? Where?” and there was never a flicker of response.
Eventually, a being of light—a circular entity that gave off a beautiful, heavenly music that I called the Spinning Melody—came slowly down from above, throwing off marvelous filaments of living silver and golden light. The light opened up like a rip in the fabric of that coarse realm, and I felt myself going through the rip, like a portal, up into a staggeringly beautiful valley full of lush and fertile greenery, where waterfalls flowed into crystal pools. I found myself as a speck of awareness on a butterfly wing among pulsing swarms of millions of other butterflies. I witnessed stunning blue-black velvety skies filled with swooping orbs of golden light, which I later called angelic choirs, leaving sparkling trails against billowing, colorful clouds. Those choirs produced hymns and anthems far beyond anything I had ever encountered on earth. There was also a vast array of larger universes that took the form of what I came to call an “over-sphere,” that was there to help in imparting the lessons I was to learn. The angelic choirs provided yet another portal to higher realms. I ascended until I reached the Core, that deepest sanctum sanctorum of the Divine—infinite inky blackness, filled to overflowing with indescribable divine unconditional love. There I encountered the infinitely powerful, all-knowing deity whom I later called Om, because of the sound I sensed so prominently in that realm. I learned lessons of a depth and beauty entirely beyond my capacity to explain. Throughout my time in the Core, there was always the strong sense of there being three of us (the infinite Divine, the brilliant orb, and pure conscious awareness).
During this voyage, I had a guide. She was an extraordinarily beautiful woman who first appeared as I rode, as that speck of awareness, on the wing of that butterfly in the Gateway Realm. I’d never seen this woman before. I didn’t know who she was. Yet her presence was enough to heal my heart, to make me whole in a way I’d never known was possible. Without actually speaking, she let me know that I was loved and cared for beyond measure and that the universe was a vaster, better, and more beautiful place than I could ever have dreamed. I was an irreplaceable part of the whole (like all of us), and all the sadness and fear I had ever known in the past was a result of my somehow having forgotten this most central of facts.
Dear Dr. Alexander,
Thirty-four years ago I had a NDE—but it wasn’t me who was dying. My mother was. She was being treated for cancer at the hospital and the doctors there told us she had at most six months to live. It was Saturday, and I was set to fly from Ohio to New Jersey on Monday. I was out in my garden, when suddenly this feeling went through me. It was overwhelming. It was a feeling of an unbelievable amount of love. It was the best “high” you could possibly imagine. I stood up, wondering: What on earth was that? Then it went through me again. It happened three times in all. I knew my mother had passed. The feeling was like she was hugging me but going right through me. And every time she did, I felt this supernatural, unbelievable, immeasurable amount of love.
I went into my house, still in a fog as to what had happened. I sat down by the phone to wait for the call from my sister. After ten minutes the phone rang. It was my sister. “Mom passed away,” she said.
Even 30 years later I can’t tell this story without crying—not from sadness so much as joy. Those three moments in the garden changed my life for good. Since then, I haven’t feared death. I’m actually jealous of people who have passed away. (I know that sounds weird but it’s true.)
Back when this happened we didn’t have all these TV shows and books about NDEs. They weren’t the public phenomenon they are today. So I had no idea of what to think of it. But I knew it was real.
When I returned from my journey (a miracle in itself, described in detail in Proof of Heaven), I was in many ways like a newborn child. I had no memories of my earthly life, but knew full well where I had been. I had to relearn who, what, and where I was. Over days, then weeks, like a gently falling snow, my old, earthly knowledge came back. Words and language returned within hours and days. With the love and gentle coaxing of my family and friends, other memories came back. I returned to the human community. By eight weeks my prior knowledge of science, including the experiences and learning from more than two decades spent as a neurosurgeon in teaching hospitals, returned—completely. That full recovery remains a miracle without any explanation from modern medicine.
But I was a different person from the one I had been. The things I had seen and experienced while gone from my body did not fade away, as dreams and hallucinations do. They stayed. And the longer they stayed, the more I realized that what had happened to me in the week I spent beyond my physical body had rewritten everything I thought I knew about all of existence. The image of the woman on the butterfly wing stayed with me, haunting me, just as did all the other extraordinary things I’d encountered in those worlds beyond.
Four months after coming out of my coma, I received a picture in the mail. A photograph of my biological sister Betsy—a sister I’d never known because I had been adopted at a young age and Betsy had died before I had sought out and reunited with my biological family. The photo was of Betsy. But it was also of someone else. It was the woman on the butterfly wing.
The moment I realized this, something crystallized inside me. It was almost as if, since coming back, my mind and soul had been like the amorphous contents of a butterfly chrysalis: I could not return to what I had been before, but I could not move forward, either. I was stuck.
That photo—as well as the sudden shock of recognition I felt when I gazed at it—was the confirmation that I’d needed. From then on, I was back in the old, earthly world I’d left behind before my coma struck, but as a genuinely new person.
I had been reborn.
But the real journey was just beginning. More is revealed to me every day—through meditation, through my work with new technologies that I hope will make it easier for others to gain access to the spiritual realm (see the appendix), and through talking with people I meet on my travels. Many, many people have glimpsed some of what I glimpsed, and experienced what I experienced. These people love to share their stories with me, and I love to hear them. It strikes them as wonderful that a long-standing member of the materialist scientific community could be changed as much as I have been. And I agree.
As an M.D. with a long career at esteemed medical institutions like Duke and Harvard, I was the perfect understanding skeptic. I was the guy who, if you told me about your NDE, or the visit you’d received from your dead aunt to tell you that all was well with her, would have looked at you and said, sympathetically but definitively, that it was a fantasy.
Countless people are having experiences like these. I meet them every day. Not just at the talks I give, but standing behind me in line at Starbucks and sitting next to me on airplanes. I have become, through the reach that Proof of Heaven achieved, someone whom people feel they can talk to about this kind of thing. When they do, I am always astonished at the remarkable unity and coherence of what they have to say. I am discovering more and more similarities between what these people tell me and what the peoples of the past believed. I am discovering what the ancients knew well: Heaven makes us human. We forget it at our peril. Without knowledge of the larger geography of where we came from and where we are going again when our physical bodies die, we are lost. That “golden thread” is the connection to the above that makes life here below not just tolerable but joyful. We are lost without it.
My story is a piece of the puzzle—a further hint from the universe and the loving God at work in it that the time of bossy science and bossy religion is over, and that a new marriage of the better, deeper parts of the scientific and spiritual sensibilities is going to occur at last.
In this book, I share what I have learned from others—ancient philosophers and mystics, modern scientists, and many, many ordinary people like me—about what I call the Gifts of Heaven. These gifts are the benefits that come when we open ourselves to the single greatest truth that those before us knew: there is a larger world behind the one we see around us every day. That larger world loves us more than we can possibly imagine, and it is watching us at every moment, hoping that we will see hints in the world around us that it is there.
For a few seconds only, I suppose, the whole compartment was filled with light. This is the only way I know in which to describe the moment, for there was nothing to see at all. I felt caught up into some tremendous sense of being within a loving, triumphant and shining purpose. I never felt more humble. I never felt more exalted. A most curious but overwhelming sense possessed me and filled me with ecstasy. I felt that all was well for mankind—how poor the words seem! The word “well” is so poverty stricken. All men were shining and glorious beings who in the end would enter incredible joy. Beauty, music, joy, love immeasurable and a glory unspeakable, all this they would inherit. Of this they were heirs.
All this happened over fifty years ago but even now I can see myself in the corner of that dingy, third-class compartment with the feeble lights of inverted gas mantles overhead. . . . In a few moments the glory departed—all but one curious, lingering feeling. I loved everybody in that compartment. It sounds silly now, and indeed I blush to write it, but at that moment I think I would have died for any one of the people in that compartment.II
My whole life has been a search for belonging. Growing up the son of a highly respected brain surgeon, I was constantly aware of the admiration-bordering-on-veneration that people have for surgeons. People worshipped my dad. Not that he encouraged it. A humble man with a strong Christian faith, he treated his responsibility as a healer with far too much weight to ever indulge in self-aggrandizement. I marveled at his humility and his deep sense of his own calling. I wanted nothing more than to be like him; to measure up; to become a member of the medical brotherhood that, in my eyes, had a sacred allure.
After years of hard work, I earned my way deep into that secular brother and sisterhood of surgeons. However, the spiritual faith that had come so easily and naturally to my father evaded me. Like many other surgeons in the modern world, I was a master of the physical side of the human being, and a complete innocent about the spiritual side. I simply didn’t believe it existed.
Then came my NDE, in 2008. What happened to me is an illustration of what is happening to us as a culture at large, as is each individual story I have heard from the people I’ve met. Each of us carries a memory of heaven, buried deep within us. Bringing that memory to the surface—helping you find your own map to that very real place—is the purpose of this book.
I. Smith, The Way Things Are, 79.
II. Religious Experience Research Center, account number 000385, quoted in Hardy, The Spiritual Nature of Man, 53.
How Science, Religion, and Ordinary People Are Proving the Afterlife
The Map of Heaven
How Science, Religion, and Ordinary People Are Proving the Afterlife
When Proof of Heaven was published, some readers contacted Dr. Eben Alexander to argue that his near death experience was impossible. But many more have written to say his story resonated with them in profound ways. Because of what these people have told him, Dr. Alexander has come to realize that sharing his story has allowed people to believe what so many in ancient times knew: there is more to life, and to the universe, than this single earthly life.
Dr. Alexander met and heard from thousands of individuals whom his story has affected. He also studied what the world’s religious traditions, and its philosophers, have had to say about the soul’s survival of death, and he has been deeply surprised at how often those voices from the past synch up with what he heard from people today. In The Map of Heaven, he shares some of the stories that the people have told him and links them up with what the world’s spiritual traditions have to say about the journey of the soul.
Part metaphysical detective story, part manual for living, The Map of Heaven explores humankind’s spiritual history and the birth of modern science in the seventeenth century, showing how we forgot, and are now at last remembering, who we really are and what our true destiny really is.