Monday, December 01, 2014

Paradox of the afterlife

kw: book reviews, spiritual speculation, heaven, near-death experiences

A few years ago Eben Alexander, M.D. wrote Proof of Heaven. I haven't read it. Now he follows up with The Map of Heaven: How Science, Religion, and Ordinary People Are Proving the Afterlife. As I was reading, the words of an old slave spiritual song often came to me: "Everybody talkin' 'bout heaven ain't a-goin' there." Opinions on the subject cover a full spectrum. Some disbelieve any kind of afterlife. Some believe everyone "goes to heaven" after they die, and even the range of opinion among religious people starts near the "everyone goes" end and runs along to those who would say, "few, very few" are heaven-bound.

To clear up one matter at the outset: No map is provided in the book. It is about some of those who claim to have tasted heaven, trying to put all their memories into some kind of map. The nearest thing to a map that the author presents is a metaphor from ancient writings of Persia: A conical hat with levels. Sort of like the pointed hat of a witch or wizard … or a dunce. Though each level is smaller than the one below, this small size represents not the size of the realm at that level, but its similarity to the level on which we all find ourselves in our quotidian lives. The true extent of each higher level is supposed to be many times greater than the one below. There's no telling how many levels there are. Familiar sayings about "seventh heaven" have no bearing on it, and none appear in the book.

The book's point of view is entirely what I would call Natural Religion. God is at best vague and formless, more frequently referred to as "the Divine", and in one section near the end, as an all-encompassing entity so that all are eventually subsumed into "God's body". There is no personal God, no Savior and no need of salvation in Dr. Alexander's system.

The seven chapters of the book are very loosely arranged around seven "Gifts": Knowledge, Meaning, Vision, Strength, Belonging, Joy, and Hope. The Appendix describes a kind of meditation using sound as a way to approach the kinds of experiences reported as Near-Death Experiences (NDE's), without being at risk of death. Perhaps he hopes to discover the "music of the spheres".

The three "big questions" that all children eventually get around to asking, and that are never answered, are
Who are we?
Where did we come from?
Where are we going?
Of course, there is a silly comedy routine in which the reply is
from Europe,
to the New World,
(and answering the implied, "Why?") to take over.

Naturally, the three questions are infinitely bigger than that. Are they answered by answering the question, "Are we really heavenly creatures in some kind of temporary non-heavenly realm?"? In one of the later chapters, the author states his acceptance of reincarnation. Doctrines of the cycling birth and rebirth of souls in human form must cope with the vast increase in human population since the time of Gautama Buddha about 2,500 years ago.

Jokes about "My mother-in-law will probably come back as a mosquito" notwithstanding, it seems curious that, should a soul fail the tests of a human lifetime, it returns as some lower creature—perhaps a cow or a rabbit or a crow—in this same realm, not as a conscious entity in some lower level of the multi-level "hat" the Persians imagined. And how is it that, though there were probably no more than 250 million to 300 million persons on Earth in 500 BCE, the number rose to half a billion by 1500 AD, a billion by 1800 AD, and about 7.2 billions today? The numbers of desperately poor on Earth today exceeds the entire human population in the year 1800. So does the number of those who enjoy at least a "middle class" level of prosperity, with riches that Solomon would have envied (what good are 100 tons of gold if you can't buy an iPhone with it?). Where did all these new souls come from? Did a lot of antelopes and orioles get "promoted"? The number of persons who die every year is roughly half the entire world population of the year 500 BCE. That's a lot of recycled souls going around!

It is nice to imagine we are all going to some heavenly realm, or that we are made for that realm and that it is already all around us if we have our eyes opened to see it. There is a certain element of that latter belief in evangelical Christian teaching. But as a Christian, along with all Bible-believers I must question the implied universalism of the book. Let me just ask you this: would you be comfortable sharing Heaven with Hitler, Stalin and Mao, and a constellation of lesser darknesses such as Jack the Ripper, Vlad the Impaler or Pope Boniface, who "crept in like a fox, ruled like lion, and died like a dog." Hey, how 'bout ol' Nero? God has a Hell for a reason!

From cover to cover, both Old and New Testaments hold out a hope, not of "going to heaven", but of resurrection out of death, a permanent leaving-behind of death in all forms. The Old Testament statements in favor of resurrection are comparatively vague, though Daniel was pretty explicit about it. He stated that all the dead would be raised up, some to eternal blessing, some to everlasting contempt.

During the ministry of Jesus he criticized the Sadducees for their disbelief in resurrection, so it is clear it was part of Hebrew theology already. The New Testament culminates with a vision of the "New Jerusalem", a holy city, "coming down out of heaven from God". That is, the perpetual dwelling of the eternal people of God is with God on the Earth in this amazing City. And crucially, the writer states there are "a new heaven and a new earth", onto which this city is lowered. Thus, for a Bible believer, while there is some element of the heavenly surrounding the people of God today, the eternal realm is not here now, but will be brought in to replace this one.

Dr. Alexander tells a pretty story. I am sure it gives comfort to many who otherwise have no hope. But we do not yet know whether NDE's manifest something real, rather than being a kind of standard series of hallucinations conjured up in a dying brain. We are told they all contain the same elements, but a little digging around with Google reveals that NDE's are tuned to cultural expectations. The NDE's of people in some cultures are rather terrifying! It's just that most of those reported in English are the experiences of Westerners with Western (that is, neo-Judeo-Christian) cultural expectations. What we do know is that the fear of death is powerful motivation to grasp at anything that might stave off the darkness. This book taps into that enormous market.

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