Why so many people–including scientists–suddenly believe in an afterlife

Heaven is hot again, and hell is colder than ever

The Heaven boom


Death, it seems, is no longer Shakespeare’s undiscovered country, the one “from whose bourn no traveller returns.” Not according to contemporary bestseller lists. Dreams and visions of the afterlife have been constants across human history, and the near-death experiences (now known as NDEs) of those whose lives were saved by medical advances have established, for millions, a credible means by which someone could peek into the next world. Lately a fair-sized pack of witnesses claim to have actually entered into the afterlife before coming back again to write mega-selling accounts of what they saw and felt there. Afterlife speculation has become a vibrant part of the zeitgeist, the result of trends that include developments in neuroscience that have inspired new ideas about human consciousness, the ongoing evolution of theology, both popular and expert, and the hopes and fears of an aging population. Heaven is hot again. And hell is colder than ever.

Recent polls across the developed world are starting to tell an intriguing tale. In the U.S., religion central for the West, belief in heaven has held steady, even ticking upwards on occasion, over the past two decades. Belief in hell is also high, but even Americans show a gap between the two articles of faith—81 per cent believed in the former in 2011, as opposed to 71 per cent accepting the latter. Elsewhere in the Western world the gap between heaven and hell believers is more of a gulf—a 2010 Canadian poll found more than half of us think there is a heaven, while fewer than a third acknowledge hell. What’s more, monotheism’s two destinations are no longer all that are on offer. In December a survey of the 1970 British Cohort group—9,000 people, currently 42 years old—found half believed in an afterlife, while only 31 per cent believed in God. No one has yet delved deeply into beliefs about the new afterlife—the cohort surveyors didn’t ask for details—but reincarnation, in an newly multicultural West, is one suggested factor. So too is belief in what one academic called “an unreligious afterlife,” the natural continuation of human consciousness after physical death.

While most of the current bestselling accounts of afterlife experiences are recognizably Christian—at least in outline—signs of changing beliefs can be found in them too. Nor are the new travellers—who include a four-year-old boy and a middle-aged neurosurgeon—what religious skeptics would think of as the usual suspects. Colton Burpo, now 13, “died” 10 years ago from a ruptured appendix, and spent three minutes of earthly time in heaven—some of it in Jesus’s lap, some of it speaking with a miscarried sister whose existence he had never been told about—before being pulled back to Earth by his surgical team. Since 2010, when his father, Todd, a Nebraska minister, published his account of what Colton told him, Heaven is for Real has sold more than 7.5 million copies. If Colton’s story sounds like a contemporary take on an ancient Christian motif—“unless you become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3)—the same can’t be said about Eben Alexander’s post-religious cosmic experience.

It is Alexander’s provocatively named Proof of Heaven, released in November, that wrenched afterlife visitation literature out of its below-the-radar religious publishing niche and into the spotlight. Alexander’s professional stature—as a Harvard-trained neurosurgeon, a man expected to know what is possible and what is not for human consciousness—ensured him of extensive media coverage, including on Oprah Winfrey’s Super Soul Sunday, massive sales (it remains No. 1 on the New York Times paperback non-fiction bestseller list), and often venomous responses from fellow scientists.

Alexander woke one day in 2008 with an intense headache. “Within hours, my entire cortex—the part of the brain that controls thought and emotion and that in essence makes us human—had shut down,” he writes. Doctors finally determined that “E. coli bacteria had penetrated my cerebrospinal fluid and were eating my brain.” For seven days he was in a deep coma, during which time, often guided by a beautiful girl riding a giant butterfly, he flew around the “invisible, spiritual side of existence.” And there he encountered God, whom Alexander frequently refers to as Om, the sound he recalls as “being associated with that omniscient, omnipotent and unconditionally loving God.”

He eventually recovered, a medical miracle in itself, Alexander writes. But he was an entirely different man, no longer a neuroscientist like other neuroscientists. “I know that many of my peers hold—as I myself did—to the theory that the brain, and in particular the cortex, generates consciousness and that we live in a universe devoid of any kind of emotion, much less the unconditional love that I now know God and the universe have toward us. But that belief, that theory, now lies broken at our feet. What happened to me destroyed it.”

Not according to most of his fellow neuroscientists, whose reactions made the predictable Christian wariness—no angels, no Jesus, and a God named Om left Toronto pastor Tim Challies to sum up Proof of Heaven as “more New Age-y than the rest, close to non-Western religion”—seem welcoming. Oliver Sacks called Alexander’s claims “not just unscientific but anti-scientific.” Others opposed dogma with dogma: Alexander was correct that by current neurological understanding what happened to him was impossible if his cortex was shut down—therefore, they said, it wasn’t shut down, no matter what his medical records say. Many skeptics referenced British psychologist Susan Blackmore’s 1993 book, Dying to Live, which dismisses NDEs as a result of chemical changes associated with dying brains, as the last word.

For their part, non-materialist neuroscientists, like University of Montreal professor Mario Beauregard, have long critiqued Blackmore and point out that brain research was in its infancy 20 years ago. Blackmore argued that a lack of oxygen (or anoxia) during the dying process might induce abnormal firing of neurons in the part of the brain that controls vision, leading to the illusion of seeing a bright light at the end of a dark tunnel.

Beauregard cites objections by Dutch cardiologist Pim Van Lommel that if anoxia (lack of oxygen) was central to NDEs, far more cardiac arrest patients would report such an experience. What’s more, as pointed out by Dr. Sam Parnia, whose resuscitation techniques have doubled his New York hospital’s cardiac-arrest-recovery rate, some NDE patients were not terminal during their experiences, meaning their oxygen levels were normal. In fact, Parnia notes, dropping oxygen levels are associated with “acute confusional state,” something at odds with the lucid consciousness reported by NDE people.

Two decades of research and medical advances have moved near-death experiences from rare events to common occurrences. In his book Erasing Death, Parnia cites a 30-year-old Japanese woman as the current record holder (in terms of time) for someone who was found dead and restored to life. She “may have been dead up to 10 hours,” Parnia says, but after six hours’ work, doctors got her heart started and brought her back to health: “she had a baby in the last year.” Now that patients who have been clinically dead for hours can be brought back to life, says Parnia, the question of the continuation of human consciousness is a live scientific issue.

And it’s not only the remarkable extension of the time patients can now spend suspended between life and death, but the sheer number of individuals involved, that has made NDEs so contentious among researchers. Those whose NDEs also involved an out-of-body experience raise the stakes further.

Materialist skeptics are not troubled by accounts of tunnels of light or angelic beings. Perhaps the dying brain hypothesis doesn’t fully explain them, but there are other possibilities. Too much carbon dioxide in the blood perhaps or, as a recent study from the University of Kentucky posits, NDEs are really an instance of a sleep disorder, rapid eye movement (REM) intrusion. In that disorder, a person’s mind can wake up before his body, and both hallucinations and the sensation of being physically detached from the body can occur. Cardiac arrest could trigger a REM intrusion in the brain stem—the region that controls the most basic functions of the body and which can operate independently from the (now dead) higher brain. The resulting NDE would actually be a dream.

But that hypothesis still cannot account for people who report seeing, during their out-of-body experiences, what they could not have. Most commonly that’s an overhead view of their frantic medical teams. Parnia reports a 2001 case, in which a Dutch patient’s dentures were removed during cardiac arrest. When his nurses couldn’t find the dentures later, the patient was able to remind them where they were. Perhaps the most famous corroborated case, cited by Beauregard, is that of a migrant worker named Maria, whose story was documented by her critical care social worker, Kimberly Clark. The day after she had been resuscitated after cardiac arrest, Maria told Clark how she had been able to look down from the ceiling and left the OR. She found herself outside the hospital and spotted a tennis shoe on the ledge of the north side of the building’s third floor. She described it in detail. Maria, not surprisingly, wanted to know whether she had “really” seen the shoe, and asked Clark to go look.

Quite skeptical, Clark went where Maria sent her, and found the tennis shoe, just as she’d described it. “The only way she could have had such a perspective,” said Clark, “was if she had been floating right outside and at very close range to the tennis shoe.” It shouldn’t have been possible, as both Beauregard and Parnia point out. “The question becomes,” Parnia says, “how can people have conscious awareness when they’ve gone beyond the threshold of death?”

The answer to that question is not necessarily Christian, or even metaphysical at all, not for Parnia, who describes himself as “not a religious person” and not for many of his fellow NDE researchers. In a similar vein, many traditional Christians are more than a little wary of the reported experiences of the heaven travellers. For them the idea—so intolerable to materialist skeptics—that consciousness, or the soul, can and does exist outside the body is an article of faith. But some of the new afterlife, however seemingly Christian in outline, is often troubling, especially in its utter lack of judgment. All are welcome, all are heaven-bound in those accounts: there is no sign of God’s wrath for sinners. The division over the possibility of continuing human consciousness is not entirely between the religious and the secular. And the extraordinary popularity of heaven tourism—books have continued to pour down the publishing pike this year, including I Believe in Heaven by Cecil Murphy, one of the pioneers in the genre—is not entirely driven by evangelical enthusiasm.

In that regard, the storm stirred up by Proof of Heaven only obscures the wider significance of the afterlife books. The controversy over the scientific basis of Alexander’s experiences, like the skeptical poking for holes in the Burpo story—can Colton’s parents really be sure he never heard a word about his mother’s miscarriage?—can miss the cultural forest for the factual trees.

Consider the many other near-death survivors-cum-authors and their places along the continuum, from pastor’s son to neurosurgeon. There’s Mary Neal, an orthopaedic surgeon whose account of the aftermath of her drowning in Chile in 1999, To Heaven and Back, has spent two years on bestseller lists; teacher Crystal McVea, whose Waking Up in Heaven tells the story of the nine minutes that followed after she stopped breathing in 2009; The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven is about six-year-old Alex Malarkey, who met Jesus after an car accident in 2004; and Texas pastor Don Piper, whose 2004 account (co-written with Cecil Murphy) of his car crash, 90 Minutes in Heaven, is often credited with kick-starting the phenomenon.

There are elements, from key plot points to tiny details, that link their stories, starting with two obvious points. The idea that major scientists no longer dismiss the idea of continuing consciousness colours all accounts, as does the fact that, whether truth or fantasy, the experiences are necessarily culturally specific.

All overwhelming and bewildering mental states have to be sorted, defined and made comprehensible in the light of the familiar—what else do our brains have to work with? One way or another, a pastor’s child and a fallen-away Christian like Alexander will filter an NDE through the earliest Sunday school tracks laid down in their memories. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, first famous for her five stages of grief, later became a doyenne of NDEs—her lectures on her NDE patients (who turned her into a believer), first published in 1991, were reissued in 2008 to catch the current publishing wave. Even in her rather homogenous western European clientele, Kübler-Ross could see the effects of early enculturation: “I never encountered a Protestant child who saw the Virgin Mary in his last minutes, yet she was perceived by many Catholic children.”

Many of the writers share a common gaping wound, centred on lost children, a wound usually healed by simultaneously finding the child and realizing there is no blame or judgment to suffer, no forgiveness to offer or seek. Most of Colton Burpo’s account is a child’s-eye account of orthodox teaching, but its most affecting passage is when he lifts years of guilt and anxiety off his mother, Sonja, by telling her that her miscarried child had been a girl, and that she was now flourishing in heaven as God’s adopted daughter. One of Kübler-Ross’s patients, a 12-year-old girl, told her father how she was comforted during her NDE by her brother. Except that she didn’t have a brother. Her tearful father then told her about the son who had died three months before her birth.

Eben Alexander, who—unlike most NDE cases—lost all sense of personal identity during his experience, was troubled because that loss meant no relative offered him assurances of love and acceptance. Afterwards though, Alexander—an adopted child who had felt abandoned his whole life—saw a picture of his deceased natural sister, whom he had never met in life. She was the girl on the butterfly. (There is more than a trace of Kübler-Ross’s influence in Proof of Heaven. The butterfly girl stands out as one of the more psychedelic elements in an account mostly abstract and metaphysical: Kübler-Ross, however, constantly describes the human body as a cocoon, from which a metaphorical butterfly of spirit will eventually emerge.)

And the stories offer similar proofs: Colton, like Kübler-Ross’s patient, inexplicably knew of a lost sibling, whose existences their parents believed they had kept hidden, while Eben Alexander could describe precisely what his medical team and his family were doing during his seven-day coma. They are all, even the children, witnesses who experienced what they did—and came back, reluctantly—for a reason. Mary Neal was sent back with what she called “a laundry list of tasks to do,” which she still doesn’t talk about, at least not until they are accomplished: one was to help the rest of her family cope with the foretold death of her young son, which occurred 10 years later in 2009. Colton and Alex provide truth “out of the mouths of babes.” Alexander knows he is uniquely positioned among NDE subjects to challenge the materialist orthodoxies of mainstream neuroscience.

Those similarities in form pale beside the deep thematic link between the new bestsellers: the (previously) undiscovered country is a place of unconditional love. Several of the writers pause, sometimes for pages, to stress the adjective as much as the noun. None express the message more clearly than Alexander, who writes that “the only thing that truly matters” was communicated to him in three parts. He boils those down to one word—love—but the key phrase may be the third sentence of his longer version:

You are loved and cherished.

You have nothing to fear.

There is nothing you can do wrong.

That’s fodder for cynics and skeptics, of course. That an individual like any of the authors, someone of broadly Christian background coping with emotional pain, should undergo such a heaven-centred experience when in the throes of physical trauma, is broadly predictable and easy to dismiss as wish-fulfillment. The fact it has happened to a group of such similar individuals does not in itself prove the truth (or the falsity) of the experiences; what that does, though, is illuminate a culture that increasingly rejects the very notion of judgment while equating salvation with personal healing.

Most observers trace the current upsurge to Don Piper’s 90 Minutes in Heaven. Largely ignored by the non-religious world and looked at askance by many Christian commentators, 90 Minutes sold like hotcakes. And while it set the template for what was to come, what stands out about it today is its modesty. Piper was declared dead at the scene of an auto crash on Jan. 18, 1989. His body was left in place while the authorities waited for the tools needed to extract him from the wreckage. An hour and a half later, though, Piper stirred back to life, albeit to a long and excruciating recovery, involving 34 painful surgeries.

And to bear witness to where he had been in that 90 minutes. In the transcendent light, actually, just outside the “pearlescent” gates of heaven, surrounded by “perfect love” and the gathering presence—simultaneously physical and spiritual—of loved ones who had died during Piper’s lifetime. There were friends who had passed away young and were thus still youthful looking; his grandfather, instantly recognizable by his shock of white hair; and his great-grandmother, still aged but now no longer with false teeth, but her own restored, no longer stooped and no longer wrinkled. Signs of age, in other words, and of the gravitas they confer, but no traces of the “ravages of living.”

All this—the approach to the pearly gates, the welcome from loved ones, the presence of unconditional love and the absence of judgment—was pregnant with accounts to come. But, as it turned out, 90 Minutes’ first-born—the genetic relationship obvious in their titles, not to mention the way Amazon bundled them together for a special low price—was the most striking outlier in recent afterlife literature, Bill Wiese’s 23 Minutes in Hell. A California realtor, Wiese was sleeping peacefully on the night of Nov. 22, 1998, when God pitched him into hell at 3 a.m., so that—Wiese later decided—he could warn others of their peril. He landed abruptly in a five-by-three-metre cell, shared with two gigantic, evil, reptilian beasts who proceeded to smash him against the walls before shredding his flesh.

Yet Wiese did not die, could not die, as much as he wanted to. He continued in seemingly endless pain, tormented too by “the terrible, foul stench.” (Smell—the most evocative of senses, the one most closely tied to deep memory—is prominent in accounts of heaven as well, where it brings visitors the most comforting reminders of childhood and, when the odours arise from food, assurances of plenty.) At precisely 3:23 a.m., Jesus rescued Wiese and returned him home, where he landed, terrified, on his living room floor.

The book, published in 2006, spawned no serious imitators. In part that was due to its lack of the scientific gloss the heaven narratives bear (and the times demand)—one Christian nurse, posting on Amazon, rejected 23 Minutes because of her familiarity with NDEs. There is no explanatory traffic accident, cardiac arrest or brain-eating bacteria, nothing to indicate a hovering between life and death when the sufferer could peek through the curtain, nothing that didn’t point to a (very) bad dream.

But Wiese’s book also went nowhere because hell no longer possesses the power it once held in Christianity. That’s particularly remarkable within an American religious milieu that was always attentive to warnings of hellfire. In 1741 Jonathan Edwards delivered what is often called the most famous sermon in American history, “Sinners in the hands of an angry God.” It is beautifully composed, rigorously logical (in terms of Calvinist theology) and frankly terrifying: “Men are held in the hand of God over the pit of hell; they have deserved the fiery pit, and are already sentenced to it; and God is dreadfully provoked.” Edwards was interrupted often during the sermon by congregants moaning and crying out, “What shall I do to be saved?” It’s doubtful he’d receive the same reaction today. Many modern Christians struggle to reconcile a loving God with one who would condemn the majority of humankind to eternal torment.

Within Roman Catholicism, notes Smith College world religion professor Carol Zaleski, the last three pontiffs, including Pope Francis, have all been supportive of the late Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, who taught that Catholics have a duty to hope and pray for an empty hell, for the salvation of all. Even those Protestant traditions that have historically been more attuned to the gulf between the elect and the damned have seen vigorous theological debate about the afterlife, and the defence of ideas that effectively weaken the severity of divine wrath. Conditional immortality, for one, says true eternal life is reserved for the saved; souls in hell will eventually—and, in this context, mercifully—be annihilated.

“Most people are no longer afraid of being seized at an unguarded moment,” judged wanting and flung into the fiery pit like Edwards’s congregants were, says Zaleski. “We are now more creatures of anxiety than of guilt.” The anxiety, as well as the interest, is surely tied to the greying of the Western world too, as our thoughts, conscious or not, increasingly turn to what’s next, whether we think that’s oblivion or some kind of afterlife. Baby boomers, by sheer force of numbers, have always driven cultural trends, from the lowering of voting and drinking ages in their youth to the politically untouchable status of retirement benefits today. It’s hardly surprising to see them favour not just the existence but the congenial nature of an afterlife.

And that is where the heaven tourists finally mesh, not just with each other, but with the larger culture. We seem to be moving inexorably from a society where organized religion dominates issues of morality—and mortality—but not to the secular promised land of reason. Rather, we are orienting ourselves to a more personal spirituality, at once vague and autonomous. Ordinary sinners increasingly don’t believe that they deserve judgment, let alone hell. Theists and atheists alike dispute any earthly authority’s right to judge, and both feel NDEs give them reason to hope for something beyond the grave. And many believers confidently expect that God isn’t judgmental either.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.
  • By signing up, you agree to our terms of use and privacy policy. You may unsubscribe at any time.