Have you ever noticed that more people come back from Heaven than from Hell? We have all read those astonishing reports of near-death experiences (NDEs, as the aficionados call them) – the things that people say have happened to them when they almost, but don’t quite, shuffle off the coil.
They are nearly always pleasant and deeply reassuring in a saccharin-soaked way. Lots of spinning down warm, dark tunnels to the sound of celestial music; lots of trips along country lanes lined with hedges, towards the light of a welcoming cottage at the end of the road; lots of tumbling down Alice-in-Wonderland rabbit holes, but without the damaging effects of gravity.
True, Dr Maurice S Rawlings Jr, MD, heart surgeon in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and author of To Hell and Back, did have patients who reported very nasty NDEs after they came back on his operating table. Booming noises; licking flames and all that Mephistophelian stuff. But perhaps that tells us more about the challenges of living in Chattanooga, Tennessee, than about the metaphysics of life after death.
Predictably, the amazingly consistent, remarkably heaven-like experiences recounted by the majority of NDE-ers (yes, that really is what the experts call them) have been summarily dismissed by materialist sceptics – like me. Of course the brain does funny things when it’s running out of oxygen. The odd perceptions are just the consequences of confused activity in the temporal lobes.
But NDEs have taken on a new cloak of respectability with a book by a Harvard doctor. Proof of Heaven, by Eben Alexander, will make your toes wiggle or curl, depending on your prejudices. What’s special about his account of being dead is that he’s a neurosurgeon. At least that’s what the publicity is telling us. It’s a cover story in Newsweek magazine, with a screaming headline: “Heaven is Real: a doctor’s account of the afterlife”.