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How Do We Know About Heaven?

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In his bestseller Proof of Heaven, Dr. Eben Alexander recounts his journey to heaven during a near-death experience. But a recent blockbuster Esquire story by Luke Dittrich casts profound suspicion upon Alexander's account. Alexander, Dittrich reports, has a documented history of altering patients' records when facing malpractice litigation. Moreover, several details of his dramatic story seem (forgive me) "doctored up" as well. The Esquire story portrays Eben Alexander as a troubled man who had much to gain, both materially and psychologically, by marketing his story. The magazine cover presses the non-question, "Is Heaven a Scam"?

None of us, biblical scholars included, possesses the inside scoop on a question like heaven. But I can offer this: tours of heaven (and hell) represent prevalent features of ancient near eastern religion. Those accounts strongly suggest what neuroscientists and anthropologists alike tend to believe: our trips to heaven, however experienced, to some degree follow cultural scripts. (Many researchers do identify a common core to near death experiences that transcends culture.) All heavenly journey reports bear the imprints of culture.

Ancient Jewish and Christian literature emerged in cultural contexts that included well known accounts of the afterlife. Mythic and epic figures like Gilgamesh, Inanna, Osiris, Herakles, Odysseus, and Aeneas all visit the realm of the dead. No wonder, then, that the biblical tradition includes numerous tours of heaven and hell. Isaiah ascends to see the Lord (Isaiah 6). Enoch tours the realms of the dead and explores their fates (1 Enoch). Baruch visits several heavens (3 Baruch), as does Isaiah (Ascension of Isaiah), while Paul visits the third heaven (2 Corinthians 12). John ascends into heaven through a door in the sky (Revelation). The Christian apocalypses of Peter and Paul reveal the punishments and rewards of the dead -- with special interest in the punishments.

We cannot know how many of the Jewish and Christian tours of heaven reflect authentic visionary experiences, if any. Paul seems convinced of his own experience. Some scholars explore the mystical and visionary dimensions of these accounts. Others, including myself, tend to emphasize their literary dimensions. There's simply no way to know for sure.

Do these ancient visionary reports reveal anything about the reality of the afterlife? I don't know. I do know that they also reflect the cultural contexts from which they emerge. Ancient societies had kings and emperors. Many tours of heaven include thrones for the deity, who is surrounded by a heavenly court that proclaims the divine glory. Ancient conceptions of justice involved rewards and punishments that corresponded to human behavior. We should not be surprised, then, that the Apocalypse of Peter features notorious measure for measure punishments: women who endure abortions sit in gore and confront crying children; women who adorn themselves in order to attract men hang by their hair; men who commit adultery hang in a different way. A modern reader immediately notices the gaps that separate our prevailing cultural values from ancient ones.

Now let's think about more contemporary, and American, apocalypses like Proof of Heaven and another bestseller, Heaven Is for Real. Our modern postindustrial society treasures family relationships. When someone dies, it's common for us to comfort ourselves by imagining that we will encounter that person in the afterlife. Indeed, I have friends whom I admire greatly who claim to have interacted with their departed loved ones. Sure enough, both Proof of Heaven and Heaven Is for Real include reunions with deceased family members. In Proof of Heaven Eben Alexander encounters his natural sister, whom he had never met. In Heaven Is for Real four-year-old Colton encounters his miscarried sister and accurately describes a great-grandfather who had died decades earlier.

All societies value families, but they do so differently. The most ancient biblical traditions do not include personal encounters with loved ones in the afterlife. Among them, only the Shepherd of Hermas includes concern for the fate of Hermas' nuclear family. (In one encounter Hermas, who had been a slave, encounters his former mistress.) Fourth Ezra includes a vision of a mother who receives assurance that she will be reunited with her deceased son (10:16). But none of them features a reunion of the sort we encounter in these recent bestsellers. While the ancient apocalypses reflect societies in which kings and emperors sat on thrones, our recent reports from heaven reflect a society that values family in a particular way.

I strongly suspect that all reports from heaven include a great deal that comes from this world. How that happens -- how culture, psychology, and physiology relate to mystical experience -- I have no idea. But there's no such thing as a report straight from heaven. That's my best guess.