12/27/2012 04:45 pm ET Updated Feb 26, 2013

An Upside-Down Look at Heaven and Near-Death Experience

We've all read about near-death experience (NDE), the traumatically induced sensory phenomenon that many believe represents the gateway to heaven. The imagery (white light, tunnel, dead relatives, etc.), coupled with the intense feelings of bliss and oneness, typically make the most ardent nonbelievers reevaluate their beliefs after the experience. It is powerful stuff and, arguably, the most interesting of all mystical experiences.

With the publication of the book "Proof of Heaven" by Dr. Eben Alexander, the issue of whether NDEs represent evidence for the existence of heaven is, once again, part of the cultural conversation. So let's join the discussion.

Because of his credibility as a neurosurgeon, Dr. Alexander's NDE generated a great deal of attention. His case is unusually strong, not simply because of his scientific credentials, but because of what apparently happened to his brain. Due to bacterial meningitis his entire neocortex, the part of the brain that makes us human, presumably became disabled. Without the neocortex functional, a scientific explanation for his NDE becomes impossible.

Most of his colleagues could not offer explanations for what he saw. A few, however, refute his claims, including Dr. Martin Samuels, who said, "there is no way of knowing, in fact, that his neocortex was shut down. It sounds scientific, but it is an interpretation after the fact." And therein lies the rub.

The operative word in near-death experience is "near." Nobody actually dies and talks to us from heaven. Those who experience NDEs end up back here talking to Oprah. And they all say very similar things.

NDEs tend to have certain universal characteristics, according to Dr. Gregory Shushan, a religion scholar with anthropological training and author of Conceptions of the Afterlife in Early Civilizations: Universalism, Constructivism and Near-Death Experience. In other words, regardless of culture or time, the NDE themes consistently appeared in the ancient civilizations that he researched.

Furthermore, Dr. Shushan noticed that the various cultural beliefs about heaven are quite similar to the core characteristics of NDEs. What's interesting is that this cross-cultural thematic consistency about heaven does not hold true for creation myths. In other words, every culture has a different narrative describing how things began, but the same narrative about how things end.

Ironically, this leads to the possibility that NDEs, as opposed to providing evidence for the existence of heaven, might very well be responsible for creating our belief in it.

It's not difficult to imagine how this paradoxical understanding of the relationship between NDE and heaven could have evolved. The NDEs that occurred during ancient history -- especially if it involved a respected elder or priest -- would have been so instantaneously transformative, so powerfully seductive, that it would have been impossible for a culture not to incorporate the experience into a model of heaven. Then, over the centuries, all subsequent NDEs would serve to reinforce the belief.

It doesn't get more upside-down than this.

Assuming for the moment that this explanation of how heaven came into being is accurate, one question remains: does it matter?

On a very practical level, changing people's religious beliefs is virtually impossible. Faced with incontrovertible scientific evidence about evolution, some folks still cling to the belief that the earth is 6,000 years old because the Bible says so. Not all people of faith take every aspect of the Scriptures literally but, in general, religious beliefs become hardwired into the brain. With the exception of those who experience NDEs, rarely are people changing their mind.

If the NDE is a transitional experience to make death easier and not the gateway to heaven, do nonbelievers have to discard the concept of heaven altogether? Or, can we turn everything upside-down again and simply label our experience of self -- our tiny speck of consciousness -- heaven? In other words, maybe heaven is ephemeral not eternal. And at the end, our energy goes back into the energy pool.

At some point in time each of us will know the truth. However, if you don't believe in heaven and you're right, you'll never know it. If you're wrong, people will be waiting at the other end of the tunnel saying, "We told you so."