Philippine Daily Inquirer, 19 May 2013


On the last day of my U.S. visit last month, I dropped by Barnes and Noble in San Francisco to check out what I could read on the long flight back home the next morning. What quickly caught my attention among the new releases was Proof of Heaven (2012), the #1 New York Times Bestseller. The intriguing title plus the professional credentials of the author in no time got me sold to the book.

Eben Alexander, M.D. has been a practicing neurosurgeon with a medical degree from Duke University Medical School and a neuroscientist who was for 15 years on the faculty of Harvard Medical School. He has authored or co-authored upwards of 150 chapters and papers for peer-reviewed medical journals and presented research results at over 200 scientific conferences around the world.

Science and heaven together seem like oil and water. Indeed, Dr. Alexander considered himself a nominal Episcopalian at best but, more realistically, a skeptic or an agnostic. He regarded near death experiences (NDEs) of people, often following cardiac arrest, with stories of journeying to mysterious places, speaking with deceased relatives, or even meeting God Himself, as nothing but pure fantasy or brain-based illusions. Until 10 November 2008 when at age 54, “I was struck by a rare illness and thrown into a coma for seven days. During that time, my entire neocortex – the outer surface of the brain, the part that makes us human – was shut down. Inoperative. In essence, absent” (p. 8).

NDE is said to be as old as history and not until the 1960s did it become a household phrase when modern techniques made it possible for medical doctors to resuscitate patients who had cardiac arrests. Then, in 1975 came out a book by a medical student Raymond Moody titled Life After Life about a certain George Ritchie who “… had ‘died’ as a result of cardiac arrest as a complication of pneumonia and been out of his body for nine minutes. He traveled down a tunnel, visited heavenly and hellish regions, met a being of light that he identified as Jesus, and experienced feelings of peace and well-being that were so intense he had difficulty putting them into words. The era of the modern near-death experience was born” (pp. 133-134).

The special character, however, of Dr. Alexander’s NDE was that he was both a hard-core scientist and an agnostic. The disease that cast him into a coma was diagnosed as a very rare and severe type of E. coli bacterial meningitis. Those known to have contracted the disease and fallen into a coma reportedly never came back to tell their stories.

For seven days, Dr. Alexander would be present to his family in body alone; his mind was gone. He had no memory of what he was or of the goings-on while he was in the hospital. The last words he uttered – which he was later reminded of by the hospital ICU staff – were “God help me”.

His book centers on a graphic recollection of his journey through an underworld of darkness like being submerged in mud but at the same time seeing grotesque beastlike faces and hearing deep, monotonous pounding sounds. The Realm of the Earthworm’s-Eye View he calls it.

Then, from the cold darkness there emerged streaks of white-gold light accompanied by extraordinarily beautiful music. “There was a whooshing sound, and in a flash I went through the opening and found myself in a completely new world. The strangest, most beautiful world I’d ever seen. Brilliant, vibrant, ecstatic, stunning … I felt like I was being born. Not reborn, or born again. Just … born” (p. 38). This time he was accompanied by “a beautiful girl with high cheekbones and deep blue eyes” (p. 40).

He then enters the Gateway into the Core where he meets “God, the Creator, the Source who is responsible for making the universe and all in it. This Being was so close that there seemed to be no distance at all between God and myself. Yet at the same time, I could sense the infinite vastness of the Creator, could see how completely minuscule I was by comparison. I will occasionally use Om as the pronoun for God because I originally used that name in my writings after my coma. ‘Om’ was the sound I remembered hearing associated with that omniscient, omnipotent, and unconditionally loving God, but any descriptive word falls short” (p. 47).

After seven days, Dr. Alexander opened his eyes and, to the amazement and utter disbelief of members of his family present, the physician in-charge and his caregivers, he sits up on his hospital bed, and looks at each of them. “Don’t worry … all is well” he says and repeats to everyone as if “to assuage any doubt … acknowledging the divine miracle of my very existence” (p. 113).

These are hardly the words one would expect to hear from a scientist for many years steeped in no-nonsense research and specialized medical practice having to do with the brain. Dr. Alexander himself remarks about his experience: “Describing what an NDE is is challenging, at best, but doing so in the face of a medical profession that refuses to believe it’s possible at all makes it even harder. Due to my career in neuroscience and my own NDE, I now have the opportunity to make it more palatable” (p.135). Happily, many MDs have lent testimonial credence to his experience.

The book is fascinating and commends itself to virtually anyone – believer, unbeliever, skeptic, religious, spiritual, etc. – or one who simply likes reading novels because it does read like one.


Ernesto M. Pernia, UP School of Economics, is a fellow of the Institute for Development and Econometric Analysis, and formerly lead economist of ADB.