Book Review: ‘Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife’ by Dr Eben Alexander
“Non-fiction” books about life after death ordinarily need to be approached with an open mind or not approached at all. Whether you believe in this kind of stuff or not, you’ll find that most people have already their minds made up about what will happen to them when they die, and even those who have no idea will usually have hopes one way or the other.
This is why Dr Eben Alexander’s Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife, a title capable of turning a lot of people off instantly, is such a fascinating book about life and death and the fundamental nature of consciousness. We’ve all heard of those near-death experiences (NDEs) where the person sees an incredibly bright light at the end of a tunnel and meeting deceased loved ones and feeling immeasurable volumes of love — but those accounts are mostly written off because, according to medical theories, they are attributed to hallucinations and dreams created by our brains.
What makes Alexander’s book unique is that, first of all, he is a neurosurgeon, someone who had previously written off NDEs because of his expertise on the human brain. As a brain expert, he was in a position to analyze his experience and formulate theories on whether it was real or imagined, with scientific and medical reasoning to back himself up. Secondly, when Alexander was in a coma for seven days as a result of a rare form of E coli bacterial meningitis, the relevant part of his brain that creates hallucinations or fake memories was all but shut down, making the likelihood that his experience was merely a product of his own mind close to zero. And thirdly, with almost no chance of survival and facing a life as a vegetable even if he pulled through, Alexander somehow made a sudden and miraculous recovery that defied medical science.
OK, so it’s still easy to be cynical, given that Proof of Heaven is a massive bestseller (more than 2 million copies sold), but you have to admit the premise of the book is much stronger than similar books that have come before it. And even if you don’t completely buy his story, you have to admit that you are maybe just a little curious about what he has to say about life after death.
I won’t spoil it too much, but what I will say is that Alexander’s experience corresponds with a lot of the existing NDE accounts. I will also say that it is somewhat misleading to call the book Proof of Heaven, because the “heaven” he describes in the book is not a religious one, but rather simply just a wonderful place filled with beauty and love.
Alexander claims to have written down his entire experience before helping himself to the plethora of literature out there on NDEs so that it won’t taint his account. If that is true, then it is quite remarkable, because his explanation of how things work in the afterlife is in line with the very small slice of NDE literature I’ve read (before his book), which talk about multiple dimensions, spheres of existence and levels of vibrations.
Interestingly, the main difference between Alexander’s NDE account to that of others is that he had no memory of his life on Earth — or anywhere for that matter — when he was in the afterlife, and yet he was able to recall exactly what he experienced there in a vivid, realistic and lucid manner.
Another strength of the book, to my surprise, is the writing itself. Apart from the way Alexander works through the complex medical concepts in a relatively easy-to-understand fashion, his descriptions of the afterlife are also excellent and carry a lot of depth, albeit a little short. Though he readily admits that what he saw and felt cannot be adequately put into words, he sure as hell gives it one heck of a shot. You don’t really get a clear picture of it, but you do get an idea that ranges from vague to semi-clear, and I suppose that’s the best readers can hope for.
Those concerned about a boring spiel need not be worried either. Proof of Heaven is a brisk read at 208 pages and is aided by an interchanging narrative structure adopted from thriller novels. Through 34 short chapters, the story jumps back and forth between the two main narrative arcs — his dire and worsening physical situation on earth and his time in the afterlife.
There are also two appendices at the end. The first is a statement from the doctor who treated Alexander confirming his medical condition, and the second is a series of possible medical explanations for his experience, though as you would imagine he dismisses all of them as unlikely.
As someone who has always had a healthy interest and scepticism in the afterlife, I did find Proof of Heaven frustrating and disappointing for several reasons. The first is that Alexander provides almost no details of his post-NDE experience life. There are some details about his recovery, but information on how his life has changed after this experience is alarmingly vague, almost as if he’s trying to avoid discussing it. One example is where he touches on getting into meditation and other spiritual practices, which have allowed him to have out-of-body experiences (I’m assuming astral projection) that allow him to return to a place he claims is similar to the afterlife realm he visited — but he provides no further details about it. How could something like this be barely a footnote in the book when more explanations were absolutely necessary?
Another topic I would have liked to have seen Alexander broach is religion. Proof of Heaven, despite its title, intentionally steers clear of any religious discussion apart from a brief mention of an unwilling church visit. I understand why he would want to do so, but the result is that religion ends up being the pink elephant in the room.
During his NDE experience, Alexander is clear that he encounters an almighty, omnipresent and omnipotent creator he describes as God, but he does not link it to any organized religion. I believe he is trying to say that his experience rendered religion moot, though it would have been nice to just get an inkling of his religious leanings before the experience and whether he had a religious upbringing, and more importantly, whether the experience has made him a more religious person. We don’t get any of that in the book. Sure, you can do some research and find out, but intentionally leaving it out makes it feel like he has something to hide.
Leaving aside all the NDE stuff, what baffled me the most about the book was its failure to deal adequately with the miracle of Alexander’s recovery. We’re told throughout the book that he was supposed to die and his brain was nearly destroyed, but when he suddenly recovers no one even tries to figure out how it happened? Am I missing something here? Are miracle recoveries from the brink of death a regular occurrence? I just found it so strange that this was brushed off as a miracle, with no medical theories on how he managed to recover.
Still, despite all its flaws, I found Proof of Heaven to be a thought-provoking read, and it’s a book I would recommend to anyone with an open mind about life after death. Actually, I’d probably recommend it to heavily religious and close minded people as well, just to see what holes they could poke in it.
PS: This is the kind of book I would tell people to read without first checking all the opinionated breakdowns and analyses on the internet (reviews like this are different) so they can approach it without preconceived notions. As you can imagine, the views on Alexander’s experience and the book itself are polarizing, with plenty of attacks and defenses coming from both sides. I’m just starting to get into them now.
PPS: Well, after doing some research it seems Dr Alexander’s book has stirred up quite a shitstorm. The most damaging rebuttal piece is from Luke Dittrich, a contributing editor at Esquire magazine, who basically paints Alexander as a fraud with a history of questionable behaviour and tendency to embellish for dramatic effect. The article can be found here, but it requires a $1.99 payment. This article was widely publicized and used by sceptics to “debunk” Alexander’s experience. Alexander’s defenders, of course, have struck back with a rebuttal of the Esquire piece, revealing how Dittrich distorted and misrepresented the facts to serve his own agenda, including taking a key witness out of context (and she speaks out about it). If you’re too cheap to pay for the Dittrich piece like me, then check out the Robert Mays rebuttal, which covers a lot of Dittrich’s arguments before tearing them apart. I don’t have a horse in this race so I won’t state my opinion, but if you’re interested in the controversy then I’d definitely recommend checking it out. All I can say is that there is a whole world of NDE research out there for those who want to check it out.