I’ve never had a near-death experience and don’t know anyone who has, but according to a poll that’s quoted throughout the NDE literature, at least 5 percent of Americans have returned from one and told the tale. That may be a small percentage, but it’s a lot of people—given today’s population, over 15,000,000. Other estimates are lower, but they’re still huge. And most of these people seem to be writing books.
The current front-runner is the omnipresent Heaven Is for Real by Todd Burpo “with” Lynn Vincent—and don’t underestimate that “with”: Lynn Vincent has been, among other things, the ghostwriter for Sarah Palin’s Going Rogue, and she knows what she’s doing. (I imagine that after dealing with Palin, dealing with Colton Burpo—who, before he turned four, almost died of a ruptured appendix, went to heaven, and came back with a detailed report—must have been a piece of cake.) Actually, she’s not little Colton’s collaborator, she’s his dad’s: it’s Todd, Colton’s father, who tells the story.
Todd Burpo is the pastor of the Crossroads Wesleyan Church in Imperial, Nebraska, population approximately two thousand. He also owns a company that installs garage doors, and is a wrestling coach for junior high and high school students and a volunteer with the Imperial fire department. His wife, Sonja, works as an office manager, has a master’s in library and information science, and is a certified teacher. When Colton, their second child, suffers his burst appendix—his condition had been misdiagnosed—the family undergoes an agonizing period of suspense during the time he’s close to death before making a full recovery. Lynn Vincent jerks every tear in recounting this frightening story—“Daddy! Don’t let them take meeee!”—but has room for touches of humor, too. At a crucial moment: “That night might be the only time in recorded history that eighty people [Todd’s parishioners] gathered and prayed for someone to pass gas!” (“Within an hour, the…prayer was answered!”)
Colton’s remarkable story is really two stories. One is his account of what he sees when, under anesthesia, he looks down from the hospital room ceiling and observes the doctors working on his body, his Mommy praying and talking on the telephone in one room, and his Daddy praying in another. When, days later, he casually mentions this to his father, “Colton’s words rocked me to the core…. How could he have known?” Actually, this kind of out-of-body experience—in which the presumably unconscious person still has the faculties of sight, hearing, and memory—turns out to be a fairly common phenomenon.
The other story is what Colton experienced in heaven while he was being operated on, a story that emerges only four months later when, under Todd’s gentle questioning, Colton’s parents learn that their boy had met “nice” John the Baptist and the angel Gabriel, who’s also nice. And because “a lot of our Catholic friends have asked whether Colton saw Mary, the mother of Jesus,” the answer is yes. “He saw Mary kneeling before the throne of God and at other times, standing beside Jesus. ‘She still loves him like a mom,’” Colton reports. What’s more, Colton sat in Jesus’s lap observing his clothes (white with a purple sash) and his “markers”—Colton’s term for the stigmata. Everyone but Jesus had wings: “Jesus just went up and down like an elevator.”
What most startled the Burpos was Colton’s suddenly saying, “Mommy, I have two sisters.” There’s not only his older sister, Cassie, but “You had a baby die in your tummy, didn’t you?” As Vincent puts it, “At that moment, time stopped in the Burpo household, and Sonja’s eyes grew wide.” Sonja: “Who told you I had a baby die in my tummy?” “She did, Mommy. She said she had died in your tummy.” “Emotions rioted across Sonja’s face.” “It’s okay, Mommy. She’s okay. God adopted her.” “Don’t you mean Jesus adopted her?” “No, Mommy. His Dad did!” Before returning to earth, Colton also witnessed the battle of Armageddon and saw Jesus victorious and Satan defeated and thrown into hell. His entire trip to heaven, he reports, took place in three minutes.
The tale of Colton Burpo, so slickly told and efficiently exploited, poses an immediate question, of course: Are the Burpos sincere, or is this a fraud? Despite all the commercialization, I believe that they believe; that little Colton said things he thought to be true and that were shaped into this artful narrative by an astute collaborator.
With eight million copies sold since its publication in 2010, Heaven Is for Real was number one on the trade nonfiction best-seller list for well over a year and recently opened successfully as a movie, starring Greg Kinnear as Todd Burpo. The movie is pretty, pious, and at times plausible—not as an account of a trip to a greeting-card pastel heaven but as an account of parents dealing with their faith, their child, and their bank account. (One of the themes of both the book and the movie is the Burpos’ constant struggle with bills.) The film benefits from restrained performances, Kinnear never seeming embarrassed by what he’s been given to do and the little boy who plays Colton not only an amazing look-alike for the real Colton but simple and unaffected. You believe the actor if not his story.
The most interesting thing about the movie is how Hollywood has modeled it after a familiar genre that has nothing to do with the book: the ordinary good guy who stands up for what he believes against the naysayers. The church elders, who have been close friends and devoted supporters of the Burpos, suddenly, without our being prepared, decide they may have to replace Todd, since all the fuss about Colton is making their church too much of a roadshow attraction. But Todd is allowed to give one last sermon to set things straight, which he proceeds to do in a montage of spoken clichés so confused and banal that it’s almost impossible to follow them. No matter: the genuine all-American guy of high intentions is instantly a hero again. Mr. Deeds has come to town, Mr. Smith has come to Washington—it’s Capracorn at its most virulent. And indeed there’s a final image of Kinnear hugging his family while everyone brims with good will that’s a direct steal from the famous shot of Jimmy Stewart at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life. What’s odd is that none of this dramatic conflict is in the book. When the chips are down, Hollywood relies on itself, not Revelation.
Near-death experiences became a subject of wide-ranging public discussion and dispute in 1975, when a doctor named Raymond Moody Jr. published Life After Life—a book that in the subsequent literature on the phenomenon more or less holds the place of the Bible, its authority constantly cited and Moody’s imprimatur constantly sought. Its hold on the reading public is also remarkable: 13,000,000 copies have been sold. But when we consider its sensational effect, the book itself is painstakingly unsensational. It’s a circumspect report on what the young doctor had been hearing from some of his patients—and then from others whom he sought out, more than a thousand in all—about experiences they had when near death. In fact, it was Moody who coined the phrase “near-death experience.”
What his book did was validate the subject. As he wrote in a recent memoir, Paranormal: My Life in Pursuit of the Afterlife, “People no longer had to keep it in the closet or worry about people thinking they were crazy. It gave us legitimate consolation.” But in a revised edition of his Life After Life published in 2001, he writes:
Sadly, the avalanche of books on the subject includes many that, to my personal knowledge, have been fabricated by unscrupulous self-promoters cynically seeking notoriety or financial gain rather than true advancement in knowledge.
If Raymond Moody is the godfather of the near-death movement, the godmother—or grandmother—was Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, who demands attention because of On Death and Dying (1969), her influential book on the five stages of grief. In a later book, On Life After Death, she turns to more speculative matters, speaking with absolute (and unsupported) authority: “What the church tells little children about guardian angels is based on fact. There is proof that every human being, from his birth until his death, is guided by a spirit entity.” Among her other pronouncements: “it is a blessing to have cancer” and “a minimum of 30 percent of our population” have been sexually abused in their childhood.
When she herself emerged from a self-induced out-of-body experience, “my bowel obstruction was healed, and I was literally able to lift a hundred-pound sugar bag from the floor without any discomfort or pain. I was told that I radiated, that I looked twenty years younger.” Why am I not surprised that her early ambition was to be a doctor in India the way Albert Schweitzer was in Africa, and that Mother Teresa “is one of my saints”? But she found even more important work to do than healing. “My real job,” she explains, “is to tell people that death does not exist. It is very important that mankind knows this, for we are at the beginning of a very difficult time. Not only for this country, but for the whole planet earth.”
What exactly constitutes a near-death experience? Jeffrey Long, in Evidence of the Afterlife, sums up:
Researchers have concluded that NDEs may include some or all of the following twelve elements:
1. Out-of-body experience (OBE): Separation of consciousness from the physical body
2. Heightened senses
3. Intense and generally positive emotions or feelings
4. Passing into or through a tunnel
5. Encountering a mystical or brilliant light
6. Encountering other beings, either mystical beings or deceased relatives or friends
7. A sense of alteration of time or space
8. Life review
9. Encountering unworldly (“heavenly”) realms
10. Encountering or learning special knowledge
11. Encountering a boundary or barrier
12. A return to the body, either voluntary or involuntary
And indeed, as you trawl through the personal narratives of those who report their NDEs, these are the notes that are sounded again and again.
Such experiences are hardly new—there are many examples of them, or something similar to them, throughout history. Like many others, Moody cites the story of Er, as told in The Republic (Plato “was one of the greatest thinkers of all time”). Er (an ancient Greek cousin to Lazarus) was a warrior who rose from his funeral pyre and described what he had experienced while “dead.” It does sound as if Er had undergone a genuine NDE, but because the NDE vocabulary is so fluid, it’s sometimes hard to distinguish one particular experience from other, related ones—visions, hallucinations, dreams.
A very detailed report of an NDE was left us in a memoir by General William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army, who, when a young man, was seized by a sudden fever and in just a few hours
was brought to the very brink of death…. A strange faintness seized me. I lost consciousness. My next sensation was altogether beyond description. It was the thrill of a new and celestial existence. I was in heaven.
Many of today’s familiar tropes are present: the flashback through his past life, the angelic spirits, the glorious music. Jesus appears to Booth, a radiant yet stern presence, and speaks:
Go back to earth. I will give thee another opportunity. Prove thyself worthy of My name. Show to the world that thou possessest My spirit by doing My works, and becoming, on My behalf, a savior of men. Thou shalt return hither when thou hast finished the battle, and I will give thee a place in My conquering train, and a share in My glory.
And so the Salvation Army.
Many other great names are cited throughout the literature: Plotinus, Meister Eckhart, Blake, Swedenborg, Dostoevsky. Did they have visions? Out-of-body experiences? NDEs? More recent witnesses include Carl Jung, who in his Memories, Dreams, Reflections reports what was clearly an NDE. At the age of sixty-eight, while suffering a long, life-threatening illness, he found himself floating in space, which was “bathed in a gloriously blue light.” And then his physician, “or, rather, his likeness”—“in his primal form”—floated up from Europe, where Jung’s physical body lay. “He had been delegated by the earth to deliver a message to me, to tell me that there was a protest against my going away. I had no right to leave the earth and must return”—proof of, if nothing else, Jung’s monumental ego. His visions and experiences, he reports, “were utterly real; there was nothing subjective about them; they all had a quality of absolute objectivity.”
And would Elizabeth Taylor lie? After the death of her husband Mike Todd, she “went to that tunnel, saw the white light, and Mike. I said, ‘Oh Mike, you’re where I want to be.’ And he said, ‘No, Baby. You have to turn around and go back because there is something very important for you to do.’” No doubt he was thinking of the important things she would go on to achieve for AIDS relief and other causes, not the making of Cleopatra. Among the other stars who have reported NDEs are Peter Sellers, Donald Sutherland, Chevy Chase, Burt Reynolds, and Lou Gossett Jr., who has had five of them. (He also recalls a previous incarnation as a pirate with a harem off the coast of Morocco.)
The number-two book in the heaven genre, as I write, is considerably more sophisticated, tendentious, and disagreeable than Heaven Is for Real. It’s Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife by Eben Alexander, the work of a doctor who tells us that his “conclusions are based on a medical analysis of my experience, and on my familiarity with the most advanced concepts in brain studies and consciousness studies.” In other words, he’s his own expert witness. What happened to Dr. Alexander? One night when he was fifty-four, he reports, “a rare illness” threw him into a seven-day coma, during which time “my entire neocortex—the outer surface of the brain, the part that makes us human—was shut down.” His twenty-year-old son “was looking at what he knew was, essentially, a corpse. My physical body was there in front of him, but the dad he knew was gone.”
Gone, but not gone. That dad was undergoing a rich yet not atypical NDE experience:
I was flying, passing over trees and fields, streams and waterfalls, and here and there, people. There were children, too, laughing and playing. The people sang and danced around in circles, and sometimes I’d see a dog, running and jumping among them, as full of joy as the people were.
There’s a beautiful girl: “Golden-brown tresses framed her lovely face.” There are millions of butterflies all around. He reaches the Core, where everything “came instantly in an explosion of light, color, love, and beauty that blew through me like a crashing wave…in a way that bypassed language.” “I understood that I was part of the Divine and that nothing—absolutely nothing—could ever take that away,” and so “was granted full access to the cosmic being I really am (and we all are).”
In heaven Alexander learned that we are eternal. And he brings back important tidings: “Each and every one of us is deeply known and cared for by a Creator who cherishes us beyond any ability we have to comprehend. That knowledge must no longer remain a secret.” And:
I see it as my duty—both as a scientist and hence a seeker of truth, and as a doctor devoted to helping people—to make known to as many people as I can that what I underwent is true, and real, and of stunning importance. Not just to me, but to all of us.
He’s a prophet as well as a surgeon.
He’s also a man who’s had a troubled life, tormented by the knowledge that he’d been adopted as an infant, giving way to profound depression, alcoholism, despair. Only when he eventually meets the teenage couple who had had to give him away, and discovers that he had been loved by them, does he recover from the feeling that “subconsciously, I had believed that I didn’t deserve to be loved, or even to exist.” No wonder the crucial message he receives in heaven is “You are loved and cherished.” And no wonder he encountered that golden-brown-tressed girl: a snapshot proves that she’s a birth sister who had died before he was reunited with his birth family.
On first reading this narrative I was struck by both its grandiosity and its obvious elements of wish fulfillment, but I took for granted the lofty medical credentials Alexander stresses. However, as a lethal exposé by Luke Dittrich in Esquire recently revealed, Alexander’s successful career has been stained by an extraordinary chain of unpleasant departures from prestigious institutions, by malpractice suits (five in one ten-year stretch—all settled out of court), and by loss of surgical privileges—he’s been without official credentials since 2007. (The Virginian Board of Medicine once ordered him to take continuing education classes in ethics and professionalism.) None of this, needless to say, is alluded to in Proof of Heaven.
Dittrich also raises questions about Alexander’s veracity. Most damning are the tempered remarks he quotes from Dr. Laura Potter, who was on duty in the ER the night Alexander was brought in. Alexander tells us that his coma was caused by a case of E. coli bacterial meningitis, neglecting to mention that the coma was actually induced by Dr. Potter, in order to keep him alive until he was in a condition to be treated. Through the seven days of coma, whenever they tried to wake him, he was, Potter reports, in an agitated state—“just thrashing, trying to scream, and grabbing at his tube.” At those moments, she says, he was delirious but conscious. (A central point in Alexander’s argument is that throughout this entire week, his brain was incapable of creating a hallucinatory conscious experience.) When Alexander showed Dr. Potter the passages in his manuscript referring to her, she told him that they didn’t reflect her recollection. He then said to her, as she reported to Dittrich, that it was a matter of “artistic license,” and added that parts of his book were “dramatized, so it may not be exactly how it went, but it’s supposed to be interesting for readers.”
Certainly, readers have found it so. Last year alone, almost 950,000 copies of Proof of Heaven were sold. A movie is coming, a follow-up book is on the way, and according to Dittrich, “Anyone can pay sixty dollars to access his webinar guided-meditation series, ‘Discover Your Own Proof of Heaven.’” What’s more, you can pay to join the doctor on a “healing journey” through Greece. As for Dittrich’s revelations, Alexander told him, “I just think that you’re doing a grave disservice to your readers to lead them down a pathway of thinking that any of that is, is relevant.” All that should matter is the message he returned with from heaven.
(In an official, if unspecific response to Dittrich, Dr. Alexander proclaims that the Esquire article “is a textbook example of how unsupported assertions and cherry-picked information can be assembled at the expense of the truth.”)
It’s up to us to decide for ourselves whether Alexander is dishonest, delusional, a fantasist—or even telling the truth, at least as he sees it. Dittrich takes the long view: “Dr. Eben Alexander looks less like a messenger from heaven and more like a true son of America, a country where men have always found ways to escape the rubble of their old lives through audacious acts of reinvention.”
Todd Burpo and Eben Alexander couldn’t be more different, but the message they, and all the others, deliver is the same one, a message mankind has always been happy to receive: you can go on living after you die—in the short run, by returning from death or near-death; in the long run, up in heaven. In fact, once you get to heaven it’s so wonderful there you don’t want to return. In account after account the narrator begs to be allowed to stay on, but someone on high—Jesus, God, Saint Patrick, an angel—insists that he go back to earth. (“Mark! You must go back!” “Go back? No! No! I can’t go back!”…“You must return; I have given you [a] task, you have not finished.” “No, no, please God, no! Let me stay.”) They all obey, however, and so we get Heaven Is for Real, Proof of Heaven, To Heaven and Back, Nine Days in Heaven, 90 Minutes in Heaven, A Glimpse of Heaven, My Time in Heaven, When Will the Heaven Begin?, Waking Up in Heaven, AfterLife: What You Really Want to Know About Heaven and the Hereafter, A Vision from Heaven, My Journey to Heaven, Flight to Heaven, Appointments with Heaven, Hello from Heaven!, The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven, Revealing Heaven, plus others whose titles don’t include the H word—I Saw the Light, Saved by the Light, Embraced by the Light.
But if these books all take us to heaven and back, they’re by no means all alike. Some are just risible. Mary Stephens Landoll had A Vision from Heaven while in bed with a bad chest cold. In her vision, she was dressed in “a white satin (huge puffed up shoulders) file gown with chip diamond sparkles all over it….” As for Jesus, he “certainly looked Jewish…. His neck was real muscular and wide like a calf—strong as an animal. He was not a wimp. He was healthy.” Kat Kerr, in Revealing Heaven, not only sees John, her late husband, playing golf with Jesus but watches a heavenly movie with John Wayne.
Most of these narratives, however, despite details that may strike one as bizarre or just plain silly, are clearly sincere, and a number of them are cogent and convincing. That is, the reader—or at least this reader—is convinced that they represent a reality the author experienced and remembered. The range of backgrounds is very wide, the life stories and lifestyles dramatically divergent, and the tone of most of them generally unruffled and confident. And though accounts of heaven tend to pall after one has read thirty or so of them, the real-life stories of the narrators are frequently absorbing and often moving.
Don Piper, whose 90 Minutes in Heaven is one of the most widely read of these books, “died” in a car crash; had a typical near-death experience of heaven; was in the hospital for 105 days; lay in bed at home for thirteen months; and “endured thirty-four surgeries.” What he most wants to convey is that he survived because so many people prayed for him: “You prayed; I’m here.”
Crystal McVea—sexually abused at the age of three; a violent stepfather; bulimia and abortion in high school; suicide attempts—nevertheless survived and flourished. We feel she’s telling the truth in her memoir, Waking Up in Heaven, when she writes that, after her NDE, she “really missed God. I longed to be with Him again…. I mean, it wasn’t like I had met the president or a celebrity or something. This was the Creator of the universe! The Lord God of Israel!”
Betty J. Eadie, author of the extremely successful Embraced by the Light, speaks of
The unconditional love of God, beyond any earthly love, radiating from him to all his children…. But above all, I saw Christ, the Creator and Savior of the earth, my friend, and the closest friend any of us can have. I seemed to melt with joy as I was held in his arms and comforted—home at last. I would give all in my power, all that I ever was, to be filled with that love again—to be embraced in the arms of his eternal light.
Uniquely, she reports on “the Lord’s sense of humor, which was so delightful and quick as any here—far more so. Nobody could outdo his humor.”
Particularly moving is the account of Jeff Olsen in I Knew Their Hearts. He was driving, nodded off, and when his car plunged off the road, his wife and baby son were killed and seven-year-old Spencer was trapped but saved. Olsen’s account of his almost four months in the hospital, eighteen major surgeries, one leg lost, right arm almost gone, skin grafts—and of his guilt and remorse—is direct, modest, and sensible. He doesn’t go to heaven, but on the first night, in terrible pain, he floats through the hospital and wanders down the halls, coming upon his own broken body. Because of Spencer he rejects the idea of suicide: “Having a child is like having your heart leave your body and walk around in the world…. I just didn’t know how to be there for him with my own heart still broken in so many ways.” In a dream God says to him, “Choose joy,” and eventually he repairs himself emotionally, becomes a successful advertising director, remarries, adopts two sons, lives a life. His book inspires, not through the God part but through his strength and fortitude as a man.
Because aspects of the more artless NDE narratives are so available to ridicule, it’s hard to remember that even some of the seemingly absurd byways of the literature can be genuine reflections of serious concerns. Gary Kurz, a fundamentalist Christian who is a strict Biblicist—that is, he believes that every word of the Bible must be taken literally—has devoted three books to the place of pets in the afterlife: Cold Noses at the Pearly Gates, Wagging Tails in Heaven, and Furry Friends Forevermore. They repeat themselves, but they’re good-natured, even funny, and from a Biblicist point of view, they have a certain logic to them.
Kurz is anti-evolution. (“I am not a mammal. I am not an animal. I am a man.”) He dismisses the idea of departed pets coming back to visit, and he’s adamant that animals will not be included in the final Rapture. He’s also fierce on the subject of the heaven narrative: “As a Christian and Biblicist, I reject erroneous claims about Heaven, the ‘I visited there myself’ claim in particular. The Bible teaches clearly, that short of the rapture [which would mean the return of Jesus to earth], the only way to get to Heaven is to die.” In fact, when Kurz comes upon certain descriptions of heaven: “Pleeeeeeease! When I hear something like that I repeat what I have said so many times before. ‘Pass the bread, the baloney has already been around.’”
On the other hand, Kurz wonders whether “animals aren’t just another order of angels or perhaps directed by angels to serve and protect humankind.” And indeed reports bear out that animals can come to our rescue in much the way guardian angels do. USA Today, for instance, published an account of Gary, from Columbus, Ohio, who trained his cat, Tommy, to use the telephone. Sure enough, when Gary fell out of his wheelchair and his osteoporosis and mini-strokes kept him from getting up, Tommy dialed 911 for help. “The cat was lying by a telephone on the living room floor when the officer went in. Tommy saved Gary’s life!” There’s a considerable library of books that provide scores—hundreds—of comparable stories about angels, including a particularly engaging one about a bank employee who helps a man retrieve his lost Filofax and whose name turns out to be…Dawn Angel!
Anecdotes like these are the bread and butter of the tabloids, of course, and they have their entertainment value. Their absurdities, however, reflect the naive but potent hunger for the kind of reassurance that the more substantial NDE narratives also provide. Yes, these scenarios of visits to heaven may seem preposterous to the skeptical reader (like myself). And yes, the comforting messages brought back from heaven have often been delivered before—but through prophecy, revelation, the Word. The recent spate of NDE books offers something more concrete: contemporary first-person reportage. If their authors are not liars, something happened to these people. But what? Can what they report, however unlikely it sounds, be reconciled with science, so that we can respect the phenomenon while rejecting its literal manifestations? These are questions for a second article.