I don’t believe in the afterlife. Other people do. That’s fine. But can we all agree on something, please? Something very simple and basic? Can we agree, once and for all, that “near-death experiences” are not evidence at all for it, either way?
This morning, we report that a US neurosurgeon, Dr Eben Alexander, fell into a coma and was met by a beautiful blue-eyed woman in a “place of clouds, big fluffy pink-white ones” and “shimmering beings”:
Birds? Angels? These words registered later, when I was writing down my recollections. But neither of these words do justice to the beings themselves, which were quite simply different from anything I have known on this planet. They were more advanced. Higher forms.
Dr Alexander, writing in Newsweek, said that he realises that people might be a little sceptical – “Had someone, even a doctor, told me a story like this in the old days, I would have been quite certain that they were under the spell of some delusion” – he says. But “what happened to me was, far from being delusional, as real or more real than any event in my life. That includes my wedding day and the birth of my two sons.”
But it is well known that coma patients can frequently be subject to delusions, sometimes caused by oxygen deprivation to the brain; the fact that those delusions seem real is not evidence that they are real. When I worked in a coffee shop as a teenager, I had a regular customer called Pierre, who was a schizophrenic. He was a thoroughly cheerful and likeable man, but entirely convinced of some very odd things, such as that America had recently fallen into the sea (Courtney Love was apparently the sole survivor) and that all of Britain had likewise subsided, leaving only Oxford and the Thames Valley untouched. I had to put extra nutmeg in his coffee, because it was the antidote to the poisons the government was using on him. These delusions were extremely real to him, I think. But few people would use that as evidence that they were real in the wider sense.
More importantly, even if visions of a stereotyped heaven were not frequently reported in similar situations, it’s far from clear to me why people think they count as support for the existence of that heaven. Why would God, or Allah or Jehovah or Zeus or whichever one this is, provide glimpses of His eternal paradise arbitrarily to some people who are still alive? I thought we were expected to believe in Him on faith alone. If He’s now doling out evidence, why is He only doing it for a few coma patients and heart-attack victims? Why not simply write “Heaven is real and I exist” in light-year-long golden letters across the night sky? It’s not as though the advance viewing of heaven can have been an administrative mistake (“Oh, sorry – I’ve got you down for July 2038. Choking on pick-‘n’-mix at the Holloway Odeon. Back down you go”); God is, after all, omniscient, and presumably therefore beyond our earthly Outlook Calendar foul-ups.
Maybe there’s a heaven, maybe there isn’t. I’m happy to stick all my chips on the latter option. But whether I’m right or wrong, the fact that people see strange things when they’re unconscious is not evidence one way or the other. In fact, all Dr Alexander’s piece is evidence for is the proposition that Newsweek are a bit mean to let him say these things in a public forum.