As some of you know, I wrote a blog post last summer after hearing a author named Dr. Eben Alexander speak at a conference. His book, Proof of Heaven raised a number of questions in my mind that I wanted to explore. That post attracted more readers than any other I have written in the last three years so I know lots of people are interested in the topic. Then last weekend Thom and I went to the new movie, Heaven Is For Real to discover if it offered any further proof of the concept. But instead of answers, it raised even more questions about the idea of heaven that I think each of us could benefit from answering for ourselves. And the biggest question of all is, “How would your life be different if you really believed Heaven were real?”
I didn’t read the book. I saw it in the bookstore when it first came out a couple of years ago, and after reading the cover was convinced it was a bit too religiously focused to suit my tastes. But when we saw the trailer for the movie Thom and decided to give it a chance. Was it emotional and a bit sappy? Yes. But it was also touching and well done enough to make it more than a mere commercial for the Christian faith. And like I mentioned above, it asks some deeply important questions in a sweet and hopeful way.
What’s the Story?
As you might expect, the story is predictable and Disneyesque. An adorable little boy name Colton gets sick, almost dies, and when he awakens believes he went to heaven. The father is the minister for a local church and it appears that the only negative quality of the father, mother and sister is that they are all too sincere and compassionate for their own good. When Colton begins telling his father that he went to heaven while under anesthesia, his dad is skeptical. But when Colton tells him that he saw his mom in one room on the phone, and his dad elsewhere yelling at God at the same time, Dad becomes convinced.
Not everyone else buys the story even after Colton provides a few more colorful revelations. Mom has a difficult time believing her son and so do the church board and its members. I had erroneously imagined that everyone in his father’s church would be curious, but open to the idea. Instead they dismiss Colton’s vision as a hallucination and criticize the Pastor for accepting the story he has come to believe. A church board member named Nancy says she is against their church becoming a place for “people who want to take their brains out of their heads and beat them with the Bible.” She finishes with, “Heaven and hell are concepts that have been used to control people.” Can anyone say, “Amen!” to that?
Is It Really Real?
So do I believe that Colton’s story is real? I guess it depends on how you define real. I believe that the boy believed that he had this experience. And I also had no problem at all with the Dad and eventually the family supporting Colton in his story. How each one of them decides to believe the story and why they believe it, plays out as a quality of their lives. Likewise, whether we believe and how we feel about it ultimately affects only us. That’s why a question like, “What would change if heaven were real?” deserves an answer—if only for ourselves.
Whether or not we believe in a heaven points out what we ultimately think about life. Where were we before we were born? Where do we go when we die or leave our bodies? Do we feel we are just blood, flesh and bone with a consciousness inherent to our biology? Or do we believe ourselves to be consciousness or a soul that continues on long after we leave our physical bodies? Is it possible we simply morph into the cosmos of the Universe, slipping unseen and silent into the night? Does it make us a better person if we believe or don’t believe? While we seldom take the time to fully contemplate these questions and their answers, what we think or don’t think about the answers influence how we feel when we get up in the morning, how restful we sleep, and every other of our actions, our decisions, our choices and eventually our entire lives.
How Did Others See The Movie?
Predictably the atheists had a field day with the story. Susan Jacoby, who writes under the title of “The Spirited Atheist” says, “What is truly disturbing about this book’s huge commercial success is that it attests to the prevalence of unreason among vast numbers of Americans.” She then goes on to say, “At age four, the inability to distinguish between fantasy and reality is charming. Among American adults, widespread identification with the mind of a preschooler is scary.”
With equal interest I read about the blowback from some within the Christian religion in relation to both the book and the movie. Many in this camp consider the story of Colton and his family to be a detriment because it is contrary to a literal interpretation of the Bible. Pastor John Author writes, “Stories like Colton’s are as dangerous as they are seductive. Readers not only get a twisted, unbiblical picture of heaven; they also imbibe a subjective, superstitious, shallow brand of spirituality. Studying mystical accounts of supposed journeys into the afterlife yields nothing but confusion, contradiction, false hope, bad doctrine, and a host of similar evils.”
Still regardless of what the extremes on both sides say, the overwhelming success of the book since being printed in 2010 proves that many do resonate with the story. With 78% of Americans saying they believe in an afterlife, and regardless of whether it is an “inability to distinguish between fantasy and reality” as Jacoby says, or “confusion, contradiction, (and) false hope…” like Author says, some need is being met.
What’s The Appeal?
From my perspective the book offers a timeless story that most people can relate to in life. Regardless of your religion or what you believe spiritually, we all know death is an inevitable part of the journey. Besides that, the book illustrates that we are all faced with challenges, but that our love for one another can get us through just about anything. Overall, Heaven Is For Real offers a sweet but simplistic approach to something we know we can’t escape—and for many a comfort that they are on the right track. Is there anything wrong with that? Only if that track insists that it is the one and only way to get there.
What Are A Few Other Questions That Apply?
Instead of the story proving or disproving whether heaven is real I think its most powerful benefit is the questions it asks us about our current lives.
1) Do we say we believe in heaven yet fear death for others and our self?
2) Do we believe that heaven is a destination we go to, or just one of many ways of describing the mystery of what happens after we pass from our human form?
3) Does our version of heaven sound a bit like an exclusive, gated-country club where only the elites get to enter? What makes us so special?
4) Do we believe we will get special treatment in heaven if we do everything right? Then what happens if something drastic happens to us or one of our loved ones?
5) Can people from other religions around the world get into our heaven? Can we get into theirs? How many heavens are there?
6) Do we believe in hell? Is it a geographical place like heaven? Can we avoid it? Whose rules do we have to follow to escape it?
7) Does our version of God make him the ultimate judge, jury and executioner? Do we say we believe in a God of love and then envision him in ways that aren’t so loving?
8) Does our version of heaven give us hope and help us live a happier, more peaceful and meaningful life? If yes, what does it really matter if anyone else believes something different?
9) If we are convinced there is no heaven of any kind, then why do we care whether others believe it or not? Does their belief affect our belief? And why does that matter?
Do I personally think heaven is real? Not really—especially the way Colton sees it. But as I’ve written before I do believe that consciousness is eternal, that life goes on, that the material and spiritual world are constantly changing, evolving and becoming. I don’t know what comes next, but I’m hopeful about it. Of course it doesn’t really matter what I think anyway. The SMART question is: What do you believe—and how does that help you live?
In case you missed it, here is the original article: Is There REALLY Proof of Heaven or Life After Death?