Barry Saunders

Saunders: There are no harps or clouds in NC doctor's view of heaven

No harps? No angels? No 24-hour strip clubs?

If that ain’t heaven, who the hell wants to go?

Alas, Dr. Eben Alexander III, the neurosurgeon from North Carolina who has written a book on his trip to heaven, said those old images aren’t often repeated by others who have had near-death experiences.

“You really don’t hear much about that in the near-death literature,” Alexander told me Wednesday. “It’s kind of amazing, but you can go through tens of thousands of reports or online in the modern near-death community” – there’s a community? – “and I cannot even think of a case where somebody encountered a harp-playing angel on a cloud.”

Reports of what people say they experience, he said, “are really not so steeped in religious beliefs and depictions as one might think.”

Alexander wasn’t surprised that skeptics would tear into his story: He was skeptical, too.

Some hoots and hollers greeted publication of “Proof of Heaven,” the book he wrote after emerging from a coma in 2008. “This is not the kind of story you can put out there – one that changes the entire worldview – without having a gigantic recoil and backlash from those who are addicted to the same old belief systems that I was addicted to before my coma,” he said.

A new book

Despite the backlash, the book sold more than 2 million copies, so it probably comes as no surprise that Alexander has written another book.

“Map of Heaven,” he said, “is a robust expansion beyond ‘Proof of Heaven.’”

He’ll be discussing “Map of Heaven,” in which he shares the stories of others, at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh.

“Sharing those stories is an ongoing form of validation and clarification. ... There can be some apparent superficial differences between the stories,” he said. “For instance, a Christian might see an all-loving light body of Christ, and a Muslim might see that very same all-loving light body as Muhammad, and an atheist might see that very same light body as something they don’t know what to name. You have to go deeper than the superficial words.”

That’s why, he said, “the skeptics get so confused. They are so busy ... picking apart differences in the petty little linguistic descriptions. They’re missing the deeper feature – the commonality of these stories by the tens of thousands.”

As an example, he cited the afterlife experience reported by Er, an Armenian soldier killed in battle 2,300 years ago, about whom Plato wrote.

“For all the world,” Alexander said, “his story might as well be coming from a soldier in Iraq or Afghanistan hit by an IED today. I mean, it’s the very same story. That realm has not changed, but our words do reflect a certain cultural bias.”

At book signings, he said, “I’ll have several people come up to me and say, ‘I’ve never told anyone this, but ...,’ and they’ll tell me a story that is similar” to those he’s heard or read before.

Alexander said his own story is “much stronger from a scientific viewpoint” than your average near-death experience. “My story has a lot more ‘oooomph’ to it from the scientific community because I had so much devastation. ... To this day, my doctors will tell you they have no explanation for how I recovered.

“That,” he said, “is part of the miracle of my journey that has garnered so much attention in the scientific and medical communities.”

His story has also garnered attention from those who view him as an opportunist exploiting a real medical crisis.

He said even he initially tried to convince himself “that it had to be a hallucination, the effects of drugs or some kind of a dream state.”

Alexander said he welcomes “open-minded skeptics, which I think are of tremendous value. The thing I have very little tolerance for are the closed-minded pseudo-skeptics, the deniers and debunkers.

“They’re missing the deeper picture,” he said. “I’m not sure any of them have even read my book.”

Whether Alexander’s reports on heaven are accurate or not, I plan to take a credit card – just in case.

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