Incredible Journeys: What to Make of Visits to Heaven
Since we've been able to locate where in the brain spiritual experiences are enjoyed, many neuroscientific theologians conclude, these experiences are merely electrical and chemical reactions as the brain tries to deal with impending death.
This argument is not convincing to everyone. And it's particularly interesting that Alexander, the neurosurgeon who had a near-death experience (NDE), argues vigorously for a new kind of body-soul dualism. He was a materialist before his experience, but now is a vigorous apologist for the existence of a spiritual world. In an appendix to his book, he explains why he rejects nine purely neuroscientific hypotheses regarding NDES, doing so in technical terms and concepts meaningful (I trust) to those in that intellectual stratosphere.
It's not hard to grasp that people experience these spiritual realities in certain parts of the brain. We also know that, given the right instruments—drugs or electrical probes, for example—scientists can stimulate parts of the brain that cause the subject to have something not unlike a spiritual experience. But does this suggest that spiritual experiences are merely physical responses in the brain?
Not necessarily. It could simply mean that God uses certain parts of our brains to communicate spiritual realities.
Does it suggest that an induced spiritual experience is the same as one caused by an outside spiritual entity?
Again, not necessarily. When I make love with my wife, some parts of my brain are deeply engaged in this extraordinary erotic experience. Then again, I also know that if I look at pornography, those very same centers of the brain are activated. It's also true that a neuroscientist could artificially stimulate that part of the brain while I lie on a table in a hospital, so that I again would experience sexual passions. But I don't know by what calculus one could say these three experiences are the same simply because the same parts of the brain were stimulated, or that the experience of making love to my wife is merely something happening in my brain.
To be fair: Christians have known for a very long time that one can have experiences that seem spiritual but are just abnormalities of the body. Spiritual directors are alert to diet, sleep, and adrenalin—to name three factors—that can lead to experiences that seem spiritual but are not. We call it the discernment of spirits.
So there seems to be no definitive scientific grounds for outright dismissal of near-heaven experiences. But given the church's experience, there's no reason to take each one at face value either.
One reason this writer is disposed to believe many of these stories, at least initially, is because they fit with what I as a historian have come to trust as real and true.