Can you really get away from God?

The Oct. 15 issue of Newsweek had a fascinating article by Dr. Eben Alexander entitled “My Proof of Heaven.” Alexander is a neurosurgeon who describes himself as a man who “considered myself a faithful Christian,” but more so, “in name than in actual belief.” He tells us that he “sympathized deeply with those who wanted to believe that there was a God somewhere out there who loved us unconditionally.” “But,” he states, “as a scientist, I simply knew better than to believe them myself.” But because of the experience he had while in a coma for seven days, during which time his neocortex was inactivated as a result of contracting a very rare form of bacterial meningitis, Alexander became convinced of the existence of God, and of an afterlife in which unconditional love is the prevailing reality. Normally I am not terribly interested in these reports because a near death experience is just that, near death not actual and real death. Two things make Alexander’s story compelling, even to people like me.

First, by his own admission Alexander did not believe any of what most historic religions believe are the right things to believe about God. Yet his experience was one of absolute and unconditional love, full and complete acceptance. Clearly this experience was not a reward for believing the right things, it simply was; he moved into this realm without regard to anything he had previously been, or done, or thought. The love he experienced was as omnipresent as the air we breathe, and there was never for a single instant any question about whether he did or did not merit this. Now in one sense this is a dangerous insight; why should people believe if believing doesn’t earn us a reward or result in a punishment? The question, it seems to me at least, answers itself. We believe because it is true, and that is the only reason. If love is truly unconditional that is the only reason to believe — because it is true, because it is real, and because believing the truth therefore puts us into harmony with the universe, with God. Believing that we are loved unconditionally is not an invitation to become evil, as though now we could get away with anything. It is a call to live in that love. Indeed, if it were generally believed that we are all loved unconditionally the world would be a far more peaceful and gracious place than it now is. It is very hard to hate people you know God loves; it is very hard to reject people you know God accepts. Indeed, the one indispensable item for persecution to succeed is to dehumanize the persecuted, create the widespread sense that these people are not just expendable, but not quite human, and therefore unworthy of love, respect and dignity.  Alexander’s experience makes this impossible, and if  somehow, some way, that experience could be implanted in all human hearts, well, the Kingdom would have come, God’s will would have been done on earth as it is in heaven.

The second thing is his insight about consciousness. According to Alexander, most of modern science holds to the theory that the brain, and in particular the cortex, generates consciousness, a view he held until his experience. He now realizes that consciousness is the quality of God, and that human beings, human brains if you will, are the receptors of consciousness, not its generators. Consciousness simply is, and we perceive, analyze and interpret that consciousness, but we don’t generate it, God does. Now I realize that this takes us back to the discussion about the nature of reality that Plato and Aristotle started well over 2,000 years ago, and I have neither the interest nor the expertise to comment on that. But what Alexander is arguing above and beyond that discussion is that the presence of God suffuses the entire universe; reality really is a single whole held together in all its apparent diversity by that divine presence. There really is nowhere we can go to get away from God, and, what is better, nowhere we need to go either.

About Bill Ellis

Rev. Bill Ellis is dean of St. John’s Cathedral. He has a bachelor’s degree in history, a Master of Divinity and holds an honorary Doctor of Divinity degree from Church Divinity School of the Pacific.

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  1. It’s interesting that many people today become more religious when they’re faced with problems out of their control. Perhaps Alexander become really aware for the first time of his own limitations and the limitations of modern science/medicine, and this awakened his faith?

  2. I think it likely that your surmise is part of what happened to and in Dr. Alexander. His “out of body” experience had a lot of positive content, which he describes in the article, and which I left out altogether from my short blog post. Read that and you will discover that though he certainly did discover the limitations of modern science/medicine, he was also taken beyond those limitations into this world of love beyond measure, and that was also decisive in his transformation. In our present state we all see “through the glass, darkly.” Alexander has glimpsed the moment when we see “face to face.”

  3. Whenever I hear of near-death experiences I try to be sympathetic, but also cautious because I believe that the Bible is the sole source of spiritual truth and it is dangerous to build any belief on experiences. Our eyes, ears and minds can be deceived even by our own self talk. Paul said in I Cor. 4: 3,4 that it was a small thing for him to be judged by any human, but he did not even judge himself. Even though he was not aware of anything between him and the Lord at that moment, he was not aquitted. I have personally had a time of self deception even knowing and believing everything that the Bible has to say. Verse 5 is even more unsettling, but you can read that yourself. God says our spirits, our real being, does not need the body (I like to call it my mortal unit) to exist. The Bible says that the body without the spirit is dead. All that means is the mortal unit is done, while the spirit lives on. Believers will, at God’s right time be united with their immortal unit, praise Him. Unbelievers will also be united with a unit only designed to experience judgement. I don’t need someone’s near death experience to convince me of God’s promise to me through Jesus Christ. In fact Jesus said that the rich man in Luke 16 begged Abraham to allow someone to come back from the grave to warn his brothers lest they also come to the place of torment but the reply was if they would not respond to the scriptures neither would they be convinced by someone raised from the dead. I believe that still applies today. I have yet to hear someone come back from a near death experience and plead with men and women to trust in Christ while there is still time. To try to calm everyone into thinking that no matter what you believe or how you live makes any eternal difference is evil, in my opinion.

  4. “To try to calm everyone into thinking that no matter what you believe or how you live makes any eternal difference is evil, in my opinion.”


  5. Eric seems to have understood your comment about trying to “calm everyone into thinking that no matter what you believe or how you live makes any eternal difference is evil” but I am not at all sure I understood it. I wonder if you are suggesting that Dr. Alexander’s experience, and the way he interpreted it, is evil? My take on it is quite the opposite. As I suggested in my thoughts about his experience, if everyone really saw life as Dr. Alexander now does, the world would be a far better, far more peaceful place. No, we wouldn’t all have the same religion, and no we wouldn’t all be one homogenous culture, but we would no longer be able to, or interested in, dehumanizing each other, we would respect and love that which we know God respects and loves. If you are suggesting, and I honestly don’t know whether you are or are not, that there is something fundamentally evil about Dr. Alexander’s experience, and his take on it, then I truly puzzled.

  6. My agreement was with the real danger of spreading the false idea that nothing matters in regards to truth about God, faith and the afterlife. Issues that Jesus had much to say about and matters that propel and provide for the mission of the church and gospel proclamation.

    So many of these NDE set people up for speculation on eternal matters based on psychosomatic experiences instead of the word of God. That is dangerous in my opinion.

    Providing people with the truth about their soul before God and the provision of God for relationship with Him through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is so critical in this day and age, especially with so many stories floating around.

    The fact that this isn’t an imperative puzzles me, especially in light of the glorious invitation of the gospel and the seriousness of eternity.

  7. Bill, I think Eric did understand what I was trying to say, and restated it well. Most NDE’s that I’ve read try to convince the reader that they don’t really know anything about the afterlife, but that they do because of their experience. I’m saying that spiritual experiences are less reliable than God’s written truth in the Bible. It is all about seeing beyond this earthly dimension into God’s dimension. It graciously helps us to be able to know the unknowable in advance and not have to be held captive to the fear of death. Part of that knowing, though, includes two destinies not one, as most NDErs would try to convince everyone of. The Bible teaches that we have an adversary, Satan, who deceived one of the first people on earth, and has continued in the effort ever since. His big lie was that ,”God has not said!” Believing that lie cost humanity dearly, and believing more of his lies about the afterlife won’t come any cheaper.

  8. I think experience is a major component in any religion. Think of the act of taking the Lord’s Supper. It is an act taking the body and blood of the Lord and intended as an experience of the cross of Christ. Pentecostals have the experience of speaking in tongues. Different Catholic churches have the experiences of icons and images. Even reading the Bible is an experience of Christ for many people. It sounds like Alexander’s experience is important to him in coming to know the love of God.

  9. All I’m saying is that every experience, from any and every place, must be brought to God’s Word to be rightly discerned. Satan is a master of deception and also has supernatural power. If he can use an experience to lead someone away from the truth of God he will. If Alexander, because of his experience, thinks that God is so loving that He will accept anyone apart from repentance and a personal relation with Him only through Jesus Christ then he has been deceived. One of the Proverbs says, “There is a way that seems right to a man, but it’s end is the way of death (repeated for emphasis Prov. 14:12, 16:25).

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