Heaven Can't Wait: A skeptic's guide to afterlife awareness

Heaven Can't Wait: A skeptic's guide to afterlife awareness
Mark Andresen

If death is the final, irrevocable cessation of life, the concept of life after death is a paradox and completely illogical. Once you stop believing in Santa Claus, it's only a short jump to stop believing in Heaven, too, at least the one where there are people in white robes and halos playing harps all day, and then to start scoffing at people who swear they were Catherine the Great or the Egyptian pharaoh Thutmose III in a past life. Why is it never acceptable to say you were once a cockroach?

Maybe your dog will die, or your grandpa, and you'll feel sad for a little while, maybe mess around with a Ouija board and light candles on Halloween and try to summon back their ghosts. At some point, ancient Greek philosophy may be thrust upon you, and, on long car rides late at night, you'll wonder about the notion of a soul and where all those souls go. But not (heaven forfend!) to Heaven. Maybe a soul is just confused with personality, a mess of protoplasm and electrical charges that, in the end, gets folded into a wooden box and dumped in the ground.

If you believe all that, you're a definite minority at the Afterlife Awareness Conference. There are 300 people in the main ballroom of the Sheraton Westport Plaza at the decidedly un-paradisical confluence of Interstate 270 and Page Avenue in Maryland Heights, most of whom paid several hundred dollars, not counting airfare and hotel, and gave up a perfectly fine weekend in June to be here. By the estimation of conference founder Terri Daniel, 30 percent are grieving, 20 percent are interested in finding scientific evidence of the afterlife and the abilities of mediums, and the remaining 50 percent are spiritual seekers. They are doctors and lawyers and hospice workers and filmmakers and storekeepers and cube farmers. The vast majority is of middle age or older, and a staggering number have parents or spouses or children who have died.

RFT Photo-illustration. Illustrated elements by Mark Andresen.

And yet...the keynote speaker, Raymond Moody, who has studied near-death experiences since 1965 and penned many a book on the subject with titles like Life After Life is the one who proposes to the crowd that the term "life after death" is an oxymoron. In fact, despite all his research, Moody claims, it was only recently that he began to believe that near-death experiences were real.

"I give up!" he tells the audience, throwing his hands up in exasperation. "When you try to come up with plausible accounts, you're trying to rationalize instead of facing straightforwardly what seems to be the case" — i.e., that the evidence points to some sort of afterlife.

And would that really be such a bad thing? The various lectures at the conference play on this notion, and play on it hard. Even if you've never had to live through a death that devastated the entire order of your daily existence, isn't there still a part of you that wants to sit down for a chat with your grandma or feel your cat's paws kneading your face? Don't you still miss them? Don't you wonder if there's something left of them besides a box in the ground or a pile of ashes?

Proof of Heaven

Some notions are easier to dismiss than others.

Daniel secured Dr. Eben Alexander to speak at the conference before his book Proof of Heaven was featured on Oprah and made the cover of Newsweek, and she considers herself extremely lucky. She reshuffled the schedule to make sure Alexander got one of the prime two-hour slots on Saturday morning, and the main ballroom is packed. He is, by far, the most popular speaker at the conference. Days from now Alexander will be the subject of an investigative report in Esquire, in which author Luke Dittrich exposes him as a charlatan. But at Afterlife Awareness, attendees are willing to stand in lines 50 people deep for the chance to exchange a few words with him.

Although most conferencegoers have already read Proof of Heaven, Alexander spends most of his lecture recounting his story. It goes like this:

In 2008 he was a successful 55-year-old neurosurgeon practicing in Virginia after spending 15 years at Harvard. He had a loving wife and two charming, intelligent sons. But he wasn't happy. Several years earlier he'd made an effort to contact his birth mother, who gave him up for adoption when he was just two weeks old. She sent word that it was not a good time in her life, and she didn't want to speak with him. The rejection sent him into a downward spiral: He lost much of his long-held Christian faith in the power of prayer and started drinking too much and having problems at work. (In his Esquire profile, Dittrich describes several malpractice suits, the suspension of surgical privileges at two different hospitals and, most damning, evidence that Alexander falsified medical records.)

Then one morning he woke up with a terrible headache and back pain. His doctors diagnosed him with a rare form of bacterial meningitis. He fell into a coma, and his neocortex, the main agent of consciousness in the brain, shut down. There was a 1 percent chance he would live, and even then he'd be a vegetable. But after seven days, he awoke with full mental capacity. Even now, Alexander tells his audience, doctors consider it a one-in-a-million miracle.

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