Scratching my head and beard over this. . .
Dr. Prophet Eben Alexander is still raking in the heavenly cash with his Proof of Heaven bestseller.
People are eating it up. . .from the NON-Fiction List!
Well, here’s my hellish response. . . (it’s long. . .but hell, you have the time!):
Proof of Hell. . .or Not
A friend just gave me a copy of an Esquire article on Eben Alexander and his book, Proof of Heaven (“The Prophet,” August, 2013). A year out from publication, his book, let’s call it POH for short, remains on the NYT bestseller list (non-fiction!) having sold millions of copies. Well, this is America; what did we think would happen? Of course, we are the country with a long history of “revelations” from Joseph Smith to Mary Baker Eddy, from the Adventists to the Witnesses, to Edgar Cayce and George Lucas. We are the nation with “awakenings” and “revivals” and “crusades,” mass “Pope masses,” “Rock events” and a whole lot of other quotation-mark-friendly spiritual “shows.” POH is yet another example, in my humble opinion, of how far out on a bending limb some are willing to wiggle, or to mix the metaphor, how much some are willing to risk a flying leap off the deep end of faith, up a creek without a paddle, in a drought. You catch my drift perhaps? Surely a leap, dive or paddle far from the solid ground of reason. People seem to lean toward lunacy in these matters. Believe me (and please don’t), I’ve been there clinging to the limbs before, and bellyflopping right in. . .I was one of them, and it hurt to scrape the bottom and suck in murky gulps before the long float up to a grateful breath of air.
I have written elsewhere (State of Formation) about POH and the claims for flying off to the neverneverland beyond the brain–or deeper within its synaptic wilds–to a colorful and mysterious land far far away (or a neuron galaxy near you?). The human imagination holds a powerful attraction, no doubt there. Oz, Narnia, the Shire. . .who wouldn’t want to fly off to nibble and nuzzle and nod off in the fuzzy arms of gentle giants and wondrous wiggleworts (I made that up. . .believe me). Parenthetically, what I just said in the latter parentheses is worth noting for a moment. IF people, any of us, were willing to say this, to say, “Ok, I’m making something up because it’s wonderful and fanciful and cool. Please believe me–and buy my books if you please–since you can see I have an amazing imagination.” If we would say that, if we would hear that, maybe we could reserve the “proof” claims for science, economic issues and Someone’s Got Talent shows.
Bringing Heaven down to Earth
As my mother used to say, with delight or disgust, “For Heaven’s Sake!” Let’s just say there IS such a place. A someplace called heaven is somehow, somewhere “real” (and we know it is for the Bible and the little bestseller boy tell us so). Where you were born would tell me a lot about your image of that. What holy books you’ve read and sermons you’ve heard would give me clues. What stories your parents have told you would help. And, let’s not neglect to mention, what sci-fi novels you have read as well as movies and television shows you have watched since childhood (“heaven” and “hell” are all over those, are they not?). Oh, sorry, I had a synaptic skip. . .if you’ve ever done drugs, or drank a lot, well, that could give you glimpses of other worlds, right? Then there’s Dr. Death-to-Life having a “medical event.”
So now, what’s real? What are we talking about? A million stories, scriptures, pretty pictures and wild guesses of someplace out there, up there. . .any place but here. And where does that leave us? Here, of course. Still, always, right back here on terra firma. Sorry, heaven can wait.
Saying some fantastic place is “heaven” isn’t very helpful, is it? In fact, it may be quite harmful. People may want to go there! People may claw and clammer just to get there! Then what? We have sacred suicides, people blowing themselves up in a moment or blowing their minds for years in God’s House, just to get to God’s Real House. Millions, I kid you not, are literally dying to get there! What a hellish thought: countless people for countless centuries have given their lives, years of life or sacrificed it all, just to “go straight to Heaven.” Imagine that. Yes, imagine.
Dr. Prophet (I mean, Alexander) wants us to believe that we can fly on the back of butterflies with a beautiful girl beside us. Who wouldn’t want to go, and go NOW? Well, maybe not someone with a fear of heights or creepy white girls floating in the clouds (let alone those with insect phobias). And there’s lots of singing; music in the air. Oh, lovely. So we’re to look forward to a soaring eternity of inspirational iTunes or pop-Pandora or polyester-robed choirs singing “Amen” and “Kumbaya”? Please. People believe this stuff? Wouldn’t it be easier and gentler on our wonderment to simply, wonder? People ask, we all wonder, What happens after I die? Do we have to have an answer? Do we need to believe someone else’s story? Certain of it I am, some people appear to really need to; they will not only believe a story, no matter how silly and childish. . .they will buy a book and pay to see the film. I swear sometimes it seems as if gullibility is now supposed to be some kind of virtue.
Will we see our loved ones after we die? Will I be ushered onto the lap of the Lord or swim in golden and glistening pools of the Savior’s blood? Do all dogs go to heaven? When we ask these questions, something is severely wrong. When it isn’t merely about the greatest distraction in history, averting our imaginative eyes over and over from the realities (and gritty hells) of the world we live in, it becomes some kind of cruel “promise” for the gullible, a “hope” for those who don’t want to think of the alternative, because the alternative sounds like Hell to them.
Hell has an Address
Sartre famously proclaimed that “hell is other people” (No Exit). Easy to think that, while crammed in a subway or dealing with noisy neighbors. We might amend that just a tad and say, “Hell is other people who make our lives hell or make the world a hellish place.” This is the de-mythologized version–a secular use of the term that throws water –one hopes not gasoline–on the holy, bubbling Lake of Fire (or unholy, depending on whether you’re treading warm water). Or we could merely say, Hell is where people go who entice us to believe in their imagination. Except. . .fiction writers, storytellers, poets. They don’t go to or lead to hell or hellish things. . .except. . .sometimes they do, but that isn’t “hell,” not the “hell” some try to sell us “proof” of. Good imaginative writers can take us to places we can only dream of–which is, of course, part of the point here. Dreams, imaginings, fantasies, wishful thinking. . .most of Religion thrives on such things. Which is not fully bad in and of itself, perhaps. IF the “reality” is open to question and IF you, I or anyone can examine the evidence of the wishes and dreams. Undoubtedly we need dreamy ideas that lead us to inventions and discoveries that serve to advance earthly human knowledge. From time to time the fantasies can serve to draw us down from the blinding clouds, or lift us out of dark and sulphuric things like ignorance and selfishness, to very un-magically, un-miraculously give us cars, computers, cellphones, trips to the moon and mars, with more access to knowledge and less disease and hunger. Wasn’t America once a crazy dream, the United Nations a nutty idea? I’m a fan of fantasy too, when it leads to creative invention. But not escapism in the name of a Super above, beyond and behind the Natural. As Thoreau quipped, “Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads.” This from the one who also said, “I suppose that what in others is religion is in me love of nature.” Thoreau was bringing us back down from “up there,” to a more solid spirituality. It may help our otherworld-obsessed age to be reminded of the biblical view of “The Heavens” as nothing much more than The Sky. And our atmosphere is surely as material and “real” as earth, fire and water.
Alright, here’s my ground-level, down-to-earth point and I know you’re ready for it now. Ok? Here it is. This may shake you, but so does a good story, or a very bad one. I’ve been to hell, and I have proof. . .or, more truthfully, I can point you toward the evidence that there really is a hell. No, sorry, that’s not entirely true. “Hell” is not a good name for it. This is not a place of punishment–an exquisitely designed torture chamber meticulously created by a Loving God (you are invited to pause for a moment, here in these parentheses, and consider that last line. . .ok, now you can move along). No, the “hell” I’m talking about is really no “hell” at all, at least as World “Wisdom” Traditions have shaped the image. The hell I speak of is really quite close, maybe closer than we wish to admit or to face–it may even burn our face–hence we delight in putting it way off there, way down there, out of reach, thank Somebody.
Hell is prison; prison is hell. I have been in prison. Hell is having no home. I have been in shelters–I even organized and directed one. I have been on the streets. I have been in mental hospitals. I have sat with people who have lost children or parents or other loved ones to accidents, to murder, to cancer and countless nasty things. I have been with suffering sufferers and been one. Much of these times were during my quarter century as a Chaplain. Chaplains know hell, intimately. You can’t describe a “better hell” than what we see, hear, touch in the intensity of human tragedy. I defy a holy book to present something more terrible than watching a child suffer.
Yet, of course, I know it well: “hell” was not invented by “doctors of faith” for anything more than a threat, a “holy motivation” to believe correctly “or else!” I get that. Millions upon millions through history have probably joined up out of fear of going to the awful place described for the damned. Well, dammit, it’s time to expose the torture machine and the Imagination Machine behind it. Let’s get the Wizard out from behind the curtain. If for no other reasons than to evaporate the Fear and dissipate and dissolve the Flying Highwire act of a place called Heaven that when you go to the address turns out to be an empty lot, an open field, a pit that looks and feels and just seems a lot like other people’s idea of Hell. Some argue that Hell is being “Separate from God forever!” The most appropriate response I can ever think of to this is: “If Your Compassionate God is cooly capable of creating a place to keep all the nonbelievers in Him away for eternity. . .Thank Goodness for the Separation!” Some say, “Oh, but it hurts the Lord, and my heart is broken, to see people choose to refuse Him.” Well, I might say, if in a good mood, “I appreciate your deep care and concern. . .for God’s feelings. . .and that you are sad for my soul. . .but, actually, I’ll pass.” That’s kind of a conversation stopper, I know, but there wasn’t any conversation anyway.
You need to know, it used to be ME saying those things to others, it was MY heart hurting for another soul, for myself, for the Lord Who depended on ME to keep others out of Hell. And I was such a failure. Hell was filling up because I wasn’t converting people fast enough. By God, so many LOST, and I couldn’t get them FOUND! Hell for me, in those Evangelical days, was losing another for Christ. I suffered, knowing that My Loving Lord and Suffering Savior would have to send another soul into the cold darkness or hot light of That Place. It felt like hell to be so heaven-minded and heaven-bound. I knew what heaven was, I knew what hell was, and I made my choice. As teens we cried through our youthful songs, “I can’t wait to see heaven. . .heaven is a wonderful place. . .Jesus take me Home!” That I’m not “there” now is a wonder, a real wonder. Where was MY exploding vest?
There you have it. I’m ready to sign a contract for my bestseller. I’ve been to Hell and lived to tell of it. Heaven, in some minds, is Hell for others. Personally, even the fleeting thought of going to a higher place with pasty angels singing in an endless praise service in a golden Megachurch, gives me shudders. But honestly, POH is more like POOH without the cuddly honeybear, or any substantial ethical lessons. And Hell for some of us is really nothing more than the wilderness of pain, not created by anyone or anything in particular–it’s fully natural. . .except, when it isn’t. . .when people cause it or fan its flames of fear and suffering. Then, Sartre was right, hell IS other people. Heaven may be other people too, but that’s another bestseller. And remember, you don’t have to believe me. You don’t have to believe.