SALT LAKE CITY — A familiar yet surreal story is being told again and again: it's a story of a dark tunnel, a bright light and an astounding journey to a place called heaven.
Near-death experiences are told by people who claim to have died or nearly died, then traveled to the afterlife or spirit world before returning back to their earthly bodies. Though every near-death experience story is different, common themes emerge: traveling toward the light, meeting with loved ones long past, having intense feelings of love and joy, and even feeling a sense of dread and sorrow at having to return to human life. Many who have these experiences profess profound feelings of peace and powerful insights that have changed their mortal lives forever — and changed the hearts of some who read their stories.
These near-death tales have always held fascination with the public, and publishers are cashing in.
“Heaven is hot. Hotter even than that other place. Just ask any bookseller in America,” writes Craig Wilson for The Washington Post. “Folks have been going to heaven with amazing regularity lately. … It’s a lucrative journey.”
Though near-death experience memoirs have been published for decades, a number of recent publications are holding court at the top of the best-seller lists, sparking conversation — and heated debate — about these experiences, the truth behind them and just what they mean for the rest of us.
One of those memoirs, published in the fall of 2012, is “Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey Into the Afterlife.” The book was written by Eben Alexander, a Harvard neurosurgeon who contracted a rare form of bacterial meningitis in 2008 and lay in a coma for seven days.
“There is no scientific explanation for the fact that while my body lay in coma, my mind — my conscious, inner self — was alive and well,” he wrote. “My brain-free consciousness journeyed to another, larger dimension of the universe: a dimension I’d never dreamed existed and which the old, pre-coma me would have been more than happy to explain was a simple impossibility.”
Alexander admits that before his near-death experience, he relied on scientific explanations for such occurrences and easily dismissed them.
“I know full well how extraordinary, how frankly unbelievable, all this sounds. Had someone — even a doctor — told me a story like this in the old days, I would have been quite certain that they were under the spell of some delusion,” he wrote. “But what happened to me was, far from being delusional, as real or more real than any event in my life.”
Though Alexander fiercely defends his story and its veracity, skeptics continue to chime in.
"I think there's no paranormal component to it," said Dean Mobbs, a psychologist at Columbia University who told Discovery News he doesn’t dismiss Alexander’s story but rather questions how it came about, suggesting a more physiology-based source than metaphysical one. Mobbs is co-author of a paper published in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences identifying near-death experiences as "the manifestation of normal brain functions gone awry."
"I believe our brains can concoct vivid experiences particularly in situations of confusion and trauma," he said in an interview. "The brain is trying to reinterpret the world and what's going on."
Skeptics in the public square are more to the point: "It sounds like he had nothing more than an intense lucid dream," wrote one reader on Newsweek's website, after the magazine published an excerpt of “Proof of Heaven.” Another added, "A personal anecdote is not evidence or proof, as moving as it may be."
Supporters are more forgiving, saying that such strong personal anecdotes are as close as we'll ever get to proof. Others still say the specifics aren't what's important; it's the message they bring that there is more to life as we know it — and much, much more after we leave it.
But even the authors themselves don’t claim to have the answers. Many say they were simply compelled to share their stories, even going so far as to make it their life’s mission to spread their message of a beautiful life after death.
Alexander says that the scientific theory that the brain creates all consciousness "now lies broken at our feet. What happened to me destroyed it, and I intend to spend the rest of my life investigating the true nature of consciousness and making the fact that we are more, much more, than our physical brains as clear as I can, both to my fellow scientists and to people at large.”
Whether respected or derided, publishing experts say near-death stories will always resonate with the public when times are less than secure — and that has publishers lining up.
"In uncertain times, which is what we're experiencing now, people look for comfort," Carol Fitzgerald, president of the Book Report Network, told USA Today. “The concept that people have seen ‘what’s next’ and shared what it’s like gives hope.”
Phyllis Tickle, the founding editor of the religion department of Publishers Weekly, agrees but says those who buy these books are looking for something beyond hope — “something reassuring.”
“We want to hear from someone who has gone there, done that, seen it,” she told USA Today, “that there is something beyond this life, which is miserable, even for those of us who are happy.”