Yes, There is Proof of Heaven – May 14
A sermon based on Revelation 21:1-7
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on May 15, 2022
by Rev. Scott Elliott
This mornings’ lesson from Revelation that Ian just read so well is often heard at funerals because it offers promises of a better place where God (the Alpha and Omega) is fully sensed from the beginning to end as we drink from the spring of life. It’s a place where there’s no longer chaos, death, mourning, tears or pain. The verses in Revelation that follow our lesson add that bad is also gone; and those verses note there are angels and that God’s radiance is experienced everywhere all the time.
Revelation is describing a heavenly place. Indeed, it sounds like the heaven we often think of and hope that our ancestors, beloved, and selves go to in the great by and by. John, the author of Revelation, envisioned heaven coming to earth. This should not be a surprise since Jesus taught that heaven is near and how loving acts toward the well-being of others helps heaven break in on earth. The idea of heaven on earth for the living can strike us as unusual since heaven is most often associated as being a part of the afterlife.
While we challenge ourselves to follow Jesus’ teachings and focus on living to bring heaven to earth for the living, a big part of church ministry includes participating in end-of-life matters and conversations around afterlife. Thoughts and hopes of heaven are, of course, a big part of that ministry. We consider Biblical and theological reflections around death in worship and in classes. We also pray for those who are dying and families of those who have passed on. We provide end-of-life related ministries – which this church does very well– with kind and caring outreach to families, thoughtful loving memorial services and gracious hospitality at receptions for the family and friends. Our shepherds and pastors face death and dying out in the field too in hospitals, hospice, homes and anywhere else they are needed. It’s never easy work– those times are intense and grief-filled which humble our beings and dwarf our words.
A part of the humbling and diminishment of the value of words is that those occasions are somber and deeply, deeply Sacred. To be in the presence of death is to be so near the threshold between heaven and earth that you can feel what theologically I’d name, the power of the Divine pouring out and into the transformation from this life to what follows. Somehow just providing care for the dying or their loved ones allows the care giver to experience that threshold and Divine power emanating. There’s immense awe and wonder to it and an electric -like current of love. There’s mystery in it all too.
Most of us here this morning probably feels comfortable naming that mystery and power and awe and wonder and love, God. Some, in the culture, maybe not. By whatever name, it’s undeniably present. I’ve experienced it repeatedly and uniformly. Others report that same experience. It is observed without regard to belief or faith, making it an objective truth. It exists. The same can be said of life noticeably leaving those who die. Regardless of belief, we can tell when a soul that animated a body no longer resides in the body. So, it is also an objective truth that the presence of consciousness – the soul– departs. Webster’s on-line dictionary defines a soul as “the immaterial essence, animating principle, or actuating cause of an individual life.” Outside of religion, regardless of belief, it is objectively true that each human has a soul. Souls are part and parcel of our individual consciousness–and appear to be as unique as snowflakes and fingerprints. No two souls are alike.
What souls are, what consciousness is, and where they go at death by-and-large have pretty much been left to religions to take seriously. Except for assessing the cause and physiology of a body’s lifelessness, mainstream science as a rule does not provide much in the way of answers–and frankly does not seem to want to deal with it, or simply can’t due to its own dogma or repulsion from mystery. Those scientists who do seek answers are marginalized or ignored and at any rate have been relatively few and far between. Consequently, many in the West, raised to rely solely on the tools of the Enlightenment, tend to set aside evidence relating to death and out-of-body consciousness. It’s thought to not be scientifically understandable– so we ignore it or scoff at it and go along with science’s general dismissal.
But just as it is okay to challenge religion, it’s okay to challenge science, especially in this area it seems to know so little about. I am going to do some of that challenging– and in case this disturbs anyone. I remind you all no one has to agree with the pastor in this church. I realize I am out on a bit of limb, but I deal with death and dying a lot, and it is more than a little troubling there is such a chasm between evidence around death and dying and science. The limb I am going to wander the most out on is what are called near death experiences and the Age of Reason’s general dismissal of them, with virtually no more than a wave of hand, as if they are akin to UFO or Bigfoot sightings.
Let’s start with human consciousness. Science has yet to explain consciousness. Scientists may not understand it, but, we know it’s there. The evidence of individual consciousness, of souls, is as simple as knowing that we have thoughts. (I think therefore I am). Science has also yet to explain why that thinking, that individual consciousness, is needed to animate a healthy body. Why does it drive our life on earth? Science has also yet to explain where consciousness goes when it leaves a body, other than to confirm it’s left our life on earth. While science seems to be satisfied that gone is gone, it does not explain it nor the powerful nature and mystery surrounding death and dying. Mainstream Science does not account for the evidence of countless reports across time and cultures of people experiencing consciousness out-of-their-bodies in what are called near death experiences. In short, mainstream science has yet to provide understanding of basic existing empirical evidence around death and dying.
Sadly, science mostly seems to ignore what it cannot explain about all of this. I love and respect science, I really do, but sometimes it can be as dogmatic as religious fundamentalism when it comes to consciousness and death. It is estimated that there have been twenty-five million near death experiences over the last half century, so this is not an obscure happening. Ignoring the phenomenon because it doesn’t fit preexisting scientific dogma, is well, pretty unscientific and dogmatic. This is especially so since not only do we know that the estimated of millions of experiences have happened, over the centuries there have been countless reported experiences of people experiencing consciousness out-of-their-bodies in near death experiences. There are also scientists’ (nurses, physicians and psychologists) reports addressing those experiences. The evidence exists.
Those reported experiences at the very least allow inferences and probabilities to be considered. It’s okay to be skeptical even of the mystery of it , but is also okay to weigh and take comfort in the possibilities the evidence suggests, even those the mystery suggests. In the reported experiences there is evidence of uniformity, including numerous repeated reports of people undergoing a drawing out of this life and moving into moments of dimensions in an afterlife. These reports have not just occurred in the past fifty years, but throughout history. Yet science by and large dogmatically denies or denigrates the reports as being driven by belief and faith. Which is not only inaccurate, but ironic since scientific knowledge is based on belief and faith. Science requires a belief that there is order to the world and a faith that it can be understood based on human observations and human conclusions. Adding to the irony is scientists claim to scoff at dogma, but tend to be dogmatic about their own belief and faith, so much so they dismiss objective truths and evidence around death and dying. All of which tends to head off widespread scientific discussion of the reasonable inferences and probabilities of what we do know.
Countless reports of afterlife experiences by people in near death situations may not prove that they had one, but it is not an unreasonable explanation for the reports. The truth is it is actually reasonable to consider and hope it a probability, especially since the consensus of science provides no alternative explanation, beyond disregard.
Now that’s not true of all scientists. There are very serious well researched books by a few scientists on death dying. I find one in particular very helpful. Fortunately, fate or coincidence or serendipity or God actually caused a once very skeptical scientist to see for himself and gain understanding. It’s a remarkable story. An agnostic neurosurgeon and Harvard professor, Dr. Eben Alexander, lived through a near death experience caused by a week-long coma. He then applied his learning to the experiences of both his biological state of being and his soul’s conscious state of being during the coma. He published his experiences and findings in an excellent book filled with science and wonder and awe and love called Proof of Heaven. I often recommend this book to people who are grieving the loss of loved ones. The book offers reason and hope.
Just as you’d expect a Harvard professor to do, Dr. Alexander articulates his experience well, and offers compelling evidence and science related to the existence of out-of-body consciousness, including a very hopeful and uplifting glimpse of where consciousness may go when it leaves the body. He uses his own personal experience, observation and training to explain and reason what occurred. He also uses science to dismantle the scientific community’s attempts to deny his experiences and conclusions.
I was reminded of Dr. Alexander’s work when I read the Lectionary lesson, they both have similar images and descriptions. Dr. Alexander does not just rely on applying his scientific training to his own observations either. After writing down what he observed he also researched other works and observations regarding near death experiences. His initial summary before getting to details captures the gist of it. He writes:
“Finally, the day came when I had written everything down . . . Then it was time to read. I plunged into the ocean of NDE literature–an ocean into which I’d never so much as dipped a toe before. It didn’t take me long to realize that countless other people had experienced things I had, both in recent years and centuries past. NDEs are not all the same, each one is unique– but the same elements show up again and again, and many I recognized from my own experience. Narratives of passing through a dark tunnel or valley into a bright and vivid landscape – ultra real– were as old as ancient Greece and Egypt. Angelic beings –sometimes winged– sometimes not– went back to at least the ancient Near East– as did the belief that such beings were guardians who watched the activities of people on earth and greeted those people when they left it behind. The sense of being able to see in all directions simultaneously; the sensation of being above linear time – of being above everything . . . the hearing of anthem like music which entered through one’s whole being rather than simply one’s ears; direct and instantaneous reception of concepts that normally would have taken a long time and a great deal of study to comprehend . . . [and f]feeling the intensity of unconditional love.” 2.
I mentioned when I started the sermon how our lesson from Revelation sounds a lot like the heaven we hope that our ancestors, beloved and we ourselves go. It also sounds a lot like the place countless people have reported in near death experiences– like the place Dr. Alexander writes about. It’s a place where God’s is the Alpha and Omega whose full radiance is present and always sensed. It’s a place where angelic beings greet and watch over souls, where death and mourning and tears and pain and bad are not experienced. The Bible has long suggested such a place awaits our souls when we depart our bodies. Many have taken comfort in that idea and the hope the Bible description offers. That’s good news. But we modern folk tend to want more than Bible verses. So, I wanted to make sure to point out there’s more good news for those of us who like objective proof to support the idea – and the hope– that beyond our bodies the souls of our ancestors, and our beloved exist and bask in the glory of God.
There is evidence out there– lots of it– and a well-respected highly trained professor and brain surgeon has had the courage to write about it scientifically and with firsthand experience. It’s a work that gives more hope about the continuation of the soul and its presence with God in heaven. Like the Bible, the evidence Dr. Alexander sets out and refers to, affirms in many ways that we are loved unconditionally and eternally. It also allows us to reasonably infer proof of experiences of a good and God-filled afterlife exists and that our ancestors and beloveds whose souls have left their physical bodies abide there . . . And that we will too. It’s a place filled with God’s no strings attached love, which can give us hope that all of us and our beloved may experience it by and by in a land where joys shall never end. News doesn’t get much better than that. There is proof of heaven and it’s okay to consider it and take hope in it. AMEN 3
1. Alexander, Eben, Map of Heaven, p 62
2. Alexander, Eben, Proof of Heaven, p131
3. This sermon was inspired by the recent death of my beloved sister Kimberly and the soul searching it sent me on, including the re-reading of Dr. Alexander’s book Proof of Heaven and his subsequent book continuing the discussion of his amazing journey and scientific work, The Map of Heaven. Both of these books provide modern thinkers solid footing to the hope offered in Scripture of heaven after life for the souls of our ancestors, beloved and self.
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