Book Review: The Map of Heaven: How Science, Religion, and Ordinary People Are Proving the Afterlife

As a follow up to 2012’s bestselling Proof of Heaven, Dr. Eben Alexander—the neurosurgeon who claims to have visited heaven while comatose—treats us to another dubious tour of the beyond in The Map of Heaven: How Science, Religion, and Ordinary People are Proving the Afterlife. But if you’re expecting an actual map, you’ll be sorely disappointed. There is no map. There aren’t even coordinates by which we can locate the area in question. And that’s too bad, because I had hoped to be prepared. I wanted to know the lay of the land, so to speak—who to talk to about accommodations, what’s to eat and drink, and so forth. I enjoy playing the piano and so was even hoping a Bösendorfer Imperial might be prearranged, or if that’s not available, maybe an artist series Steinway D?

Instead of a map of heaven, we get a rehashed description of the vision of heaven that Alexander gave us in his previous work. Here, however, the vision has been enhanced and expanded. Memories usually fade with time, but not his. Perhaps the enthusiasm for his message, repeated at lectures, interviews, and book signings, has caused the doctor to embellish his previous vision with more details and a happier landscape.

So, what does heaven look like? It’s not the happy hunting ground or the long house of the Native American, where one might eat strawberries and smoke tobacco. It’s not the heaven that so many suicidal religious extremists bank on. It’s a heaven that instead seems a tad Christian. It looks pleasant, with lots of light, green rolling hills, choirs of angels, and wonderful music, which Alexander dubs the “Spinning Melody” and describes as “pure white light that rescued me from the Earthworm’s-Eye View, serving as a portal into the ultra-real Gateway Valley… through higher dimensions.” Does he actually believe this stuff or is he hoaxing us? Is he like Alex Malarkey, co-author of the similarly themed The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven? Alex confessed, “I did not die… I said I went to heaven because I thought it would get me attention.” That book, published by Tyndale House in 2010, has consequently been pulled from shelves but not before it could sell somewhere around a million copies worldwide. Heaven might not be real, but the money made from writing about heaven certainly is.

During his illness, Dr. Alexander believed that his doctors and his wife Holley (now ex-wife) were trying to kill him. He believed he was flying. He believed he was skydiving. He believed that police in Florida were chasing him and that ninja photographers swooped around him on cable pulleys. He knows those visions and those delusions are crazy, but he still insists that his vision of heaven is real.

Nowhere do we find scientific evidence proving his account. To prove something, you need evidence, and that evidence needs to be relevant and adequate. The only evidence submitted here is the illness-induced vision of Alexander himself. That is hardly sufficient evidence for such an important conclusion. In fact, a lot of the overly long introduction to Map is a diatribe about scientists who don’t take the spirit world seriously and who demand more material evidence of its existence. Those scientists are, according to the author, too concentrated on material things. According to Alexander, “Love, Beauty, Goodness, Friendship, in the world view of materialist science, there is not room for treating these things as realities.” Is he kidding? Plenty of scientific studies have been done in all the aforementioned areas. Consider the studies of dolphins that refuse to eat after the death of a mate; consider the studies of geese that search for their lost mate until they themselves become disoriented and die. The scientists I know all believe in love, beauty, and friendship. To say that scientists don’t believe in such things is silly. Doctor Alexander’s view of organized religion appears just as dismal as his view of science. He claims that dogmatic religion resolutely ignores the idea of near-death experiences as moments of contact with departed ones.

As a neurologist, I would say that near-death experiences are natural and not evidence of an afterlife or a higher power. They are in fact precisely consistent with the oxygen deficit that occurs as blood flow to the brain decreases. People who experience a sudden drop in blood pressure often report that “everything went white” before they fainted.  Individuals bleeding externally or internally will sometimes say that “all the color drained out” at the moment when their blood loss went critical.

The Map of Heaven also contains several testimonials. These all have a similar structure, tone, pace, and diction, as if written by the same person. They mostly tell of sick people who died and of the relatives who claim to have seen the deceased again. For instance, Don Entich tells us about the feeling that his dead wife, Lorraine, came back to him in the form of a monarch butterfly. Another correspondent notices a black dot in the bedroom and assumes his dead wife is back. But how do we know for sure that the butterfly is not just a butterfly? There are some in my backyard as I write this review and my wife is still alive. And why is the butterfly necessarily the spirit of the dead wife? What’s the evidence? And why is the black dot not just a black dot? A black dot could be a scotoma. The conclusion here is that the sad experiences of ordinary people and their reactions to them are natural; they can be explained by active imaginations and the deeply human wishes to have their loved ones return.

On the basis of probability, the existence of an afterlife is remote. The dead don’t come back. If God wanted us to know about heaven, why wouldn’t she just arrive on a white cloud and make an announcement on all the TV and radio stations? That would shape us up fast and would make a believer out of me.