PROOF OF HEAVEN?
Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
February 9, 2013, Day of Transfiguration, Year C
Exodus 34:29-35; 2 Peter 1:16-21 (non-lectionary)
“For he received honor and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying,’This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’”
2 Peter 1:17
“It would be so much easier to come to terms with this if I knew for sure I would see him again.”
I don’t know how many times I’ve heard that statement, in one variation or another, from people who are grieving the loss of loved ones. It’s one thing to confess of Jesus, in the Apostles’ Creed: “he ascended into heaven and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty” — acknowledging thereby that there is a place called “heaven,” a place that has room, at the very least, for Jesus. Of course, since that same Jesus promised to the thief on the cross, “Today you will be with me in Paradise,” we have his promise, at least, that there are others who dwell in the heavenly places with him.
It’s a great, great comfort, in a time of bereavement, for us to remind one another that — according to our Christian faith — death is not the final good-bye. When a family, gathered around a bed in an intensive-care unit, whispers to their mother, as the life-support system is disconnected, “It’s all right, Mom, you can let go, you can stop clinging to life for our sake,” they’re able to say such a thing because they have faith. Those are hard words to say — none harder — and, I know from experience there are some here in this Sanctuary who have uttered them. (I know it because I was there too, and heard you say it.)
There’s something else I’ve heard some of you say (I heard it, once again, in a hospital room, very recently): “I don’t know how anyone can go through this without faith. It’s such a comfort to know God is near.”
Well, I know there are also some sitting here today who are less than certain about that proposition. That’s no surprise — because if it were an absolute certainty, we wouldn’t call it “faith,” would we?
There are some here, I’m sure, who resonate very strongly with something the novelist Frederick Buechner once wrote. Now, Fred’s a Presbyterian minister — at one time, years ago, he was chaplain at the Lawrenceville School — but as a full-time writer, he can dance with his doubts to his heart’s content, and often does.
One of the characters in his novel, The Return of Ansel Gibbs, has this to say about the hard work of finding — and keeping — faith:
If you tell me Christian commitment is a kind of thing that has happened to you once and for all like some kind of spiritual plastic surgery, I say, you’re either pulling the wool over your own eyes or trying to pull it over mine. Every morning you should wake up in your bed and ask yourself: “Can I believe it all again today?” No, better still, don’t ask it till after you’ve read The New York Times, till after you’ve studied that daily record of the world’s brokenness and corruption, whi ch should always stand side by side with your Bible. Then ask yourself if you can believe in the Gospel of Jesus Christ again for that particular day. If your answer’s always Yes, then you probably don’t know what believing means. At least five times out of ten the answer should be No because the No is as important as the Yes, maybe more so. The No is what proves you’re human in case you should ever doubt it. And then if some morning the answer happens to be really Yes, it should be a Yes that’s choked with confession and tears and. . . great laughter.
So, don’t be alarmed if you find yourself questioning, from time to time, the very basics of Christian faith. Everybody does it.
Even Mother Teresa. Remember that story of how, after her death, a priest who had been her confessor released some extracts from her diaries? The world press picked the story right up, and it was big news for a few days. How could it be, inquiring minds wanted to know, that this towering figure of faith could acknowledge a lifelong wrestling match with doubt?
The bigger story, I think — and the question the reporters really should have asked — is: How does a woman laden with so many doubts (even, at times, about God’s very existence) spend her entire life as a Christian missionary in the miserable slums of Calcutta, ministering to the poorest of the poor?
I’ll tell you how she could do it. Mother Teresa could do such a thing because, along with her doubts, she also had faith in abundance — a faith that, day after day, enabled her to triumph over her doubts.
There are some, you know, who view doubt as the polar opposite of faith: who think the two are mutually exclusive. In this way of looking at things, faith and doubt are like the positive and negative poles of a powerful magnet. Force the two together, and one will push the other out of the way.
But faith and doubt aren’t like that. They can, and very often do, coexist. The person who’s successful at practicing faith, over the long term, has learned how to acknowledge those feelings of doubt as they flit across the surface of the mind, but doesn’t grasp hold of them. The person of deep and abiding faith greets those doubt-feelings almost like an old friend — well, maybe not a friend, more like a really annoying neighbor — then says to them, “OK, there you are, I acknowledge your right to exist: Now, get out of here!”
If only we had some evidence, some firsthand experience, we could rely on: something that would vanquish doubt in a powerful way, never to return!
Well, it turns out we do have an account of such an experience in the Bible. It’s the story associated with this very day of the Christian year, the Day of Transfiguration.
Most years, we read that story from one of the three Gospels — Matthew, Mark or Luke — that carries it. Very likely, you already know the details — how Peter, James and John accompany Jesus to the top of the mountain, whereupon he turns dazzling white, incandescent, beaming out certainty like a lighthouse beacon. Then, Moses and Elijah show up, and the three of them have a confab. Peter offers to cobble together some lean-tos, so the three holy men will have shelter, but Jesus says “No thanks,” then he’s back to his old self again, and the two ancient prophets are nowhere to be seen.
The passage we did read is a section of 2 Peter, that recalls the whole transfiguration incident from Peter’s perspective in later years, long after he’d witnessed Jesus’ resurrection and had become one of the most notable leaders of the early church.
Speaking for James and John as well as for himself, Peter declares:
…we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honor and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
Peter goes on to urge his readers to:
be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.
You know how it is if you’re in a room that’s totally dark, then someone lights a candle. Just try to take your mind off that lit candle. It’s almost impossible! So compelling is the vision of the light, that even the most determined darkness is no match for it.
The transfiguration of Jesus Christ — like his resurrection — is an utterly unique event. It can’t be dissected, studied or replicated. While we can examine the details of the story as Peter, James and John related them — and as Matthew, Mark and Luke wrote them down — there were only the three eyewitnesses. At the end of the day, what we have is personal testimony: “We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain.”
If you were watching the news a couple months ago, you would have heard an account of some other personal testimony corroborating a spiritual reality. It’s the account of a neurosurgeon and medical-school professor, Dr. Eben Alexander.
In 2008, Dr. Alexander contracted a rare form of meningitis and went into a deep coma. He learned later from his doctors that the e. coli bacteria had spread so far across the cerebral cortex — the surface of his brain from which all the higher life-functions emanate — that the brain itself had actually shut down. As he wrote last November in Newsweek magazine: “The part of my brain responsible for all higher neurological function went every bit as dark as the lower portion of New York City did during Hurricane Sandy.”  From a neurological point of view, Dr. Alexander was dead.
Yet, the doctor maintains that his consciousness did not shut down. During the time he was in the coma, when his brain was not supposed to be doing anything, he experienced a series of remarkable visions. He describes these as “the most staggering experience of my life, my consciousness traveling to another level, or dimension, or world.”
Let me read for you, now, some of Dr. Alexander’s account. You may want to close your eyes as I do so, and try to picture it:
Toward the beginning of my adventure, I was in a place of clouds. Big, puffy, pink-white ones that showed up sharply against the deep blue-black sky.
Higher than the clouds — immeasurably higher — flocks of transparent, shimmering beings arced across the sky, leaving long, streamerlike lines behind them.
Birds? Angels? These words registered later, when I was writing down my recollections. But neither of these words do justice to the beings themselves, which were quite simply different from anything I have known on this planet. They were more advanced. Higher forms….
(The entire selection cannot be reproduced here, for copyright reasons. The full version may be viewed on the Newsweek/Daily Beast website. The section cited concludes with this material…)
I continued moving forward and found myself entering an immense void, completely dark, infinite in size, yet also infinitely comforting. Pitch-black as it was, it was also brimming over with light: a light that seemed to come from a brilliant orb that I now sensed near me. The orb was a kind of “interpreter” between me and this vast presence surrounding me. It was as if I were being born into a larger world, and the universe itself was like a giant cosmic womb, and the orb… was guiding me through it.
Later, when I was back, I found a quotation by the 17th-century Christian poet Henry Vaughan that came close to describing this magical place, this vast, inky-black core that was the home of the Divine itself.
“There is, some say, in God a deep but dazzling darkness …”
That was it exactly: an inky darkness that was also full to brimming with light.
Reading Dr. Alexander’s account, particularly what he says about light, I was reminded of the biblical account of Jesus’ transfiguration: with all its talk of his very appearance being transformed into dazzling light.
Dr. Alexander’s testimony has not been warmly received by all his scientific and medical colleagues. There’s some dispute that what his doctors told him happened during his coma — that his brain itself was completely shut down — was not actually the case. Others point out that what appeared to him to be happening in real time, while he was in the coma, more likely took place just as he was coming out of it.
It’s impossible to sort out the truth of these assertions and counter-assertions because they come from the experience of one person. There are no other witnesses. There’s no scientific evidence that can be weighed in the laboratory. At the end of the day, it’s one man’s spiritual experience.
And that is not all that different from Jesus’ transfiguration. There were not one, but three witnesses present on the mountaintop, as Jesus’ appearance changed to a dazzling white: Peter, James and John. Yet, reading the Gospel-writers’ retelling of the incident (as they likely heard it from one or more of the eyewitnesses), I get the very real sense — and maybe you do, too — that there was a great deal more to that experience than could ever be captured in human language.
Dr. Alexander says the same of his own experience, during the coma. Again and again he explains that the words he uses, the mental pictures he tries to paint, are not an exact fit to the images that flashed across the surface of his mind.
Does the doctor’s private experience provide — as the title of his book suggests — “Proof of heaven”? No one can declare it to be so, nor can any skeptic declare it not to be so. It is what it is: a unique, powerful and very memorable vision: not unlike the transfiguration of our Lord.
As for the question we started off with — Will I see my loved ones in heaven? — we’re not a whole lot closer to answering it (at least, not in a way that convinces the hard-core skeptics) than we were at the outset. Dr. Alexander’s testimony — and that of others who have come back from near-death experiences — still fall short of capturing the reality of it, in all its fullness.
The best any of us can do — in these days before we, too, see for ourselves — is to trust in the promises of eternal life that are in the scriptures: and, to seek to love and care for one another on this earth, the best we know how.
1. Frederick Buechner, The Return of Ansel Gibbs (Knopf, 1959), p. 303.
2. Eben Alexander, “The Science of Heaven,” Newsweek, November 18, 2012.
3. Eben Alexander, “Heaven Is Real: A Doctor’s Experience With the Afterlife,” Newsweek, October 8, 2012.
Copyright © 2013 by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.