"God, help me!"
Eben Alexander shouted and flailed as hospital orderlies tried to hold him in place. But no one could stop his violent seizures, and the 54-year-old neurosurgeon went limp as his horrified wife looked on.
That moment could have been the end. But Alexander says it was just the beginning. He found himself soaring toward a brilliant white light tinged with gold into "the strangest, most beautiful world I'd ever seen."
Alexander calls that world heaven, and he describes his journey in "Proof of Heaven," which has been on The New York Times bestseller list for 27 weeks. Alexander says he used to be an indifferent churchgoer who ignored stories about the afterlife. But now he knows there's truth to those stories, and there's no reason to fear death.
"Not one bit," he said. "It's a transition; it's not the end of anything. We will be with our loved ones again."
Heaven used to be a mystery, a place glimpsed only by mystics and prophets. But popular culture is filled with firsthand accounts from all sorts of people who claim that they, too, have proofs of heaven after undergoing near-death experiences.
Yet the popularity of these stories raises another question: Why doesn't the church talk about heaven anymore?
Preachers used to rhapsodize about celestial streets of gold while congregations sang joyful hymns like "I'll Fly Away" and "When the Roll is Called up Yonder." But the most passionate accounts of heaven now come from people outside the church or on its margins.
Most seminaries don't teach courses on heaven; few big-name pastors devote much energy to preaching or writing about the subject; many ordinary pastors avoid the topic altogether out of embarrassment, indifference or fear, scholars and pastors say.
"People say that the only time they hear about heaven is when they go to a funeral," said Gary Scott Smith, author of "Heaven in the American Imagination" and a history professor at Grove City College in Pennsylvania.
Talk of heaven shouldn't wait, though, because it answers a universal question: what happens when we die, says the Rev. John Price, author of "Revealing Heaven," which offers a Christian perspective of near-death experiences.
"Ever since people started dying, people have wondered, where did they go? Where are they now? Is this what happens to me?" said Price, a retired pastor and hospital chaplain.
A little girl's revelation
Price didn't always think heaven was so important. He scoffed at reports of near-death experiences because he thought they reduced religion to ghost stories. Besides, he was too busy helping grieving families to speculate about the afterlife.
His attitude changed, though, after a young woman visited his Episcopal church one Sunday with her 3-year-old daughter.
Price had last seen the mother three years earlier. She had brought her then-7-week-old daughter to the church for baptism. Price hadn't heard from her since. But when she reappeared, she told Price an amazing story.
She had been feeding her daughter a week after the baptism when milk dribbled out of the infant's mouth and her eyes rolled back into her head. The woman rushed her daughter to the emergency room, where she was resuscitated and treated for a severe upper respiratory infection.
Three years later, the mother was driving past the same hospital with her daughter when the girl said, "Look, Mom, that's where Jesus brought me back to you."
"The mother nearly wrecked her car," Price said. "She never told her baby about God, Jesus, her near-death experience, nothing. All that happened when the girl was 8 weeks old. How could she remember that?"
When Price started hearing similar experiences from other parishioners, he felt like a fraud. He realized that he didn't believe in heaven, even though it was part of traditional Christian doctrine.
He started sharing near-death stories he heard with grieving families and dejected hospital workers who had lost patients. He told them dying people had glimpsed a wonderful world beyond this life.
The stories helped people, Price said, and those who've had similar experiences of heaven should "shout them from the rooftops."
"I've gone around to many churches to talk about this, and the venue they give me is just stuffed," he said. "People are really hungry for it."
Why pastors are afraid of heaven
Many pastors, though, don't want to touch the subject because it's too dangerous, says Lisa Miller, author of "Heaven: Our Enduring Fascination with the Afterlife."