Did you read the recent best-seller Proof of Heaven? I did and while Dr. Eban Alexander spun a good tale of his journey into a heaven-like world while lying in a coma, there was just one problem: the author had credibility issues. As detailed in a long profile and follow-up in Esquire magazine, one couldn’t walk away from his story without the nagging feeling the author may have been fudging some of the details.
Which brings me to another story in the pages of Esquire where someone again claims they’ve glimpsed heaven. It’s buried within a short piece titled “The Death of Roger Ebert” and was written by Ebert’s wife and constant companion Chaz. It recounts the critic’s final moments and tells us how he left the world in total peace:“He was sitting almost like Buddha, and then he just put his head down.”
But most compelling to me were the events that happened in the days before Roger died. His wife, Chaz Ebert, tells us that her husband “didn’t know if he could believe in God. He had his doubts. But toward the end, something really interesting happened.” Continuing with her words:
That week before Roger passed away, I would see him and he would talk about having visited this other place. I thought he was hallucinating. I thought they were giving him too much medication. But the day before he passed away, he wrote me a note:
According to Chaz, she asked Roger, “What’s a hoax?” looking for some clarification. He then made it clear to her that “he was talking about this world, this place. He said it was all an illusion. I thought he was confused. But he was not confused.”
The idea that this world is an illusion is one held by many ancient cultures and faiths. Hindus believe that the world is “maya”, an illusion that is hiding something “different, deeper, invisible or unknown”. The Buddha, as well as the modern-dayCourse in Miracles, also declare that “the world is an illusion”, suggesting that we are all living in a kind of collective dream state. Which begs the question:
If it’s all an illusion, what is reality?
To get past the illusion, do we need to venture to what Roger Ebert called “this other place”? Was Ebert glimpsing the afterlife? His wife Chaz seems to believe it was heaven, but “not the way we think of heaven”. No puffy clouds or St. Peter at the pearly gates. Again in her words:
He described it as a vastness you can’t even imagine. It was a place where the past, present, and future were happening all at once.
This description veers into quantum physics territory, where the belief is that all time exists but that we are only aware of the present moment. As Albert Einsteinonce said, “the distinctions between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.” Perhaps, Ebert was able to get a sneak peek at what was next, a place where the illusion could finally be shed, revealing life in its purest state. Could this be heaven? Nirvana?
Did Ebert, knowing the end was near, simply use his imagination to dream up an afterlife?
After doing a little digging, I think it’s highly doubtful. In 2009, Ebert wrote a blog post titled “How I believe in God” in which he discussed his Catholic upbringing. While the former alter boy declared he did not want to be labeled an “atheist or agnostic”, he made it crystal clear that he was “not a believer”—and stated that believing in “an existence not limited to the physical duration of the body” doesn’t make it true.
Yet, this doesn’t jibe with the message he shared before his passing. While I question the veracity of Eban Alexander’s account of heaven, I have a different feeling about Roger Ebert’s departing words. When belief suddenly springs forth from a non-believer, with absolutely nothing to gain, I’m inclined to believe that belief is heartfelt and true.
A final note from the story: Chaz Ebert says she still hears Roger’s voice and that her time with him is not over. She adds, “I’m still waiting for things to unfold. I have this feeling we’re not finished.”
This post originally appeared December 6, 2013, on my Patheos Wake Up Call column.