To Heaven and Back
“No matter what the circumstances, we can be grateful that God fulfills His promises, that our faith is sufficient to sustain us, and that our eternal life is assured.”
These are the prophetic and hope-filled words of Dr. Mary C. Neal, a well-known orthopedic spine surgeon in Jackson Hole, Wyoming who drowned in a tragic kayaking accident on a South American river. She went to heaven, met angels, spoke with Jesus, and was returned to earth with specific instructions for work she still needed to do in this life. I must admit that when I was introduced to Dr. Mary Neal’s story this summer on vacation in Jackson Hole, I was quietly skeptical. Despite my catalogue of theological course work at Vanderbilt researching and writing about healing and most recently angels, I was nervous to jump on the horse alongside these faithful cowboys whose lives and faith have been transformed by her story, chronicled in the national best-selling book, To Heaven and Back, A Doctor’s Extraordinary Account of Her Death, Heaven, Angels, and Life Again.
There are a plethora of near-death testimonies or as I pen them, “glimpses of heaven,” biblical and modern-day, many of which have garnered much fanfare in recent years, even taking coveted positions on the New York Times Bestseller lists. And yet just as much skeptic rebuttal abounds to leave your head and heart spinning. What are we to believe? Especially when the Bible gives us very few concrete details about what really happens when we die. Why the Mystery? Surely God knows that in the depths of our being we all angst about what happens when the final bell tolls. It is part of being human to wonder, fret, dream, and pray about heaven, which is why I continue to be intrigued by Dr. Mary Neal’s story.
I will not deny that death scares me. To see a body riddled in pain, especially a child’s, to be witness to one’s last breath on earth, or to stand in the eery silence of a body whose soul has just departed and traveled on, is humbling. And yet, pinned underneath a waterfall, both legs split in two and drowning, Dr. Mary Neal felt no pain, only peace, even bliss. She was not alone. God was with her. A welcoming party of angels greeted her soul at the river’s edge and she knew she was returning home, her eternal home. There was no fear, rather, immense joy. A joy that could not be contained in human words or matched by any earthly experience. Dr. Mary Neal described her experience:
“The heaven I witnessed was so pure, love-filled, and magnificent that I did not want to return to earth. I felt my soul being pulled toward the entry, and as I approached, I physically absorbed its radiance and felt the pure, complete, and utterly unconditional absolute love that emanated from the hall. I knew with a profound certainty that it represented the last branch point of life, the gate through which each human being must pass. It was clear that this hall is the place where each of us is given the opportunity to review our lives and our choices, and where we each are given a final opportunity to choose God-or turn away for eternity.”
A great measure of my personal faith is buttressed on the belief that the same God in Psalm 139 that knitted me together in my mother’s womb, knows my every thought, counts my every tear, will go to the ends of the earth to find me, and promises Death is not the last word in my story, is the same God that sent His angels out that day to a Chilean river in the middle of nowhere for Dr. Mary Neal. And so, I find myself reading over and over again the beautiful, life-affirming, and life-redeeming account of her peace-filled death, her gathering with angels, and her peek through the door to Heaven. It reminds me again that God’s story is always a story of redemption, reunions, and hope!
For all of you numbed skeptics, Dr. Mary Neal freely confesses that she was first a scientist, a surgeon, and a skeptic, before experiencing her glimmer of heaven. She said, “What a scientist cannot account for is the alteration of time and space and dimension that is God’s. I certainly cannot understand how it works but I have experienced it and I accept that each one of us is special and valued as a child of God.” Her life after that providential day on the river would never be the same. Taped to her refrigerator door today is her daily creed: “I believe God’s promises are true. I believe heaven is real. I believe nothing can separate me from God’s love. I believe God still has work for me to do here on earth. I believe God will see me through and carry me when I cannot walk.” Dr. Neal claims she is no longer a glorified mechanic, simply a surgeon who fixes broken body parts. Now she is all about “God’s business” of healing the whole of humanity.
Dr. Mary Neal was returned to her broken body on the river that day because God deemed her journey on earth incomplete. She was instructed to go back and protect her husband’s health, be the rock for her family in the tragic loss of her son, and share her story. There is no financial gain in publishing her story, as all proceeds go to charities that meant something to her son. I encourage you to pick up the book, gift the book to a friend, a family member, or a stranger that has lost someone. We could all use a glimmer of heaven in our lives, assurance that death is not frightening, but peaceful, and that we are never alone here on earth or in eternity.
I believe there is no greater work on earth as the mending of hope in creation; one bone, one soul at a time, until the day we too, are greeted by angels and find our way through the Holy Door!
Live in Hope,