Mary C. Neal, MD, is an orthopedic surgeon (“fellowship-trained as a spinal surgeon”) who earned her medical degree in the School of Medicine at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) and completed her orthopedic residency at the University of Southern California (USC). Like her husband, who is also a physician, she lives and practices medicine in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. In January of 1999, she suffered a catastrophic kayaking accident on a river in a remote area of Chile and had an extraordinary near-death experience. She recounted that experience in To Heaven and Back, which reached number one on the New York Times bestseller list. Here, I will share some passages that I marked during my reading of Mary C. Neal, 7 Lessons from Heaven: How Dying Taught Me to Live a Joy-Filled Life (New York: Convergent Books, 2017.
A 2009 study conducted at the Pew Research Center demonstrated that more than 30 percent of Americans say that have “felt to be in touch with someone who has already died,” and nearly half of all Americans claim to have had a religious or mystical experience (defined as “a moment of sudden religious insight or awakening”), including 18 percent of self-described atheists, agnostics, and the secularly unaffiliated. What’s more, 13 percent claim to have seen or sensed the presence of an angel in the previous year, and at least 5 percent have had a near-death experience. (224)
In 7 Lessons from Heaven, Dr. Neal shares several stories other than her own. Here is one such account:
Lynn died on an operating room table and had a near-death experience. She saw her sobbing parents in a nearby room, but once she realized they would be fine, as she tells it now, she entered a horizontal tunnel leading to a bright light from which emerged two of her previously deceased and beloved dogs. They were radiating brilliance from within, and she felt nothing but gratitude when they came running to her and joyfully smothered her with kisses. They accompanied her as she walked toward a light that she described as a warm, loving thing that contained all colors. She saw many people, including her grandparents and an uncle; everyone glowed with an inner light. Before returning to her physical body, she was able to ask Jesus whether it was true, as her elementary-school teacher had told her, that she had been given a lifelong heart condition so she would have a cross to carry like He had. She heard the voice of Christ vibrate through her as He said, “No, this heart condition is a challenge to help you grow and stay compassionate.” (158)
And here is a brief account from “Justin,” in Fort Worth, Texas:
I worked for the phone company when I was a young man and got electrocuted one day when I was up on a telephone pole. The first thing I remember was looking down from somewhere in the sky and seeing one of my buddies doing CPR. I felt peaceful and surrounded by God’s love. When I started moving down a bright path, I recognized my grandpa. He told me to “go back,” and suddenly I was in the ambulance. I tried to tell my wife about this, but she told me that it was just because I hit my head. I never told anyone else until now, and that was thirty-two years ago. (224-225)
Another report comes from “Cindy,” in Midland, Michigan:
When I was three years old, I fell off a dock when no one was looking. I didn’t know how to swim and immediately sank to the bottom of the lake. I had the most loving encounter with Jesus. He held my hand while we talked but then told me I couldn’t stay.
Suddenly, I popped to the surface right by the shore. My brother laughed and said I was lying when I told him I fell in and met Jesus. So I kept it to myself for many, many years. I remember this like it was yesterday and have never forgotten how much love I felt. (225)
Permit me to just comment here that, although more than a few accounts of near-death experiences mention encountering Jesus, I’m inclined to think that, in almost all of these experiences, the personage who is met is not Jesus. Worldwide, there are something on the order of 335,000 deaths per day, which means that there are approximately 14,000 deaths per hour and not quite 250 deaths per minute. I understand that time may function rather differently in the next world, but I still doubt that Jesus is personally present in even a significant percentage of deaths. Indeed, most NDE accounts don’t report encounters with Jesus, though a fair proportion do mention a “being of light” who often remains unidentified but, when named, is sometimes variously identified (often with the name of a prophet or holy personage from the religious background of the person relating the experience). There are relatively few cases in which the personage explicitly and verbally identifies himself as Jesus. (Are there any? Probably.) I expect that, in very many of these cases, the dying individual who feels strong love and acceptance emanating from a glorious person simply identifies that person as the most holy figure he or she can name (e.g., Jesus, Muhammad, Krishna, etc.). Doctrine and Covenants 1:38 may be apropos here, with the Lord declaring that “my word shall not pass away, but shall all be fulfilled, whether by mine own voice or by the voice of my servants, it is the same.”
ETA: On the other hand, as a friend writes to remind me — I read both of Dr. Neal’s books quite some time ago, and am only now extracting my notes from this one — her own description of her experience seems clearly to indicate an encounter with Jesus. (I don’t have the book with me at the moment to look.) I have no reason to believe that such encounters don’t occur. In fact, I think they probably do. On a slightly different front, at least two other people claim that I’m now admitting that NDEs are all purely subjective or imaginary, but that isn’t my position at all. Quite the contrary. I’m simply saying that, when encountering a being of glorious light, perfect compassion, and supreme holiness, it’s entirely to be expected that near-death experiencers from Christian backgrounds would be inclined to identify that being as Jesus. And that there is actually sound theological reason (in the principle of divine investiture) for the “error.” (Over on the Peterson Obsession Board, my Malevolent Stalker says that I’ve accused NDErs of “lying.” Consider the source. No further response is necessary.)
Finally, I share a reflection from Dr. Neal that I found important:
Your life and mine today can look radically different because of the reality of heaven. Or you can decide you’re mildly intrigued by the stories . . . and walk away unchanged. If you walk, you would be deciding that every account, including mine, falls into the category of heartwarming stories — sweet, something you might even return to in the future, but not something that alters your thinking and remakes your heart and soul. . . .
I want to show you how your life can be different because of what you’ve discovered. I want to rescue you from a sweet but ultimately unimportant story time for grown-ups.
Make no mistake, this is extremely serious business. Today, I know without a doubt that this world is separated by the thinnest of veils from the next, and that both worlds belong to God. I know now that you and I already live right next to, even inside of, eternity, and that one day, the veil between it and time — along with all its schedules, clocks, tragedies, and eons of history — will vanish. On that day, everything that happened in time will be made good, right, and beautiful by God himself. (191-192)