First, Eben Alexander, Now Mary Neal Visits Heaven
Some weeks ago, I noted on this blog the near-death experience of Eben Alexander, about which I expressed some reservations. I've now learned of another doctor with her own near-death experience, recounted in Mark Galli's article, "Mary Neal Describes Her Visit to the Gates of Heaven" (Christianity Today, December 6, 2012). The 'visit' occurred when she was trapped upside down in her kayak beneath a waterfall for about thirty minutes:
In fact, when this happened, I was very calm. I'm a spine surgeon. I'm used to high stress situations. And I've certainly been under water plenty of times in my boat. I immediately started to do the things that would either free the boat or extricate me from the boat . . . . But the volume and force of the water was such that my torso was absolutely pressed to the front deck of the boat. I couldn't move at all.She found herself surprisingly calm, reassured that all would be fine, and she began to review her life:
I am very much a pragmatist. I recognized my predicament. I knew that I was too far from shore for anyone to get there. And I also have seen a couple of people drown in waterfalls in the years I've been kayaking. So I knew that even if they could get to me, the likelihood of their being able to get my body out of the boat in time was pretty slim.
Then I went through a little bit of a life review -- not so much looking at events in isolation but looking at the unseen ripple effects of those events, how an event had an impact not just one or two degrees removed but 16, 20, 25 degrees removed. This was another profound aspect of the experience. It made me truly understand that every action, every decision, every choice, every human interaction really does matter. You may not know it, and almost always you don't recognize the impact. But everything really, really does matter.That's an interesting insight. I've reached the same conclusion, so maybe I've died, too, without realizing it, and like Zhuangzi, am now a butterfly dreaming of being a man. Seriously, I have had the same insight. I've been contacted by people I barely knew and hardly remembered who tell me what an impact I had on their lives twenty or thirty years ago. One was a German woman who came to me in my dorm one day in the early 1990s for help with an assignment on Gnosticism. She must have asked me what opinion she should hold about Gnostic beliefs. I don't like to tell people what to think, at least not so directly, but I will tell them how to think, so I told her, "Think for yourself!" Those words were the only ones I recall from our conversation, but they had a profound effect on her, or so she implied when she contacted me again a couple of years ago. I've had other, similar experiences, and I don't doubt that some of the nastier remarks I've made at random moments have had ripple effects causing storms in people's lives. I've undoubtedly been Zhuangzi's butterfly, indifferently flapping my wings in some Amazonian jungle, oblivious to the hurricane I've set in motion. But like Zhuangzi, I'm impressed by how much I don't know, and by the brevity of a life in which I've tried to know as much as I can. I would like more time for that, hence my interest in near-death experiences, but like Zhuangzi again, I'm somewhat skeptical, especially when I read a report like this one and compare it to other reports:
Then I felt my body break away from the boat, and as my body was coming out of the boat, I could feel my spirit peeling away from my body. I rose up and out of the river. I was immediately greeted by a group of beings, spirits, people. I'm never really sure what to call them, because those words mean different things to different people. They were so overjoyed to see me and welcome me and love me, and I knew that they had known me and loved me as long as I existed. I knew -- and when I use that word know, it's a very different sense of knowing -- I knew at an absolute, core level that they had been sent by God and were from God and were there to welcome me and guide me and protect me. People have asked, "Protect you from what?" I don't know. I only know what I know. I don't know what they were protecting me from . . . . They had physical form -- head, arms, legs -- and they were wearing something like robes. They were absolutely brilliant, radiating. And they were exuding this incredible love . . . . [and] they were taking me down this incredibly beautiful path to this dome-like structure, which was exploding with color and this absolute pure love of God. I knew that was basically the point of no return. It was the entrance to heaven -- whatever, however you want to describe it, that was where I was going . . . . Eventually we did get to the big arched entryway, and inside I could see many, many other spirits, angels, people -- I don't know what they were . . . . When I arrived they looked up and had this same sense of absolute joy at my arrival . . . . [and] it became absolutely clear to me that these people were joyful not only at my arrival but at the arrival of every person who shows up. More importantly, I understood how God can actually know each one of us, love each one of us as though we were the only one, and can have an incredible plan for each one of us. That's something that before this experience was difficult for me to grasp. But during this time, it became absolutely clear to me how that can be . . . . I was ready to dive across that threshold. But as I was pushing to do so, the spirits who had taken me there said that it wasn't my time, that I had to go back to my body and back to earth, that I had more work to do.She did return, and with an absolute certainty -- similar to Eben Alexander's certainty -- that she had experienced something real, and she estimates that her experience lasted for the nearly thirty minutes that she was 'dead.' I've read neither book, hers or Alexander's, but I note that the magazines' reports -- in which I have read about the experiences of each -- differ in their details, and I wonder why that's so. For instance, Alexander describes a rather different encounter with a 'spirit-guardian guide':
[W]e were riding along together on an intricately patterned surface, which after a moment I recognized as the wing of a butterfly. In fact, millions of butterflies were all around us -- vast fluttering waves of them, dipping down into the woods and coming back up around us again.There's Zhuangzi's butterfly again, even millions of them! I don't mean to sound flippant about these sorts of experiences -- though as a fellow-butterfly, I must also flap my wings -- but I do wonder why one person approaches heaven astride a butterfly, whereas another seems to walk along a path.
I'm therefore left with questions. Maybe the answers await my own death, unless I really am already Zhuangzi's butterfly, dreaming that I am a man sitting at my desk on an early Sunday morning writing these words, in which case I can report that the afterlife's not much different, after all . . .