Most of us wonder what our first glimpse of heaven will be like. Dr. Mary C. Neal lived it.
In her book, “7 Lessons from Heaven: How Dying Taught Me to Live a Joy-Filled Life,” Neal shares her unforgettable account of the Chilean kayaking accident that took her to heaven and back, and changed her life forever.
In 1999, Neal, an orthopedic surgeon, was kayaking on a river in southern Chile when she got trapped under a waterfall. She knew she was in trouble. In that split second, she could see everything that was about to happen but knew it was too late to change a thing. She struggled to get free, but no matter how hard she tried, the powerful torrents and weight of the water above her kept her pinned face down on the front deck of her kayak. She felt this was the end. But what happened next surprised even her.
“Time slowed and despite knowledge of my predicament and the wild turbulence of the water above me, I felt relaxed, calm and strangely hopeful,” Neal said. “I prayed words that seemed to come from outside myself. God, Your will be done. Not mine, but Yours.”
It was at that moment, on the brink of death, that she was sent on an incredible journey to heaven. She was overcome by a physical sensation of being held, comforted and reassured. She felt like Jesus was holding her while she was drowning. She felt her spirit leave her body and when that happened, she was met by heavenly beings, overjoyed to see her.
They took her down a beautiful path to a great dome structure that she described as not only exploding with beauty and color, but exploding with this absolute love of God that was beyond anything she could ever truly explain. In that moment, she was overwhelmed with the sensation of being home. After feeling that comforting sense of home, Neal was told it wasn’t her time yet and that she had to go back to her body. She had more work to do.
Those involved estimated that Neal had been without oxygen for 30 minutes. Her recovery took months. While Neal was in the hospital care units in Jackson, she had two more out-of-body experiences. In each, she returned to heaven. While the first experience was brief, she once again felt an overwhelming sense of being totally and unreservedly loved by an awesome and supernatural God. The second out-of-body experience was longer and more involved. During this encounter, Neal met Jesus face-to-face. Jesus’ words, in addition to what she witnessed there helped her to discover the truth of heaven and how that truth of heaven can make each day on earth so meaningful. As with her earlier experiences, these struck her as more real than real, she explained.
“Colors were more intense than found on Earth. Smells and sounds effortlessly filled my consciousness, and God’s pure love infused everything…I could see people joyfully twirling and playing at the far end of the field, although I could not tell if they were children or adults,” Neal said. “Yet, one person, who was sitting on a rock next to me, was utterly, inarguably known to me. He was Jesus.”
Neal has been asked by many people what Jesus looked like. Her answer: “Endless kindness and compassion.” While these aren’t words that are typically used to describe visual attributes, they best communicated the presence she overwhelmingly felt.
During her time, she asked Jesus a lot of questions, many of which are hard for her to recall now. What she does remember is that she received a complete understanding of the universe and our interconnectedness. Everything struck me as logical, interwoven and magnificent, she said.
Neal has also been asked countless times how she knew that she had encountered Jesus. Some assumed that she just imagined it because she wanted it to be Jesus. Others tried to convince her that the one she took the person to be with a name was just a collection of energy. But there was no doubt in Neal’s head that this was Jesus. She didn’t even need to ask His name.
In her first book, “To Heaven and Back,” Neal referred to the presence of Jesus quite vaguely, calling Him an “angel, messenger, Christ, or teacher.” Neal knew who He was without a doubt, but didn’t want to share the identity of the man next to her. In reflecting, she realizes it was because she was afraid.
The first reason Neal held back was because she feared that revealing too much would make it less special. The second reason was because she was afraid to confess was because she didn’t think she had earned the right to speak to Jesus. She felt she could never be good enough to bask in His love for her. What she learned from this encounter was that God doesn’t play favorites. None of us have earned what we have received – neither our perceived blessings nor perceived troubles.
“It was Job, the Bible’s poster child for suffering and unfair treatment who said, ‘[God] shows no partiality to princes, and does not favor the rich over the poor, for they are all of His hands,” Neal said.
Yes, there’s a ledger keeper in all of us. Some focus more on the good stuff. Others fixate on all the bad things. Yet, we are blessed to have had Jesus come to show us another way. For Neal, it was this intimate moment that showed her this. For us, it can be seen through Jesus’ love through death on a cross for our sins.
“You and I don’t ‘earn’ an intimate moment with God. I didn’t have to ‘deserve’ a seat next to Jesus in that beautiful field,” Neal said. “And I’m not required to earn His favor in order to spend an eternity enjoying God’s love. I know that now.”
Neal went to heaven and back, conversed with Jesus and experienced God’s encompassing love. She returned to Earth with some specific instructions for work she still needed to do and she is following that call by sharing her experience with others.
Her story is a testament to the miracles and intervention of God, and how transformative His power can be. Her story is one of hope and gives us reason to live by faith. For more powerful insights on heaven, read “7 Lessons from Heaven,” by Mary C. Neal.