Stephanie Becker, at the NBC Today Books site, writes:
Do you believe in heaven? Mary Neal says she knows there is one: She’s been there. And back.
Her experience made her the reluctant author of the New York Times best-seller To Heaven and Back. It recounts her life, her death and her life-changing trip to heaven, and tells why she was sent back: So she told us on the TODAY show this morning. Since getting assigned her story, I’ve been bombarded by friends asking me: Do you believe her?
Here’s the quick recap: Dr. Mary Neal, a spinal surgeon from Jackson Hole, Wyo., was kayaking in Chile when, although very experienced, she got trapped underwater. Through a series of what I would call incredible circumstances, she was revived and returned home.
No one with her doubts she drowned; she hadn’t had a breath of air for at least 15 minutes. Mary says that’s when she went to heaven — and didn’t want to come back.
As she told NBC correspondent Kristen Dahlgren: “I could feel my spirit peeling away from my body, sort of like peeling apart two pieces of tape. And then, when I felt my body released from the boat, I could feel my spirit released from my body.”
Mary says she was greeted by angels — beings she felt she knew. Mary (she’s so friendly you are compelled to call her by her first name) talked about a brilliance that enveloped her. Eventually, she was told by these angels she had to go back to her body.
Do I believe her?…
…But Mary’s so matter-of-fact about what happened; there’s no drama to her story, no breathless recantation of her miraculous return to her body. She sounds like she’s recalling a really fun vacation… and then she left her body and met with the locals and visited the cool amusement park. Except in her retelling, the natives are angels and the best ride is to heaven.
Do I believe Mary? This is clearly no delusional woman ranting about the afterlife. Mary’s calm and methodical and precise recollections, plus her background as a surgeon, convey the gravitas to make me take her at face value. So, if a supreme being has chosen Mary to make me into a believer, there couldn’t be a better choice…
It seems, every year or so, a person has a “I died and went to heaven and came back” experience and writes a book about it. (Heaven is for Real and The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven) The American public thirsts after these kinds of stories and quickly turns the books into New York Times Bestsellers.
Like all who have gone before her, Mary Neal claims her story is a t-r-u-e story. As we will see in a moment, Neal has a funny idea of true and has no proof but her own mental “visions” to prove that her story is true.
Wanting a story to be true does not make it so. I understand the draw of stories like this. Humans die. The one common bond we all have with one another is that we die. We desperately want to think life continues after death. We want to know that there is more to life than just our brief flash-in-the-pan seventy or so years of existence. We grasp for the slimmest of hope that we are eternal beings. The Mary Neal’s of life, along with countless heaven preaching pastors, give us the promise of life beyond the grave.
Before I continue my post on this subject, I should point out that Stephanie Becker does a real disservice to her readers by NOT writing anything about Mary Neal’s religious background. In stories like this, a person’s religious beliefs are very important to our understanding the context of the story.
I found this on the Amazon.com page for To Heaven and Back: A Doctor’s Extraordinary Account of Her Death, Heaven, Angels, and Life Again: A True Story:
What do you want people to know about heaven?
God’s unconditional love for each of us is intense, complete, and is reflected in all of Heaven. Before we return to Heaven, our real home, we have an incredible opportunity on Earth to face challenges that will help us learn, grow and to become more Christ-like in the fruits of our spirit. Our time is so short that we need to be about God’s business every day.
Neal, in a June 2012 Huffington Post article, had this to say about about her religious background:
Like 92 percent of Americans at that time, I believed in God. I attended Sunday school as a child and accepted Christ as my savior as a teenager. My moderate faith in religious truths easily faded into the background of my busy life when I left for college, but I called to God on the river, asking only that His will be done.
(After the accident) I lost my faith; it was transformed into a complete trust in the promises of God. This changed me as a person and as a doctor. Trusting that God loves us unconditionally, that spiritual life is eternal and that He as a beautiful plan for each of us, allowed me to face struggles with gratitude and joy. Each event, neither good nor bad, is like a small thread woven together with others to create a glorious tapestry of God’s design. I do not fear death. I am more tolerant of other people’s actions. I observe the world with an open heart.
I have not discarded the truth of scientific discovery nor discount its value to society, but the boundaries between God and medicine have been forever shattered. I pray for my patients. I help them perceive a beautiful opportunity for growth in an otherwise dire situation.
Spiritual curiosity while experiencing the presence of God in one’s life transforms faith into the trust that provides confidence to face life’s most difficult challenges with gratitude and joy.
On her FAQ page, Neal writes:
Before my near-death experience, I was a Christian and believed that the Bible was the absolute and historically accurate word of God. I was not, however, what anyone would call deeply spiritual or deeply religious and had no preconceived notions about life after death. My NDE changed me profoundly in both spiritual and religious ways. I now know the promises of God to be true, that there is a life after death, and that our spiritual life is eternal. While recognizing the limitations of organized religion, I fully participate in and support it.
When asked if she attends Church, Neal answers:
I regularly attend church services and have served on the board of elders, but I believe that loving the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and strength is of the greatest importance. I live in a beautiful and mountainous area, and many people claim the mountains as their church and believe they can worship God there instead of within a church. That can certainly be true, but the question – as is often posed by my pastor – is not can a person worship God while in the mountains, but will that person worship God while in the mountains.
Regardless of the harm that some individuals have done throughout the years in the name of God or while hiding behind the doors of the church, I believe the institution is greater than the individuals within it. Churches provide a place of gathering for people who share common beliefs, supporting and encouraging each other in faith, offer place to find insight into and teaching about God’s Word, and provide a time and place where people can leave the world behind and focus only on their spiritual life. Just as God can meet us wherever we are, the variety of denominations allows for accommodation of people in all stages of spiritual growth.
It is clear from the above evidence that Mary Neal is a Christian and, based on the language she uses, most likely an Evangelical Christian.
Neal believes the Bible is “the absolute and historically accurate word of God.” This one simple fact is key to understanding her story. (and all other stories like this) Her story affirms her belief about the Bible. Recognizing how this might be viewed as problematic she astoundingly says in her FAQ:
(I) had no preconceived notions about life after death…
There is no chance that this statement is true. Give me one example of a person who believes the Bible is “the absolute and historically accurate word of God”, who “attended Sunday school as a child and accepted Christ as my savior as a teenager” and regularly attends an Evangelical Church who “had no preconceived notions about life after death.”
Such a person does not exist.
I have not read Neal’s book. I have requested it from the local public library and when it comes in I will read it and do a full review. There are 85 people ahead of me so it will be a few months until the book comes in. For now, let’s take a look at Becker’s article about Neal and the book and see what conclusions we can come to.
Neal speaks of a heaven and angels. What empirical proof do we have for either of these? Neal, like most of us, is a presuppositionalist. She came into her death experience believing in God, angels, the afterlife, and heaven. Her experience conforms with her presuppositions. Nothing shocking here except that Mary Neal is Dr. Mary Neal, a university trained, orthopedic surgeon with a specialty in spinal surgery. She should know how to use the scientific method and she should have a basic understanding of the physical and medical reasons for explaining her death, going to heaven and coming back, experience.
Instead, she forsakes her training and embraces a un-provable metaphysical explanation, an explanation that made her a lot of money from book sales and speaking gigs.
NBC reporter Becker asks herself the question, “do you believe her?” It is evident Becker, an agnostic Jew, wants to believe her.(again she sees the need to tell us her religious beliefs but not Neal’s) She is seemingly swayed by Neal’s educational and professional acumen and her demeanor. Simply put, how could a educated, calm woman like Neal NOT be telling the truth?
I hope that Becker thinks a bit deeper on other issues in her life. Trusting educated, calm people without a sound, rational reason to do so is, well, it is irrational. I have a vision of Becker getting into Ted Bundy’s tan VW. But, he was such a nice guy…
Neal is not telling the truth because there is no evidence to prove her claims. I have no doubt she had the “vision” she recounts in the book. I also know there are rational, medical explanations for people having such a “vision.” Becker was without oxygen for a long period of time. It is common knowledge that loss of oxygen to the brain can result in bizarre “visions.” There is no need to look for a metaphysical explanation when a scientific explanation is readily available.
When the book from the local library arrives, I will have much more to say on this subject. Stay tuned.