This past July I wrote a blog post about Mary Neal, the author of To Heaven and Back: a doctor’s extraordinary account of her death, heaven, angels, and life again. The cover of the book says that Neal’s book is a true story.
If you have not read my previous post I would encourage you to do so. It is important to understand that Mary Neal believes that the Bible is an inspired, inerrant text and that she is most likely an Evangelical.
The book To Heaven and Back is a wildly popular book. It took me two months to get the book from the library.
I have written book reviews of two similar books, Heaven is for Real and The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven. Both of these books spend a lot of time detailing the various aspects of heaven. Neal’s book is different in that it spends very little time talking about what Neal saw while she was in heaven.The book is really an autobiography,so people looking for a lot of juicy details about heaven will be sorely disappointed.
The book details Mary Neal’s life from her childhood through the death of her son in a ski training accident. Neal sees God in everything that happens in her life. No matter the circumstance,the Christian God is there ready and willing not only to help Neal but intervene in her life in a supernatural way.
In my Christian days a book like this would have been a must read for me. Like Neal, I saw God in everything I did in life. No matter what happened in my life I saw God working and accomplishing his purpose and will. No matter what good or bad came my way, God was working things out for my good and his glory.
Neal, an orthopedic surgeon, looks at life from this perspective:
God and his angelic messengers are present and active in our world today and this involvement and intervention is both ordinary and its frequency and extraordinary in its occurrence.
On January 14, 1999, Neal and her husband were kayaking in South America. While kayaking, Neal was thrown into the water and pinned underneath her kayak. According to Neal, she drowned, went to heaven, stayed for a short while, and returned to her body. Her account of this is detailed in To Heaven and Back, a book she waited 13 years to write. (a 222 page book, published in 2012)
In the introduction of the book Neal addresses those who are cynical about her claims, those who claim that miracles defy the laws of nature and, therefore, cannot occur. She gives two situations to describe her belief concerning miracles:
- A ball is dropped from a height and falls to the ground. It obeys the laws of nature.
- A ball is dropped from a height and falls toward the ground. A hand reaches out and catches it. It never reaches the ground. The ball has obeyed the laws of nature, but the hand has intervened, if the hand were God’s, we would have witnessed divine intervention without a defiance of the laws of nature.
As I read this to my wife, a woman with little to no training in philosophy or science, even she could quickly see the error and silliness of Neal’s explanation of what a miracle is.
If the ball in the second situation truly obeyed the laws of nature it would fall to the ground just like in the first situation. God reaching out his hand to catch the ball is indeed a defiance of the laws of nature. When a ball is dropped its natural course is to fall to the ground. Anything that interrupts the ball’s fall to the ground is an interruption of its natural course.
Neal claims that God catching the ball with his hand is a miracle. Perhaps I am stretching the metaphor too far here, but I wonder if Neal would think it is also a miracle when a human catches a ball and keeps it from naturally falling to the ground? Isn’t the human defying the laws of nature by interrupting the ball’s fall to the ground?
Neal is convinced that she died, went to heaven, and came back to earth again to re-inhabit her body. She is convinced, beyond a shadow of doubt, that her experience was a miracle that cannot be explained. Evidently, Neal, a university trained, supposedly science literate, doctor, is ignorant of the neurological explanations for her death-back to life experience.
Neal is a proponent of the notion that anything that cannot be explained is God. Not only does Neal see God in the unexplainable, she sees a very specific God, the Christian God.
One of the most baffling aspects of the book is Neal’s (a devout evangelical Christian, a believer in Jesus) appeal to the near-death experiences found in other religions. She believes that these common near-death experiences in all religions is proof that there is a God.
By positing such a belief, Neal betrays her evangelical beliefs. Surely Neal does not believe that all roads lead to heaven or that all religions are equally true. I have no doubt that Neal believes there is one God, the God of the Christian Bible. If this indeed is her belief, then her appeal to the near-death experiences found in other religions falls flat on the ground. According to standard Evangelical doctrine, the near-death experiences found in other religions are false experiences, satanic in nature, the works of a false god.
Neal, like many evangelicals, wants to appear as broad-minded. Perhaps this is needed to sell more books or perhaps an editor required such a broad approach, but everything I have read about Neal’s doctrinal beliefs suggests that Neal believes there is one true God, one true divine text, and one way to heaven. (the publisher of To Heaven and Back is WaterBrook Press, an imprint of Evangelical publisher Multnomah, a division of Random House)
In the chapter titled, going Home, Neal describes her time in heaven:
While my body was being slowly sucked out of the boat, I felt as though my soul was slowly peeling itself away from my body…
…At the moment my body was released and began to tumble, I felt a “pop.” It felt as if I had finally shaken off my heavy outer layer, freeing my soul. I rose up and out of the river, and when my soul broke through the surface of the water, I encountered a group of 15 to 20 souls ( human spirits sent by God), who greeted me with the most overwhelming joy I have ever experienced and could ever imagine. It was joy at an unadulterated core level. They were sort of like a large welcoming committee or a great cloud of witnesses as described in Hebrews 12:1…this welcoming committee seem to be wildly cheering for me as I approached the “finish line.”
While I could not identify each spiritual being as someone by name…, I knew each of them well, knew they were from God, and knew that I had known them for an eternity. I was part of them, and I knew they were sent to guide me across the divide of time and dimension that separates our world from God’s. I also had the unspoken understanding that they were sent not only to greet me and guide me, but also to protect me during my journey.
They appeared as formed shapes, but not with the absolute distinct edges of the formed physical bodies we have on earth. Their images were blurred, and each spiritual being was dazzling and radiant. Their presence engulfed all my senses as though I could see, hear, feel, smell, and taste them all at once. Their brilliance was both blinding and invigorating. We did not speak, per se, using our mouths, but easily communicated in a very pure form. We simultaneously communicated our thoughts and emotions, and understood each other perfectly even though we did not use language.
Later, in the same chapter, Neal describes a great and beautiful hall, and in doing so, totally trashes her evangelical beliefs about sin, death, judgment, and salvation. Neal writes:
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. It was the most beautiful and alluring thing I had ever seen or experienced. 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 are each given a final opportunity to choose God or to turn away—for eternity…
I thought evangelicals believed that it is in this life we must make a choice concerning our salvation? After death it is too late to make a choice.What Neal describes here is some modified version of universalism, a salvation that is offered to all post-death.
Think for a moment about what Neal is saying here. She is saying that I can live my life anyway I want. I can be the most indecent, immoral, godless human being on the face of the earth, but after I die I will get a chance to to either accept or reject God. This seems like a great deal to me. I can live for self, indulge my flesh, and give no thought to God at all, and after I die God will basically say to me, don’t worry about all that stuff you did. Do you want to live in heaven, in peaceful bliss for all eternity? Who in their right mind would say no to such a proposition?
I am shocked that such basic theological ignorance would get past the editors at Waterbrook Press, an evangelical publisher. In a Christian book market where swear words and sex scenes are routinely edited out of book manuscripts, I’m surprised that the theology advanced by Neal in her book made it through the editing process untouched.
In chapter 17, Neal describes a conversation she had with an angel. Neal writes:
I was having a “conversation” with an angel who was sitting on a nearby rock. I call the being an angel, but I don’t really know what he was: angel, messenger, Christ, or teacher. I did know that he was of God, in God, and from God. As we conversed, I asked questions, and he gave me answers. We discussed how to “rejoice always,” and discussed the long-standing question, “why do bad things happen to good people? During this conversation, I received the following wisdom.
We are each given the opportunity and privilege to come to earth for different reasons. Sometimes we come in order that we may personally develop the fruits of our spirit: those of love, kindness, patience, joy, peace, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Sometimes we come to help someone else develop the fruits of the spirit. We all come to earth to become more Christ-like, as noted in Romans 8.
In preparation for our journey to Earth, we are able to make a basic outline for our life. This is not to imply that we, the humans, are entirely in charge of our life’s design. It is more like God creates it, then we review it and discuss it with our “personal planning”angel. Within the algorithm are written branch points in our lives at which times we may exit, returning to God, or we may be redirected to a different task and goal.
We may be directed to these branch points by our own conscious choice and by our circumstances, or we may be pushed along by angelic intervention…
in all my 50 years in the Christian church and 25 years in the ministry, I have NEVER heard this explanation for the “why do bad things happen to good people” question? it is quite evident that Neal has drunk deeply at Angel Well and that her subjective experience trumps anything one might find in the Bible. “Personal planning angel?” Really?
Neal, like many Christians, shows little understanding of what the Bible actually says about the FRUIT, not fruits of the spirit. Neal fails to even understand that, according to orthodox Christian doctrine, that the fruit of the Spirit is not the fruit of the human spirit but the fruit of the Spirit of God.
Neal, a university trained orthopedic surgeon, a former medical professor, should have a good background in the basics of science. I have no doubt that she knows a lot more about science than I will ever know. (and it is quite certain from this book that I know a lot more about Christian theology than she does) What I find baffling is Neal’s description of death in chapter 20.
Speaking of her father’s death, Neal writes:
When I entered the room where my father was lying in his hospital bed, I saw that he was sedated and the ventilator was rhythmically pushing air in and out of his lungs. Although he was still “alive,” I had the overwhelming sense, really more of a deep knowledge, that his soul had already departed from his body. He was already dead. Although it is a commonly-held belief that a person’s soul departs at the moment of their physical death, I have come to believe that the departure of the soul defines and determines the moment of death, rather than the body’s physical death determining the moment of the soul’s departure. With the use of modern medicine and technology, the organism that is our human body may continue to physically function and appear to be “ alive,” but unless God sees a purpose to return the soul to its body, the person is essentially dead. Not only had I witnessed this during my surgical training, but there are far too many accounts of near-death experiences in which there is a description of the soul departing the shell of it’s not-yet physically dead body to ignore this reality.
In other words, Neal totally rejects the scientific and medical definition of death. I would love to know how Neal would ascertain if the soul (and I don’t believe we have a soul) has “departed?” Can you imagine your doctor saying, we need to keep your Mom on life support until we “know” her soul has departed. Can anyone say…medical malpractice?
In a classic example of Neal seeing a miracle everywhere she looks, Neal tells a story about her mother and stepfather and their Bradford pear trees. Neal writes:
(Neal’s stepfather is in the hospital suffering from a serious bout of pneumonia.) We sat at her (Neal’s mother) breakfast table sipping coffee, contemplating George’s health and the possibility of his release from the hospital. As we chatted, we looked out the picture window and gazed upon a large, entirely barren Bradford pear tree. My mother then told me the story of that tree.
She and George loved the large, pink blossoms of the many Bradford pear trees in their neighborhood, so they had planted this tree many years prior with the hope of enjoying its annual display of color. While this particular tree had continued to grow taller and taller, it had never produced a single blossom. She said that George was so dismayed by the tree’s inability to blossom that he planned to cut it down in the spring and plant a new one. He loved color and wanted to see blossoms from their breakfast table.
We were still feeling hopeful as we drove to the hospital, but encountered a radically different situation upon our arrival. George had taken a turn for the worse and his organs were failing. God was calling to him, and we knew that his remaining time on earth was short… We held each other and held George as his spirit peacefully left this world.
The following morning, as we sat down for coffee at my mom’s breakfast table, we looked out the window and gasped. Their once forlorn Bradford pear tree was bursting with color. This tree, which had been barren just 24 hours earlier, was now filled beyond capacity with large, beautiful, perfect pink blossoms.
These colorful blossoms stayed on that tree until well after frosted felled the blossoms of neighboring trees. When this tree finally begin to drop its leaves, it did so on the side facing away from the window before dropping a single blossom on the side that faced my mother’s breakfast window. What a gift from my stepfather. What a miracle…
In chapter 30 Neal tells a story about an event that took place after her son Willie died:
In the days after our return from Maine, walking our property was the one activity that brought a small semblance of calm to my turbulent and broken spirit. As I walked, I try to make sense of my life, contemplated what to say at my son’s memorial service, and made detailed mental accountings of our property, trying to decide on a site for Willie’s flowering garden. One morning, as I was walking past a small grouping of willow trees, I came upon a great surprise. The area around and within every willow was overflowing with the vivid, bold, deep pink-colored blossoms of wild Alpine roses. These flowers were of the exact color, shape, and appearance as had been the ones blooming in the field in which Willey died…
… Willey knew the story of the pink blossoms on the Bradford pear tree that had appeared immediately after the death of my stepfather. He knew how significant and emotional that event had been for my mother and me, and he would have seen the painting of the tree hanging in my bathroom many, many times. I know that Willey sent us a message that day through the roses; one of appreciation, love, gratitude, and a sense of apology for leaving, I believe he knew this would be one of the few ways of communication we would not question.
Completing the story of the Bradford pear tree, after beautifully blooming for five years, it was suddenly and unexpectedly struck by lightning and destroyed, serving as a message telling my mother that it was “ time to move forward” in her life. It makes me wonder if the beautiful Alpine roses that we now so lovingly nurture on our property will one day disappear.
Stories like these permeate Neal’s book. If Neal was in a crowded room and someone farted, while everyone was trying to figure out who farted, Neal would be telling all who would listen, God did it. For those of us raised in the evangelical bubble, such God sightings were quite common in our own lives. Everywhere we looked we saw God.
Now that we’re outside the bubble such things seem insane. Many of the things that Neal describes in her book as miracles or God intervening in her life can be explained by natural, scientific means. Even when there is no scientific explanation, this does not mean that the Christian God did it. Unexplainable things are just that… unexplainable. Not every question has an answer. There is no need to interject God into the fabric of our life to give our lives coherence.
It is hard not to conclude that Neal has a form of Christianity that allows one to make it up as they go along in life. Instead of embracing life with its many twists and turns, Neal attempts to explain her life as one long, steady God intervention. Instead of owning her bad choices and misjudgments, Neal passes the buck to God, taking very little personal responsibility for her own choices and decisions. (this is especially evident in the details of her professional career)
The last chapter of the book is titled Logical Conclusions. For this skeptic, Neal’s book is anything but logical. Neal states, based on her subjective, unprovable, irrational experiences, five logical conclusions:
- 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 has work for me to do
- I believe God will see me through and carry me when I cannot walk
On one hand, I am indifferent to stories like Neal’s. Neal has had some difficulties in her life, several serious accidents, professional turmoil, and the death of a child. Who am I to suggest that she cannot believe in a God that controls every aspect of her life, a God who is there for her every step of the way? If this is what helps her get through life, if this is what gives her peace, then who am I to rob her of her beliefs?
On the other hand, stories like Neal’s promote bad theology and distort the teachings of the Bible. Neal encourages people to see God and angels behind every “coincidence” in their life. I’m convinced that this kind of thinking promotes irresponsibility and allows people to escape owning the consequences of their actions.
Neal wants to see the “silver lining” (God) in every circumstance, even in the divorce of her parents and the death of those she loves. This kind of thinking is escapism and it denies the reality that life can be ugly and painful and that few of us escape this world without suffering.
As a skeptic I am forced to view life as it is and not as I want to be. Oh how I wish that there was life beyond the grave and that someday I would see all of my family and friends once again. There are some aspects of heaven that greatly appeal to me. Few of us want the grave to be the end of it all but, everything that we can observe in this world tells us that death is certain and there is no coming back from the grave.
To believe Neal’s story requires faith, a faith I do not have. If you are Christian reader of this blog, you might enjoy Neal’s book. However, the vast majority of you are skeptics and I suspect you will find reading To Heaven and Back a colossal waste of time and money. I have read the book for you and hopefully this review tells you everything you need to know.