Author: Mary C. Neal, MD
Publisher: WaterBrook Press, Colorado Springs, CO
Copyright: 2011, ISBN: 
Cover: Mark D. Ford
Reviewed by: Lynard Barnes, 12/12/2013
Summary: Dr. Neal relates her experience of drowning underwater for eleven minutes and coming back to life: More a religious tract than a report of a near-death experience (NDE).
It can happen in a breath.
First your talk about God.
Then, you talk to God.
Finally, you talk for God.
This transition from mere mortal to deity-surrogate, miraculously, does not require a second breath. Anyone can do it. Anyone and nearly everyone does.
The last book we reviewed here on the near-death experience was Dr. Eben Alexander’s PROOF OF HEAVEN (December 2012). The difference between Dr. Alexander’s book and Dr. Neal’s is one of vistas. Dr. Alexander, as a result of his near-death experience, stands in a doorway looking out upon a universe of possibilities. Dr. Neal stands in a doorway peering back at the time-space continuum up her life.
THE NDE OF DOCTORS NEAL AND ALEXANDER
As with most books on near-death experiences, Dr. Neal’s book reinforces one of the three messages Dr. Alexander reports in coming back from his NDE: you are loved; you have nothing to fear; there is nothing you can do wrong. Dr. Neal does not specifically reinforce the last two of these messages. In fact, TO HEAVEN AND BACK leaves the impression that there is something to fear and that you can do something wrong. This impression arises from the theological emphasis of the book.
We point out two salient caveats in reviewing this book. First, because the book is more a testament about religious faith than the near-death experience, there can be no question that the author sincerely believes the events chronicled in TO HEAVEN IN BACK. The events happened as she reported them happening. Likewise, the opinions and beliefs she espouses are assumed to be strongly held. Dr. Neal makes a point of seeing her near-death experience as confirmation of her Christian beliefs. In this review, we take a step back from the Christian foundation of her views as they pertain to the near-death experience and look at the reported experience only. In other words, we do not want to “assess” faith. It is a fruitless endeavor. The NDE however is ripe for exploration.
TRUTH MINGLED WITH DOGMA
To understand the near-death experience reported in TO HEAVEN AND BACK, you really have to start reading this book from back to front. In so doing, you run across the most poignant and effective words ever encountered about an un-necessary and preventable traffic accident. It is written about Dr. Neal’s son, Willie. The chapter, titled “My Beautiful Son”, should be required reading for everyone who has an inclination to talk on a phone while driving or text and drive. But before that chapter, the very last chapter in fact, we read this statement:
“I do not know why God chose to intervene in my life.”
Given everything she wrote before, this is a rather jarring statement. It is not her confessed ignorance or that her God exercises an option to intervene or not intervene in her life or anyone else’s life. Rather, what is jarring is that it is a contradiction of everything she initially said about her near death experience. There is no doubt that the experience was real. There is no doubt that her reported experiences during that episode were real. There is also no doubt that what she reported was a mere superficial description of what actually took place. For anyone who has broken the bonds of physical life and returned to tell, it is impossible to put the experience into words. Dr. Neal makes this point early in her report. So, is her ignorance about God’s intervention merely an attempt at objective scientific observation; reflections upon an event that was part of her life but which could be removed and put under a measuring glass of rational causes and effects?
Unlike some who report a near-death experience, and certainly unlike Dr. Alexander, Dr. Neal starts with the proposition that her NDE was an audience with God or with God’s representatives.
GOD DID IT
This presumption that God saved her life, leads directly to the contradiction that God intervened in her life and she is ignorant of the reason after first saying that she had to come back from death to be with her family during upcoming periods of great stress (health issues pertaining to her husband and the death of her son).
Dr. Neal’s reported near death experience resulted from a kayaking accident which occurred in January 1999 in Pucon, Chilie. The NDE was one in which she was met by “a group of fifteen to twenty souls (human spirits sent by God), who greeted me with the most overwhelming joy”. She was escorted toward a hall of brilliant light. Yet, as she approached, she was continually drawn back to her body as the people who had pulled her from the water tried to revive her. This is another unusual element in reported near-death experiences. The continual intrusion of the people trying to save her life became a source of annoyance for her. When her escorts got to the gates of the brilliantly lighted hall, she reports that the atmosphere changed. She says that “an oppressive feeling of grief and sadness descended upon my spiritual companions and the atmosphere became heavy.” Her escorts explained to her that it was not time for her to enter the hall and she was “given several reasons for my return and told that I would soon be given more information.”
NEAR DEATH EXPERIENCE IN TWO PARTS
Dr. Neal returned to her Jackson Hole, Wyoming home very quickly after the drowning accident. She was far from recovered however. She spent time in the hospital after developing acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS). It was during this stay in the hospital that she reports having a “’conversation’” with an angel.
The information she learned from the angle (the “message from god” aspect of all NDE reports) was that each of us are “given the opportunity and privilege to come to earth for different reasons.” We also know a basic outline of our lives before we arrive. She is quick to point out that, though we know this basic outline, we are not entirely in control of what happens in our lives. She said, “it is more like God creates it, then we review it and discuss it with our ‘personal planning’ angel”. There are “branch points” where major changes can occur.
DOGMA AND TRUTH
From reading Dr. Neal’s report of her experience, you get the sense that it is being stuffed, pulled, extracted and punched into the orthodoxy of Christian belief. Dr. Alexander had to struggle with using the word God in describing his NDE experience. Dr. Neal apparently had no such struggle. Everything had to flow from her preconceived ideas of what constituted a Godly universe. And so it does. The problems with stuffing a spiritual experience into a religious package are that not everything fits neatly. To her credit, Dr. Neal does not back away from the vistas of the spiritual and the confines of religion. Unfortunately, the attempted synthesis leads to underlying contradictions. More importantly, it is the religious slant to the episode that divorces it from what we customarily encounter in reports of near death experiences.
On page 103, in a chapter titled, “Conversing with Angels”, she asks the question whether “bad things happen to good people?’ She answers by saying she does not know. She then goes on to discuss the “bad” or “good” of the crucifixion of Jesus. She says it is difficult to say that the crucifixion was a “bad” thing because it was through the crucifixion that Christians were able to achieve redemption. If you have felt the “light” of a near death experience, the question of bad things happening to good people is a fundamental misunderstanding of the human condition or, logically, an oxymoron. To paraphrase the three messages of Dr. Alexander, nothing ever happens to us unless we happen to it first. So the real question is whether we are “good” to begin with. The short and simple answer derived from the majority of experiencers of near-death episodes is yes, we are good. We can do no wrong. It is an incredibly mind-boggling message to understand and accept. But once you accept the continuum that binds life and death, it becomes pretty clear. All people are good. Bad things happen. Life happens. Why?
Dr. Neal’s confesses to at one time having feelings of failure after her NDE; of “anger, and perhaps rage, in the core of my sadness” over the death of her son by a careless young man. And a little earlier she makes a rather unusual statement; after saying that she knows her work on earth is not done, she writes that “recalling the alluring magnificence of God’s world too vividly would make it easy to be consumed by a deep longing to return. I have always guarded my heart by not thinking about it too vividly or for too long”. This is most unusual.
One of the essential elements arising from most near-death experiences is the feeling of oneness with the world. Life and death are a continuum, joined by a spirit most aptly described as Love. There is no “other side” to life. You expand the continuum with Love. Dr. Neal seems to take from her near death experience that there is another side; that pure love and pure joy is on the other side of life. Most describing their attitude after a return from a near death experience express a consuming interest to live life now, to expand by whatever means possible their place in life, and to express that Love found in the light of near death. So yes, Dr. Neal’s reluctance to focus on the experience on the other side is unusual. It is even more unusual because she implies that the “other side” is an idyllic, desirable alternative to life. This is in contradiction to the view that life and death are a continuum with the only difference being the expression of the universal force of Love.
As a personal testimonial to the Christian faith, TO HEAVEN AND BACK is excellent reading. As an exploration of the near-death experience, it is lacking in questions, the hallmark of exploring the unexplained.
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